Tips and guidelines for conveying your research to a general audience are increasingly widespread, yet scientists remain wary of doing so. Grant application approval and high-impact journal publication are often prioritized as the ultimate goals of research and writing in the sciences, especially because these time-consuming objectives are essential for research to even continue. More specifically, both of these types of writing are typically needed to ensure funding and hiring, particularly in academia.
Spending one’s limited time on publicizing already published results to the public (such as via newspaper or magazine articles or press releases) may thus seem self-important at worst, charitable at best, and tangential in any case. Additionally, researchers may be fearful that their findings will be misunderstood, whether underappreciated or dramatized, by the lay reader.
Meanwhile, general audiences have their own concerns about reading about science. Given the magnitude of research output and scientists’ frequent use of impenetrable jargon, intimidating abstractions, unpersuasive hedge terms, and exhaustive details, non-scientists tend to seek curated findings conveyed in an accessible way. This selected research is preferably relevant, interesting, and credible, highlighting notable benefits or risks, solutions to common issues, challenges to established ideas, or everyday applications.
Researchers may be able to empathize. “Information overload” is a recurring topic of discussion these days because of mounting research productivity worldwide, thanks to new high-throughput and data-gathering techniques, growing scientific research in developing countries, increased open access to scholarly journal articles, and a growing focus on publishing “sound science” (such as in megajournals) rather than narrowing publication to solely novel and broadly significant findings. For researchers confronted with the rapidly expanding literature, determining what is worth reading requires both access to recently published articles and filtering via post-publication peer review and other indicators of an article’s credibility and importance to the field, such as Altmetrics.
Benefits of connecting with an audience
Ties between the general public and scientists, however, extend beyond their similarities as knowledge seekers desiring guided access to the overwhelming mass of new knowledge. Researchers’ objectives of funding and impact, illustrated above, overlap with two potential outcomes of lay exposure to scientific findings: further funding and further impact.
General audiences may be especially interested in learning about research that their tax money will help or has helped to support, with success encouraging continued funding. Moreover, what the public reads and responds to may increasingly be a measure of impact. For example, altmetrics takes into account news items, blog posts, website mentions, tweets, Facebook likes, and reviews, among other events, several of which are more accessible to the non-expert reader than citations are. In turn, certain funders, including the UK Medical Research Council and the US National Science Foundation, are starting to recognize the significance of “research products” other than traditional scientific papers, often with a particular interest in efforts that engage the public.
Therefore, a scientist’s major concerns as both a reader (accessing and sifting through research developments) and a researcher (the synergy of funding and impact) may be better aligned with the concerns of the public and more dependent on engagement of the public than you might expect. In fact, with more and more value placed on post-publication metrics and public awareness, sharing your research with non-scientists may not be so tangential after all.