Avoiding Hype and Enhancing Awareness in Science Communication

When I joined NIGMS about four years ago, I was struck by the number of press releases from journals and grantee institutions that came across my desk each day. Many of them focused on a recently published paper and failed to explain how the work fit into the broader field. Others overstated the research results to make them sound more exciting and closer to clinical application.

I moderated one of the panel discussions.

Around the same time, science communicators started writing articles and conducting studies about the effects of hyped research findings (e.g., Schwartz et al., 2012; Yavchitz et al., 2012 Exit icon, Sumner et al., 2014 Exit icon; Vox, 2017 Exit icon). While these discussions focused on clinically oriented research, we at NIGMS began thinking deeply about how the issue relates to basic biomedical science. On the heels of our work with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) on enhancing rigor and reproducibility in biomedical research, we started talking to them about this topic as well. Two years later, we were pleased to host their Workshop on Responsible Communication of Basic Biomedical Research: Enhancing Awareness and Avoiding Hype Exit icon.

The June 22 meeting brought together a diverse group of science communicators Exit icon [PDF, 22KB] who included early and established investigators, researchers who study science communication, academic and corporate communication officers, policy advisors and journalists. Each panelist represented a stakeholder group with a role in what panelists later called the “hype cycle” and shared his or her perspectives on the problems of hype, the incentives that cause it and recommendations for avoiding it. The meeting focused on basic biomedical research, but the discussions were also relevant to other areas of science.

In her keynote address Exit icon, veteran science journalist Erika Check Hayden defined hype as “exaggerating the outcomes of research, for whatever motives people have, leading to potential negative effects due to inaccurate portrayal of research.” She credited this definition to Judith Greenberg, our deputy director.

The keynote address by Erika Check Hayden focused on new directions in science communication.

The subsequent discussions Exit icon highlighted the shared responsibility among all the stakeholder groups for improving science communication and changing the incentives for it. Panelists acknowledged that scientists sometimes oversell the conclusions of studies hoping to get their work published in “better” journals or to improve their chances for obtaining funding; journals may decide on manuscripts to publish based on which ones they think will be cited the most or get press attention; communication officers and journalists are often judged by how many hits their stories get; and universities and research institutes may consider the fundraising potential of scientific news stories.

Here are some of the topics discussed during the workshop that really resonated with me.

The science of science communication.

Panel 1: How does science communication affect the biomedical research landscape?

This is an active field of study, with researchers using evidence-based approaches to investigate the effects of communication on both the scientific enterprise and public trust. There is a lot we can glean from this type of research to inform and improve science communication efforts. One suggestion from panelist and science communication researcher Anthony Dudo, which is based on his survey results on scientists’ public engagement Exit icon, is for all science communicators to think strategically about their communication objectives. Anthony suggested approaching communication like a scientific research project: Develop and follow a logic model to outline both long-term and short-term goals, and then establish the best tactics. Finding ways to measure outcomes is also important in developing effective communication practices.

Telling stories at the local level.

Panel 2: How does science communication affect public perception of science?

A number of panelists, including scientists, university public information officers and journalists, talked about the value of sharing stories about scientific research with family, friends, acquaintances and others in their social networks. They said these conversations can go a long way in helping the public understand and appreciate the process of discovery. Similarly, they said that coverage in local and niche publications, which is much more attainable than coverage in national and mainstream outlets, also goes a long way toward building scientific awareness in the relevant communities. In fact, a 2015 Pew Research Center study Exit icon that looked at the news habits of residents in three disparate U.S. metro areas (Denver, Colorado; Macon, Georgia; Sioux City, Iowa) found that residents follow local news more closely than national news, with nearly 65 percent of the cities’ residents talking about local news in person on a weekly basis and about 20 percent commenting on local news blogs.

Diminishing the role of the press release.

Panel 3: What are the goals and incentives of science communication?

All the panelists agreed that press releases are overused and aren’t always needed to share information with the intended audience. Panelist Matt Shipman, who leads research communication efforts at his institution and evaluates press releases for Health News Review Exit icon, thinks that only 35 to 40 percent of press releases garner media attention, with just 5 percent generating coverage in mainstream outlets. Sara Reardon and Jocelyn Kaiser, who represented the journalists on the panel, noted that they receive far too many press releases and that they generally do not use them in developing stories. They said the most useful ones explain how the new study moves the field forward, how far the finding is from the clinic and what the limitations are. Including the caveats in the press release is strongly associated with a higher likelihood of any resulting news pieces also including them, according to another recent study Exit icon.

Panel 4: Better practices: Re-examining decision-making on communicating scientific results

NIGMS has already changed how we communicate about the research we support. For example, instead of focusing on a single paper or finding, our research stories for the public now regularly feature the overall arc of a field—including complexities and uncertainties—or follow a scientist’s career. We’re also working to increase our scrutiny and that of reviewers on how scientists communicate their conclusions in grant applications and what the lasting influence of their work has been on their fields. And communication is among the student skills that we hope to see developed by graduate programs supported through our new T32 funding opportunity announcement to be published this fall.

The workshop was a first step toward catalyzing a broader discussion on this topic, and we welcome your input on how the conversation could be advanced. You can read more about the workshop and the panelists’ recommendations in the meeting summary Exit icon [PDF, 164KB]. You can also watch the entire meeting on the NIH Videocasting and Podcasting site.

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