Can alternative media bolster research dissemination?

With many scientists and academics locked into a busy year-round cycle of generating data, analyzing results, and subsequently attempting to publish their findings, some may not have the time or energy to consider whether their studies are being read or used.

A recent article in The Straits Times acknowledged this potential pitfall, intimating that few people read academic journal articles entirely, largely due to the length of the pieces and the difficulty in accessing the journals.

The article also suggests that as a general rule, policymakers are not journal readers, and so new information doesn’t always filter down to policy-level conversations.

“If you write an academic article and then you’re not giving it out to people who make decisions,” said ESSIC assistant research professor Dr. Melissa Kenney, “it’s not nearly as valuable.”

Kenney, who works in environmental decision analysis to help science influence policy, said scientists should actively work to  disseminate and explain their work. She said scientists can use a variety of audience-specific formats – including policy and briefing memos and social media – to ensure the information reaches a broader audience and is subsequently put to better use.

Another ESSIC research scientist, Dr. Ariana Sutton-Grier, who works as an ecosystem science advisor for NOAA, also said scientists should find conduits to push their findings out to the public.

Sutton-Grier stated that one way scientists can promote themselves and their research is by working more closely with the media and communication teams that represent the organizations they work for. Sutton-Grier stated that locally produced releases and information streams are often seen and picked up by others, which leads to potentially broader attention.

“I think it’s highly likely that your [journal] article will get read by a few more people–and hopefully somebody out in the public–if you do at least a press release,” said Sutton-Grier. “Otherwise, many [findings] may not make it out in the world, where they can actually make a difference.”

Sutton-Grier also mentioned that scientists can work to translate their research into something more comprehensible by the general public, as well as to provide clarifications pertaining to their areas of expertise and study. In this way, scientists can inform without making recommendations, which she said is a critical point.

Kenney, who specializes in scientific policy analysis, agreed, saying there was a clear difference between analyzing policy and suggesting which specific policies should be used.

“Science will never ever tell us what decisions to make,” Kenney said. “Scientists have the role of translating the facts they found in a useful way.”

Kenney said if scientists do advocate for a particular solution, they should be clear that they’re expressing their opinions as private citizens rather than professionals.

Two additional reasons the Straits Times article gave for lack of journal readership was the length of some publications and the writing itself, saying many papers are filled with “incomprehensible jargon.”

Kenney said most papers are already cut down as much as possible, with unnecessary information generally taken out. The remaining pieces, although lengthy, are important.

“I think there’s a reason scientific studies are the length they are,” Kenney said. “You can’t necessarily always shortchange their discussions.”

While scientific papers usually provide background information before concentrating on the more significant aspects of the study, Kenney said the order can be flipped in other dissemination formats to both better emphasize conclusions as well as to make the information easier to read and understand.