Are websites and blogs an effective outreach tool for academics?

Introduction | The science of science communication | Outlets for science communication | Online science communication | Are blogs effective methods of science communication? | Summary | References |

Introduction

There is a movement afoot. Academics and scientists are entering the blogosphere, and their numbers are increasing 1,2. The majority are early career scientists – PhD students and post-docs, like me 3. I have already written about the benefits of blogging to early-career researchers, but here I explore blogging as an outreach tool in a little more depth.

Scientists blog for many reasons. Many academics want to share their fabulous ideas and findings with everyone else. Those who are funded by research councils are frequently obliged to participate in some form of wider community engagement or outreach 4,5, and may be required to write ‘Impact Statements’ where they highlight how they will disseminate their research more widely. Many blogs are established to counter climate change scepticism or Creationist websites 6. Others undertake research that has direct relevance to public policy, and want to translate their work into positive societal changes 7. And in a world where most research is publically funded, are we not obliged to pass this information on? Ought we not strive to communicate our results and ideas with the wider population?

But what methods are actually effective? How do we know that our hard work is reaching the people we want to reach? And a key question is how can an academic, in a full-time position with only a limited about of time to spend and a limited budget, effectively communicate their research? We cannot all be on the television and radio, and as a junior researcher, I sadly do not have queues of journalists outside, hanging on my every word. Other challenges to science communication range from finite time and monetary resources, poor career credit (and therefore limited incentives) given to outreach 8,9, difficulties in knowing how to be an effective communicator 10,11, and fears of misrepresentation by the mass media 12,13.

I began AntarcticGlaciers.org as an outreach effort with little understanding of the wider literature of science communication. Many other academics who blog and engage in outreach are also unaware of this literature, and few regularly critically evaluate their work and projects to see if they were successful. As part of an effort to evaluate AntarcticGlaciers.org, I have been learning more about the science of science communication, and attempting decide whether blogging is actually an effective tool for academics.

The science of science communication

An attitude that is common amongst scientists is that outreach involves educating the public so that they will agree with their views. For example, a scientist who works as an evolutionary biologist may reason that if someone who believed in Creationism knew what they knew, they would believe in the theory of evolution too. A climate change denier, if brought up to speed with all the current facts about climate change, may be converted. The public does not care about climate change because it does not know enough about it; if it is educated, the public will feel more personally involved and will be more motivated to participate in mitigating actions 14,15. This is known as the “Deficit-Knowledge Model”.

This attitude is increasingly seen as simplistic and ineffective 8,16,17, and top-down efforts that aim to educate the public to persuade them to change their beliefs are well known not to work 17,18. Rather, scientists need to be well aware of their audience, who have specific needs, may have inbuilt notions, may already be well aware of particular concepts, and may have a variety of preconceived ideas. A critical factor to the success of any outreach effort is engagement. This means that outreach should take the form of a conversation, and any event should be as interactive as possible. Dialogue and engagement are key to ensuring that the issue at stake has been thoroughly understood 18. Oppenheimer (2011) described outreach as a tangled web, with interconnections and feedbacks between the government, public, policy makers, journalists and scientists, with many multi-way communications at every level.

Effective communication involves more than dialogue. The general public is less interested in the minutiae of your work than other scientists. Academics, trained to demonstrate early on that their methods are robust and results conclusive, may overwhelm people with details and information, so that they have difficulty in sorting out the important facts and messages 19. People are adept at dismissing ideas they perceive as too complicated and detailed. Researchers need to first deliver the ‘Big Idea’ 11. They should then ensure that people know why that fact is relevant to them. This may mean framing your science in terms of humanity’s security, the economy, or safety. Climate change, for example, could be presented as threatening society’s basic needs: food, water, safety and security 11.

In order to keep your audience’s interest, researchers could consider using humour, comics, videos and music 20,21, as well as graphics and photographs22. Scientists need to be careful to avoid jargon and over-complicated words. In addition, science is particularly interesting when it is framed through a narrative, or a story 9,17. Nisbet and Scheufele (2009) argue that science communication is most effective when presented through narrative that demonstrates what is at stake, and why it matters to communities. In short, for outreach to be successful, it must satisfy these key concepts:

  • Scientists must understand their audience and be aware of their previous knowledge, concerns, community issues and beliefs;
  • Outreach must be engaging, and should comprise dialogue, interactive activities and public participation;
  • Communications should be simple, clear, brief, and should demonstrate the key findings and issues first, before outlining why they are relevant to a particular community;
  • Effective outreach is often framed through stories. Human interest is key to arousing people’s interest.
  • To interest someone in your research, you must first convince them that it is exciting, and then demonstrate not only why it matters, but why it matters specifically to them.

Outlets for science communication

Scientists have been engaged in outreach efforts for a long time, and outreach events are increasing in scope and number. Many organisations, such as APECS (the Association for Early Career Polar Scientists) regularly organise or participate in public outreach events. Up to 70% of biomedical researchers have had contact with the media in the last three years 12,23, and community outreach events are more and more common 24. Tried and tested science communication methods involve press releases and media interviews 25-27, television documentaries and informative films (recent climate change examples include Chasing Ice, Thin Ice, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and Operation Iceberg) 9,10, public events such as museum and science exhibitions and roadshows, café scientifique, public lectures, open days, and deliberative forums, debates and public discussions 4,13.

These methods are well established, but are not without challenges. For example, press releases and media interviews are available to only a few high-profile scientists upon the publication of exciting research. Whilst this is important, the press releases often do not explain key facts behind the science. This avenue is often unavailable to more junior, less well-known scientists. In addition, press releases are often reproduced with little comment, deeper analysis or linkage to related concepts 6. Television documentaries and films are unavailable to the majority of researchers for obvious reasons, not least the need to balance a full research career. Public events reach only a small number of people, and while they can be effective, they may follow the knowledge-deficit model. Finally, scientific community events and museum exhibitions are mostly attended by the science-literate 17.

Online science communication

Adults are ever more online, and websites and blogs are increasingly seen as a valuable tool in the researcher’s outreach toolkit. It is estimated that 39% of American adults read blogs, and about 4% of online blogs are about science 1,6,28,29. 87% of adults state that they use the internet to research a science or health-related topic 13,30. Batts et al. (2008) argued that blogs and websites can disseminate information, and crucially, aid conversations about science (therefore providing engagement and interaction).

This ever-increasing use of the internet offers unparalleled opportunities for outreach and science communication2. Compared with various other outreach efforts, blogs and websites can reach large audiences29, and help researchers reach out to each other, policy makers, journalists and the general public3. By providing an almost instant science commentary, blogs and websites can work alongside more traditional science journalism. In some cases, they can provide more information, links, reference other work and highlight the importance of the research better than many science journalists, who are overwhelmed with press releases, are able to6,31. Indeed, science journalism is decreasing in some sectors32. The most successful bloggers write about a wide variety of subjects, including politics and religion, as well as science1,6.

A significant advantage of blogs is that they can be set up quickly and easily by an individual or group, and require few resources. There are clear benefits to early career researchers, who do not need to develop advanced computing skills in order to blog effectively. Blogs can also take as much, or as little, time as the researcher has available, although the most popular blogs are updated regularly1,29. Unlike more traditional methods of science communication, blogging is open to everybody, with the public deciding which blogs to read.

However, there are challenges to overcome before blogging is successful as an outreach strategy. Science blogs may only be read by a small number of already knowledgeable science enthusiasts31. Kouper33 found that science blogs are largely read and commented upon by science graduates, PhD students, post-docs and faculty members. While they provided a useful and informative arena for discussion and interaction, there was little evidence of direct engagement and interaction with the general public, policy makers or journalists. In addition, science blogs frequently fall into the ‘deficit-knowledge model’ of science communication, attempting to disseminate information from the knowledgeable researcher to the science-ignorant public31. Finally, Kouper33 found that few blogs provided the extensive critique or commentary that they are often purported to.

Are blogs effective methods of science communication?

It seems that blogs can be effective tools for outreach, being read by large audiences who often research science topics online. But in order to avoid being a simple and ineffective deficit-knowledge model strategy, blogs need to effectively understand their audience and attempt to engage them directly as much as possible. Websites and information resources should be user-orientated and interactive, and can include many features to help them achieve this. With online social networking booming, researchers can use Twitter and Facebook to help them interact with their readers28. Researchers can also use games, commenting, podcasts, videos and comics to engage with their audience17. Blogs and websites can be useful information resources, but many people will surf the web having had their interest piqued by an interesting news story, television documentary or after attending a community event. Websites and blogs can therefore support traditional outreach media, but should not be considered an easy alternative or the sum of a scientist’s outreach efforts. For that reason, science websites and blogs can be an effective part of a larger outreach package, which also includes press releases, media interviews, social networking and public dialogue events.

In order to be successful, scientists must analyse their audience and work out what they want. They could hold focus groups or discuss strategies with key stakeholders. This may mean having several more general articles, games or sections for study tips or national curriculum targets, if you are aiming to reach out to school children. Demonstrating the wider political or religious implications of your research may be important for drawing in older, adult audiences6.

Websites and blogs must attempt to interact with their audience, for example, by using commenting facilities, social media or question forms. For field scientists in particular, blogs provide an excellent means to disseminate science through narrative. Fieldwork diaries add human interest and epic stories of working in challenging locations are engaging and interesting, and are excellent hooks for drawing in audiences. Photographs or graphics can be an excellent method of pulling readers into your website, and keeping them interested22. Finally, in order to be appealing and interesting, bloggers must use easy to follow, simple language. They must demonstrate why the science is important to their target audience, and they must craft simple messages, often repeated11.

Summary

Websites and blogs can form an important part of an overall outreach strategy, if properly researched and evaluated, and if properly supported by other forms of more direct public dialogue. They can be an useful information resource and a way of sharing information, and can be set up cheaply and quickly by individuals, research clusters or groups, research projects or institutions. Indeed, institutions can be invaluable by supporting the blogging efforts of their employees29 and by providing recognition and opportunities for career development9.

With regards to my own website, it seems that some of the techniques I use are widely known to be effective in the broader science community (such as using narrative, human interest and graphics as ‘hooks’). While I am relatively well aware of my audience, having held discussions with the Geographer’s Association (for school teachers) and focus groups with A-Level students, analysis of my readers and Twitter followers suggest that this group is difficult to reach; indeed, it appears many of my readers are the science-literate ‘elite’. There are several other things I could be doing better, including interacting more directly with my audience, and reconsidering my writing style. Like many scientists, I am trained to write dispassionately about data and facts, and need to consider trying to make my articles more directly relevant to my audience (How This Affects You!). I also need to highlight first the important facts, before going on to discuss supporting details, as recommended by Somerville and Hassol11. I will write more about my analysis of my website in a forthcoming blog post.

I would be interested in your comments on websites and blogs as an outreach strategy – please consider leaving a comment and participating in a ‘conversation’ about improving outreach strategies!

Further reading

References

1.            Bonetta, L. Scientists Enter the Blogosphere. Cell 129, 443-445 (2007).

2.            Brossard, D. & Scheufele, D.A. Science, New Media, and the Public. Science 339, 40-41 (2013).

3.            Butler, D. Science in the web age: Joint efforts. Nature 438, 548-549 (2005).

4.            NERC. Engaging the public with your research, 20 (Natural Environment Research Council, 2011).

5.            Royal Society. Survey of factors affecting science communication by scientists and engineers, 45 (Royal Society, London, 2006).

6.            Wilkins, J.S. The roles, reasons and restrictions of science blogs. Trends in ecology & evolution (Personal edition) 23, 411-413 (2008).

7.            Oppenheimer, M. What Roles Can Scientists Play in Public Discourse? Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union 92, 133-134 (2011).

8.            Smith, B., Baron, N., English, C., Galindo, H., Goldman, E., McLeod, K., Miner, M. & Neeley, E. COMPASS: Navigating the Rules of Scientific Engagement. PLoS Biol 11, e1001552 (2013).

9.            Stewart, I.S. & Nield, T. Earth stories: context and narrative in the communication of popular geoscience. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association (in press).

10.          Harris, F. Getting geography into the media: understanding the dynamics of academic–media collaboration. The Geographical Journal 177, 155-159 (2011).

11.          Somerville, R.C.J. & Hassol, S.J. Communicating the science of climate change. Physics Today October, 48-63 (2011).

12.          Peters, H.P., Brossard, D., de Cheveigné, S., Dunwoody, S., Kallfass, M., Miller, S. & Tsuchida, S. Interactions with the Mass Media. Science 321, 204-205 (2008).

13.          Besley, J.C. & Tanner, A.H. What Science Communication Scholars Think About Training Scientists to Communicate. Science Communication 33, 239-263 (2011).

14.          Frewer, L., Hunt, S., Brennan, M., Kuznesof, S., Ness, M. & Ritson, C. The views of scientific experts on how the public conceptualize uncertainty. Journal of Risk Research 6, 75-85 (2003).

15.          Sturgis, P. & Allum, N. Science in Society: Re-Evaluating the Deficit Model of Public Attitudes. Public Understanding of Science 13, 55-74 (2004).

16.          Miller, S. Public understanding of science at the crossroads. Public Understanding of Science 10, 115-120 (2001).

17.          Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American Journal of Botany 96, 1767-1778 (2009).

18.          Kellstedt, P.M., Zahran, S. & Vedlitz, A. Personal Efficacy, the Information Environment, and Attitudes Toward Global Warming and Climate Change in the United States. Risk Analysis 28, 113-126 (2008).

19.          Grosse, L. Scientific illiteracy and the partisan takeover of biology. PLoS Biol 4, 680-683 (2006).

20.          Tatalovic, M. Science comics as tools for science communication: a brief, exploratory study. Journal of Science Communication 8, 1-17 (2009).

21.          Allgaier, J. On the Shoulders of YouTube: Science in Music Videos. Science Communication 35, 266-275 (2013).

22.          Miller, J.D. Reaching the attentive and interested publics for science. in Scientists and journalists: reporting science as news (eds. Friedman, S.M., Dunwoody, S. & Rogers, C.L.) (Free Press, New York, 1986).

23.          Peters, H.P., Brossard, D., de Cheveigné, S., Dunwoody, S., Kallfass, M., Miller, S. & Tsuchida, S. Science-Media Interface: It’s Time to Reconsider. Science Communication 30, 266-276 (2008).

24.          McComas, K.A., Arvai, J.L. & Besley, J.C. Linking public participation and decision making through risk communication. in Handbook of crisis and risk communication (eds. Heath, R.L. & O’Hair, D.H.) 364-385 (Routledge, New York, 2008).

25.          Corbett, J.B. & Durfee, J.L. Testing Public (Un)Certainty of Science: Media Representations of Global Warming. Science Communication 26, 129-151 (2004).

26.          Boykoff, M.T. Media and scientific communication: a case of climate change. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 305, 11-18 (2008).

27.          Allgeier, J., Dunwoody, S., Brossard, D., Lo, Y.-Y. & Peters, H.P. Journalism and Social Media as means of observing the contexts of science. Bioscience 63, 284-287 (in press).

28.          Bonetta, L. Should You Be Tweeting? Cell 139, 452-453 (2009).

29.          Batts, S.A., Anthis, N.J. & Smith, T.C. Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy. PLoS Biol 6, e240 (2008).

30.          Horrigan, J. The Internet as a resource for news and information about science, (PEW Internet and American Life Project, Washington, DC, 2006).

31.          Bubela, T., Nisbet, M.C., Borchelt, R., Brunger, F., Critchley, C., Einsiedel, E., Geller, G., Gupta, A., Hampel, J., Hyde-Lay, R., Jandciu, E.W., Jones, S.A., Kolopack, P., Lane, S., Lougheed, T., Nerlich, B., Ogbogu, U., O’Riordan, K., Ouellette, C., Spear, M., Strauss, S., Thavaratnam, T., Willemse, L. & Caulfield, T. Science communication reconsidered. Nat Biotech 27, 514-518 (2009).

32.          Brumfiel. Supplanting the old media? Nature 458, 274-277 (2009).

33.          Kouper, I. Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges and opportunities. Journal of Science Communication 9, 1-10 (2010).

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2 thoughts on “Are websites and blogs an effective outreach tool for academics?

  1. Usually I would not understand post about blogs and forums, on the other hand would choose to say that this specific write-up really obligated me to have a look on in addition to do it! The way of writing has been amazed everyone. Thank you so much, extremely terrific report.

  2. Thanks for this! I’m in the process of setting up Outreach for an Antarctic research cruise, and this is the first site I’ve found that has given me the sort of advice I’m looking for–and great advice at that. Much appreciated!

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