CIPR Ethics Month special: the tensions in communicating research
By Victoria Pearson, Senior Communications Planning Manager, University of Oxford
An exciting part of being a University communicator is sharing with the public the amazing research that academics undertake and the ways this can impact society, politics, the economy, health, culture, the environment and more. Central to doing so is explaining often very technical research in an engaging and accessible way.
Yet poor research communications can have far-reaching consequences and has implications for our ethics as communications professionals. Clearly, we want to paint research in as exciting a way as possible and show how it will impact on people’s lives. But it is equally important that research is explained accurately, honestly and transparently and that our communications don’t go beyond the evidence. It’s such a significant tension that in 2014, the CIPR co-hosted the ‘Improving Science Communications’ conference with the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and science communication network Stempra – and it’s an issue that goes beyond the sciences too.
‘Research communications can inform public debate, drive change and inspire’
So where does this leave the research communicator who wants to create engaging, impactful stories? It’s a question that I’ve discussed many times with communications colleagues so here are a few thoughts on how to tackle research news in an ethical and professional way.
1. Talk to the researcher and be clear you understand the research and its implications (and caveats). This may mean asking the ‘stupid questions’ so you truly know what you’re talking about. Albert Einstein is said to have advised: “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” He probably didn’t say it, it’s still a fair point!
2. You may need to manage the researcher’s expectations – their breakthrough may be huge but it may only be relevant to a technical audience or it may be too difficult to explain its real-world relevance at an early stage. Consider specialist publications rather than general news media, or talk about the next stages of the research where impact may be clearer or the implications easier to explain to a lay audience.
3. If you decide to go ahead with a news story or press release, be clear upfront about why the breakthrough or research result is important. What is the potential impact? How is it different from previous work? What new knowledge does it bring? This is the exciting part that will capture people’s interest and attention. Be concise and avoid technical terminology that may cause confusion.
4. Follow this immediately with a clear explanation of the science or technicalities underlying the research – without being pedantic. What stage is the research at? What are its limitations? If you are referring to numbers or data, put them in context – a big number may seem shocking or a small one insignificant, unless you understand what is means. The general public may not be experts but they aren’t stupid either, so don’t be tempted to leave this bit out or push it to the bottom of the article.
5. Use analogies or real life examples to help translate technical findings into comprehensible and relatable text, but be simple, not simplistic. Don’t be tempted to exaggerate or be more certain about outcomes or impacts than the research justifies. ‘Breakthrough will save millions’ may be a compelling headline but be sure that any claims can be linked back to the research findings.
6. Be clear about next steps. If you’re talking about medical research, for example, be clear about the stage of testing, what further work is required and when a final product or procedure might be available.
7. Don’t shy away from topical issues but resist the urge to be political or advocate a point of view. State the facts and the reasonable conclusions and let people make their own decisions about the implications for public policy. Being seen to push a particular position undermines the neutrality and credibility of the research.
8. Academics will be cautious about any potential overstatement of the scope or impact of research – after all, it’s their academic reputation on the line. Make sure the researcher is comfortable with the text you’ve crafted. If they have concerns that the results or impacts are overstated, talk through how it might be improved. Simplifying complex research can be a painful process for someone who understands the complexities! Ultimately, you may decide it is better to hold the item or drop it all together if you cannot resolve these concerns.
9. Direct people to further information and always include a link to the full research paper or findings.
10. Be conscious of any issues around confidentiality, intellectual property, journal publishing embargoes or other restrictions on the reporting of research.
11. You may want to brief journalists directly so they understand the technicalities, context or limitations of the research properly. Release an item under embargo to give time for journalists to ask questions or seek clarifications.
Researchers, and potentially even communications professionals, may be nervous about how news media will treat research. So it is worth bearing in mind that all journalists are bound by the same standards of accuracy whichever publication they work for. Indeed, the first section of the Independent Press Standards Organisation’s Code of Practice for Editors is about accuracy: “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.” Failure to abide by this code can have huge implications. So this may also help allay the concerns of nervous researchers.
Ultimately, the communication of research is central to the role of universities and to public understanding of not just specific breakthroughs but the role and importance of research generally. Research communication can inform public debate, drive change, and even inspire the next generation of researchers. Accuracy and transparency are central to our ability as communicators to contribute to these aims while maintaining our professional ethics.