What Scientists Want Out Of Online Engagement

Photo credit: duncan c. Retrieved via Flickr and shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.
Photo credit: duncan c. Retrieved via Flickr and shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

A recent article published in PLOS ONE looked at what scientists hope to achieve when engaging with the public online – via websites, blogs or social networks. The findings are interesting. Among other things, the study reports that scientists give the lowest priority to the communication objectives that may be most useful for actually engaging effectively with the public.

The article, “Scientists’ Prioritization of Communication Objectives for Public Engagement,” was published Feb. 25. The paper was co-authored by Anthony Dudo of the University of Texas at Austin and John Besley of Michigan State University. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0148867.

One goal of the study, according to the paper, was “to try to better understand what scientists think about public science communication,” in order to “(re)design training programs [to] overcome the gap between science communication research and practice.”

The paper is very readable, and I recommend going straight to the source. That said, here’s my rough overview and thoughts on the work.

The Study

The researchers began with three research questions:

  • Question 1: What objectives do scientists prioritize when communicating with the public?
  • Question 2: To what extent do scientists think their colleagues share these same objectives?
  • Question 3: What factors are associated with scientists’ objectives for communicating with the public?

To address those questions, the researchers surveyed 390 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), all of whom were based in the U.S., had a Ph.D., and worked for a university.

The survey addressed a variety of issues, but focused largely on five specific objectives of online public engagement: “(1) informing (i.e., educating) others about science, (2) exciting others about science, (3) ensuring others see scientists as trustworthy, (4) framing or shaping messages to resonate with people’s existing views, and (5) defending science from perceived misinformation.”

Study participants were asked to rate how highly they prioritized each objective on a 7-point scale, with 1 being “lowest priority” and 7 being “highest priority.” Similar questions addressed how study participants felt their colleagues would prioritize the objectives.

Results (Part 1)

“Defending science” was given the highest priority by study participants, followed by “informing others” and “exciting others” about science. These were also the three objectives that survey respondents said their colleagues would prioritize most highly – though in all three cases, survey participants said their colleagues wouldn’t prioritize the objectives as highly as the participants themselves did.

The two lowest-priority objectives were “building trust” and “tailoring messages to the audience” – with both objectives registering between a 4 and a 5 on the 7-point scale. This is the finding that really got my attention when I first read the paper. And while I’ll go into additional findings below, I want to focus on this point for a moment.

The paper does a good job of summing up why I think this finding is important: “the results suggest that the scientists surveyed least prioritized the objectives that arguably represent those which may be most likely to lead to positive engagement outcomes: building trust and tailoring messages. This is a problem because, as noted, past communication research has made a clear case showing that attitudes related to trust are correlates of positive views about science…and that scientist communicators could be more effective if they were to use messages that resonate with their audiences.” Yes.

In short, if scientists want to defend science, inform the public or excite others about science, they need to build trust with their audiences and find ways to communicate effectively with those audiences. And, in most cases (if not all cases), that means tailoring their message to the people they are trying to communicate with. (Something I wrote about, in a slightly different context, earlier this month.)

Dudo and Besley write that some scientists appear hesitant to tailor their messages to their audiences, noting that “This reticence appears [to be] because of concerns that careful crafting of messages may lead to perceptions of scientists engaging in ‘spin.’” (The paper also cites a 2007 letter in Science that addresses the issue.)

But here’s the thing: tailoring your message to your audience does not mean twisting the truth, nor does it mean “dumbing it down.” It does mean understanding what your audience knows and is interested in. And it does mean using shared language. This is basic stuff, folks, and I can’t stress it enough.

Okay, back to the results…

Results (Part 2)

The researchers found a variety of factors that influenced prioritization of engagement goals – too many to go into here. But there were a few that I’d like to highlight.

For example, scientists who enjoy public communication efforts were more likely to prioritize the goals of informing the public and building trust in science. (This is consistent with my longstanding argument that no scientist should feel obligated to pursue science communication activities, but that those who like doing it should be supported.)

The researchers also found that “Scientists were also considerably more likely to prioritize specific online communication objectives when they saw these specific objectives as being ethically acceptable.” This may be particularly relevant in regard to convincing scientists of the importance of tailoring their messages, given the perception that tailoring a message is tantamount to “spin.” In other words, if scientists understand that tailoring a message is about engaging with an audience, rather than misleading that audience, they may be more open to the idea.

In addition, the researchers found that a lot hinged on how effective scientists felt they could be. Specifically, “scientists with greater perceived ability (internal efficacy) and positive beliefs relative to the effectiveness of specific online communication objectives (external efficacy) were more likely to prioritize those specific online communication objectives. For example, scientists who felt skilled at building public trust about science and who felt that these efforts would be effective also prioritized efforts to build trust via online public communication.” (This held true for four of the five objectives, with the sole exception being the objective of informing the public).

In other words, scientists were more likely to prioritize objectives they thought they’d be good at, and where they thought they could make a difference.

One point I found especially interesting regarding efficacy was that the amount of communication training a scientist had was not associated with prioritizing any of the objectives. From that, I infer that the amount of communication training a scientist had didn’t appear to relate to how effective they could be as communicators.

To me, this suggests that all communication training is not created equal. And, overall, the paper drives home several things that communication professionals – like public information officers at universities – can do to better serve the scientists they work with:

  • make sure researchers understand Communication 101 (including the importance of the audience);
  • articulate how tailoring your message to your audience is a responsible communication technique, not self-serving partiality;
  • explain the importance of shared language (and why that doesn’t equate to “dumbing it down”);
  • be prepared to tap into each scientist’s own interests and goals. Your goal should be to give them tools to engage effectively, not to dictate which objectives they should focus on.

So, that’s my two cents. Thoughts?


4 thoughts on “What Scientists Want Out Of Online Engagement

  1. Anthony Dudo

    Hi, Matt. Thanks for your thoughtful, accessible write-up of our PLoS article. I’m glad to see you noticed that scientists’ amount of “communication training” was not associated with how scientists’ prioritized communication objectives. That’s counter-intuitive, right?! It certainly caught our attention since one would assume that this type of training would help diversify the types of communication objectives scientists’ prioritize (in addition to other positive effects). But we need to interpret this result carefully. Here’s why …

    Without going down a statistical wormhole, it’s crucial to note that the analysis in this paper looked at direct effects between a lengthy set of independent variables (IVs) and the dependent variables. This type of analysis controls for the effects of the other IVs, but does not account for potential indirect effects. Looking for these indirect effects, however, can reveal other important relationships (and in some cases, the most important relationships). And guess what? … in some preliminary analyses we’re doing now, it appears that scientists’ amount of communication training DOES matter when it comes to how they prioritize different communication objectives — it’s just that it does so through its influence on, and interaction with, other IVs (like internal and external efficacy). So, please stay tuned for additional work from us that seeks to give us a clearer picture of how and why formal communication training contributes to scientists’ public engagement attitudes and behaviors.

    One other thing you’ll be interested in. This PLoS paper is based on a pilot study we conducted in 2013. Since then, we’ve conducted — and are conducting right now — a number of larger surveys with scientists about engagement. You’ll be pleased to know that these surveys are measuring scientists’ societal and personal goals for engagement. In other words, we have data presently flowing in about scientists’ self-directed motives to engage (e.g., desire to increase their research funding, desire to increase the impact of their research, etc.). So, stay tuned.

    Apologies for the long post 😉


    1. Awesome! Thanks, Anthony. Those comments were definitely not too long — since everything you said was both interesting and relevant. I look forward to seeing the results of the ongoing work!


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