Author and Artist Notes

There are a growing number of volunteer writers, artists, translators and programmers who are expanding the breadth and reach of Ask A Biologist (AAB) to a global audience. This section provides general guidance and links for current and new volunteers.

Table of Contents

 Why write for Ask A Biologist?

pen and pencil cupAsk A Biologist (AAB) is an online educational resource that seeks to immerse readers in the exciting world of biology. Scientists, teachers, and undergraduate and graduate students write articles for AAB. Articles focus on the presentation of complex material in a manner accessible to students from grades K–12. The primary goal of AAB is to increase communication between scientists and the public. Gearing content toward a young audience increases the accessibility of science to people of all ages.

Academics conduct important research often funded through public resources. To keep the public abreast of the research results their tax dollars fund, scientists need to be able to communicate with people from varying educational backgrounds. Toward that goal, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health require clear research proposals written in “plain language” to secure federal funding.

It is therefore in the best interest of all academics to refine their public communication skills. AAB allows academics the opportunity to reach a public audience by creating educational materials, and also ensures those materials are publicly accessible online. AAB is therefore an excellent way to demonstrate the broader impacts of your research for federal and other grants.

AAB seeks to help satisfy the public’s scientific curiosity, while simultaneously helping academics to develop more efficient public communication skills. The popularity of AAB (over 15 million visits each year) is likely due to the scarcity of online resources that present current research or science in a publicly accessible format.

AAB works closely with each and every academic that creates materials for the website, both to improve writers’ communication skills and to enliven materials geared toward a public audience. AAB receives frequent feedback from the public regarding content and structure of the website, and adjusts resources to address those concerns, creating a more functional and educational experience for our visitors. We hope that you choose to contribute to the body of literature on AAB, cultivating your ability to use plain language to create broadly accessible scientific literature.

Why Illustrate and Photograph for Ask A Biologist?

camera and brush iconToday's audience is drawn towards visually engaging materials. In particular, young learners become more engaged in content that includes imagery that captures their eye and helps them understand complex ideas.

Throughout the AAB website, you will see creative graphic elements imbedded into stories and as part of companion activities, such as our coloring pages, image gallery, and experiments. We are always looking for volunteers that would like to share their talent, knowledge, and skills with our volunteer community of writers, illustrators, photographers, and programmers.

How to get involved as a writer or artist for Ask A Biologist:

Sign up through our volunteer page listing your personal information and how you hope to contribute to AAB. We need you to check with us before you start writing on a topic to ensure that you are contributing original content to the website.

How to make your writing kid-friendly:

Kid-friendly iconKeep these tips in mind to make your writing kid-friendly:

1. Know your audience and be wary of overestimating their reading level. Check out these testing materials, which are geared towards 4th graders. This is a good level to aim for.

2. Employ clear scientific writing (Gopen and Swan 1990)

  • Use active voice when writing instead of passive voice.
    • Start sentences with a well-defined subject (person or thing) to help lead your audience through the story
    • Use strong verbs to articulate the action occurring in your sentence
    • Avoid subject-verb separation in sentences
  • Carefully structure your sentences and paragraphs
    • Provide adequate context on a topic before introducing new information
    • Use the beginning of a sentence/paragraph to review information already discussed; by linking backward, you guide your reader forward
    • Put new information at the end of the sentence/paragraph, as readers naturally place the most emphasis on that part of a sentence/paragraph
  • Limit split infinitives and the use of adverbs

3. Write clearly for a general audience

  • Avoid technical jargon and define vocabulary terms in the body of your paper (For example, the following sentence is not appropriate: “Photosynthesis is an aerobic, photoautotrophic process by which plants convert radiation from red-blue wavelengths to carbohydrates.” This sentence is better: “Photosynthesis is how plants eat sunlight to give them energy, just like how you eat three healthy meals a day.”)
  • Use simple sentence structure
    • Practice the tips for clear scientific writing listed above
    • Use a maximum of two clauses per sentence (For example, if you aren’t listing anything, you should have a maximum of one comma per sentence. Limiting comma usage will help you write simpler sentences.)
  • Use active voice (not passive) and strong verbs to describe actions (e.g. leap, fling, slither, gallop)
  • Avoid using exclamation marks and leading language ("the amazing thing is," or "what is really cool is," etc.) as this is substituting for more active descriptions of the material
  • Creative, tangible adjectives help readers “see” the science
  • Alliteration and imagery help make science relatable to a general audience
  • Make use of paragraph breaks and subtitled sections to organize your paper
    • Use 2" margins on each side of your document while writing. This will let you see how big your paragraphs are going to look on the website
  • Create a catchy title to grab student’s attention (e.g. Mighty Morphing Tree Lizard, Time Traveling Plants)

4. Make sure your article is relatable by incorporating information in a way that young students would understand. Sports, hobbies, secret codes, super heroes, made-up languages, music, television, camping, biking, skating, playing video games…the possibilities are endless.

5. Conclude your article in a way that makes them want to know more and further explore the world of science.

Remember, practice makes perfect. Writing for a K–12 audience is harder than it may appear at first, but don’t give up. Keep refining your writing and strive to make it simple, easy to understand, and interesting to kids and adults alike. We have shared some kid-friendly writing examples for text and captions that you can view.

Check your work for grade level readablility

The Ask A Biologist website targets the middle school reader. At times we are able to create content for a younger audience and in some cases a slightly older audience. If your work is in the 6-9 grade range, it is likely to be readable by our audience.

How to check your work for readability:

If you are using Microsoft Word you can check your writing for grade level comprehension. The instructions for checking your work with Microsoft Word can be found on the following website. Also listed is a handy online tool for checking your writing.

MS Word PC and Mac Instructions - Test your documents readablility

Online tool for testing your writing - Readability Storytoolz

Guide for World of Biology stories

The World of Biology section provides stories about research projects being conducted at ASU and is growing to include research at other universities. The articles cover either new research results, the organisms that we use, or information related to the biological processes being studied.

The main goal of World of Biology articles is to present fun information related to research while avoiding jargon that might confuse and lose a young audience. This is more difficult than it sounds, as many scientists are out of the practice of communicating science to the public. For this reason, we encourage AAB writers to write about their subjects of expertise, as this knowledge usually helps them to communicate the information in simpler terms.

If you haven’t already, you should read some of the articles in Ask A Biologist’s World of Biology section ( There are many good examples available, but make sure to check out the stories on blister beetles ( and bats (

Making the World of Biology:

As you looked through the stories on the World of Biology, you may have noticed the links to a few short supplementary pages on the right hand side. These help create a cluster of smaller stories that relates to the main story. The main page should be between 600 and 900 words long. This should be long enough to explain the main scientific points of the story, while short enough to keep students’ interest. Break the text up into short sections with catchy titles.

If there is a subject within the main story that you think warrants some in depth explanation, this may be a good link to a supplementary page within your story cluster. Each supplementary page should be about 100 to 300 words long.

These are complex topics, so naturally there will be some scientific words that are very important to the study. For every article there will be some technical “words to know” that need to be defined prior to writing the article. Identify these key words and write short, kid-friendly definitions that we will include at the beginning of the article. We may also link to trusted wikipedia pages to offer students further information on these terms.

Guide for Meet Our Biologists (Profiles)

The AAB Biologist Profiles section gives readers a look at what ASU biologists do and how they became biologists. These stories are broken down into two sections.

In 400 to 500 words, the first page explores the research being conducted by the featured biologist. On the secondary "Career Paths" page, 300 to 400 words are used to explain how and why the featured biologist got into their current career. This is always complemented by a "Fast Facts" section that lists favorite and least favorite school subjects of the biologist, along with other fun tidbits of information.

As with all of our AAB stories, the profiles should be written in a fun, narrative style, highlighting how fascinating it can be to be a biologist.

Guide for PLOSable articles

Scientists publish in peer-reviewed journals like the Public Library of Science (PLOS) to communicate their findings with other scientists in the field. Unfortunately, that’s usually where the communication ends. The goal of PLoSable is to increase the accessibility of the PLOS's primary research articles to a young middle school audience.

Writers for PLOSable do this by translating the highly scientific findings published in the journals PLOS Biology and PLOS One for a much broader audience. Writers choose a recently published primary research article (note that we do not use Essays, Synopses, Reviews, etc.... the article must be of the Research type) and explain the findings for a middle school audience.

It may sound simple at first, but it’s a challenge to explain highly technical topics at a level that an average middle school student could comprehend. You really have to know the science, and more importantly, you really have to know how to communicate that science to others. Please read the following suggestions before downloading the PLoSable template at the end of this section.

Making it PLOSable:

If you haven’t already, you should familiarize yourself with PLOS Biology or PLOS One, and Ask a Biologist’s PLOSable website.

There are many examples already published on the PLOSable website that have been written by undergraduate students. Two good PLOSable examples are “Eat More, Sleep More” and “Half Man, Half Machine: Becoming Robotic.” Both examples use vivid imagery and examples to keep young audiences interested, and include many pictures from Wikimedia Commons and the respective primary research articles.

Check in with us to see if the article you want to work on is available. Remember, they must be a Research type article (no Essays, Primers, Synopses, etc.). These emails can be sent to Once you get approval, you can start writing.

PLOSable articles should be between 700 and 1000 words, but can be longer depending on the background information that needs to be presented. Strive to make your articles long enough to convey the importance of the scientific finding, but short enough to catch and keep a young student’s interest. Break the text up into shorter sub-sections with catchy titles, and include plenty of visuals.

These are complex topics, so naturally there will be some scientific words that are very important to the study. For every article there will be a technical “Words to Know” section of scientific vocabulary that need to be defined prior to reading the article. Identify these key words and write short, kid-friendly definitions that we will include at the beginning of the article. Make sure you are checking that all text is around a 9th grade reading level using a trustable readability tool.

Don’t forget the pictures! Both PLOS Biology and PLOS One are open access, peer-reviewed journals, so Ask A Biologist can publish any of the images and tables presented within the scientific article. We now require that each PLOSable has at least one original graph (preferable) or other figure from the PLOS article. Make sure to explain the image in the text of your article and write a detailed caption so students can follow along. We also encourage you to search, Pixabay, and Wikimedia Commons, all these sources are open access image repositories, for graphics to accompany your article.

PLOSable Template for Authors (doc)

Guide for Translators

Translation iconAAB is working to expand its international reach. In order to do this, stories on the website are being translated into other languages. While there are online options for translating text into different languages, it is clear that they are not able to replace a skilled translator. Translation is as much an art as it is a skill. It is also important that translated materials retain their a kid-friendly and plain language quality in the newly translated language.

There is a current system in place for people willing and able to translate content from into other languages. The steps involved are listed below.

  • Fill out and submit the online volunteer form.
  • It is important that we have more than one translator for each language. This allows us to have content reviewed and edited. If you are thinking of volunteering you might also ask a friend or colleague who is skilled with the particular language(s) you plan to use to translate content. This will speed up the process of adding your translated materials to AAB.
  • Once you are confirmed as a volunteer translator, a template will be sent to you by one of the Ask A Biologist editors. AAB uses a MS Word for its editor. An overview of the instructions follow.
    • Translator provides their name in the format it should appear under the translated by section.
    • The English version is in the left side column. Translation is in right side column. You can copy and paste the images from the left to match the right side. Be sure to keep the same format because the person entering the translation will likely not read and write the language.
    • Some of the illustrations might include text that will need to be translated.  You will see the text written in blue in a block below the illustration if this occurs.   It is also possible that you will use a different word than those we chose to include in the words to know section. These are to help young readers understand the article. If you choose to use an advanced level word, please include it in the words to know section.
    • In the “words to know” section the "…" at the end of a definition links to companion Wikipedia pages. This is a new addition to Ask A Biologist. You can either ignore the option to include more by using the "…," or if you find that the Spanish version of the topic on Wikipedia is good, include the link to the page. We consider Wikipedia pages useful to our audience if they do not start out too technical and also like them if they have graphics and images.

Images and Illustrations

Photos and IllustrationsMaking AAB kid-friendly also requires exciting, informative, and fun images. AAB is always looking for new and creative ways to illustrate content and activities.

Image and file formats

Preferred file types for photographs are Tiff, JPEG, and GIF. Illustrations are best submitted in AI (Adobe Illustrator) or standard EPS.

File resolution

Most images will be displayed at 550 pixels wide or less. However, there are options for large file types, so it is best to create and send the highest resolution images possible.

File size

We can accommodate most file sizes, but it is best to consult with your AAB contact or editor before sending files.

Image Sources

Images and Illustrations are important to the storytelling process. This is particularly true for the Ask A Biologist audience. The following resources provide visual content under Creative Commons and public domain. Please include the reference for any graphic art and photographs you include in your submitted work.

Copyright and Creative Commons (CC)

Please keep in mind that the work in AAB, except where otherwise noted, is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. This allows for open use and reuse of the materials as long as the material is published under the same conditions.

The AAB Permissions page lists the current CC license and also an optional usage form that helps us track content used.

Publication Manual of the APA. Retrieved January 10, 2012 from

Gopen, G., and Swan, J. (1990) The Science of Scientific Writing. American Scientist. 78(6): 550-558.  Retrieved January 10, 2012 from

NIH Plain Language Online Training. Retrieved January 10, 2012 from

Writing for a younger audience does not mean you cannot introduce complex ideas and concepts. A Monster Story uses a traditional bedtime story format to introduce basic genetic concepts. Here are some Kid-friendly Writing Examples.

Be Part of
Ask A Biologist

By volunteering, or simply sending us feedback on the site. Scientists, teachers, writers, illustrators, and translators are all important to the program. If you are interested in helping with the website we have a Volunteers page to get the process started.

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