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News releases, feature articles, and other communications protect you in important ways. They constitute your approved public statement about your research and its implications, explained precisely how you want it explained and giving credit to colleagues and funding agencies.
Such public statements can be critically important because invariably some media reports on your work will misrepresent your experiments, fail to give credit to colleagues, or misconstrue its implications. In such cases, you can point to your own lay-level accounts of your work as the authoritative source of information on your work. What's more, your news releases offer an instant antidote for mistakes, because they appear alongside those media reports on Google News, Yahoo! News, and other search engines and Web news sites.
Thus, for example, if a collaborator feels slighted by a newspaper or magazine report, your release is proof that your public statement does give full credit and that you are not out to grab all the glory.
Also, if your work could be misconstrued by the media, you can preempt that possibility with well-crafted lay-level communications. For example, Duke neurobiologist Michael Platt published a paper showing that monkeys would rather glimpse photos of female hindquarters than receive a juice reward. Media stories or blogs might have made fun of the work, missing its real scientific significance. So, the news release I wrote led with the fact that the research demonstrated a valuable animal model for studying autism, since the method enabled precise measurements of primate social sense.
Invariably, some news stories took a humorous slant, with headlines saying that "Monkeys Like Porn." However, most of these stories also included the significance of the work in understanding social sense and how it might malfunction in autism. And, the news release was posted on the university Web site, EurekAlert!, Google News, and Yahoo! News as an antidote to such misinterpretation.
Finally, if you do not choose to proactively explain your research, by default you leave such communications to people not as familiar with your work and to the informal grapevine. Your research might well be explained for you in an uninformed way over which you have no control or influence.
Of course, your scientific papers and proposals will contain the precise, technical descriptions of your work. But those communications are not as accessible and, in fact, not interesting to the many audiences beyond your colleagues that you want to understand and appreciate your work.(Next: But Will You be Pegged as a Publicity Hound?)