Introduction: Explaining Your Research is a Professional Necessity

At last, your years of hard work have borne fruit! Your elegant, definitive paper is published, available at the flip of a journal page or the click of a mouse! It’s the culmination of rigorous experiments that failed at first, but ultimately worked; and of meticulous analysis of the data to reach your compelling conclusions. You painstakingly wrote up the work, submitted it to a journal, and survived a gauntlet of editors and reviewers to get it accepted. Now that it is published, your job is done . . . you think.

Or maybe you have made a brilliant presentation of your hard-won discoveries to your peers at a conference. You perfected your PowerPoint slides, rehearsed your delivery, and anticipated every possible question. You were eloquent, the audience was rapt, and you detected on their faces a green-with-envy tinge at your tour de force. Again, you may believe you have told the world about your research. After all, you did clearly elucidate your findings to your most important audience: your peers.

But in reality, in neither case have you done full justice to your work. You have not reliably reached many audiences important to your research success: potential collaborators in other disciplines, administrators of foundations and funding agencies, private donors, prospective students, your institution’s leaders, legislators, your own family and friends, and of course the general public. And, perhaps surprisingly, you might not have reached important colleagues. The researcher in the next building might not even be aware of your scientific paper, even though he or she could offer helpful insight.

So, to explain your work effectively you should mount a comprehensive communications effort—including lay-level talks, websites, news releases, feature articles, videos, and media stories. Unless you take full advantage of these communication pathways, you are short-changing yourself and your research discoveries.

You work in a new media environment of “a climate hospitable to a new type of scientist, one who is willing and able to connect directly with public audiences in mediated environments,” wrote communication researchers Sara Yeo and Dominique Brossard in The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication. They emphasized that this new interaction is “not only for sharing science knowledge but during and throughout the research process as well.”

In fact, one could argue that you are not doing science unless you are communicating science. Your responsibility to your research—and to the sources that fund it—means making sure that all who would benefit from that research learn about it. That responsibility requires that you make every effort to disseminate your work and to ensure that your explanations offer audiences the greatest insight into its implications and uses.

To be most effective at explaining your work, you should learn to use the tools and techniques of communication skillfully. Just because you can give a talk does not mean you can give an effective, engaging talk. Just because you can write an article, does not mean you can write a clear, understandable article.

You would not dream of switching on a new research instrument before thoroughly training yourself to use it. Nor is it wise to try to explain your research to important audiences without learning to use the tools and techniques of communication. This book aims to give you those tools and techniques.

What’s more, your research success depends on not just writing a single scientific paper or giving talks about a single research project, but also communicating your research as a whole. So, this book shows you how to fit the puzzle pieces of communication—your website, news releases, feature stories, and talks—into a broad strategy to portray your work to important audiences.

The communication skills this book teaches will aid your career success, as well as your research success. As an example of the career impact of communication skills, each year the National Association of Colleges and Employers surveys more than a thousand employer organizations to discover the qualities they seek in a prospective employee. And each year without fail, employers rank written and verbal communication skills near the top of those desired qualities—along with such qualities as problem-solving skills, teamwork ability, leadership, a strong work ethic, and analytical skills.

In your research career, you will undoubtedly encounter communication traps—from misleading media stories, to unfair criticism from rivals, to controversies over your findings. This book also reveals those traps and offers techniques for avoiding or overcoming them.

Lay-level explanations advance your research

Of course, publishing excellent research papers is central to your professional success. However, lay-level explanations of your work—news releases, websites, videos, and so on—can convey information that even the most brilliant scientific paper cannot. A scientific paper does not effectively explain the broader implications and applications of your work. It has room only for the most perfunctory allusion to those implications.

Perhaps the most famous such perfunctory line in the history of science was James Watson’s and Frances Crick’s terse sentence in their 1953 Nature paper on the implication of their proposed structure of DNA: “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”

Needless to say, that copying mechanism provided the basis for understanding how life replicates and evolves, as well as underpinning the genomic revolution.

Lay-level articles might, in fact, be more effective than scientific papers at reaching some important professional audiences such as researchers in other fields. While those in your field will likely read your paper, researchers outside your immediate area might not. If you are, say, a molecular biologist, you cannot expect a biomedical engineer—who could contribute ideas to your work or collaborate with you—to read the molecular biology journal that publishes your latest paper. However, that engineer might read USA Today, Scientific American, Science, Nature, New Scientist, or Chemical & Engineering News—all of which might publish articles on your research findings.

Science communicator Ben Patrusky recalls many instances in which such lay-level presentations led to invaluable collaborations. For decades, Patrusky organized the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW) New Horizons in Science Briefings for science writers, which features a variety of scientists discussing their work at a lay level.

“There have been numerous collaborations developed at CASW which would not have happened but for CASW,” says Patrusky. “For example, there was the geophysicist at one meeting where he heard a talk by a surgeon/geneticist about treating a critical illness. And he saw that the computational algorithm for predicting earthquakes and other catastrophes he was working on applied to that field. So, the two people—who otherwise would never have even seen one another—formed a collaboration.”

Also, perhaps surprisingly, news releases posted on the web convey your work globally and on an equal basis with media stories. The news release on your paper, distributed by a research news service such as EurekAlert!, will be listed on Google News and Yahoo! News right along with stories from The New York Times and other media outlets. In contrast, your scientific paper is far less likely to be featured in search engine results. What’s more, many journals are including links to news releases, as well as lay-level summaries, in their online articles.

Media coverage can affect citations

Broader communication can also influence scientific citations of your findings by others. Researchers Clayton Lamb and colleagues found evidence of an association between communication and citations when they correlated the “Altmetric Attention Scores” of articles in the fields of ecology and conservation. Altmetrics are alternative impact factors that measure the public attention given a paper in such outlets Twitter and other social media and online news media. In analyzing data on almost 40,000 papers, the researchers found a correlation between the attention scores and scientific citations of the papers. Of course, correlation is not causation, but it may well be that public attention alerted scientists to papers they otherwise wouldn’t have known about. Altmetrics will be explored in detail.

 Media coverage in particular can influence citations, as demonstrated in a classic 1991 study. In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), David Phillips and colleagues reported their analysis of coverage of medical research papers in The New York Times during a 1978 strike at the paper.

During that strike, reporters at the Times continued to select scientific papers to cover and wrote articles for “editions of record.” However, these articles were not printed or distributed in published Times editions. In their analysis, the researchers compared the number of subsequent scientific citations of NEJM papers covered in published Times articles with citations for those papers covered during the strike, but only for the record. They found that the NEJM papers covered in published Times articles received a larger number of scientific citations than did those written during the strike.

More anecdotally, institutional public information officers (PIOs) quite commonly report that their news releases generate queries for further information from other researchers in the field, and that those queries have led to scientific contacts and to citation of the work in subsequent scientific papers.

Attention affects your funding

Of course, you won’t get a government grant through public attention to your work. Only a successful peer review of your proposal will do that. However, communication outreach plans do aid the success of grant proposals. In its Broader Impacts criterion for reviewing proposals, the National Science Foundation (NSF) pointedly asks reviewers to consider “What is the potential for the proposed activity to. . . benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes?”

According to NSF’s instructions for proposals, the Broader Impacts section of a proposal can include “improved science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and “increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology.” In fact, the NSF explicitly lists communication skills as a personal attribute that influences funding of “Ideas Labs” that are “creative and innovative project ideas that have the potential to transform research paradigms and/or solve intractable problems.”

Lay-level communications can also “raise all the research boats”—helping increase research funding by enlisting advocates for your field, says science educator Carol Rogers. “In a world where financial resources to fund research are finite, the research that is deemed to be the most significant is less likely to be on the chopping block than research that doesn’t have a group of stakeholders,” says Rogers. She says that “there are studies that show a correlation between visibility of research and research funding.”

Indeed, there is some indication that educating the public about science could lead to support for funding. NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators report concludes that “Americans with relatively higher levels of education, more income, and higher scores on the indicators of science knowledge (emphasis added) are particularly likely to support funding scientific research.” Of course, these findings don’t prove cause and effect. A supportive attitude may spur people to seek out scientific knowledge, rather than that knowledge engendering support.

Indeed, demographics and knowledge play a “relatively limited impact” in predicting people’s support for funding, wrote communication researcher John Besley in an article on the NSF report. He analyzed how well the NSF surveys of people’s attitudes toward science between 2006 and 2014 predicted their support for research funding.

It is well established that simply providing your audiences with information does not automatically engender support for your research. This so-called “deficit model” of research communication has long been deemed simplistic and wrong by communication researchers. Their research “shows that audiences may already understand what scientists know but, for diverse reasons, do not agree or act consistently with that science,” said the publication Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda. “People rarely make decisions based only on scientific information; they typically also take into account their own goals and needs, knowledge and skills, and values and beliefs,” said the publication.

Thus, this book will not only show you how to convey clearly the concepts of your research, but how to inspire in audiences a positive attitude toward your research and your field. The book will cover how to persuade audiences important for your support: administrators, donors, and legislators. The book also offers specific guidance on creating the many communication tools at your disposal—including news releases, images, video, social media, op-eds, and books (See Part III).

Communication tools are key to effective research, teaching

The tools and techniques covered in this book will enhance your professional, as well as your lay-level communications. Your scientific papers are no longer merely “papers,” but multimedia communications. Thus, your communications to your colleagues will be aided by this book’s guidance on creating such products as graphical abstracts, video and audio clips, and animations. Also, such outlets as social media, news releases, and websites are becoming ever more important in disseminating your research; and this book will show you how to create these information outlets.

Your teaching will also be aided by this book’s guidance on creating such communications, as well as how to deliver effective talks. Even though you may have taught many classes and given many seminars, quite likely you have had little or no formal training in communication techniques. You may not even have informal training, if you did not happen to have a mentor who was a good teacher.

Science and engineering lack a culture of explanation

This book also aims to remedy the lack of an innate culture of explanation in science and engineering—particularly compared to such professions as law and medicine. As a scientist or engineer, you may feel you can advance perfectly well in your career without venturing outside your professional bubble to communicate with lay audiences. In contrast, imagine the negative impact on the career of a lawyer who couldn’t explain legal issues to clients or juries; or of a physician who couldn’t explain medical concepts to patients.

You may feel you’re an adept communicator because you spend considerable time communicating—publishing scientific papers, delivering seminars and lectures, and talking shop over lunch. However, such “inside baseball” communication has shortcomings in terms of teaching communication skills. First of all, in your professional bubble, you can comfortably assume that the audiences for your communication know the concepts and jargon you use. And secondly, you don’t worry much about whether you’re capturing and holding their attention—in particular students, who are essentially a captive audience. By contrast, many important lay audiences—donors, legislators, institutional leaders, journalists, and the public—don’t understand the jargon or concepts of your field. And as fascinated as you are by your field, they aren’t inherently interested in your communications; and listening to you is entirely elective. You have to attract and engage them in your explanations.

Meeting the demands of public science

Researchers today face more responsibilities to take a public role, and this book offers the tools to meet those responsibilities. These demands arise because the public image of science and its implications has changed drastically since federal research funding first arose in the 1950s. The public then viewed research largely as a benign activity—the source of the polio vaccine and the transistor. The huge exception, of course, was nuclear weapons, which invaded the public conscious in the form of “duck and cover” school drills and science fiction movies featuring phalanxes of radiation-spawned giant ants, dinosaurs, and other mega-creepie-crawlies.

Today, however, many of the important issues involving science, medicine, and engineering are highly politically charged, —including climate disruption, stem cell research, genomic medicine, and genetically modified foods. You may well find yourself thrust unprepared into the center of public debate on such issues, says two-time Pulitzer Prize– winning journalist Jon Franklin.

“They don’t understand what is at stake, and they don’t understand that they can’t just give people the facts anymore,” he says. Scientists need to understand that their communications must convey their values, not just their findings, says Franklin: “There is a need for science to be understood as a subculture. If you belong to a subculture you have to understand there are other subcultures, from accountants to the Christian right. And all these subcultures are fighting for as much ascendancy as they can get.”

Interacting with lay audiences may benefit your intellectual development by giving you the chance to explore the societal implications of your field. Sharon Friedman, director of the science and environmental writing program at Lehigh University, recalls the revelations of two materials scientists when they co-taught a course on “Nanotechnology in Society” with her and a colleague who was expert in societal implications of science and technology:

“The scientists readily admitted that in their research they never thought about the societal implications of what they were doing, and it wasn’t until they started teaching this course with us that they started to think about those implications,” she says.

The demands of public science also create a far greater need for “citizen-scientists.” These researchers recognize that their responsibilities for their field extend beyond their laboratory walls. To be a good citizen-scientist, you need not become a “public scientist”—such as physicist Michio Kaku, psychologist Steven Pinker, or astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Rather, you need only undertake whatever communication or public service activities resonate most with your personal interests and what you believe best advances your field. And to avoid hitting your head against the proverbial brick wall, you should learn what audiences you can interact with effectively. You might want to lobby Congress, or become a public educator—giving a talk at your local school or taking part in public programs of AAAS or your professional society.

You are a media outlet!

Dwindling media coverage of science and technology places more responsibility on you for reaching the public directly. Coverage of science and technology occupies only a few percent of overall news coverage, according to the Pew Research Center. Its reports have found that newspapers and network TV news devote only two percent of their coverage to science and technology and about seven percent to health and medicine. They give far greater coverage to elections and politics, crime, and economics, and business.

Newspapers and magazines have drastically downsized their science and technology writing staffs over the past decades. And the number of newspapers is steadily shrinking as they go out of business. So, despite the critical societal importance of science and technology, their media coverage will remain marginalized.

The good news is that you have become a media outlet, as more and more people get their news online. The Pew reports have found that about nine out of ten adults now get news online. This means that you have an opportunity to reach audiences directly through social media, your website, and news releases posted on such sites as the AAAS news service EurekAlert!. As mentioned earlier, news releases on EurekAlert! appear on such news aggregation sites as Google News and Yahoo! News, just as are stories from traditional media outlets.

Such do-it-yourself communications can directly reach audiences that can profoundly affect your research and career success. They include

Explaining your work protects you professionally

News releases, feature articles, and other communications protect you in important ways. For one thing, they constitute your approved public statement about your research and its implications. They explain your work precisely how you want and give appropriate 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 a search for your research on Google News, Yahoo! News, and other search engines and web news sites will bring up your news release posted on EurekAlert! along with media reports. Thus, if a collaborator feels slighted by a news article, 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.

If you choose not to proactively explain your research, by default you leave such communications to people not as familiar with it, and to the informal rumor mill. Of course, your scientific papers and proposals will contain the precise, technical descriptions of your research. 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.

But will you be pegged as a publicity hound?

In the olden days, scientists who sought publicity for their research were sometimes accused by their colleagues of being publicity-hungry self-promoters. Such worries reflect 20th-century thinking. Today, the great majority of your fellow researchers and your institution’s administrators are savvy enough to understand how important it is to explain your work to the key audiences listed above. Most likely, the people who criticize your communication efforts will be either those whose research is not significant enough to warrant such communications, or those who are naive about the value of research communications. Such criticisms also tend to be merely vague grumblings, rather than substantive comments, and certainly not significant enough to compromise your scientific career. The benefits of explaining your research responsibly vastly outweigh any such sniping, and you should ignore it.

Will explaining your work detract from your professional duties?

Even given the extraordinary value of lay-level communications, you may worry that the effort will take too much valuable time from your research and other professional duties. However, lay-level communications contribute significantly to your ability to carry out those duties. For one thing, they give you a chance to hone the same skills and techniques that you can apply to communicating with your colleagues. Giving talks, making news videos, and helping with news releases will make your professional communications immeasurably better. True, as you scan the table of contents of this book, you may feel a bit overwhelmed by the multitude of ways to communicate your work. You may feel that the time investment is just too much.

However, you will be expected to produce many of these communications anyway, so why not invest a bit of effort in making them professional quality and more effective? Also, recognizing how precious your time is, this book will show you how to develop a “strategy of synergy” that enables you to plan and carry out your communications to make the benefits greatly outweigh the costs in time and energy.

What’s more, the chapter on working with public information officers will show you how to enlist their services to help your communications. These services can include

Finally, you have a duty to explain your research to serve the society that supports your work. As Nobelist Peter Agre declared in the foreword:

Many public-policy issues of greatest concern to Americans and others are related to science and engineering—global warming, alternative energy sources, coastal development, transportation infrastructure, and stem cell research. It is our responsibility as scientists, engineers, and researchers to inform these debates, not just by publishing our results in professional journals, but by making the information accessible, and ourselves available, to the public. . . . Getting science before the public, whatever the topic, should make for a more well-informed population whose expectations are more consistent with what we can deliver.