Analysis of as a tool for online science communication

Davies, B.J., and Glasser, N.F., 2014. Analysis of as a tool for online science communication. Journal of Glaciology 60(220), 399-406.

Download the preprint: Davies_et_al_2014_preprint.

The following is a shorter, simpler version of the published paper.

Science communication for the time-limited academic

Academic research into climate change is driven by pressing human concerns. Because climate change has the potential to seriously affect our society, the effective communication of this research is increasingly important1. As such, increasing numbers of academics and researchers are taking part in public engagement2-4. But a key question is,

How can time-limited academics, who work in full-time positions, implement effective outreach strategies with limited budgets?

Avenues for science communication

There are many outlets for science communication. We have press releases, media interviews, television programmes1,5, films, museum displays, open days, exhibitions6 and online digital media. However, press releases and media interviews are usually only available to a few senior scientists upon publication of their work in significant journals, which limits greater dissemination of scientific findings and does not provide a clear explanation of key scientific concepts. Most scientists are too busy to appear regularly on TV shows, and they lack funding, training, opportunities and often a lack of support from colleagues1,5.

Challenges and mitigations for researchers engaging in online science communication.

Challenges Mitigations
Limited career credit given for publicising work Communication of research results increases the impact of publications. Publically funded science should be widely available to the general public. Academic institutions and tenure committees should reward time and effort devoted to outreach.
Fear of misrepresentation by journalists; journalistic reports are too simple or brief Scientists should endeavour to work with journalists, developing good communication skills and an understanding of journalistic process.
Insufficient time to develop a blog or website or wider outreach efforts Range of options available, from guest blogging, to tweeting, curation of existing media or editing Wikipedia. Join community outreach efforts.
Fear of attack from sceptics or contrarians As a scientist, it is vital to be able to defend your work and research. This is an important skill for young researchers to develop. Refer to robust, peer-reviewed research wherever possible. Make considered statements and posts.
Criticism from peers for not spending enough time on teaching or research; poor career credit. Outreach and blogging is increasingly seen as a useful skill and a vital part of publically funded research, but it should not take the place of academic scholarship.
Fear of being unsuccessful or ignored Joining a thriving online community is an excellent way to build attention and support.
Fear of breaking institutional rules or norms Check institutional regulations and work with press and communications officers and funding agencies beforehand
Fear of posting incorrect content, which is not peer-reviewed Be willing to correct a mistake if it is pointed out – just as you would in other work. Encourage commenting and discussion on posts.
Not making a difference or not being able to reach the general public Thoroughly research intended audience and start with a well thought-out outreach strategy
Not being very good at wider communication and engagement Writing and communication skills only develop through practice. Read up on the wider literature on communication skills, and request university or departmental courses in science communication skills.

The effectiveness of science community events is often limited by low numbers of people attending, the lack of time to explain key concepts, and the practical number of events researchers can attend. Public events have been criticised as fulfilling the deficit-knowledge model of communication (or, “preaching to the choir”); most visitors to science museums are well-educated science advocates7.

New online opportunities for science communication

Increasing internet use offers new opportunities for science communication. Internet use is pervasive, and it’s often used for research. 87% of online American adults use the internet to research science topics, and people under the age of 30 are as likely to say they rely on the internet as television for most of their news about science8. Online digital media, including websites, blogs, micro-blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos and infographics can all be used for science outreach9.

A growing number of scientists are therefore using websites and blogs to engage with non-scientists, share information, promote their research and build links and collaborations10-12. These online sources can expand access to scientific information worldwide. Online digital media can deliver high quality, added-value science commentary and fill gaps in traditional science journalism10,13,14, particularly if it draws parallels with and references other recent findings.

Websites, blogs and micro-blogs (e.g., Twitter) all have different purposes and functions. Websites (where information is arranged topically) may be better as an educational tool. Blogs (where information is arranged chronologically) are better at reacting quickly to new science findings. Both websites and blogs can encourage commenting, although two-way dialogue is often better on blogs. Twitter offers the best form of dialogue and engagement.

Venn chart showing Twitter, websites and blogs
Venn chart showing Twitter, websites and blogs

Criticisms of online science communication

Online science communication may only reach a small number of science enthusiasts and professionals14. People using the internet for research are likely to be relatively affluent and relatively well educated. Critical evaluation of the effectiveness of online science communication is rare15. Blogs and websites may reinforce the top-down transmission of knowledge that is core to the knowledge deficit model14, with little analysis or understanding of their audience and little scope for interaction and dialogue. Despite their claim to add value, few blogs actually provide critique or commentary on key science findings16. Finally, websites and blogs are skilful, time expensive and may provide academics with limited career credit.

Here, we evaluate, a website with an embedded blog and Twitter feed, established to communicate peer-reviewed science to the public.

Website rationale and objectives

AntarcticGlaciers was launched in July 2012 to communicate our science and research.  The rationale was that glaciers, ice sheets and their dynamic response to environmental changes were frequently poorly understood by the general population.  The goal of AntarcticGlaciers was therefore:

To communicate key science findings to the public and to other academics.

Our objectives were:

  1. To clearly explain and illustrate key concepts in glaciology and the latest scientific developments in Antarctic research;
  2. To provide information well aligned with the undergraduate and school national curriculums, supporting school and university learning;
  3. To include interactive features and social networking tools to encourage dialogue, engagement and discourse.

The intended audience is broad, encompassing school students (16-18 years old), university students, interested adults and other academics. A focus group held with school students indicated that they wanted a website with:

  • A clear layout, professionally and smartly put together;
  • must be easy to navigate;
  • An explanation of the system with richly illustrated key concepts;
  • Good search functionality;
  • Information on careers, study tips, links to organisations;
  • Clear guidance on how it related to the national curriculum.

Website structure

In order to increase engagement and discourse, we have included a number of interactive features within the website:

  • Search functionality and a clear navigation structure;
  • Facebook ‘Like’ and Twitter buttons;
  • A most popular & most recent sidebar on the homepage;
  • Dynamic interactive content, including embedded Google maps, YouTube videos, Prezi slideshows, interactive glacier models, image galleries and quizzes;
  • Interaction and dialogue are encouraged through Twitter, commenting ability on all posts, an ‘Ask a Scientist’ function and a feedback survey.

The website’s thematically organised science pages are well grounded in, and reference, the scientific literature. Authors are emphasised as people, with headshots and short bibliographies.  Each page is richly illustrated with photographs and other graphics. The webpages are written in an accessible language with the minimum of jargon. Upon publication, illustrated summaries of our papers are uploaded to the website with a prominent link to the published version and full bibliographic details. There is a section of the website dedicated to students, with study advice, common misconceptions about glaciers, interactive projects and resources for teachers. The blog focuses more on personal narrative, field diaries, commentary on science communication, careers advice and recent news.  The website is fully integrated with social networking tools to promote direct engagement.


Eighteen months after launch (1st July to 31st December), AntarcticGlaciers had become highly visible on Google and Twitter followers had reached 1415. Over 1000 unique visitors landed on the website per week. As of December 2013 it had received >73,000 visitors, >150,000 page views and >57,000 unique visitors.

Analysis of visitors to AntarcticGlaciers from July 12 to December 2013
Analysis of visitors to AntarcticGlaciers from July 12 to December 2013

The visitors came from every continent, but predominantly from the USA (27.9% of visits) and UK (25.3%) and secondarily from Australia (5%), India (4.6%), Canada (4.3%) and New Zealand (2.8%).

Location of visitors to AntarcticGlaciers from July 2012 to December 2013.
Location of visitors to AntarcticGlaciers from July 2012 to December 2013.

The website is well targeted for certain search engine optimisation (SEO) keywords, resulting in increasing traffic from organic searchers (see figure above). 60% of visitors found the website by searching through Google, 11.9% through a referral and 15.9% from direct traffic. 95% of organic traffic is derived from Google.  Direct traffic contributes a regular 1000 visitors per month.  The most common keywords that people use to find the website are:

  • Research design
  • Antarctic glaciers
  • Periglacial
  • Glaciers in Antarctica
  • Glacier flow
  • Glacial flow
  • Subglacial hydrology
  • Essay writing techniques
  • Antarctica glaciers
  • West Antarctic Ice Sheet

The most common landing pages are:

  • The homepage
  • Research Design
  • Glacier Flow
  • Antarctic Periglacial Environments
  • Glacier hydrology
  • Glacial processes
  • Glacial landforms
  • Essay Writing
  • Subglacial lakes
  • Ice shelves

To ensure that the website was meeting the needs of its users, we initiated an anonymous feedback survey (results shown graphically above). 50% of the respondents were in the 22-35 year old age bracket. The majority of respondents gave their occupation as ‘At University’. The reasons for looking at the website included general interest (75%), to help with their studies (28.1%), and because they were a researcher in a related field (31.3%). Academics made up 26% of the website’s visitors.

When asked what they liked about the website, people referenced the easy navigation, well-organised site structure, the informative nature, the photographs and maps, the accessible language, the simple and thorough science themes, and the upbeat approach. People cited the blog, fieldwork diaries and photographs as their favourite parts of the website, with the Students and Careers articles coming a close second. This supports the findings of Bonetta (2007), who stated that the most popular blogs do not blog only about science.

Suggestions for improvements included more photographs, more maps and diagrams, increasing links to other sites, more science pages and more human interest, including details of the day-to-day life of a scientist, career histories, fieldwork diaries and interviews.

Twitter evaluation

I analysed the biographies of all my Twitter followers and classified them on the basis of their self-reported occupation. Eighteen months after launch, 10.8% of the followers self-identified as postgraduate geosciences students, and 9.3% self-identified as an academic with a professional interest in Antarctic glaciology. 31.7% of the followers had no professional interest in glaciology. 4.8% of the followers were undergraduate students, 2.4% were teachers or school departments, 6.6% were journalists, science writers or communicators, and 7.1% were outreach organisations or charities. Twitter is therefore useful for publicising the website to teachers, science communicators, students and other academics; it can be used for reaching people beyond the academic sphere.

Success or not?

Overall, we found that AntarcticGlaciers has had success in publicising the work of its authors, as well as broader ideas about glaciers and climate. It is increasing in popularity and receives steadily more visitors, with monthly unique visitors passing 4000 people in May 2013 for the first time. The large proportion of organic search traffic ensures that the website is easily accessible and easily found by members of the public, helping us to reach our target audience. It seems that the advantages of using social media, websites and blogs for science communication are many. AntarcticGlaciers provides a useful information resource that can supplement more direct public engagement, and our interactive website features and social media help to increase dialogue. It supports school and university pedagogy, providing a supportive resource for teachers and students. For optimum success, projects like these should be considered long-term, ongoing endeavours that will outlast specific research projects.

Limitations of the website for science communication include its limited direct public engagement. Although our attempts to analyse and understand our audience challenge the knowledge deficit model, direct engagement and discourse is limited in depth and detail. Secondly, many of the website’s visitors have a direct professional interest in Antarctic glaciology. It is difficult to attract school students and younger adults.

Advantages Disadvantages
Analysis of Twitter followers and website users shows that, within just one year, a reliable section of the target audience (university students and the general public) has been reached. Difficult to attract A-Level students and younger adults to the website.
Using Twitter, Ask A Scientist and blog post commenting allows engagement and dialogue. Direct public engagement is limited in depth and detail. Some aspects of blogging and science communication websites do reinforce the knowledge deficit model (Kellstedt and others, 2008, Kouper, 2010, Bubela and others, 2009).
Provides a useful information resource that can supplement additional and more direct outreach endeavours. Blogging and websites need to be done in concert with other science communication means in order to be most effective
Website is a useful teaching resource, particularly for undergraduate and postgraduate students. Time intensive; blogging requires a strong and on-going time commitment (Bik & Goldstein, 2013).
Website raises professional profile and ‘brand’. Many of the website’s visitors and Twitter followers have a professional interest in the themes on the website.
Website develops broader knowledge and understanding of scientific issues. Websites and blogs often lack quality control, editing and rewriting (Wilkins, 2008).
Website develops communication and writing skills.

Summary and conclusions

AntarcticGlaciers is a useful resource with some features that do challenge the knowledge-deficit model. It has interactive features and a good understanding of its audience, and can evolve in response to audience needs. It reaches a broad spectrum of the population, including academics, journalists, teachers, university students and the broader pubic. However, direct public engagement is limited in depth and detail, so the outreach endeavour must be supported by other, more direct public engagement; these can be organised community-wide. Outreach websites can be an important part of our community’s science communication goals.

Creating a research outreach website or blog without careful consideration and thought could result in a largely ineffective tool. Without careful audience targeting and engagement, online tools for science communication do reinforce simple knowledge-deficit models, and are at risk of only being read by a small number of science enthusiasts. Researchers must invest time and energy in SEO in order to reach a broader spectrum of people. Finally, excellence in science communication is a strong time sink.

We provide some recommendations for excellence in outreach websites and blogs.

  • Identify and understand your audience and their needs. Evolve in response to their needs.
  • Use a pre-built platform (e.g., WordPress), which can provide a professional layout and simple content management scheme. A thematically organised website can help readers find the information they want.
  • The online strategy should allow engagement, conversations and direct interaction.
  • Careful SEO and targeting of the website’s content helps prevent academics blogs and websites from being lost in the blogosphere and can increase the number of hits. Google analytics can allow tracking and website evaluation.
  • Google Authorship places a headshot by your name in Google results, which may encourage click-throughs and may help with SEO.
  • Text should be easy to understand, with a strong narrative and a small number of relevant key points. Write stories with a human interest, with personal stories, photographs and narrative.
  • Websites and blogs can be a community effort, but authors need ownership and motivation, otherwise the attempt will fail. Mandating people to participate in online science communication is unlikely to effective, given the strong personal commitment required. Institutions and universities can encourage science blogging through promoting the website, linking to them, providing career incentives for excellence in science communication, and training and staff development.
  • Online science communication is only one part of a community effort that should incorporate multiple outlets.

Online science communication has numerous benefits to the researcher, including a deeper understanding of the literature, development of writing skills, skills in programming, SEO and website development, development of innovative teaching resources, ‘brand recognition’ for the early-career researcher, development of research ideas and increasing the prominence and citations of journal publications.

Further reading


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

2              Peters, H. P. et al. Science-Media Interface: It’s Time to Reconsider. Science Communication 30, 266-276, (2008).

3              Peters, H. P. et al. Interactions with the Mass Media. Science 321, 204-205, (2008).

4              McComas, K. A., Arvai, J. L. & Besley, J. C. in Handbook of crisis and risk communication   (eds R.L. Heath & D.H. O’Hair)  364-385 (Routledge, 2008).

5              Stewart, I. S. & Nield, T. Earth stories: context and narrative in the communication of popular geoscience. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 124, 699-712, (2013).

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

7              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).

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

9              Ashlin, A. & Ladle, R. J. Environmental Science Adrift in the Blogosphere. Science 312, 201, (2006).

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

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

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

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

14           Bubela, T. et al. Science communication reconsidered. Nat Biotech 27, 514-518, (2009).

15           Shema, H., Bar-Ilan, J. & Thelwell, M. Research blogs and the discussion of scholarly information. PLos ONE 7, e35869, (2012).

16           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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