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  • Daniel Sipple


Abstract For success in research careers, scientists must be able to communicate their research questions, findings, and significance to both expert and nonexpert audiences. Scientists commonly disseminate their research using specialized communication products such as research articles, grant proposals, poster presentations, and scientific talks. The style and content of these communication products differ from language usage of the general public and can be difficult for nonexperts to follow and access. For this reason, it is important to tailor scientific communications to the intended audience to ensure that the communication product achieves its goals, especially when communicating with nonexpert audiences. This article presents a framework to increase access to research and science literacy. The protocol addresses aspects of communication that scientists should consider when producing a scientific communication product: audience, purpose, format, and significance (research narrative). The factors are essential for understanding the communication scenario and goals, which provide guidance when tailoring research communications to different audiences.

Keywords: Communication, Audience, Narrative, Writing, Public

Go to: I. INTRODUCTION: The impact of scientific research relies on the communication of discoveries among members of the research community. Sharing research—allowing other researchers to critique and build upon it—is a fundamental part of the scientific research process. Over time, however, scientific communications have become so specialized that they are primarily accessible only to experts in a given field. Scientists working in other fields and nonexperts alike can find typical scientific communication products (research articles, grant applications, poster presentations, and research talks) difficult to understand. To reach nonexpert audiences, scientists must be able to communicate in a variety of settings, media, and for a variety of different audiences.

This article provides an overview of the different audiences that scientists are likely to encounter in their careers and considerations for communicating with each of them. A general strategy or protocol is presented to tailor scientific communications according to three key factors of any communication scenario: the audience, the purpose, and the format. In addition to these factors, the sequence and selection of information is equally important for communicating the significance of the research. Concepts from narrative storytelling are also presented to help scientists identify and communicate the significance of research to the intended audience.

Evolution of Contemporary Scientific Discourse Scientific vocabulary is rich in technical terms and jargon that is not commonly used by the general population. As recently as the nineteenth century, scientists used language and communication formats that would have been recognizable to educated nonexperts from a wide variety of fields and professions. Since that time, however, communication practices within scientific research fields have become different from the common language usage of the general public in both content and style.

Scientific documents, such as research articles, grant proposals, and poster presentations, follow a logic that, while familiar to other scientists, can be difficult for nonexpert audiences to follow, properly access, and utilize. As a result, a communication gap has formed between the scientific community and the general public. In some cases, such as climate research and vaccine safety, this communication gap contributes to increased skepticism about scientific research findings and even mistrust of scientists and the scientific process. The communication gap exists not only between scientists and the public, but also among scientists from different research fields. Investments in scientific research expanded greatly after World War II, resulting in increased numbers of individual scientists, subdisciplines, and specialized discourses used within each field.

Today, scientific communications (specifically peer-reviewed research articles) have become specialized to the point that a “form that was as readable as the average newspaper has, in some fields, become a jungle of jargon that even those familiar with the territory struggle to understand” (Knight, 2003, p. 376). Because research articles and talks are the primary way that scientists disseminate their research, and because scientific research is increasingly interdisciplinary, this can create a barrier between researchers working in different scientific fields.

Communication Skills for Success in Science The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommend that Ph.D.-level scientists should be able to “communicate, both orally and in written form, the significance and impact of a study or body of work to all STEM professionals, other sectors that may utilize the results, and the public at large” (Leshner & Scherer, 2018, p. 107). To accomplish this, scientists must be able to move fluently between different audiences (STEM professionals, other sectors, and the public) and communication forms (written and oral), while highlighting the significance and impact of their research. For example, Dr. Neville Sanjana demonstrates how a discussion of CRISPR can be modified to tailor both technical language and level of detail to five different audiences: a 7 year-old, a 14 year-old, a college student, a grad student, and a CRISPR expert (WIRED, 2017). The protocol presented in this article is a step-by-step guide for tailoring research significance to these audiences and can be used to create any scientific communication product.

Go to: II. Three Key Factors in Science Communication: Audience, Purpose, and Format There are three key factors to consider when approaching a scientific communication scenario: the audience, the purpose, and the format of the communication p

roduct (Alley, 1996,p. 3–7). The interaction between these three factors guides the communication strategy by focusing on who will receive it, why you are communicating, and how you will communicate (see Figure 1). Whether you are working in a primarily oral, written, or visual format, it is helpful to analyze the communication scenario as the first step in creating the communication product.

Ask yourself three questions:

  1. Who will receive the communication and in what setting? — This question will help you to create a profile of your audience.

  2. What is the purpose of the communication and what do you want it to accomplish? — This question helps to establish the goal of your communication product.

  3. Will the communication product be oral, written, visual (or some combination) and what constraints does this format impose? — This question helps to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your format.

Carefully analyze these factors prior to composing and deliving your scientific communication product. Taking time to understand the communication scenario at the outset allows you to create a framework to guide each decision that must be made along the way. Use this protocol throughout the composition and revision process to ensure that you are tailoring your scientific communication correctly. Each factor is examined in more detail below and a checklist is provided at the end of the article.

Consider Audience The audience is the most important factor to consider when tailoring scientific communications. The audience’s response to your communication is the metric determining whether the communication meets its goal. For example, if you aim to instruct a motivated group of high school students but they cannot follow the presentation you have prepared, then your communication product will not have achieved its goal. For this reason, it is important to keep the audience in mind while composing your communication and to view the communication product through their eyes and ears to the extent possible. This helps you focus on the reception of the communication and align it with your intentions. Creating a profile of your audience will help to guide the choices you will make while creating the communication product. To do this, imagine the people you want to communicate with and answer the questions below.

  1. Who will receive this communication?

  2. How and where will they receive the communication?

  3. What do they know about the subject?

  4. Why are they motivated to receive the communication?

If you are unsure how to answer any of these questions, then you will need to do more research on your audience. This can include talking to individuals who represent your intended audience, reading or watching the media this audience frequently encounters, or talking to colleagues who are familiar with the audience. Speaking directly to members of the audience is the preferred method, because it allows you to get feedback on draft communications and tailor them to your target audience in real time.

Each audience has distinct interests and motivations for receiving scientific communications. These can be influenced by audience characteristics such as primary language, demographics, interest in science, etc. Understanding the level of scientific expertise of the audience is one of the most important characteristics to consider. Are they experts in your scientific field, experts in another scientific field, or nonexperts? Audiences may also be a combination of experts and nonexperts. Table 1 categorizes some common audiences of scientific communications according to levels of expertise: researchers, publishers, funders, conference organizers, students, policy-makers, journalists, and business people. Understanding their level of expertise in the field is a first step toward tailoring the communication for the intended audience or audiences.

Tailoring scientific communications to expert or nonexpert audiences requires a variety of adjustments to content and style. Choosing the correct level of detail and method for presenting data are both important considerations. Expert audiences will expect the greatest level of detail and most comprehensive presentation of data in order to critique the research and understand its implications for the field. Nonexpert audiences may respond better to a simplified version of the research that focuses clearly on significance and impact but sacrifices some detail. At the level of vocabulary, it is important to choose words that are familiar to the audience. An audience of expert scientists will benefit from the use of technical terms and jargon, which function as short-hand within the field; these same words will alienate the general public and may be unfamiliar to scientist from other disciplines. Tailoring the content and language to the needs and interests of your audience ensures that you do not talk over the heads of lay people or talk down to experts; both will interfere with audience engagement and your communication aim.

Consider Purpose The second factor to consider when tailoring your scientific communication is your purpose or goal for communicating with the audience. Scientists use communication products to achieve a variety of aims. They instruct individuals and groups that want to learn about their research. They inform peers, policy-makers, and journalists of their discoveries. They critique the research of peers and indicate new research that is needed to advance the field. They persuade grant reviewers and editors to fund and publish their work, respectively. They persuade patent agents and business people that their discoveries have commercial potential. They may persuade and recruit members of the general population to engage with their research or even enter scientific training and careers. To identify the purpose of your scientific communication product, answer the questions below.

  1. Why are you creating this scientific communication?

  2. What challenge or problem does this communication respond to?

  3. What do you want the scientific communication product to accomplish?

By responding to these questions, you articulate your own motivations for the scientific communication and the outcome you hope to achieve. In other words, you identify the need for the communication and your metrics for success.

Consider Format

The third factor to consider when tailoring scientific communications to different audiences is the format, medium, or genre of the communication product. Select a format that fits your communication needs while allowing the audience to engage optimally with the scientific content you want to present.

Table 2 summarizes common scientific communication genres and formats. When selecting a format, consider the types of communications and media that your audience is likely to encounter in a normal day. Think about what your audience reads (academic journals and posters, newspapers, magazines, and social media), watches (television, videos, and films), and listens to (radio, music, and podcasts). Whether you are writing, speaking, creating a video, or engaging in another form of communication, the format imposes constraints on the communication scenario and informs the style and content.

Table 2: Common Science Communication Genres and Formats Communication GenreCommunication FormatScientific research paper or grant applicationWritten and visualScientific talk or videoOral and visualScientific poster presentationWritten, visual, and oralNewspaper, magazine, blogWritten (may be visual)Podcast or radio interviewOral Open in a separate window If you have flexibility in your format, answer these questions to help identify the best medium or genre for your communication product:

  1. What is the best format, medium, or genre to reach the intended audience?

  2. Which communication format am I best prepared to work in?

Written, oral, and visual formats each have inherent strengths and weaknesses. For example, a live talk can maximize interactions with the audience, allowing the speaker to establish rapport, check for comprehension, and respond to questions. The audience also has the opportunity to incorporate visual information such as the speaker’s body language and slides or other visual aids. A pre-recorded video presentation provides the benefits of the visual and oral formats, like the live talk, but would not facilitate audience interactions. The live talk relies on consistent attention from audience members to follow the flow of information; those who become distracted are likely to miss information and may have difficulty re-engaging with the presentation. Choose the best format for your audience and purpose, then keep strengths and weaknesses in mind while creating the communication product.

Once the format has been selected, answer these questions to identify how the format will affect the content and style:

What constraints does the format impose?

  1. Is the format primarily written, oral, visual, or a combination of these?

Audiences expect communication products to adhere to common characteristics of the genre or format. Newspaper readers will look for headlines to orient themselves and select articles to engage with. Podcast listeners will identify the beginnings and endings of episodes in response to familiar theme music or other regular audio features. Scientists expect journal articles to present information in a particular sequence (abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, conclusion, and references). While the common features of the genre and readers’ expectations place constraints on the scientific communication product, they also help audiences quickly orient themselves to the format and more deeply engage with the scientific content. Understand the constraints of the format and work within them to create a communication product that responds to the needs of your audience while achieving your communication goals.

Go to: III. Significance: Telling the Story of Your Research Significance refers to the difference that your research makes in the world. To have significance or impact, research must change the current state of the field by answering a question, solving a problem, or filling a gap in existing knowledge. When you communicate the significance of your research, you tell the story of the impact it can have on the world. A story, in its most basic and fundamental form, describes a scenario that changes in some important way over a period of time: “The story always involves temporal sequences … [and] at least one modification of a state of affairs” (Prince, 2003, p. 59). These defining aspects of time and transformation are what distinguish stories from other modes of communication and align well with the goals and process of scientific inquiry. Scientific research seeks to observe changes within experimental contexts in the interest of discovering new knowledge and solving problems. The change observed, as well as its implications and applications, point to the significance and impact of the research. Therefore, to identify the significance of your research, find the story.

Storytelling for Scientists It is worth stating explicitly that scientific stories are not fiction. Rather, the story emerges from the interpretation of novel data produced through rigorous experimental design. Environmental scientist Dr. Joshua Schimel explains that “[t]o tell a good story in science, you must assess your data and evaluate the possible explanations—which are most consistent with existing knowledge and theory? The story grows organically from the data and is objective, dispassionate, and fully professional” (Schimel, 2012, p. 9). Science stories are driven by the question or research problem addressed. The story emerges from the relationship between the research question and the novel data.

The temporal characteristic is equally important. When it comes to communicating the story of your research, there are two different sequences at work. The sequence of experiments that you perform and observations that you make contribute to the lab notebook information sequence (see Figure 2). This sequence catalogs the details of the scientific discovery, however, this linear documentation of time, effort, and resources does not communicate the significance and story of the research in a compelling way. To highlight the research story, it is necessary to construct another sequence, the research story information sequence (see Figure 3), which highlights significance by connecting novel experimental data to the question or problem that motivates the research. A compelling research narrative necessarily skips over some details, like failed experiments, in order to concretely illustrate the connection between question and novel data.

Figure 2 A detailed lab notebook is essential for future research reproducibility; however, this sequence of information does not tell a very interesting story for either experts or nonexperts. Figure 3 A research story selects and sequences information to highlight the significance of the research: how new knowledge emerges from the relationship between the question asked and novel data.

Significance and Audience We have seen how tailoring science communications to a variety of audiences can affect the content and style of the communication product. Different audiences require appropriate language and level of detail. Likewise, scientific communication products should highlight the significance and impact of the research as seen through the lens of the intended audience. Like the content and style of any scientific communication, the message of research significance should be tailored to the interests and perspective of the audience. For example, the discovery of a new molecular structure or pathway may be significant within a narrow research field, but it will likely need to be placed within broader context and implications for human health or medicine to seem important to the general public.

Go to: IV. Checklist for Tailoring Scientific Communications to a Variety of Audiences Use this checklist to tailor your scientific communications to different audiences. Steps 1–4 provide guidelines to prepare and organize your communication product.

Step 5 is intended to aid with getting feedback on your communication product for revision.

Audience: Who will receive the communication and in what setting?

Who will receive this communication?

How and where will they receive the communication?

What do they know about the subject?

Why are they motivated to receive the communication?

Purpose: What is the purpose of the communication?

Why am I creating this scientific communication?

What challenge or problem does this communication respond to?

What do I want the scientific communication product to accomplish?

Format: Will the communication product be oral, written, visual (or some combination) and what constraints does this format impose?

What is the best format, medium, or genre to reach the intended audience?

Which communication format am I best prepared to work in?

What constraints does the format impose?

Is the format primarily written, oral, visual, or a combination of these?

Significance: Communicating the story of your research

What is the significance of the research for this audience?

What is the research story information sequence?

Get Feedback and Revise:

  • Is the language and level of detail right for the audience?

  • Does the format meet the communication goals?

  • Does the communication product highlight the significance of the research?

Go to: V. CONCLUSION: Effective scientific communication requires careful analysis of the communication scenario and ability to highlight the research significance in narrative form. The protocol presented here is a starting point to develop a scientific communication practice for both expert and nonexpert audiences. These strategies may help increase access to scientific research among a wide range of populations—expert and nonexpert alike. By analyzing the audience, purpose, and format of your communications, you prepare to tailor scientific communications to the target audience and scenario. By highlighting the research narrative, you emphasize the potential impact that the research can make in the world. This framework provides a structure for self-analysis and revision for any scientific communication scenario, and accounts for variations in style, content, and narrative that are necessary to tailor scientific communications to any audience.

Go to: ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I would like to thank all of my science communication students at Washington University in St. Louis; your questions and feedback motivated me to connect narrative theory concepts to science communication instruction. Portions of this work were supported by NIH grant #3T32GM008151-34S1.


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