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Science communication: why writing a paper is no longer enough

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Science communication: why writing a paper is no longer enough Kristen Schroeder, PhD

Preface: Writing a research paper is no longer enough. With pressing issues like climate change, antimicrobial resistance, and rampant misinformation it has never been more important for scientists to engage audiences and develop a relationship of trust and understanding with them. Institutions like universities and funding agencies have become more aware of the need for good scientific communication, meaning that it’s important to be informed on where and how you can contribute. Research is moving towards a model where there is a responsibility as scientists not only to publish our papers but to communicate our findings and their importance to all audiences and communities.

Why communicate your research?

As we conduct our research – the hypotheses that came before us, why our experiments do or don’t work, the peculiarities of our model systems – we develop expertise in it. Sometimes, after many years, we even become specialized to the point of being one of only a handful of people in the whole world who knows our research topic in depth. With over 7000 research papers published each day, we need to make an effort to bring the impact out from the article and connect it with people that are interested, otherwise our message is likely to be lost. Whether your research funding comes from the government, industry, or someplace else, there are communities of people supporting your work – patient groups, industry stakeholders, or the general public. It’s important that someone is able to tell them what you have learned. 

One a bigger scale, making the effort to communicate your research can also contribute to building public trust and combating stereotypes. Scientists are an incredibly diverse group, and the more scientists there are sharing their work, the more accurate the picture of who a scientist can be and what goes on inside a laboratory or research institution. In a 2019 study of how Instagram selfies affected perception of scientists, the authors found that people responded positively to seeing real images of researchers, finding them competent but also relatable – which is a great recipe to build trust. Like any audience, the public responds to the humanness of researchers, so making a reel to share your key findings might be really helpful for building dialogue between people inside and outside the research community. 

There are many avenues and audiences for scientific communication 

You don’t necessarily have to take your research to Instagram; there are many platforms for building and engaging your audience, from writing a press release about your paper for your institution’s media office to making TikToks about Winogradsky columns for three followers. There is value in many different types of science communication, and audiences for a variety of formats, from Lego graduate student tweeting about the ups and downs of research life, to podcasts chatting with scientists, to animated YouTube videos created with a broad audience in mind. There is a platform for you to connect your research in a way that you are comfortable with and enjoy, and you don’t necessarily have to have gorgeous microscopy videos to share your excitement. Where might your knowledge fit? And who might benefit from hearing what you’ve discovered? 

You might look for local opportunities – for example in Stockholm, Pint of Science has a chapter bringing research presentations into public spaces, and Forskarfredag organizes a day for communicating research with the public. Organizations like Skype a Scientist connect researchers with student audiences everywhere.

Support for developing your science communication skills

If you don’t already, follow science communicators on your social media and see how they engage with their following—people like Ed Yong and Dr. Samantha Yammine are two incredible communication experts that have dedicated their careers to writing and speaking about science. Communicating about science is a skill, and it’s important to be accurate and honest to handle the relationship with your audience with integrity. This isn’t something that you have to navigate alone; many universities offer classes or seminars on science communication that can help get you started – some institutions even offer the chance to formally specialize in research communication. There are organizations that offer internships, self-led courses, or other opportunities to help train and support scientists in developing good communication practices. At scientifyRESEARCH, we have a curated list of grants that are available to help researchers fund their science outreach, and societies such as the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (AAEES) and European Geosciences Union (EGU) offer awards that recognize excellence in outreach and communication. Take a look around you for what assistance is available to help you get your message across. 

Communicating science with integrity 

Finally, it is also important to recognize and amplify the voices of other experts to help them get their scientific messages across. Just as in research, we have the responsibility to cite and give credit to primary sources when sharing information, and be mindful of bias and exclusion when doing so. Boost the discoveries that have been made in your department or by your colleagues to your community. Apply your research training in critical analysis and evaluation when deciding what to share. And understand where the limits of your expertise lie – as we take on the task of communicating our research and establish ourselves as experts to our audience, we add that weight to what we are saying. Engaging with our audiences can be a powerful tool for raising awareness and understanding around challenges like climate change, AMR, and misinformation, and with good practice scientists can help lead the charge towards policy change and scientific literacy that benefits everyone! 

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