Soapbox Science

The Science of Spin

Julia Archbold is a National Health and Medical Research Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience in Brisbane, Australia. She has worked for industry, spending three years as a screening biologist with AstraZeneca in Australia. Her PhD research investigated the structures of T cell receptors and their ligands, providing insight into organ transplant rejection. Her PhD work led to the Victorian Premier’s Award for Medical Research in 2010. After postdoctoral work at the University of Auckland in Professor Ted Baker’s lab on G protein coupled receptors, Julia has returned to the University of Queensland to continue working in the area of structural immunology. This year she was awarded the UQ Early Career Researcher Grant for her work on the structures of Membrane Proteins. Julia also contributes articles to the Australian Biochemist magazine.

Science arose from poetry… when times change the two can meet again on a higher level as friends.Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The definition of spin according to the free dictionary is “to provide an interpretation of (a statement or event, for example), especially in a way meant to sway public opinion”. Should swaying and convincing your peers that your interpretation of your results is correct be the basis for a good research article? Do we, as researchers, need to fine-tune the science of spin?

spinning topIt was my PhD supervisor at Monash University who repeatedly asked me this question, etching it into my brain: “Julia, what is the punch line of your paper?” Back then I was confused: how do I know what the main message of my paper will be is if I haven’t finished my experiments or written the paper? But looking back, I realize he was training me. To write a good research article, you must know the main message you are trying to get across. The end of your paper, as well as the ending sentence of your abstract, is absolutely critical. You need to have a short, catchy, one sentence summary of the main finding of your work, and why people should care.

At the end of my PhD, I attended a media training session. The trainers encouraged us to simplify our research to communicate our results with the public. Again, they told me to come up with ‘one short catchy sentence’ to convey my research to the public, and repeat that over and over in interviews, so that people get the take home message. For those who have ever participated in the 3 minute thesis competition, you will know how hard it is to condense years of research into a couple of minutes let alone one sentence!

Since my PhD days, both of the institutes I have worked at, namely the University of Auckland and the University of Queensland, have emphasised our obligation as scientists to communicate our research with the public. It is the public who fund the majority of our research and they deserve an explanation of why they should continue to give us the dollars. And thus, the science of spin is born. How do you put the best light on your research to attract the money from the funding bodies, from the public and get published in the best journals?

There are some obvious things you can do; you can add humour and have personal anecdotes to make a connection with the audience. One very important thing when talking to the public is to be positive about your research. I know it is quite hard to be positive sometimes, when day in day out you are dealing with Western blots not working, protein aggregating, and your PCR just bloody not working for the tenth time. But, the public really do not want to hear about these things. Tell them that you are making progress towards a, b and c, in the hope that it will soon be translated to the clinic to treat x, y and z.

Nancy Baron, author of “Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter” states:

“No matter what your specialty, the keys to success are clear thinking, knowing what you want to say, understanding your audience, and using everyday language to get your main points across.”

That is, write or speak with the reader or listener in mind. Science is not meant to be too complex to understand, unlike popular opinion. Unfortunately, not many scientists are also gifted in the creative arts or have studied language and writing. I myself drifted towards the science and mathematics disciplines, having struggled with the more creative language and arts based subjects. I am not a natural writer. A few years ago a colleague gave me an article titled The Science of Scientific Writing by George D Gopen and Judith A. Swan. This article was first published in 1990 but much of its advice holds true today. Gopen and Swan lay out the ‘methodology’ of writing; appealing to my scientific need for structure and order. They clearly outline the principles behind good writing, and encourage scientists to develop their own ‘style’.

If you truly hate the writing process, you are not alone. And luckily, there are editors and scientific writers you can hire to do it for you. But putting the spin on your science is key to getting your papers published, communicating with the media, and ultimately, attracting research money. So start putting your spin on your research. And become a spin star, not a spinster like me. Kidding.

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    John Doe said:

    There is a world of difference between providing an interpretation of your research in a way meant to sway public opinion and merely being clear, concise and engaging. When scientists start focusing on how to best ‘sell’ their research, what may start as favorable interpretation, can all to easily become cherry picking.
    The author does well to highlight the importance of scientists communicating their research to the public. Of scientists being accountable to the public.
    ‘Spin’, however, serves neither of these purposes. It is a purely self-serving exercise.

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