The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kid-edited journal pushes scientists for clear writing on complex topics

(Elizabeth von Oehsen/The Washington Post, iStock)

The reviewer was not impressed with the paper written by Israeli brain researcher Idan Segev and a colleague from Switzerland.

“Professor Idan,” she wrote to Segev. “I didn’t understand anything that you said.”

Segev and co-author Felix Schürmann revised their paper on the Human Brain project, a massive effort seeking to channel all that we know about the mind into a vast computer model. But once again the reviewer sent it back. Still not clear enough. It took a third version to satisfy the reviewer.

“Okay,” said the reviewer, an 11-year-old girl from New York named Abby. “Now I understand.”

Such is the stringent editing process at the online science journal Frontiers for Young Minds, where top scientists, some of them Nobel Prize winners, submit papers on gene-editing, gravitational waves and other topics — to demanding reviewers ages 8 through 15.

Launched in 2013, the Lausanne, Switzerland-based publication is coming of age at a moment when skeptical members of the public look to scientists for clear guidance on the coronavirus and on potentially catastrophic climate change, among other issues. At Frontiers for Young Minds, the goal is not just to publish science papers but also to make them accessible to young readers like the reviewers. In doing so, it takes direct aim at a long-standing problem in science — poor communication between professionals and the public.

“Scientists tend to default to their own jargon and don’t think carefully about whether this is a word that the public actually knows,” said Jon Lorsch, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. “Sometimes to actually explain something you need a sentence as opposed to the one word scientists are using.”

Dense language sends a message “that science is for scientists; that you have to be an ‘intellectual’ to read and understand scientific literature; and that science is not relevant or important for everyday life,” according to a paper published last year in Advances in Physiology Education.

Frontiers for Young Minds, which has drawn nearly 30 million online page views in its nine years, offers a different message on its homepage: “Science for kids, edited by kids.”

What if kids ran the review process?

The idea that would become Frontiers for Young Minds began with an offhand remark by Robert T. Knight, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley.

Shortly before the start of the 2007 Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, a dozen or so members became embroiled in a big debate over the review process for scientific papers, both how they were reviewed and how decisions were made about which ones to accept.

“Maybe we should put kids in charge,” Knight suggested, thinking children could do a fine job, and without all of the drama adults manage to generate. “This thing would work a lot better.”

The other scientists stopped arguing and praised the idea, he said. A few years later, Knight found an opportunity to bring young people into the scientific process.

Recruited by the for-profit science publisher Frontiers to edit one of 185 free online journals, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Knight agreed under one condition: Frontiers must launch a new science publication for children and adolescents.

In 2013, Frontiers for Young Minds began publishing online. And Segev’s paper on the Human Brain project, the one that had been rejected twice by young Abby, wound up being among the first to appear in the new journal.

Segev and Knight now serve as field chief co-editors of the journal, which is published in English, Arabic and Hebrew and is scheduled to introduce French and Mandarin Chinese editions this year.

More than 70 percent of Frontiers for Young Minds readers are under 18; most come from the United States (4.7 million), Europe (over 2 million), India (1 million) and other parts of Asia (1.3 million). Another 1.4 million readers combined live in Canada, Australia, Africa and the Middle East.

Young reviewers are recruited through a network of mentors, usually researchers or science instructors with PhDs. Sometimes an entire class of students will take part in a review. Frontiers for Young Minds seeks mentor recommendations from the editors of its other journals, and now has about 850 mentors worldwide on its board. The mentors recruit young scientists.

It’s not a nerd thing, it’s self-expression

There are no test-score requirements for reviewers, simply a passion for the sciences. So far, the journal estimates that some 5,500 children and adolescents from 64 countries have reviewed the papers it publishes. Because many of the students are minors, their full names are not listed with the articles they review and were not provided for this article. In interviews, three reviewers for Frontiers for Young Minds relished the opportunities they have had to work with professional scientists.

“When I was 10, I won the [Israeli] National Math Olympiad for my age,” said Hillel, now 12. “At first I thought it was kind of like a nerdish thing, but then I realized I don’t need to be embarrassed about it. I changed my feelings when I saw other young reviewers. I saw a space to express myself.”

In May 2022, Hillel dedicated one of his reviews for the journal — on connections between the brain and the rest of the body — to the memory of his dog, Kenny, who passed away and “has been sleeping in my heart ever since.”

Hillel has reviewed four other papers for the journal, including one on messenger RNA.

One teen editor’s careful process

Hillel said that when he goes over a scientific paper, he searches for sections that are unlikely to be understood by other students.

“I have to sit in a room and concentrate,” he said. “Sometimes it takes two or three days.”

Younis, a teenager from the United Arab Emirates who had reviewed two papers by the time he was 15, said he followed a step-by-step method. He read a paper’s title and thought about it, then read the abstract, which is a paragraph or two that summarizes the science. “Then for between two and five days I do research to get a deep understanding of the topic,” he said.

Younis said he would then read through the entire paper three times, noting sections that could be improved. The entire process took a week. Now 16 and too old to continue reviewing papers for Frontiers for Young Minds, Younis was grateful for what his work at the journal gave him.

“I truly appreciate the hard work” the scientists put in, he said. “It’s something I always mention. I’m only a teenager right now, but after 10 years I’m expected to do what these people are doing right now.”

In a Zoom interview, Younis wore a T-shirt that said, “It’s rocket science,” an expression of the field he hopes to work in someday.

So far, 10 Nobel Prize winners have had papers published in Frontiers for Young Minds, and another 10 have papers that are under review. The Nobel winners follow a different process in deference to their busy schedules.

They are interviewed by Frontiers science writer Noa Segev, Idan Segev’s daughter. She then crafts the papers and consults with the Nobel laureates before the work is submitted to young reviewers. Nevertheless, reviewers abide by the same principle for all papers: The science must be explained in a way young people can understand.

“What I like best about reviewing is that it’s always a different topic. It’s always new things, and a deeper understanding,” said Noora, a 15-year-old also from United Arab Emirates who worked with Younis under the mentorship of Asma Bashir, an assistant professor at Fatima College of Health Sciences in Abu Dhabi.

Why clear writing matters

May-Britt Moser, a Norwegian who shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for discoveries on the brain’s system for mapping our surroundings, wrote a paper in Frontiers for Young Minds and supports the journal’s mission.

“It’s so important,” Moser said. “What we say in our lab is, ‘If you can’t communicate your findings to children, then you haven’t understood it yourself.’”

Aaron Ciechanover, an Israeli biologist who shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry, wrote a paper for the journal explaining the workings of the body’s system for breaking down proteins that are damaged or no longer needed.

He said he has enjoyed giving talks to children as young as kindergarten age and is adamant that scientists should not sell short young people’s intelligence.

“Kids are really wonderful,” Ciechanover said. “They ask you direct questions. ‘Do you believe in God?’ They don’t want an answer that’s complicated. Yes or No. They’re very probing. They have no limits.”

Idan Segev said he believes the same principle should apply to the journal. No topic should be considered too complex for young scientists.

“Everything can be explained,” he said. “I’m sure of it.”

Making complex scientific concepts understandable

Here’s how Aaron Ciechanover, an Israeli biologist who shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry and who had a paper reviewed in the journal Frontiers for Young Minds, explained his work on proteins to a kindergarten class.

“Okay, let’s do an experiment. Your mother sends you to the butcher’s to buy a piece of meat, and you bring the piece of meat home and forget to put the meat into the refrigerator. And then you go to school and your mom goes to work and your dad goes to work. Nobody’s at home for several hours.

“And you come back in the afternoon. What happened to the piece of meat that you left on the table? They will tell you, ‘Oh it’s rotten. It’s stinking. It changed color.' So, I ask them, ‘What would you do to prevent it changing the color?’ They said, ‘We could put it in the freezer.’ Aha!”

“So what is the difference between the freezer and the table in the kitchen? The difference is the temperature. So, now we come to the conclusion that the temperature does something bad to proteins.

“So, ‘Let’s forget about your forgetfulness with the meat, and go to the human being. What is your temperature? Some of them say 36 degrees (Celsius). Wow, this is much hotter than the temperature at your kitchen. And I said, ‘Do you also have meat in your body? Do you have a piece of steak in your body?’ And they get frightened. ‘No. No. We don’t have steaks.’

“And I say, ‘We do have steaks in our body. What are the muscles that are moving you in your leg? I tell them I’m a surgeon. If I made a cut in your skin and I expose it. What do I see beneath? Yes, I see a piece of steak.

“So why do you have steaks that can survive at a high temperature, not for a few hours, not for a day, not for a month, not for a year, not for 10 years. It can survive for 80 years or 90 years. Your life span. How is it that the piece of meat that you leave on the table can hardly survive for a few hours, and that the same piece of meat that was in the cow when the cow was walking around and eating grass could live in her body for 10, 20, 30 years?

“Because the cow and the human being are alive. And the piece of meat is dead. And therefore, we also destroy our proteins, but we have machinery to renew them. What we discovered is the renewal machinery.”


A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that the publisher of the journal Frontiers for Young Minds is donor-funded. Frontiers, the publisher, is a for-profit company. Frontiers for Young Minds is donor-funded. The article has been corrected.