Non-Fiction Reviews

A Concise Guide to
Communication in Science and Engineering

( 2017 ) , Oxford University Press, 19.99 / Can$25.95 / US$25.95, trdpbk, xiv + 393pp, ISBN 978-0-198-7024-9


Postgraduates embarking on their careers soon realise that not everything they will need has been covered by their undergraduate courses. For those seeking to work in academic science research how they communicate their work is not only one such area often missing from courses but it is a key topic vital to their career's success. David Foster's book will be invaluable to them.

This book may to some seem an odd title to review in a science fiction website but remember SF² Concatenation does cover science and two of its three founders (not to mention some of its book reviewers and webmaster) are scientists and engineers: the site's primary user targets are scientists into SF; the rest of you are very welcome to join us for the ride but don't be surprised at the science and this book is firmly for scientists.

Now, science researchers in academia (things are different elsewhere such as science in industry) get paid by the research grants they attract as well as ancillary funding (such as from industry or charities). But as both are determined by the recognition their work garners, how they communicate their research outcomes to the science community (hence the funding bodies), being able to communicate in science and engineering is critical.

And here is lesson one. Be clear in your communication and clearly understand others' communications. So, note from the above as per the book's title, this is all about communication within  science and engineering: it is not about communicating science in general (including to others); if you want that sort of a book then you really need a few books like Communicating Science as the topic is so broad and I have yet to find a single book that covers all the key bases authoritatively.  Conversely, David Foster's book is firmly in the vein Robert Day's How to Write & Publish a Scientific Paper though that book had its first edition some four decades ago in 1979 and things have moved on a heck of a lot since then.

Communication in Science and Engineering is not just good news for postgraduates embarking on a research career but also postgraduate students with a chapter on technical reports, dissertations and theses, plus another on posters as well as one on lectures and talks. Even undergraduates will find value with chapters on maths, data description and statistical inference, not to mention one on graphing data. There is also a useful chapter for everyone on the use of English. Having said that, with regard to this last, I would most firmly recommend The Oxford Guide to Plain English as an indispensable almost necessary accompaniment to any science writing guides. Yes, Foster has his chapter on the use of English but I have seen so many badly written papers that are needlessly difficult to digest: it may well be some of these authors were deliberately opaque so as to obfuscate their work's trite contribution to the literature.

It also needs to be stressed that David Foster's book is again as per the title a 'concise guide': science communication is a big topic and Foster has mercifully condensed matters down to the essentials. So, for instance, if you need to know that research funders increasingly require some open access (albeit delayed by a year or two and/or archived elsewhere than the journal's website) for papers conveying the result from the science they fund, then you need to go elsewhere: it would take a far bigger book to get all such science communication detail within a single title.

My one real gripe is a single niggle. David Foster seems to treat the terms 'multidisciplinary' and 'interdisciplinary' as almost synonymous. Lets be clear, Nature is a multidisciplinary journal with some (minority) interdisciplinary content; it is not primarily an interdisciplinary journal. This journal, like Science, carries papers with each in the main relating to distinctly different disciplines: for example, astronomy or botany. These journals are multidisciplinary: their content contains many disciplines.  There are also some disciplines that straddle traditional disciplines: molecular biology straddles biology and chemistry (or even biochemistry). These straddling subjects are interdisciplinary which includes things like Earth system science, environmental science, biophysics and so forth.  Fortunately this niggle only occurs in one small section but I mention it because otherwise this is a very useful book that in a few years time should warrant an updated edition.

The very best of university undergraduate courses send their future students a short summer reading list of key books they will need in their first term. However, I do not know of any undergraduate course providing a reading list for their graduates on completing their course with groups of suggested titles relating to various principal employment sectors previous course graduates have entered. If such completed course lists were provided, then depending on the course, such lists might include those handbooks on safety in fieldwork or whatever. For those graduating in science and who plan on entering academic research then Foster's A Concise Guide to Communication in Science and Engineering should also be on such graduates' reading lists. This book fills a real need.

Jonathan Cowie

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