Scicomm Accessibility: A Call For Shared Language

Photo credit: warleyross/stock.xchng
Photo credit: warleyross/stock.xchng

High profile policy issues, such as those related to global climate change or antibiotic resistance, highlight the need for helping people understand scientific concepts and how they relate to “real world” problems. And there seems to be an increasing level of awareness among scientists, reporters and bloggers (among others) that science communication, as a discipline, can help us communicate more effectively with a wide array of audiences.

But there’s a stumbling block – and it’s an ironic one: science communication researchers are often not very good at communicating about the science of science communication.

[Note: I think there are actually two issues related to science communication and accessibility: language and journals. I’m focusing on language in this post, and plan to write a second post about access to scicomm journals.]

Much of the peer-reviewed science communication literature is written in jargon that is difficult for people outside of the discipline to understand. As a friend of mine put it, “it often seems to obfuscate rather than clarify….[Many science communication researchers] have created a language that is a barrier to sharing their understanding of their subject…and it perpetuates the communication problem.” (It’s worth noting that the friend in question has spent decades writing and reviewing academic literature in multiple disciplines, and has a healthy respect for the value of technical language.)

I appreciate that science communication researchers are writing their papers for other science communication researchers. But that is true for researchers of every discipline. Yet some researchers find a way to explain their work and their findings in clear prose, using shared language that is accessible across disciplines. I think that should be encouraged.

I say this for selfish reasons, of course, since I often find myself reading and re-reading papers in an effort to understand them. But writing in accessible language can have benefits for the authors as well.

For example, the current funding climate favors interdisciplinary research. Grant proposals that span disciplines are far more likely to find favor at the National Science Foundation than proposals that focus on a single discipline. And clear communication can only help the efforts of an interdisciplinary research team. Using shared language ensures that all of the members of an interdisciplinary team understand what the other members of the team are doing.

Finally, writing in shared language can help to serve a larger audience.

People use the term “science communication community” to refer to a wide variety of things. In the context of this blog post, I’ll offer two definitions: 1) Scicomm Scholars: researchers who study science communication; and 2) Science Communicators: people who do not engage in science communication research, but who do communicate about science with various audiences (this second group includes science communication professionals – like me).

It’s important to note that these two groups are not mutually exclusive. For example, the manager of SciLogs, Paige Brown, is both a Scicomm Scholar and a Science Communicator. However, most Science Communicators are not Scicomm Scholars, and aren’t necessarily fluent in the language of Scicomm scholarship.

I think most Science Communicators do want to improve our science communication efforts, and also know that we can learn a lot from Scicomm Scholars. But the lack of shared language makes that harder than it needs to be.

I do not want this to come across as sounding like a longwinded, navel-gazing complaint. Instead, I’m hoping that this can be part of a conversation about how we can bridge the gap between science communication research and science communication practice.

This is not a novel idea, but it’s one worth pursuing. How can we make it happen?


9 thoughts on “Scicomm Accessibility: A Call For Shared Language

  1. Andrew R. Binder

    I think you’ve hit on a number of great points here. As a science communication scholar, one of my pet peeves with journal articles is the innumerable recommendations that are variations on “In light of these results, it is clear that journalists should act differently” because (a) there’s no way that journalists are reading some academic article in a journal they’ve never heard of and (b) they probably won’t change their behavior anyway. It’s a very trite way of writing about practical implications while shirking responsibility for them see also: NSF broader impacts statements).

    A bigger problem hinted at in your post, I think, is a difference in perspectives and assumptions. There is a disconnect between what many science communication scholars might call “basic” research and what they see as science communicators’ “practice” of communication. (For the record, I reject the idea that communication research could be entirely basic. Others disagree.) I think this crude distinction does reflect a difference in perspective that I’ve often encountered myself when recruited into interdisciplinary projects. If I’m recruited to be the “PR” or “marketing” guy on a nanotechnology grant (which is, in fact, how I’ve been introduced in initial group meetings before), that belies a degree of misperception of what a scholar like me brings to the table. For various reasons, I can’t come into a project with some kind of strategic or tactical goal (e.g., selling some new nanotechnology development) and still do good social science.

    While I agree that shared language is a key aspect to sharing knowledge between these different groups of people, I also think that having a clear idea of the assumptions we’re making about a given topic would go a long way toward more valuable two-way communication. What that conversation might look like, I’m not sure, but finding a good venue (such as ScienceOnline) might be a good start.


  2. Thanks, Andy — good points. And clearly there are occasions when it’s important to clearly define the roles and skills of an interdisciplinary team — I would never have categorized your work as being oriented toward PR or marketing. [To place these comments in context for other readers: Andy Binder is a communication researcher at NC State University (where I work) who focuses on science communication and risk communication.]


  3. Are you suggesting we need science communication communicators? That would be nice. It’s such a niche field, I don’t think there’d be much ROI in the idea but it would be helpful.

    However, I really think the imperviousness of scicomm pubs is due to the authors practicing extreme caution in order to couch all hypotheses and conclusions into the very specific constraints of any given study. The authors are well aware that the external validity of their studies is often low.

    This also explains why Dan Kahan, Ed Maibach, Matt Nisbet, Dietram Scheufele et al. are reticent when asked to offer external applications of their work.

    Scicomm is inherently empirical and only huge data sets would allow us to really get a handle on broader strategies. We as practitioners have to elevate our awareness of the complexities and validities of each experiment, and be willing to experiment ourselves. We should be aware in sharing any study results that it may or may not be effective in other settings and we should communicate those complexities. Otherwise we’re guilty of scicomm malpractice, which is why you often hear a sense of exasperation from the social scientists when they try to communicate their results and partly why their papers are so dense. (Around and around we go)

    And, what Matt said about legitimization. 😉


  4. I’ve been known to rant about this elsewhere so I’ll keep my thoughts streamlined but I think to Jamie’s point, there *is* a need for better communication of science-of-science-communication insights to the science communicators themselves- but not just as a translation/language issue. Beyond the need to make science communication research more available/understandable, there is a need to make it actionable- and I think that’s where a lot of tension comes from. As the other commentors have pointed to, there is an observable tendency for science communicators to want to take scicomm research and “use” or “apply” it to X, Y, or Z situation, topic, or challenge. Of course, the scicomm researchers then (rightly) bristle at the result when science communicators try to take a general insight or descriptive understanding about the nature of communication/perception and extrapolate it to something prescriptive. That in itself wouldn’t be so bad, if, as many of the aforementioned researchers (ahem, Dan) commonly implore, those science communicators employing these methods would actually test/assess their “effectiveness” against some measurable goal and not just apply random strategies willy nilly.

    All that said, I think what this dynamic points to is the need to take those insights from social science and scicomm research and make them more understanding/digestible and actionable for the science communicators- but without making prescriptive recommendations. I’ve been working on this very challenge for a couple years- it’s fascinating to me… and I’ve come to thinking one solution is to help science communicators become amateur researchers themselves. I’ve always found the example of action research in education to be complementary- teachers doing research in their own classrooms to see what works with their unique set of students- and measuring, observing, reflecting, and iterating on their lesson design. Designers do the same thing- learn about a given topic/field, immerse themselves in all things related, then design solutions unique to that set of problems/challenges/needs. Design isn’t a recipe- it’s a process.

    I’ve been working on ways to help science communicators become designers in this way- instead of handing science communicators a recipe, it’s teaching them a little bit about food science, handing them utensils and making sure they know how to use them, and then letting them experiment until they get the right cake at their altitude.

    (What a metaphor. Must be lunch time).


  5. (Which is to say I have no great answers or contributions but it would be nice to some day include this kind of thing in graduate programs for science communication… or make it a part of the industry in terms of expectations and professional development. It’s such a shame that we are amassing knowledge about communication/perception that goes unused (and misused)… and I know I’m not the only one who really enjoys working at the boundary between the primary researchers and the practitioners…)


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