The Importance of Communicating Scholarly Research with the Public

By: 

 

We live in the Information Age, under the reign of the Internet. The answer to just about any of our questions is available with a quick Google search. At the same time, it’s virtually impossible to sift through everything available for a given field. 

This is true in academia as well. If research scholars struggle to keep abreast of the latest work, how can the public, especially those with no scientific training, be expected to be aware of the latest innovations to make informed decisions, both politically and in daily life?

The burden here is on researchers to share their work.

There are numerous reasons why scientists and researchers should be motivated to share findings with the public, some altruistic and some selfish. 

Perhaps surprisingly, incorporating the public in discussions of research can improve both the skills of the researcher and the quality of the research itself.

Dr. Peter Stogios, a biochemical researcher at the University of Toronto, wrote in a guest blog for Digital Science1 that “[t]he act of communicating itself helps to better organize thoughts, allows for identifying the critical/most important elements of your work, … and improves overall writing and oral presentation skills.”

Certainly this is true when presenting research to colleagues, but discussing research with the public necessitates more critical thinking about how to present complex concepts in a clear and simple way.

In a bulletin about the benefits of public engagement disseminated by Research Councils UK2, Dr. Alan Winfield, Professor in Robot Ethics at the University of the West of England-Bristol, claims that “[e]ngaging the public in… interpretation of research results can directly improve the depth and quality of that interpretation and feedback into new research questions.”

IU Associate Professor of Informatics Dr. Cassidy Sugimoto corroborates this, asserting that communicating science research with the public is not just an obligation for researchers, but an opportunity. “There is a good deal of translation that happens between how scholarship is presented to other scholars and how it is presented to the public. In having to process that translation, I believe scholars can find insights into their own work and identify assumptions that may be hindering their progress.”

In addition to improving their work, researchers who engage with the public find that wide dissemination of their work attracts more people to it, from people who will cite their papers to graduate students to collaborators. High profile researchers have more academic capital in the form of citations. Good graduate students can improve the quality and notoriety of a lab. Good collaborators can provide access to novel data sets or populations in addition to expanding research and professional networks.

Funding institutions increasingly seek out work labeled “interdisciplinary” or “interdepartmental,” and funding program officers note researchers that do a good job of publicizing their research. Additionally, being able to clearly communicate scientific research to the public improves how well you can communicate your work with funding institutions.

While researchers get their money from funding institutions, like the government, government-affiliated funding institutions get their money from the public. It follows, then, that the public deserves to understand what their money is supporting.

Dr. Sugimoto believes that “democracy is dependent upon an informed citizenry.” So, it isn’t just that the public deserves to understand research, but they need to understand in order for our democracy to function properly.

Hearing about the latest research directly from the experts seems like the best way to go. Furthermore, the public trusts science leaders. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, 84% of the public express at least a fair amount of confidence in medical scientists, and 76% of the public shows at least a fair amount of confidence for scientists generally. More than this, Americans typically regard science leaders as knowledgeable and impartial and believe they should be influential in decisions about topics that relate to their work.

Some researchers protest this, saying there can be risks involved in distilling complicated research. Important details may be suppressed. Sometimes, Dr. Sugimoto says, this is done by researchers in the form of TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks. Other times it might be done by an intermediary, like a journalist. Often, though, the public is more likely to read headlines than the source paper.

Thus, it’s up to researchers to take publicizing their work into their own hands. Those with higher profiles might catch the attention of organizations like TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), a nonprofit well-known for their short and accessible talks about a huge variety of topics.

While research presented at TED talks is perhaps oversimplified, sometimes it can be enough to stir up enthusiasm or awareness in the public about a particular topic. Additionally, they have become common tools for instructors to use as they are often shown in classrooms to introduce a perspective on a particular topic. Using TED talks in class can be a useful technique for encouraging scientific careers and inspiring critical thinking in young scholars as well.

So, then, what strategies can researchers use to get their work out there?

Social media is perhaps the most obvious answer. Many scientists have taken to Twitter to tweet links to their papers. One scholar suggests that scientific social media accounts should drive readers somewhere, instead of being the ultimate source of information. For this reason, some scientists also blog about their research or pop science issues in their field.

In such contexts, it is important to consider one’s audience. Those viewing a scientist’s tweets may not be the same people reading scientific blog posts. To remedy this disparity, it’s important to not get caught up in jargon.

Dr. Sugimoto takes advantage of multiple strategies. “I tend to use Twitter to reach a global scientific audience,” she says. “I find that I am able to start dialogues and get feedback on my work from other scientists.” Beyond communicating with other scientists, Dr. Sugimoto has found that “newspapers and magazines still have a far greater reach into other sectors than [her] own social media channels.” Relying on journalists, then, is still necessary.

Although it may be impossible to learn everything, we have better access to the world’s shared knowledge now than ever before. As researchers, the best way to ensure continued open access to information is to take an active role in sharing one’s work. Whether you choose Twitter, TED talks, a blog, or journalism to get the word out, the importance of being vocal about your findings beyond peer-reviewed journals transcends the importance of the work itself.

Title image courtesy of IUJUR@IU

  1. Wheeler, L. (2014, November 14). Why sharing your Research with the Public is as Necessary as Doing the Research Itself. Digital Science. Retrieved from http://www.digital-science.com/blog/guest/why-sharing-your-research-with-the-public-is-as-necessary-as-doing-the-research-itself/
  2. The benefits of public engagement for researchers. (2014, September 1). Retrieved from https://www.rcuk.ac.uk/documents/scisoc/rcukbenefitsofpe-pdf/

  3. Funk, C.; Kennedy, B. (2016, October 4). The Politics of Climate Change Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/10/04/the-politics-of-climate/