🔒 How my fellow scientists are presenting their research wrong: Abdullah Shihipar

Abdullah Shihipar highlights the challenge of communicating scientific research effectively to the public. With many unable to understand dense academic writing, misconceptions arise easily, exacerbated during crises like the pandemic. Solutions include plain language summaries, better media engagement by scientists, and improving science education to foster critical thinking and understanding.

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By Abdullah Shihipar

Science benefits everyone, but the average person does not know how to read densely written research —  so they often depend on someone else to interpret the complex jargon. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

This has been a long-standing issue, but as people question the efficacy of vaccines and experts get hauled before Congressional committees post-pandemic, the consequences have worsened. 

Take a study from February that looked at adverse outcomes associated with Covid vaccines. Depending on which headlines you read, you either thought this study showed a low but normal risk or that it revealed a small increase in health conditions. Both findings are correct, but how they are presented ultimately influences how the public will understand the overall message. If a slight increase is referenced without the context that such a tiny risk is typical, you might think this vaccine is uniquely dangerous.

It is not hard to understand why this happens when, according to the Department of Education, 130 million Americans — over a third of the population — can only read at a sixth-grade level or lower.  Many studies are also paywalled.

In both cases, the culprit is a lack of accessibility. Addressing it would be an act of public service.   

For starters, scientists should put out plain language summaries of their work that not only present the study’s background and results but also explain what the findings mean for people and policy and whether they represent or challenge the consensus.

We have tried this approach at Brown University. Summaries of our research on overdose prevention centers (a hotly debated issue right now) are published on a separate website. Scientists should use whatever user-friendly medium they have — such as social media, blog posts or graphics — to release information alongside their studies.

In the meantime, journals need to work on making it a regular occurrence to build this infrastructure directly into articles alongside the abstract — ensuring that easy to understand information is displayed prominently and in front of any paywall. Some outlets have already started doing this, and the strategy has been successful. Research has also shown that those who read plain language summaries assigned more credibility to the findings and had more confidence in their ability to make a decision based on it.

News organizations can also help. Scientists should consider giving comments to the media whenever possible and penning op-eds, which are often aimed at reaching general interest readers and require a conversational tone. Typically, cultivating a relationship between journalism and science has been seen as a nice thing to do but not integral to academic work. Therefore, it has not been included in consideration for tenure or promotion, but research centers should incentivize public scholarship. While academic careers shouldn’t be contingent upon getting good press, those who do it should be rewarded for their engagement.

Perhaps the more critical step is to ensure that high school students learn the basics of how science works. Teaching and emphasizing the concept of replication is at the core of this step.

Replication refers to the ability of scientists to reproduce the results that others find — this is what leads to consensus and the establishment of fact. People test hypotheses and publish their findings, and other scientists try to conduct additional experiments to show the same thing. It is important to know that researching can be a messy process. Facts can change, and dogmas can be challenged — but one paper alone cannot do that. If this foundation is laid in classrooms, future generations will know that it is not just about listening to the experts because of their status, but because of the process they undertake.

While science is often nonlinear, experts should take steps to prevent premature results from influencing public perception of issues. Preprints, for instance, are when the results of studies are published while they are being submitted for peer review. The idea is to provide scientists and relevant stakeholders with rapid information — especially in times of emergency — as the peer-review process usually takes a few months. Although this is useful, the public nature of preprints can cause havoc. For instance, a now-retracted study on the efficacy of ivermectin in treating Covid-19 was first published as a preprint in 2020, but the myth took hold. Except in exceptional circumstances, preprints might be better off restricted to internal scientific networks until findings can be peer-reviewed.

Then what do we do with all of that rigorous effort? Promote it — a part of the process that is especially important as paper mills attempt to flood journals with fake work. But dissemination efforts for legitimate research are currently underfunded. Government research agencies, academic institutions and other sponsors should recognize the importance of this work (and its associated time and labor) and do more to finance it.

While scientific misinformation has root causes that can’t all be addressed by publishing intelligible versions of research and context, doing so can help create a healthier information ecosystem where damage by bad actors can be limited.

The phrase “I can do my own research” has been roundly mocked and dismissed as the domain of anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers, but this does not change the reality that people will probe and seek out their own information. Rather than discourage this impulse and position it as diametrically opposed to expertise, the field should position itself as a steward of information that can help wandering eyes find what they are looking for.

So, to my fellow scientists, when we hear people say they can do their own research, let’s ask how we can help them get there.

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