To Communicate or to Excommunicate? Sarah Boon

07 Jan 2016 3:32 PM | Anonymous
By Sarah Boon

Despite many excellent examples to the contrary, science communication remains plagued by two overarching stereotypes that seem to pit scientists and communicators against one another:

1. Scientists often are terrible communicators; and,

2. Communicators often get the science wrong.


These perceptions are slowly beginning to change, however, as people realize that scientists and communicators don't live on fundamentally different planets.

For example, in a recent article for BioScience, Vancouver science writer Lesley Evans Ogden cited research that found that scientists and communicators are generally comfortable with each other’s worldviews - likely because those worldviews are actually more similar than they think. Evans Ogden quotes COMPASS director Nancy Baron, who says: “They’re two sides of the same coin…Journalists want to dive in, dig deep, kick hard, and move on, whereas scientists delve deeper and deeper into their topic…Because science is slow and ongoing, that difference of time frames makes for tension.”

Another factor in changing the communications’ stereotypes is that scientists are realizing that they must communicate better - and are actually learning how to do it. At the same time, communicators are more easily able to access scientific publications, blogs, and scientists themselves, so are more readily able see and address potential reporting errors.

With this in mind, scientist-turned-science-communicator Nick Crumpton last month argued that better and more accessible scientific publications are critical given increasingly open access to the scientific literature, and the subsequent need to engage the new audience accessing this literature. In addition, scientists increasingly understand the need to convince people of the relevance of their work – especially in an era of government budget cuts and public mistrust of science. Good communication by scientists is also vital to inform ongoing policy debates around science-related topics such as climate change, vaccination, and GMOs.

Aware of their reputation as poor communicators – and knowing what’s at stake - many scientists are keen to remedy the situation. Ecologist Stephen Heard attributes the dull and unintelligible nature of scientific writing to three factors: a lack of respect for scientists who write creatively, editors and reviewers squashing creativity in scientific articles, and the fact that it rarely occurs to scientists that their writing could aspire to rise above a strictly fact-based writing standard. He champions improved and more accessible science writing, and is writing a book on that very topic to be released in 2016.

Understanding their previous failings, scientists are increasingly reaching out publicly through social media and blogging to share their research. While these efforts are largely attempted on an individual basis, scientists are also taking communications training such as that offered through international programs like COMPASS Online and the Leopold Leadership Program, and Canadian programs like the Banff Science Communications program or the University of Toronto’s Fellowship in Global Journalism.

On the other side of the coin, science communicators increasingly understand the need for rigour in science reporting. In a recent post on the Talk Science To Me, Amanda Maxwell outlined some of the methodological difficulties she faces when determining the quality of the science she’s communicating. “Is the experimental design robust? Are the inferences supported? Does the news come from a genuine source? Am I propagating rubbish?”

Her post shows not only the difficulty in interpreting science, but the careful attention paid by many communicators to make sure they get it right. Science communicators are turning to tools like the UK’s NHS Behind the Headlines to help them assess scientific studies, Retraction Watch to show which studies have gone off track, and the unfortunately now-defunct Knight Science Journalism Tracker to assess how studies are covered. Science writers can also connect with professional organizations such as the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and with media organizations that facilitate fact-checking with scientists – such as science media centres in Canada, the UK and other countries, with one also planned for the US.

This two-pronged approach (scientists improving their communication skills and communicators improving their reporting skills) has had some great results, from active scientists like Dr. Ray Jayawardhana publishing popular science books, to journalists like Jude Isabella winning awards for their scientific reporting.

Unfortunately not everyone agrees with this approach. Some feel that science writing should be left to the experts, rather than relying on scientists to bring their communication skills up to snuff.

For example, editor Iva Cheung suggests that perhaps academic writing should be done by communications professionals - at least in the biomedical sciences. “Rather than forcing academics to hone a weak skill, maybe we’d be better off bringing in communications professionals whose writing is already sharp,” she writes. She also says, however, that “liberating scientists from writing should not absolve them of the responsibility of learning how to communicate. At a minimum, they would still need to understand the publication process enough to effectively convey their ideas to the writers.”

As a scientist and freelance writer for over a decade, I’ve seen the benefits from both sides. Switching between communicating to a scientific versus a general audience isn’t always a smooth process – and I’ve definitely had missteps along the way. However, my communication skills have been invaluable in preparing high quality, readable scientific manuscripts; in teaching students complex concepts in understandable ways; and in preparing conference presentations that clearly engage with existing research while presenting new ideas. As a communicator, my scientific training has been critical in distilling scientific literature to its key components, and ensuring that the focus is on a well-supported story. I’ve also found that science communication has encouraged me to step back from the minutiae of the science itself to gain a broader perspective on the practice and culture of science. This provides excellent context for understanding how various science studies contribute to society – and how scientists themselves view that contribution. I’ve also found that scientists are sometimes more comfortable talking about their research with someone who’s familiar with science and/or academic culture, and can thus converse in a semi-shorthand about scientific methods and results.

I think that – where possible – it’s more effective for scientists and communicators to meet in the middle and learn from each other, thereby benefitting both fields. As Evans Ogden concludes in her BioScience article, the divide between scientists and communicators isn’t as defined as we may think, and both sides have a lot to gain from each other.

For more on the relationship between scientists and communicators, see this recent Guardian article.

Sarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about nature and nature writing, science communication, and women in science. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the Editors’ Association of Canada, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. Sarah is also the Editorial Manager at Science Borealis. Find Sarah on Twitter: @snowhydro