The importance of feedback from a naïve reader

Today Science Refinery reaches a milestone: the first guest blog post! The below is from Morton Ann Gernsbacher, Ph.D., Vilas Research Professor and Sir Frederic Bartlett Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She’s a cognitive neuroscientist who for 30 years has studied human communication.  Learn more about her exciting research on her lab website and connect with her on Twitter.

By the way, on the About Lauren page I mention a seminar on polishing scholarly communication that turned out to be one of my favorite graduate courses. It was taught by Dr. Gernsbacher! Please join me in thanking her for her contribution.

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You’ve analyzed your data. You’ve crafted a compelling story. You’ve translated that story into APA style (or whatever style manual your discipline follows), and you’ve asked your co-authors to read over the paper to catch typos. [LM: Or you’ve hired Science Refinery to do your basic editing! :)]

You think you’re ready to submit your manuscript. But you’ve missed a step.

The most important source of feedback on your manuscript comes not from your co-authors. They already know what you were trying to convey even if you weren’t successful at conveying it. The most important source of feedback comes from readers who are naïve to your methods, message, and manuscript.

Over 20 years ago, my former PhD student Matt Traxler, now a Professor at the University of California, Davis, and I empirically demonstrated why it’s important for writers to get feedback from naïve readers.

Matt and I conducted a series of experiments using Tangram figures such as these. One Tangram 2group of participants (whom we called writers) had to write a description of each of these figures. Another group of participants (readers) had to use those descriptions to select each figure from a group of lure figures that the writers had not described.

Tangram 1

In essence, we were measuring how accurately writers could convey the exact message that they intended, rather than convey a related, but inaccurate, message. Such inaccuracy is the bane of scientific writing.

We discovered that one of the most productive ways to improve writers’ accuracy was to give those writers feedback on how accurately their readers had identified the correct figure. Armed with this simple feedback (“your readers were 40% accurate”), our writers improved in their second attempt at describing the same figures.

Providing two rounds of feedback doubly improved our writers’ accuracy. What’s more, armed with two rounds of feedback, our writers improved in their abilities to describe a new set of figures. What was key is that the writers received feedback from naïve readers – readers who were unaware of the exact figure the writers were trying to describe.

In the same way, you can improve your accuracy in describing your research. What’s key is to receive feedback from naïve readers – readers who are unaware of the exact message you are intending to convey, rather than readers who are your co-authors. And, most importantly, whenever a naïve reader tells you that your message isn’t clear, it is by definition unclear. Revise.

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Every paper, poster, and presentation should be previewed by a naïve reader (or viewer) to ensure message clarity. When you’re in need of a fresh pair of eyes, look to Science Refinery.

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One thought on “The importance of feedback from a naïve reader

  1. Pingback: My Sudden Clarity Clarence moment about PowerPoint | Science Refinery

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