Contributed by Nicky Ouellet
Scientists often balk at explaining their research to anyone but their peers, but that attitude might lessen their scientific impact, a new study suggests.
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that tweeting about research in conjunction with speaking to reporters generally lead to more citations and public interaction. The survey-based study, “Building Buzz: (Scientists) Communicating Science in New Media Environments,” was published in the December 2014 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.
With science desks in newsrooms across the country disappearing, study authors say that outreach on the part of the scientific community is more important than ever. Journalists covering science beats are almost all freelancers, who depend on working relationships with scientists - not science organizations - as information sources. Additionally, the study found “building buzz” through a strong social media presence increases communication within the scientific community and public audiences, furthering impact.
The study focused on university-based American nano-scientists. Nano-scientists were chosen because of the multidisciplinary and evolving nature of their field, while confine results within a single discipline so as to avoid name-recognition. Subjects were surveyed about their perceived interactions with journalists and the public, the frequency of their blogging activity and other non-communication issues. H-indeces, which measures the citation frequency of an author, were calculated after an 18-month period using the Thomson Reuters Web of Science database and Twitter.
At UM, many students are cognizant of the importance of communication in their roles as scientists.
Anna Bergstrom, a Master’s candidate in the College of Forestry and Conservation, sees clear and concise communication with the public as part of her responsibility as a scientist.
“There’s so much information the general public just doesn’t know. It’s not necessarily their fault, it’s just that information isn’t out there,” she said.
Citing a research proposal she wrote during her undergraduate studies, Bergstrom bemoaned how little attention was paid to a section in which scientists are asked to consider how their research could impact local communities or, on a grander scale, the human condition.
“We spent a half an hour on it, and it was just a four- or five-sentence paragraph at the end of a proposal,” she said. In contrast, the technical aspects of her research methodology were scrutinized and analyzed word by word.
“Scientists are renowned for their inability to clearly communicate their research to academics outside of their discipline and oftentimes even fail among their own research cohort,” Mandy Slate, a graduate student in the Organismal Biology and Ecology Department, wrote recently in a blog post for the ICN, a student initiative. Her advice to her peers: make measurements easy to understand, avoid jargon and practice talking about it.
Some UM scientists, however, stress that chatting about their research on social media isn’t their job. Maury Valett, a professor of systems ecology, says having to point out the so-called broader impacts of a study distracts from what really matters.
“I just want to do the science,” he said. Others, like journalists trained in science writing, should be tasked with translating and contextualizing research findings for the public, he said, giving researchers the time and dedication required for innovation.
“If you don’t have the opportunity to just ask a good science question and get support for it, you’re cutting off at the very core of imagination, the creativity that drives all the discovery.”