Science Communication: It’s a Dialogue, Not a Monologue

By Ryan Farmer, PhD, Assistant Professor, Oklahoma State University

University faculty are often encouraged to engage in ‘outreach’ to increase the impact of their work locally, nationally, and internationally. While this may take many forms, such as working with local schools, providing professional development, and so forth, one increasingly popular approach is science communication. Science communication (scicomm) is communication aimed at engaging or informing an audience about science-related topics, and can serve a variety of traditional purposes such as (a) increasing awareness or (b) interest in specific topics; (c) developing understanding; and (d) providing information for decision-making. Throughout 2020 and into 2021, we saw a great deal of scicomm about COVID-19 including dashboards to relay information about the spread of the virus (e.g., https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/), information about the efficacy of mask-wearing (e.g., https://aatishb.com/maskmath/), and vaccine efficacy and safety (e.g., https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/coronavirus-vaccines-infographic). Other perennial topics have long been front-and-center of scicomm efforts, including climate science, GMOs, and health and dieting. While these efforts are intended to share information on controversial and important topics for the general public, science communication may target a variety of audiences for many different purposes. On a much smaller scale, individual researchers often share research within and between research communities, with practitioners, or target specific audiences such as policymakers and related professionals. School psychology researchers are well-poised to engage in science communication as they can assist with developing deeper understanding and awareness of important issues and influence their impact in real time. 

Why Should You Consider Science Communication?

The most obvious ‘why’ of scicomm is the transmission of information from an expert to an audience. This dissemination paradigm is the most traditional approach to science communication and is captured well by university press releases, documentaries, science books, and interviews on news and podcast mediums. In the dissemination paradigm, information only–or primarily–moves in one direction. The Conversation is an exemplar of this approach and most scicomm efforts in school psychology have existed primarily within the dissemination paradigm (e.g., School Psyched Podcast) as well. In contrast, the public participation paradigm is built on the idea of a dialogue between the expert(s), public, and policymakers. Kappel and Holmen (2019) write about more-and-less involved approaches to the public participation approach, ranging from organized efforts to involve members of the public in an ongoing research project to public hearings. Perhaps the most obvious examples of the public participation paradigm in school psychology are the active school psychology communities on Twitter (#schoolpsychology), Practitioner Conversation sessions at NASP, and research-practice partnerships. The benefits of more traditional scicomm are clearer, though scicomm built around improving dialogue has the potential to improve research questions and methods, social validity, and involvement from stakeholders. Both approaches have a small but meaningful potential to narrow the scientist-practitioner gap.

How to Get Started

There are many ways to get started with scicomm, including posting information about a paper you’ve written on social media. Take, for instance, this tweet from Dr. Dan Cohen.

In this thread of tweets, Dr. Cohen shares his research, tags relevant users on Twitter, and then describes–broadly–the findings of the paper through a series of tweets. While built primarily from a dissemination paradigm, this approach to scicomm has great potential for dialogue as readers can respond to each tweet in the thread with comments or questions.

Using Twitter as a scientist may seem a bit daunting. For those who are interested in learning more, Dr. Daniel Quintana maintains Twitter for Scientists, which is a guide to using Twitter to get feedback on ongoing work, engage in scicomm, and build your reputation in an online community. Researchers may choose to have an individual account or a lab account, but the effect is largely similar. Ortega (2016) found that papers published by Twitter users were more likely to be shared on Twitter, and that “…it indirectly could influence the research impact because the visibility of academic outputs could benefit the citing of those materials” (p. 1362). It is likely that when papers are behind paywalls, the impact of sharing via Twitter may be diminished (cf. OA Citation effect). 

Twitter, however, is just one avenue. Researchers have been turning to other digital media platforms such as Facebook, Youtube (see How to Succeed as an Academic on Youtube), and blogs to share research and engage with audiences. More traditional approaches, such as posting material to college digital repositories and professional listservs also remain viable as approaches to promote your work, but may not create an open dialogue or provide users with an opportunity to expand or clarify.

Before we jump into recommended practices, those interested in learning more about scicomm should check out these podcast episodes from Everything Hertz*:

14: Science Communication

107: Memes, TikTok, and Science Communication with Chelsea Parlett-Pelleriti

*may contain explicit language.

Early career faculty interested in learning more about the science behind science communication are referred to the journal, Science Communication, which has been publishing rich content since the late 1970s. Other sources of information include The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University and the AAAS Communication Toolkit. In addition, wonderful digital resources are available, such as Canva, PiktoChart, Sci Ani, and WordPress that can help people start building and sharing content.

General Recommendations

The School of Public Affairs at American University has shared an introduction to scicomm and outlined several recommended practices. Similarly, Choo and Lewis (2021) provided recommendations from their active scicomm efforts. Rather than copying their content here, I’ll provide a brief outline of their recommendations below.

  1. Plan ahead (e.g., research the audience; prepare, practice, and get feedback).
  2. Identify your goals.
  3. Collaborate with other experts and organizations.
  4. Communicate your content accurately, ethically, and clearly.
  5. Engage on social media (e.g., in ongoing discussions).
  6. Establish trust and build relationships with your audience.
  7. Respect your audience.
  8. Be flexible.
  9. Seek out training.
  10. Embrace what science can tell us (and what it can’t).
  11. Be humble about what you know and don’t know (see Skipper’s The Humility Heuristic).

Additional resources have encouraged the use of humor (Jocularity, jocularity, jocularity!) within reason, share information in images or videos whenever possible (e.g., a key figure from your paper), keep the text short and relatively jargon-free, use–but beware–metaphors, and consider the venue. Above all else: follow the evidence and be humble

Scicomm should not be limited to positive results, and we should embrace uncertainty in our outcomes. This might include specifying the boundary conditions of observed effects, the limitations of our design, and the potential for error. It may also simply be embracing uncertainty with a bit of humility. Communicating uncertainty can feel like a risk, especially when you want others to take your information and apply it to their research, their practice, or in policy change. However, there’s good reason to believe that communicating uncertainty is ethically appropriate (Lewis et al., 2020) and, at the very least, doesn’t significantly decrease our public credibility (Gustafson & Rice, 2019). 

Ultimately, school psychology is somewhat unique in that our audience is three-fold. We may be talking within the academy (i.e., to scientists), from the academy to persons outside of our field (i.e., non-scientists), and from the academy to practitioners (e.g., scientist-practitioners). We have to understand our goals in communicating, the background knowledge of our audience, and that even within each audience, the relevance of your work is going to vary. Each of these factors must be considered before any communication will be successful. Also, Eric Elias and Rebecca Comizio from the School Psyched Podcast team provided some general advice for people interested in engaging in scicomm.

When asked about the biggest lesson they’ve learned doing scicomm, Rebecca Comizio said that “It’s hard because regular communication is even harder. People don’t speak science, or fully appreciate/understand it.” Similarly, Eric Elias commented said “I think one lesson is that as a practice, pseudoscience has its hooks in deeply. We often sink to the easiest common denominator in some aspects of practice. In other words, pseudoscience is easier to follow because it’s less challenging.” Both hosts seemed to come to the same general conclusion: science is hard, and communicating it is no easy task. 

When asked about the advice she would give to people interested in starting to engage in scicomm, Ms. Comizio said “…know what you don’t know and name it. Keep an open mind and keep learning. Shoot for understanding, not convincing.”

Getting Credit for Your SciComm

Let’s be honest with one another: If you’re on the tenure track, finding time to tie your shoelaces can be a challenge. Engaging in any kind of professional activity without a clear product to add to your annual or promotion materials is a hard sale. While traditional forms of scicomm (e.g., interviews, popular press articles) can be directly cited in your evaluation materials, this is less clear for scicomm efforts on social media. To address this (very real) concern, I’d remind you that scicomm can pay dividends. As we discussed earlier, it can lead to increased awareness of your work, and thus increased impact. It may also lead to additional opportunities to collaborate, speaking invitations, and a boost to your professional reputation. 

But what about the short game? One way to get immediate credit for your scicomm efforts is to use Open Science platforms such as Figshare or the Open Science Framework to host your scicomm products (e.g., infographics, videos). First, this produces a stable link which you can tie to a line on your CV or other materials. But perhaps more importantly, both systems can produce digital object identifiers for your work. Take for example this infographic that our research team produced regarding remote ability testing during COVID-19. Not only is that figure shareable, but it can also be cited. Thinking outside the box, using some of the resources produced by the open science movement, and looking toward the future may help in evaluating the impact of your scicomm efforts.

Conclusion

Throughout this blog post, I’ve tried to embed resources on various topics, where to find research on effective communication strategies, general recommendations, and a bit of advice from people doing the work. There’s no debate: scicomm takes effort, persistence, and time. However, the payoff can be completely worth the effort. What benefit could scicomm have for your research? How might school psychology faculty use scicomm to increase the use of culturally-responsive and evidence-based practices? 

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