April 10, 2016

Guiding Readers Through a Study

In our last post, we discussed how scientists and reporters have different perspectives and roles that can lead to challenges in science communication. One important challenge that we didn’t address explicitly is personal knowledge and context—what each person brings to the table before communication even begins.

For a scientist who has just finished a study, the immediate goal is to communicate the results to other scientists. The scientist may have spent years, even decades, thinking about a problem, proposing hypotheses, and designing experiments to test them.

For a reporter, the task is to explain the results and what they mean to the public, without the benefit of having an intimate connection to the research. The reporter may not have even been aware of the problem that has been percolating in the scientist’s mind for years.

So when the scientist and reporter come together for a conversation—or more formally, an interview—they usually come to the table with a very different level of working knowledge, and even a different language.  These differences can give rise to a common refrain that goes something like this…

Scientist to a colleague: “The story wasn’t accurate! My words were taken out of context.”

Reporter to a colleague: “The scientist’s comments were too technical! I did my best to explain.”

Science has broad public appeal. But even the interested public needs a little help understanding fundamental scientific concepts. The January 2016 Science & Engineering Indicators1 found that while more than 85 percent of Americans are “moderately or very interested in” new scientific discoveries, only 26 percent feel they know what a “scientific study” is, and can describe one in general terms (a hypothesis, an experiment, and analysis of the data).

How do reporters and public information officers at research institutions engage public audiences without over-explaining? Few people will be interested or able to read a news story written like a journal article or textbook. This is where plain language comes in. 2 This isn’t “dumbing down” the science. It is presenting research questions and findings in an organized way, using clear, defined terms and short sentences in active voice.

Of course, there is also a risk of over-simplifying. With limited understanding of what studies are, how they work, the value of evidence over opinion, and the weight of some types of evidence over others, non-scientists can misunderstand the research process or specific findings. Reporters and science communicators can provide some guidance by addressing questions like these:

  • How does the study fit into what we already know? A little history about the study and the research that came before—with mention of supporting or conflicting evidence—can help readers understand why the study was done.
  • Does the study show a cause-effect relationship? Or does it show a correlation, which could be coincidence? This is a common pitfall for stories about disease prevention and treatment. Too often, a potential risk/protective factor that has been linked to a disease seems to morph into a cause/cure for the disease in press coverage.
  • Did the researchers do an observational study (e.g., collecting data on the use of Vitamin X and heart attacks in people going about their lives)? Or did the researchers do a controlled experiment (e.g., giving one group of people Vitamin X, giving another group a “sugar pill,” and then comparing the groups’ heart attack risk)? Observational studies are useful in generating hypotheses. But a controlled experiment—or in patients, a clinical trial—is needed to determine whether vitamin X can cause a reduction or increase in heart attacks.  Press coverage sometimes overstates the importance of observational studies.
  • Did the study involve human participants, animals, or other models of human biology, such as cells or molecules? If the story doesn’t specify, readers are likely to infer that the study involved people.

In future posts, we’ll take a closer look at these questions and how to answer them within a story or press release so that it’s scientifically balanced without reading like a scientific paper.

1 National Science Board. 2016. Science and Engineering Indicators 2016. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation

2 For more information and resources, please see the NIH Plain Language portal.