Changing the landscape of scientific communication

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Ivy Cavendish

Ivy Cavendish tells the inspirational tale behind the formation of a writing tool for researchers, TooWrite

My background is in academia; English literature specifically.

I was writing a PhD at the University of Sussex on the intersection of anti-theistic absurdist philosophy and the unheimlich – the uncanny – when I was rudely interrupted by discovering the thing that I wanted to do with my life: solve the centuries-old problem of scientific writing.

At the same time my friend, Algernon, was writing his thesis in computational biology. We were co-working one day – and, like many scientists have found, he was getting incredibly frustrated with the process of writing up.

He was trying to condense a big tangle of research that he’d performed over three years – all the experiments and the twists and the turns, the wrong turns, the right turns, all of it – into what eventually needed to be a fluid and clean piece of prose, with all the information laid out in black and white.  

He was feeling pretty down. He’d worked so hard for those three years – the write-up should have felt like a victory lap, but instead it just felt like another hurdle to overcome. After six months he only had 5,000 words down and they weren’t of publishable quality. Pretty soon his time and his funding started to run out, which brings us to that day – the day we were co-working. 

He was supposed to be writing his literature review and he was starting as we all do – with notes scattered everywhere, 50 tabs open, and a blank document open on the screen. After a couple hours of typing and backspacing I heard fists slamming down on the desk with him saying: ‘I don’t know how to do this, how are you even supposed to write a literature review?’ It was that day that I decided – as an academic of literature – that I’d create a method of writing just for him, just in the hope that it might help a bit. 

I handed it over and 25 working hours later he’d written 15,000 words, which then went on to pass at viva. 

That was it for us – that was the day we knew that we wanted to make this method accessible to everyone, and after rounds upon rounds of testing and experimenting, here we are, ready to hand over this method that we’ve created for all of our fellow academics. 

‘Incredibly compelling abstracts’

TooWrite Abstracts is a free digital tool that houses a novel scientific method for writing scientific abstracts. It can be used by scientists from all career stages, from students to senior staff members, to write fast and incredibly compelling abstracts for journal papers and conferences, all while protecting their mental health and having their accessibility needs supported, whether you’re neuro-divergent, non-native English speaking, or even just that you’re a working parent or carer. 

TooWrite Abstracts is the free component of the TooWrite Platform that’s just been released, in about 12 months we’ll be launching the paid-for component – the tool that everybody’s waiting for and asking about, which is TooWrite Papers. You guessed it – it’s a tool for writing full journal papers alongside co-authors. 

The best way to describe how the TooWrite Platform works is to compare it to the traditional method of scientific writing. The traditional method is very much like writing an essay: you start with a blank page, you draft and you re-draft, it’s exhausting and it’s beyond fraught with accessibility issues. On TooWrite, it’s much more like answering a self-composed questionnaire, with all the support and teaching tools you would typically be provided over the course of a lengthy scientific course. 

The platform splits up the writing process into a formula composed of three distinct phases: planning, writing, and editing. First, you have the planning stage, which is where users build up a compelling narrative for their abstract by selecting and arranging narrative building blocks. Next we have the writing stage, where those narrative building blocks turn into questions to be answered – each supported by teaching modules and example answers. And then finally – once all of the answers have been written – we move on to the editing stage, which is where all of our users’ answers are stitched together to form a single piece of text, ready to be polished up and downloaded. 

A good way to describe the psychology at play here – and the difference between writing an essay versus answering a questionnaire – is to compare it to movies versus tv shows. Nobody wants to sit through a six-hour movie, and yet millions of us will gladly binge our way through six one-hour episodes. Why? Because it just feels so much more doable, like we could stop any time we wanted and it wouldn’t feel like an interruption. But we don’t stop, because every time we finish a segment we get hit with that rush of dopamine and it gets us thinking: ‘Oooh, I could stay for just one more!’ Before you know it, roll credits, it’s done. And it’s that cascade effect of dopamine and reward that makes the TooWrite method so much more effective than the traditional cold start slog.

‘Closing the opportunity gap for those who face barriers’

TooWrite is absolutely intended to benefit the entire scientific research community. 

We have three central goals in creating this platform: to accelerate global scientific progress through enhanced data-sharing and communication; to ensure that supercharged progress does not come at the cost of scientist mental health; and the third is to close that opportunity gap seen between those who are most able to publish (and thus most likely to receive funding and to progress in their careers) and those who currently face barriers to publishing. 

Our users come from all stages of their career, from PhD students facing their first open-call for abstracts, to incredibly senior professors – everyone, across the board, will see benefits from using TooWrite Abstracts, whether it be support in learning how to effectively communicate their research within incredibly narrow word-limits, or even just learning how to fine-tune certain aspects of their narrative and tailor their story-telling to certain journals or readers. 

Writing an abstract isn’t just a case of summarising your research in as few a words as possible, it’s a scientist’s opportunity to grab their reader’s attention and and say: ‘Hey – I know your time is precious but this information right here is mission-critical and you need to read the rest of this paper.’  A good abstract informs, yes, but a great one inspires. And that is what TooWrite Abstract accomplishes. 

‘In 15 minutes flat she’d written a winner’

Saving researchers time so they can get back to the research that truly matters is only one of our core aims; however, for many researchers it will be the most important factor when deciding to use the TooWrite Platform. 

When it comes to abstracts, it’s hard to quantify a ‘starting position’, an average time taken to write an abstract in the traditional manners – and that’s largely down to the procrastination factor. I mean, do you start the clock at the first moment a researcher considers sitting down to write their abstract only to put it off for a later date, or do you only count the active hours spent writing? So, instead of pulling a number out of thin air I will simply say that the average time taken by our users to write using TooWrite Abstracts is 30 minutes from start to finished draft. 

We actually had a case study where a senior researcher had been attempting to write an abstract for months and every draft she wrote it just wasn’t quite right; the perfect storyline and layout was just eluding her. But then she got on to TooWrite Abstracts and in 15 minutes flat she’d written a winner. 

When it comes to TooWrite Papers, with our prototype we estimate a decrease in the time it takes to write a paper by up to 96 per cent, from the average 18 months down to as little as one week. 

‘Collaboration is key’

We already have a partnership with The University of Sussex, and Aspect – which is a collaboration between 21 UK universities. We’ve performed workshops and pilots at three universities, and we’re about to start a multidisciplinary, inter-departmental academic study with a team at London South Bank University measuring the mental health outcomes of TooWrite Abstracts.

We operate via what’s called a ‘freemium’ model by which TooWrite Abstracts will be free, everyone can access it, no institution login is required, and then TooWrite Papers will be paid for by the institutions: universities, research institutes, and industry. Once an institution pays for a licence, any scientist with an institutional login can use TooWrite Papers with as many co-authors as they deem sensible. 

For the immediate future users can access TooWrite Abstracts of their own volition, but we are also now beginning our free roll-out to various conferences. What this means is that when a conference sends out an open-call for abstracts, they can include a link to the platform – ensuring a higher quality of abstracts submitted, and attendees facing less of a barrier to submitting their work. 

‘Fulfilling our promise’

By this time in 2024, we’ll have launched TooWrite Papers and it’ll be being used by a wide variety of different universities and research institutes, all clamouring for the best numbers for the impending Research Excellence Framework awards. 

In two years’ time we will be well on our way to changing the landscape of scientific communication. More data will be shared than ever before, and faster than we could ever have imagined. Scientist mental health during the writing process will no longer be taking a nose-dive, and researchers whose careers have been overshadowed by barriers to scientific communication will be beginning to shine. 

We’re funded by Bethnal Green Ventures, which is a ‘tech for good’ fund, and the reason I bring this up is because this fund only invests in ventures that are capable of positively affecting the lives of 100 million people. And while we won’t have reached such lofty heights by 2024, we will hopefully be well on our way to fulfilling that promise.

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Interview by Tim Gillett