Matt Shipman is a public information officer at North Carolina State University, where he writes about everything from forensic entomology to computer malware. He previously worked as a reporter and editor in the Washington, D.C. area for Inside EPA, Water Policy Report and Risk Policy Report, where he covered the nexus of science, politics and policy. He blogs about NC State research at The Abstract, and you can follow him on Twitter where he is @ShipLives.
Explaining the nuances of scientific research to a lay audience has never been easy. Changes in the news media landscape over the past 20 years have created new challenges. The 24-hour news cycle, for example, offers little opportunity for reflective reporting on complex issues. However, there are still steps that scientists can take to communicate effectively about their work. In my previous two posts I talked about how scientists can work with reporters, public information officers and others to disseminate information about their research to a non-expert audience and about being a science journalist with no scientific background, offering advice for all parties. In my last post, I look at how the advent of blogs and social media has given researchers the ability to cut out the middle man entirely and speak directly to the public. Sounds great, right? It can be. But it poses its own challenges.
There are a lot of social media platforms that allow us to share our thoughts with anyone who cares to listen. Twitter, Facebook and Google+ are clearly at the top of that list. If you set up a Twitter account, for example, you can say whatever you want, 140 characters at a time. But who’s reading it?
Just because you set up a social media account doesn’t mean that anyone will know about it. You’ll need to take the time to cultivate a following. You can start by figuring out your desired audience. Who do you want to be following you? Other scientists? Relevant science writers? Potential grad students? If you try to talk to everyone at once, you’ll end up pleasing no one.
Once you’ve defined your target audience (or audiences), you can begin reaching out to friends and colleagues who are already online. They can help point people to your Twitter account, Facebook page, etc. But if you really want people to pay attention, you need to have something to offer. Content is king, and you need to contribute something to the online conversation. In other words, why should people be listening to you?
For scientists, this could mean disseminating interesting articles you run across. It could also mean providing insight into new findings or news stories where you happen to have relevant expertise. Lastly, it is an opportunity to talk about your work. And here’s where things get tricky.
Social media platforms can be very limiting. For example, can you define genotype and phenotype in 140 characters or less? And even if you write a captivating treatise about the subject on Google+, which gives you far more space to work with, how many people want to read an essay on a social media platform? (Answer: very few.)
If you want to use social media to communicate effectively, you need to drive readers somewhere. This means writing an introductory line that gives readers an idea of what you want to talk about, then including a link which drives them to a site where you’re able to discuss the issue in greater detail. Which brings us to blogs.
Clearly there are things that are best confined to peer-reviewed scholarly publications. E.g., you don’t want to scoop yourself. But blogging allows you to dig into the nuance, context and detail of a subject. It also gives you the opportunity to explore facets of news stories that have been ignored in other outlets, discuss papers that may have gone overlooked, or simply share anecdotes that highlight what you love (and loathe) about your field of study.
The one cardinal rule for scientists who blog is (or should be) this: do not regurgitate your papers as blog posts. If you’re simply going to paste your abstract into your blog, what’s the point? You need to bring something new to the table. And there are a lot of ways to do that.
If you want to reach the broadest possible audience, it’s always good to write for your blog in conversational language. Write as if you are writing for your mom (assuming your mom is not also a biochemist). A casual writing style can make even the most arcane subjects seem approachable. If you dive right into a subject using professional jargon, a lay audience will have no idea what you’re talking about – and you’ve lost them.
When you do use terms that may be unfamiliar to your readers, take the time to explain them. Remember, most people aren’t familiar with terms like proteomics, inviscid flow or parameter estimation. And be sure to clarify terms that have different meanings in different contexts. The word “significant,” for example, has a very specific definition when referring to statistics. But if you don’t make the distinction, readers will likely read it as meaning “important” – which may not be the case.
A blog can also be a great place to explain entire concepts. When writing journal articles, researchers can assume a certain amount of expertise on the part of readers. Huge chunks of existing knowledge are addressed with a few cursory sentences and journal citations. For everyone outside of that field, however, the research may appear to exist in a vacuum.
Blogs allow scientists to delve more deeply into the history of a subject, laying out the historical challenges and incremental achievements that brought us to this point. You can say: “Here’s what came before. Here’s why we had these questions. Here’s what we did, what we learned and why it matters.”
Reporters rarely have the time, opportunity or expertise to provide this level of background. But it can be a very effective way of helping people understand the importance of new research findings, without sensationalizing or misrepresenting the work.
Writing a blog gives substance to your social media presence. You have the opportunity to talk about science in a meaningful way, which ultimately helps people better understand the world around them. Answering those questions is probably why you got into science in the first place. Don’t be afraid to share what you’ve discovered.
PS: A final, cautionary note: it is important to remember that anyone could end up seeing what you write on social media. Privacy controls are helpful in some formats, but they aren’t necessarily foolproof. Don’t say anything online that could come back to haunt you.