Are we effective at communicating research?

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Donald Samulack wonders whether we are missing an opportunity to energise a generation of scientists

I’ll date myself and say that during the 1970s, while in high school, I was a voracious reader of issues of Scientific American. I couldn’t get enough of them. I collected all of the monthly issues for several years. 

While a consumer magazine and scholarly journal in its own right, Scientific American was very effective at 'storytelling' in print. It provided a window to the wonders of the world around me, and distilled very complex concepts into understandable terms. The graphics were amazing! Without hesitation, I say that Scientific American was the single source of information that shaped my desire to study biology, and then human physiology.

Yet, to be realistic, in those days there was no Internet. There were not many channels for a non-scientist to consume research findings. Today is very different. My son views the world through YouTube – and this is the point at which I would like to ask whether the academic and scholarly industries are effective at communicating research findings. Because, if we are not communicating research findings effectively and leveraging the technological tools at hand, we will be missing the opportunity to energise a whole generation toward the research discovery process.

I’m not only asking whether scholarly journals are communicating research effectively, the question also extends to researchers themselves.

In this era of 'fake news' rhetoric, public trust in traditional journalistic integrity is waning. However, study after study shows that public trust in academic research integrity is consistently high. Along with these trends has been an academic call for open access to published research that was funded by public funds. 

This movement has evolved into an open science mandate by many funding agencies in the United States and throughout Europe. Along with this movement is a growing call for researchers to self-advocate and to be more involved in the communication of their research beyond their traditional academic peer audiences. Researchers are being encouraged to talk about their research with peers outside of their disciplines, with the public at large, and with local, municipal, state, and federal policy-makers – what I like to call the 3Ps (peers, public, and policy-makers).

While these movements are under foot, it does not mean that all researchers are comfortable with expanding their communication habits beyond academic conversations at conference venues and in the form of journal publications or opinion pieces. At the same time, not all academic institutions are in a position to support a research communication office. Everybody needs help in storytelling!

If you break it down, while the researcher has the obligation to publish their research findings, they also have an obligation to communicate these findings to not only their peers in the field, but to peers in adjacent and unrelated fields. Researchers have a need to secure funding, and the public has a right to know how their tax dollar is being spent through government grants. Researchers also have a moral responsibility to communicate their findings to policy-makers, so that effective change can be rapid and that informed policy decisions are made upon fact that has been rigorously debated by scholars who understand the landscape.

The point I wish to make is whether the traditional research paper, or the traditional envelope of a PDF is enough to disseminate research findings effectively, today. The world has changed. There are new content formats and Internet platforms for the dissemination of research information: blogs, special interest networks, social media (Twitter, Facebook, Weibo, etc.), and video streaming services (YouTube, Dailymotion, Vimeo, etc.). 

New content formats bring new possibilities. Beyond the traditional journal article, enriched content such as video summaries, infographics (static and dynamic), embedded graphics and video, and other forms of communication such as plain-language summaries, podcasts, research news stories, and press releases are all current-day strategies to communicate research through storytelling. There is nothing more powerful than a visual narrative, and today’s technologies allow for this narrative to take form in a multi-media sense (in audio as well as in both in 2-D and 3-D video).

In communicating across language barriers, infographics are powerful tools. They communicate research findings in an 'at-a-glance' manner, with high recall. Both video and infographics are very portable and can be pointed to, or distributed, via social media.

On a more sociological level, constraints of time and the vastness of the literature have forced readers to be more discerning in what they pay attention to. Brevity and discoverability, as well as attractive and relevant imagery surrounding content is becoming increasingly important. 

As such, the movement toward graphic and video representation of data is becoming more pronounced. Article and page design are being adjusted to accommodate the inclusion of infographics and video in association with, as well as embedded within the article. Enriched content strategically brings focus to the main message, makes specific content stand out above the rest of the narrative, and further enhances the discoverability of the research article – on all accounts, it offers “stopping power” to the article and highlights research impact.

At Editage, we’ve been actively involved in supporting researchers with their scholarly communication needs. Not all researchers have the ability (or time) to get out of the lab, or to communicate their findings beyond the academic conference venue. But through the use of enriched content strategies they are increasingly targeting the 3Ps, because they now understand the value of reaching beyond their traditional circles of influence to disseminate their research findings.

At the university level, it is increasingly becoming understood that supporting enriched content development and creating a research communication strategy not only supports the mission of the institution, it creates brand awareness. With the prevalence of enriched content platforms, such content is becoming as discoverable as the published research article itself.

At the journal level, the cost-effectiveness of creating enriched content as a standard part of the publication workflow, and the ability to assign DOIs to such content, broadens the scope and reach of the research article. In addition, enriched content is also starting to define brand image.

While journals, such as the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE), were pioneers in building their brand image around video, others such as Cell Press took the innovative approach of embedding video in-line in the caption below the figure in the article, and featuring infographics as an effective means of communicating science. The Cell Press Figure360 program not only won the 2016 PROSE award because of its deployment and innovation, the Trends in Microbiology 'Microbe of the Month' initiative demonstrably drove engagement.

The journal Neurology of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) took the bold move of changing their print journal format entirely, so that the full research article is digested into one-page short-form articles. This allowed the busy physician to scan the print journal and digest critical clinical information from a greater number of research articles in a short amount of time. The online article, being the article of record, is then referred to at will, once the short-form article was flagged as research the physician deemed worthy of reading in its entirety – saving both clinical time and the cost of print publication.

Novel and creative publishing solutions are being experimented with every day, and enriched content is becoming an increasingly important component of the chemistry of the solution. The journal is evolving not only because of innovation and commercial pressures to remain fresh, current, and relevant, it is evolving because of improvements in technology and platforms of publishing, as well as social pressures to provide vehicles to support open science.

In parallel, the researcher and the academic institution are recognising the value in developing a more robust research communication plan for a manuscript that involves the creation of supportive visual narratives (infographics, video summaries, and plain-language summaries) and research news story packages that the mainstream media, public at large, and policy-makers can digest, and that can be leveraged not only in a scholarly sense, but in a social sense as well.

Together, the researcher, the institution, and the journals are supporting each other in disseminating the research findings, like never before. Synergies are being developed. Either the journal is creating the enriched content, or they are encouraging the researcher to create this content. Companies like Editage are supporting the development of this content for all stakeholders, in a variety of innovative ways. 

So, to the headline question – are we effective at communicating research – I believe that we have been slow as an industry, and as a research community to adopt and embrace the technologies that allow us to communicate research effectively, but that the trend is accelerating as the technologies become easier and easier to adopt and leverage in a social sense. 

Admittedly, we have come a long way in encouraging researchers to self-advocate and communicate their research findings. Organisations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS; Force for Science) and the American Geophysical Union (AGU; Sharing Science), just to name a couple, have been instrumental in nurturing public engagement and communicating science to non-traditional peers, the public, and to policy-makers (the 3Ps).

I look at the researchers, the journals, the academic societies, and Editage (as a communication services provider), as the 'four' legs of a stable platform that supports a sound research communication strategy. All are working in synergy. All are innovating in their own domain, and these domains are cross fertilising strategies of research communication that hopefully will energise not only the research community, but the public and policy-makers, as well. 

Upon this foundation of change, and by increasing the delivery of enriched content through the leverage of technology, we will all grow as consumers of scholarly content, make informed decisions, and be inspired by the wonders of the world – much like I was as a teen.

Donald Samulack is president of US operations at Editage, a division of Cactus Communications