Duke communication experts discussed in research town hall how to effectively disseminate science

Emilia Chiscop Head, PhD

Communicating research findings, scholarly work and expertise is as important as research itself. Because, in a broader sense, this ensures that the results of your work reach the people who can use them; it reaches other scientists, publishers, newspapers, policy makers, organizational leaders, educational entities, community advocates, human subjects and research beneficiaries. Ensuring that your research reaches these multiple audiences amplifies the impact that research has on society.

But how to effectively and ethically disseminate research and scholarship in the internet era? How to make sure that your research results are not altered or exaggerated in the process of communication? How can scientists, researchers and scholars control their messages? How to successfully translate complex, jargon and abstract research content to reach wider audiences? How to increase your presence on social media? Are some media channels more “suitable” than others? Duke Communications experts and researchers who are also very successful communicators, discussed best practices and tips for successful and ethical research dissemination at our February research town hall attended by more than 170 members of the Duke research community.

Karl Bates“Duke University cares about sharing our expertise, our intellectual rigor, the things we learn, know and understand, with society at large. If all you produce are monographs, academic papers and  letters to the editor, then we are missing the boat. Because these are for a niche audience”, said Karl Bates, Executive Director, Research Communications, Duke University Communications. Bates added that Duke has dedicated experts “whose job it is to find out what you are working on and to share it to the broader public” and showed the importance of communicating to broad audiences for society, but also because “in today’s world, if you are not communicating you do not exist.” He pointed to the example of a recent Science magazine profile around the research conducted by Herman Pontzer, associate professor in Evolutionary Anthropology. “This did not come out of the blue, but it involved a lot of outreach and work. They realized that he has a fascinating story to tell and decided to do a deeper dive. We have a lot of tools at your disposal – press releases, video production, social media and commentary. We also curate social media, read thousands of tweets and try to elevate the best of them,” Bates added. He also talked about the change in perceptions around researchers getting noticed by the media: while decades ago, some people in academia were looking down on those who were published by the media, now getting noticed is being viewed as a good thing which can dramatically impact research careers. “It can help you get funding, better students and make your life more satisfying,” Bates concluded.

Sarah Avery

Sarah Avery, Director of the Duke Health News Office focused her speech on the challenges of publishing health news. On one side, compelling stories are those that include patient perspectives, on the other hand, patient privacy and confidentiality need to be protected. “My office looks at research which has a clinical application and can be relevant for a lay audience. So think about something that a regular person can understand, appreciate and know that it can change their lives. This means that the language needs to be simple, direct and descriptive,” Avery explained. She added that when reaching to the media, researchers need to consider audience, timing and mission, ask themselves why the general public should be interested in this news release? Does it deserve the attention and time investment in preparing for dissemination? “The press release is not the end of the process but the beginning of the process. Unless it has broader appeal, the perfect audience will stay with the research community”, Avery said. She concluded her intervention mentioning the many tools that the Duke Health News Office has at scientist fingertips and inviting the researchers to connect with the office.

eric ferreriEric Ferreri leads the Op Ed Service at Duke University Communications. He works with scholars across Duke to communicate their expertise and disseminate their work “in their own words.”Commentaries are those that could be found on the opinion page of newspapers. “But now, the scope of commentaries goes beyond that space. Today there is an avalanche of opinions from every imaginable point of view on every topic. This creates needs and opportunities, but also a lot of competition.”

Ferreri made a compelling argument about why it is important to publish op eds and presented tips for successful communication. Among the benefits of op eds are the opportunities they provide to control the narrative, demonstrate expertise and contribute to society.  ”If someone writes a commentary about why people should get vaccinated and your article convinces more people to take the vaccine, then you have done something good,” Ferreri said. Ferreri invited researchers to think about the audience and the message when writing op eds. “Boil it down to a single key point, compelling and persuasive. You are only arguing about one point of view, not more. One thing that people will remember,” he said. He also emphasized the importance of timing and uniqueness and counteracted the misconception that media outlets always recycle the same old voices: “Readers and publishers will ask: why should I care now? Why should I read or believe this person? It can be because you have done research for more than a decade on a topic or because you have a unique, personal perspective.”

Ken KingeryKen Kingery has been working for eight years at the Pratt School of Engineering where he helps researchers to disseminate their research to large audiences. He spoke about the particularities of engineering news – telling stories about people who “build, prototype or test something” – for which images and videos are very important. Kingery invited engineering researchers to reach out to him and other Pratt communicators because getting published is “never a waste of time, even if the story will not make it further than Duke Today”. “People told me that articles published in Duke Today led to new research collaborations. Also, we help change the narrative about how society looks at engineering which is about solving society’s problems”, Kingery added.

Questions from the audience: How to make sure your findings are not misinterpreted by the media?

The communications experts panel received many questions from the audience. “How to reach other communications channels than major news and outlets?” - a researcher asked. “The mailing list of Duke communications has over 700 names on it. Reach out to us: the more you communicate, the more you get,” Karl Bates responded. Dr. Richard Bedlack of Duke Neurology asked the panelists about how to manage the risk of overstating or understating research results in the process of “catchy” communication. Karl Bates responded that the Duke communicators help faculty to frame their message and protect them from possible confusions. “A great way to avoid misinterpretation is to simply state directly what your message is and what is not,” Sarah Avery added: “For example, when a research study concluded that MRI exams do not find brain differences in children with ADHD, we specified that what the finding says is that MRI is not a great tool to find these brain differences. Without this clear statement we could have seen a lot of headlines falsely concluding that there are no differences in the brain of children with ADHD and other children.” Jackie Ogburn, Senior Public Relations Manager at the Sanford School of Public Policy wanted to know what the right timeline is for disseminating research from pre-prints. “We do not issue press releases based on pre-prints because the final results and the date of publication is uncertain. We only use the official journal publication date,” Karl Bates said.

Staci BilboStaci Bilbo, Professor of Neuroscience at Duke has 4700 followers on Twitter where she presents herself as “Neuroimmunologist. Microglia. Brain-Body Crosstalk. Yoga enthusiast. Aspiring Artist.” In the opening of the faculty panel, Prof. Bilbo recalled that she joined Twitter in 2010 after she attended a communication panel where it showed how much the impact of a paper increases after you tweet about it. “I have two goals on Twitter: to promote the work in the lab and to have a good pulse on the field,” she said. One other advantage is that she gets new papers immediately by learning about them on twitter and asking the authors to send them. She also had the surprise to find out that she recruited a postdoc in her lab with a simple tweet. “A few years ago a student posted on twitter about her new paper and I sent her a message that I liked it very much. She told me recently that my message helped her go through the hard days of the grad school. Now she is in my lab,” Bilbo said.

Twitter can boost participant recruitment in research studies

Jessilyn Dunn, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, is conducting research on digital health and particularly the role of AI wearables in counteracting the spread of the Covid 19 pandemic by developing digital biomarkers to identify susceptibility of infection, contagiousness and illness trajectory. “I use Twitter handles, tweet blog posts and papers about our work in the lab and retweet work that I find interesting or opportunities for young scientists,” she says. Dr. Dunn has 1811 followers on Twitter and she advised young scientists to use this media to connect with other scientists, find funding and publishing opportunities. She also shared that Twitter boosts her study participant recruitment.

How to get your op eds published?

Maria La Monaca Wisdom, who gave up her faculty tenure for a career in Higher Education Administration  , currently as a Director of Faculty Mentoring and Coaching Programs at the Office of Faculty Advancement, shared her experience with getting published in the Chronicle of Higher Education a highly read outlet by practitioners. The editors of this magazine were interested in her op eds on programs that she developed at Duke for PhD students, leaders and mentors. She emphasized the importance of persistence and flexibility in communicating with editors.  “When you hear from them, you need to clear your schedule and be available to make the edits requested for publication. You are on their timeline”, she said, assuring the audience that the effort to be published in the Chronicle pays off: “Many more people read these commentaries than my scholarship. After I published the op eds I received an invitation from a top press to submit a book proposal and many invitations to conferences”.

Martinez - BianchiDr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, Director of Health Equity, Department of Family Medicine and Community Health and co-founder of LATIN-19 talked about the ethical obligation to disseminate research to the public which needs to consider four angles: the impact that the research may have on people, the existing processes for inclusiveness and empowerment, the barriers to equity, the place that research aims to create and institution’s purpose towards information equity.