Science Communication Needs and Best Practice: What Would a Top Ten List Look Like?

Best Practices

A new paper offers up a “top 10” list of science communication (scicomm) challenges and potential solutions – but also highlights the flaws in the list. I’m hoping it can be a starting point for a discussion that could help people address at least some of the scicomm problems they’re grappling with.


Here’s the deal: science communication can be a tricky business. It can be defined in a wide variety of ways, and includes a host of different interests that have different (and sometimes competing) goals. But while the goals may differ, many of the challenges are the same. How do we reach people? How do we get non-scientists interested? How do we get scientists involved in the process?

I take a broad view of science communication, defining it as anything that involves one person communicating with another person about science. That includes teaching, museums, art, science journalism, blogging, peer-reviewed journals, etc. And while I’m very interested in the academic study of science communication, my focus is on the nuts and bolts of practical scicomm efforts. Which efforts work? Which ones don’t? Why? I want to learn from other people’s experiences. (That’s why I started this blog in the first place.)

As a result, while the scicomm universe is a large one (depending on how you define it), I’m interested in identifying the major shared challenges that most of us face – and any best practices that can help folks address those challenges.

So I was particularly interested in reading a December 2014 paper published in the journal Science Communication, titled “What Do Science Communicators Talk About When They Talk About Science Communications? Engaging With the Engagers” – full citation below. (In the interest of brevity, I’ll refer to this paper as “the Engagement paper” from here on out.)

SciComm Audit

Image credit: Sam Churchill, via Flickr. Click for more information.
Image credit: Sam Churchill, via Flickr. Click for more information.

The Engagement paper authors, Cormick, et al. – all of whom are affiliated with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s national science agency – wrote the paper following the Science Rewired Big Science Communication Summit, which was held in Sydney in June 2013. But to put the work in context, we need to go back just a bit further, to a national audit of science engagement that was conducted in Australia in 2011 and 2012.

That audit evaluated 411 scicomm activities and found that 60 percent of them fell into the “deficit model” category – meaning basically that the public would be much more supportive of science (and science-based decision-making) if they knew more about science. (A full report on the Australian scicomm audit was published in January 2013.) However, the authors of the Engagement paper note that the audit “also found that most science communicators actually favored participatory, critical approaches to science engagement but felt hindered by a lack of resources and organizational support for such engagement.”

Thus the stage was set for the June 2013 summit, which brought together 250 science communicators from around Australia to explore the issues raised in the audit. The communicators participated in workshops to nominate the key obstacles to implementing scicomm “best practices” and develop solutions for overcoming those obstacles. The communicators were split into groups to brainstorm ideas, and then voted to determine which ideas were best. In addition to moderators, each group also included a small “brain trust” of subject matter experts.

A Top 10 List

Here are the 10 ideas that came out on top (all quotes are from the Engagement paper):

  • “Undertake broad and local ‘engagement’ into better understanding communities’ needs and trust factors.”
  • To ensure scicomm pros can get the data they need, “provide models and standards for evaluation methodologies and best-practice examples.”
  • Research grants should include communication and outreach components (and science courses should incorporate scicomm elements).
  • To ensure that citizen science projects and participants share expectations, there should be “best-practice models of citizen science that look at the impediments and solutions achieved” – and those solutions should be widely disseminated for use elsewhere.
  • “Establish standards for evaluation, with well-considered tailored objectives for different audience[s].” (I’ll be honest – I’m not really clear on what this means.)
  • “Establish wider networks that allow for real knowledge sharing and access to key influencers.”
  • “Professional development/peer mentors/best-practice models/a national learning network” for sharing how to get “beyond tweets and blogs.”
  • To incentivize scicomm activities by scientists, “research grants [should] include communications/outreach components.” (This echoes the third bullet, above.)
  • “Granting bodies [should] develop ‘pilot’ grants for citizen science with [a] science mentor, and seek to publish results.”
  • “Provide best-practice models for collaboration and mechanisms to bring potential collaborators together.”

Notice anything about many of the items on that list? As Cormick, et al., kindly phrased it, some of the ideas “might be considered a bit too broad to be truly useful.” I would argue that most of them are either out of the control of science communicators (e.g., at least three can be implemented only by grant agencies) or too vague to be useful.

For example, while I agree that it is a great idea for communicators to “establish wider networks that allow for real knowledge sharing and access to key influencers,” that is much easier said than done. How, exactly, should one go about establishing these wider networks? (I’ve touched on this briefly in the past, and may revisit it in the future, but my basic advice is: put yourself out there, keep an eye open for opportunities, and take advantage of opportunities when you see them. And, in general, it’s a good idea to be helpful and nice to people. See? Even my advice about it is vague.)

More Ideas

Cormick, et al., also point out that the list doesn’t include a number of things that would probably be considered “best practices.”

According to the Engagement paper, the “brain trust” subject-matter experts offered some insight into how these oversights happened – many of the best ideas were simply voted down during the workshops. To quote the paper: “One moderator stated, ‘It was frustrating to see the best ideas often languishing because they were unfamiliar, or people didn’t have a lot of understanding of them.’”

The paper also includes five of these suggestions that didn’t make the final cut:

  • “Identify and understand people’s emotional/physical/intellectual needs for science.”
  • “Embed scientific knowledge into the community’s already existing systems/cultural activities.”
  • “Practitioners must gain an understanding of different communities and their values, interests, and motivations (use successful examples).”
  • “Use an evidence-based approach to choose communication that works.”
  • “Recognize [the] iterative nature of evaluation and collaborate with relevant experts for evaluation.”

I like these ideas more than many of those that did make the top 10 list – they’re fairly practical steps that make sense to me. They may not offer a step-by-step “how to” manual, but they’re ideas that can be put into action. For example, “use an evidence-based approach to choose communication that works,” sums up my approach to scicomm – if something works, keep doing it; if something doesn’t work, try something else.

Question Time

Altogether, the summit (and the Engagement paper) offers us 15 suggestions for ways to improve our science communication efforts. But what do you think?

How can these broad suggestions be turned to practical use? Are they even applicable to the problems you face as a science communicator? What would your top 10 list – of problems or solutions – look like?

And have you seen promising ideas shot down, simply because they were unfamiliar?

I’d like this post to be a starting point for a conversation in comments. Hopefully, we can learn from each other. What do you think?

Citation:What Do Science Communicators Talk About When They Talk About Science Communications? Engaging With the Engagers.” Science Communication, online Dec. 16, 2014, Craig Cormick, Oona Nielssen, Peta Ashworth, John La Salle, and Carol Saab. DOI: 10.1177/1075547014560829


14 thoughts on “Science Communication Needs and Best Practice: What Would a Top Ten List Look Like?

  1. Another excellent piece Matt. Thank you for writing it.

    I agree that most of the ‘official’ top ten list is useless. However, when I look at the items that didn’t make the cut I see the most important theme of all – Know Your Audience.

    Whether people like to hear it or not, we’re all selling something. Some of us sell ideas, while others sell services or products. The common denominator is knowing the people you’re trying to sell to.

    I know that many in the scientific community have a distaste for the term Marketing, but I believe that’s because they don’t truly understand what it means. It’s all about understanding your target audience(s)…understanding them deeply. It involves knowing their likes and dislikes, their pain points, their preferred communication methods, what they know (and don’t know) about a topic, and what motivates them to think or act a certain way.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen great communication ideas fall flat because people didn’t do their audience research first. It doesn’t need to be high-cost time-consuming formal market research either – which is awesome if you have the resources. It can come in the form of asking the right people the right questions, embedding yourself within the audience for a time, asking colleagues what they know about a particular audience, doing a bit of your own research online, conducting a simple survey, etc.

    If we all take some time to understand our audience(s) BEFORE communicating with them, we’ll all be better off. …and we’ll have a lot more luck spreading understanding and changing minds.


  2. My top 5.

    1. Pick an image which effectively communicates your message. It has to be better than just “on-topic”. If you’re writing about the amazing behaviour of the octopus, you wouldn’t show calamari. If you’re writing about the effectiveness of vaccines, don’t show a screaming kid or blue-lit, bigs-ass needle.

    2. Once you have that image, make it an ambassador for your communication across social media. Links with images get waaaay more clicks.

    3. If you are using animation or video, make sure it fits to scale. Share something 15 seconds long on Instagram & Facebook, and 6 seconds long on Vine & Twitter. Have an image you can use instead on sites like LinkedIn.

    4. Don’t use a third-party service like Hootsuite to type one message and blast it out across Google+, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Tumblr. Hashtags are largely useless on LinkedIn and FB, but are essential on Instagram. Messages can be truncated on Twitter, and more reader friendly (taking up more on-screen space, calling attention to themselves) on Google+ and Tumblr. Take the slight bit of extra time to craft it for each platform.

    5. Always credit your image and video. Get permission. Use reverse image searching to find the original author. Never say “Image Credit: Reddit”. The world of imagery for scientific communication is not that huge a space and using something without credit gets found out pretty quick. Nothing distracts from your cool science message faster than an angry photographer or cartoonist in the comment section.


  3. Gary Ray

    Interesting article Mr. Shipman.

    I am an owner/moderator for one of the gig science communities on G+. I guess you could call us some of the front line troops of science communications. I thought the top 10 list was not really useful to persons doing the communicating. But I thought the comments of Kirk and Glendon were right on.

    I agree that you need to know your audience, who can be hard to figure out on a big social media community. Because you don’t know how much a person may know about a subject, I do recommend that you can use jargon, but you need to define it. And you need to define a lot of the more technical terms in a science article, with good references. That is one of our main rules, lots of references with links, so people who want to, can easily find out more about the topic. You need think about different ways of explaining difficult subjects.

    The top 5 mentioned above are all good ideas. To get noticed you do need that image that will bring in the eyeballs. And one of our rules and guidelines for posting is to give full credit to all images.

    As we are running a community where anybody can post we do a lot of moderating of the posts and especially of the comments. The author of the post needs to become available to answer questions by the public in the comments section. In a well run community the moderators will filter out the trolls and the author can help with the discussion of the article. That is where the real fun can be when it happens, when you see someone develop a real interest and you can help them understand what is being discussed, or even better you learn from other people.

    I am a firm believer of finding lots of sources for an article. Usually it starts in a science or engineering blog, maybe a newspaper, or the BBC. Then I will look at other sources for that subject, hopefully find the original paper open access. I also look at university news releases and research lab news releases. I then will use all these to write up a article and have all the links to the sources. I guess that is our biggest rules to post, references. When you have the largest library in the world at your fingertips, give good references.

    Thanks for letting me blab on a bit.


  4. Paige Jarreau

    Hi Matt!

    Thanks for writing this piece!

    Wow, my biggest complaint with the top 10 list is a complete lack of consideration for psychology – which, as we know, is a growing aspect of science communication. Unless we consider our audiences, their values, their worldviews, and their own knowledge and ability to contribute to science in a meaningful way, we are simply keeping the deficit model alive in modern forms (and the deficit model does NOT work, at least not for moderately educated audiences).

    The ‘best practices’ that didn’t make the cut actually get into some aspects of science communication psychology:

    “Identify and understand people’s emotional/physical/intellectual needs for science.” [this one should be at the top of the list!!!]
    “Embed scientific knowledge into the community’s already existing systems/cultural activities.” [and audience values]
    “Practitioners must gain an understanding of different communities and their values, interests, and motivations (use successful examples).”

    I’m a big believer in considering our audience’s values when communicating to them about science. That’s why I did this study, to see what audience values communicators are actually appealing to today:


  5. lia zambetti

    Hello Matt

    thanks for writing the post! I am quite surprised at the 10-points list, as all the suggestions are quite theoretical. The 5 points that did not make the final selection sounds way more useful. The one thing that stands out in the final list, I think, is the poor relevance that scicomms skills have (still!) in the training/daily life of academic scientists, especially PhD students and postdocs. In my previous academic experience, scicomms was something that you did on the side because you had a passion for it, not something integral to any research activity (as it should be, I think)- there was no incentive for it. I know that some granting bodies now require scicomms activity, but I think they are the minority overall. Are things in the US changing now?


    1. Hi Lia,
      you wrote that ” In my previous academic experience, scicomms was something that you did on the side because you had a passion for it, not something integral to any research activity (as it should be, I think)- there was no incentive for it.”

      I think that’s still true. Research institutions rarely have formal mechanisms for recognizing or rewarding scicomm efforts. E.g., I’m not aware of any universities that incorporate science communication, engagement or outreach efforts into their protocols for determining whether a researcher will get tenure.

      You also note that: “I know that some granting bodies now require scicomms activity, but I think they are the minority overall. Are things in the US changing now?”

      Not really. NSF *has* made a commitment to science outreach activities through its “Broader Impacts” review criteria. (I’ve written about this issue here and here .) However, NSF and other funding agencies rarely include funding to support these scicomm efforts in their grant awards. So, I think they are sincere in their desire for the research community to more effectively engage in outreach, but they have not yet been able to back that desire up with financial resources.


  6. Great list and I’m going to dive a tad deeper soon, but in the meantime I tried to access the link to the article cited. Unfortunately it’s behind a paywall.

    Soooo…just aiming for low-hanging fruit here…maybe +1 for “access to the actual research” as a core science communications best practice?


  7. I translated the list from my interpretation. Here’s how I would frame each of the 15, in order:

    • Get to know the people you want to talk to. Don’t equivocate. Be concrete.
    • Work with and learn from people who are better than you.
    • Spend money and make a concerted effort.
    • Make it useful for everyday people.
    • Learn from your mistakes.
    • Get out of your social networks and value different perspectives.
    • Practice and learn new skills.
    • Put your values into practice.
    • Open access.
    • Learn what works.
    • Make it meaningful.
    • Make it part of everyday life.
    • You are educated, wealthy, and privileged. Your audience probably isn’t, but if it is, you are preaching to the choir.
    • Be honest about failures and learn from them.
    • Just because it didn’t work somewhere sometime, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing or trying again.


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  10. Great piece, thank you. The 5 suggestions that ‘didn’t make it’ are spot on – therein lies a theme, ‘communication with a variable audience’, not just ‘communication.’. (Full stop placement intended, for the punctuation pedants). I think this is something that is not supported in training research scientists. A lot of the best science communicators are not practising scientists, but they often have a science degree and a comprehensive understanding of science and people. People being the operative word. Most people outside of the work/interest/hobby science spectrum will generally only read scicomm if it appeals to them – so Paige Jarreau’s results in her study (linked to in her comment above) are not surprising. Health/Medicine/Biology transcend ‘science interest’, while physics, space, engineering etc. are generally only of interest to people who work or are interested in those fields. Perhaps communicators of science that doesn’t have a (perceived) direct relevance to human society need to show how the science does impact society (e.g. So where does the solution lie…with science communicators, scientists or science education?


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