Science communication is increasingly important for environmental scientists, and the digital realm offers great opportunity. How can we maximise it?
Recently, I joined a seminar hosted by the British Society for Geomorphology where I discussed how we can provide effective outreach and public engagement resources in the digital format. I gave a keynote talk, where I outlined some of the main points from my experience of running AntarcticGlaciers.
You can watch the full seminar and the other talks, which were all excellent, on the BSG website.
You can watch my talk here:
I thought it might be useful here to outline some of the key points I make in my talk.
Background to AntarcticGlaciers
I set up AntarcticGlaciers.org in 2012, when I was a post-doc at Aberystwyth University. It was initially designed to support our Antarctic research project, which focused on the glaciers of the Antarctic Peninsula, but I broadened this remit and continued the project long after my position at Aberystwyth University ended. Today, the website covers glaciation and glacier processes broadly, with a particular focus on the British Ice Sheet, the Patagonian Ice Sheet and the Antarctic Ice Sheet (this aligns with my own particular research interests).
The website has received very generous funding from a variety of sources. This has been used to fund website development, hosting, domain names, attending conferences, and hiring website assistants who contribute fantastically to the site.
When asked to measure or define website success, especially to my funders, I point to the Certificate of Excellence from the GA, the fact that it is cited by and referenced by numerous journalists and other sites, including NASA JPL and NASA Earth Observatory websites, the fact that journalists often contact me through the website, the support of professional organisations (e.g. Geographical Organisation, QRA, SCAR, Geologists’ Association, etc.), and the emails, referrals and backlinks I have from educators, academics, students and teachers.
Who visits AntarcticGlaciers.org?
Google Analytics tells me that in a typical month, I have about 30k visitors, 2.4m web impressions, and that I have 47 pages with first impressions. Since launch, the site has received 3.5 million page views, with 1.9 million users.
Google Analytics also tells me that 75% of my traffic comes from organic searches, 21% from direct sources, and small amounts from referrals (including from social media). This highlights how important it is to optimise a digital resource to build traffic. 88% of my visitors in July 2021 were new visitors, and 12% were returning visitors.
Data from under-18s is not available, but most of my users are relatively young, with half under the age of 35.
My traffic is worldwide, though most from from America, UK and India (which is logical, considing population sizes and the target audience, and the language used in the website).
What factors make a successful public engagement and science communication digital resource?
The large peer-reviewed literature on science communication and public engagement tells us that the biggest pitfall, which I frequently see in well-meaning resources, is that the authors have not researched their audience. Who are they writing for? What do they need? The audience needs to be researched, spoken with, interviewed. Hold focus groups, and ask them what they need.
Some examples of typical audiences could include poluicy makers and politicians, journalists, school teachers (a different audience to the direct use by school children or students), academics and researchers, local people (e.g. for specific local projects), interested lay people, visitors to a science museum. What is their level of education? What are they looking for? Why are they reading your site? Have you spoken with any of them?
Secondly, authors should highlight the relevance to the audience. Why should they care, and how are they affected?
Authors should avoid using jargon, and should explain key concepts and background to the research. It’s no good writing a press release about your exciting ice-shelf research if no one knows what an ice shelf is. Use text that is easy to understand, and tell a story with human interest.
We live in a “fake news” era. Who can we trust? For this reason, I always include background and citations in my articles, showing the evidence for the research.
The online strategy should encourage and allow engagement and conversations.
Invert the order for science communication
When writing for a public audience, we should invert the order in which we present the narrative. Give the bottom line, summarised in a sentence, first. Then give the relevance. Many people will stop reading after this point, so make sure they go away with your bottom line.
Then, provide the robust supporting evidence and supporting details.
Building an audience
Google Analytics highlights to me how powerful search engine optimisation (SEO) is for building website traffic. There are any number of simple books you can get from any bookshop that will give some basics, and I recommend some research in this area.
I use the Yoast plugin for wordpress; I like the simplicity of its traffic light system. But easy tasks are to define a keyword, and make sure that it is present in headings, figure captions, alt descriptions, and text.
Provide unique content – Google likes unique content. It should be original, readable and findable. Fresh, regular new content will drive you up Google’s algorithms.
You should encourage incoming links and backlinks, and link to other websites.
Provide metadata and keyword descriptions.
What are the key challenges to a successful science communication strategy? As I have progressed in my academic career, time to write thoughtful, well-researched articles becomes harder. There is always something else that I am behind on that must be done first. So, making time for outreach is a challenge. Universities can help this by acknowledging the effort and importance of public engagement and science communication, and rewarding skills and expertise in this appropriately.
Longevity is also a challenge; many well-intentioned outreach projects last only as long as the project, and then fade away. If websites are not maintained and updated, they fade into obsurity and functionality becomes increasingly problematic as browsers update. Keeping websites live and updated over years is a significant challenge (linked strongly to the first).
Some ways around this could include more collaborative efforts, so that the load is shared, and funding, to allow professionalisation of these resources.
Bik, H. M., Dove, A. D. M., Goldstein, M. C., Helm, R. R., MacPherson, R., Martini, K., et al. (2015). Ten simple rules for effective online outreach. PLoS Comput. Biol. 11, e1003906.
Bik, H. M., and Goldstein, M. C. (2013). An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists. PLoS Biol 11, e1001535. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001535.
Somerville, R. C. J., and Hassol, S. J. (2011). Communicating the science of climate change. Phys. Today October, 48–63.
Nisbet, M. C. (2009). Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement. Environ. Sci. Policy Sustain. Dev. 51, 12–23. doi:10.3200/envt.51.2.12-23.
Bubela, T., Nisbet, M. C., Borchelt, R., Brunger, F., Critchley, C., Einsiedel, E., et al. (2009). Science communication reconsidered. Nat Biotech 27, 514–518. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nbt0609-514.
Smith, B., Baron, N., English, C., Galindo, H., Goldman, E., McLeod, K., et al. (2013). COMPASS: Navigating the Rules of Scientific Engagement. PLoS Biol 11, e1001552. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001552.