Effective science communication: sending the right message to the right audience

August 31, 2016

Communicating science information is not a one-directional process, it is indeed a complex conversation between multiple groups, where each group both sends and receives information using various outlets of communication. In order for scientists to effectively communicate their research to broad audiences, it is essential that they know which sources of information their audiences use and trust. Despite continued calls for researchers to do a better job of engaging with their diverse audiences, little information is available on how to go about accomplishing this task. 

In an effort to fill this knowledge gap, a team of researchers distributed a survey to a wide range of participants in order to identify trends in how different groups of people utilize and trust sources of scientific information. Their paper, just published in FACETS, collected survey data from various groups of people that access scientific information for different purposes, including scientists, managers, policy-makers, students, and the public. The authors found dramatic differences between each of these groups both in how they use and how much they trust each science information outlet.

Trust is an essential component of science communication; researchers need to ensure that their research is being accurately shared through trusted outlets and audiences need to have confidence in the platforms they are using to access scientific information. Perhaps unsurprisingly, unanimous among all groups was that academic journals (i.e., peer-reviewed scholarly publications) were the most trusted source of scientific information. The challenge then may be in ensuring that all audiences can access this information through academic journals, many of which require a subscription; open access is helpful in this regard but the research still needs to be presented in a way that can be understood by broad audiences, perhaps by using tools such as plain language summaries. Interestingly, most groups felt that despite the fact that social media and conventional news outlets are among the most commonly used sources of scientific information, they were among the least trustworthy. Given that social media is an important tool for researchers to communicate their work, there is a need to investigate new approaches to build trust around using social media as a means of accessing scientific information.

While scientists perceive that they communicate their research well with other groups, the survey results indicated that the flow of information among groups is actually quite poor. For example, while some groups, such as scientists, feel that they are communicating effectively with other groups, including the public, the public does not actually agree that this is the case. Taken together, these results provide insight into the flow of scientific information and may help to identify methods of improving communication between all groups.

The relative frequency each target group believes they communicate with other target groups. The thinner lines represent less communication than the thicker lines. The circle arrow around each group shows the degree of communication within a single group, with academic scientists reporting the highest levels of within-group communication (bottom right) and the public reporting the lowest (top).

As more and more papers are published each year, and given the desire from each group to be more involved in the flow of scientific information, there is a need for scientists to make the most of the communication tools they have at their disposal and to engage with their stakeholders to ensure that information flows in both directions – providing their audiences with the information they desire and also listening to these audiences to ensure they are sharing information using accessible and trusted sources. 

The authors conclude their paper by offering suggestions to scientists to help them build trust among their stakeholders and have their research reach the right audience:

  • Improve access to scientific information by making research papers open access
  • Improve the accessibility and understanding of scientific information by utilizing plain language summaries to facilitate the communication of complex scientific topics to broad, general audiences
  • Build trust in social media by creating ‘verified’ scientist accounts and engaging in two-way information flow with followers
  • Find new ways for policymakers to be engaged in scientific research, perhaps by developing a platform where research and policy briefs can be collected and discussed by both scientists and policymakers themselves
  • Encourage the public to engage in science themselves through citizen science  activities, which will in turn increase their involvement and communication with scientists and can promote knowledge retention and build enthusiasm for science through experiential learning
  • Formal training opportunities for students, such as graduate courses or workshops, are encouraged to ensure that the next generation of scientists can effectively communicate with and listen to their diverse audiences

Filed Under: FACETS Science Communication

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