Dissemination of findings to the general public
Scientists have a general responsibility to contribute to science outreach and popularisation. This may occur in many forms, including the dissemination of scientific knowledge (including their own findings), through books directed at the general public, participation in public outreach events, first-hand accounts or interviews in newspapers or magazines, and often via press releases issued by one’s own institution/company/scientific association/funder etc.
It is recognised that many of these activities sometimes carry a dual ambition. On one hand, they fulfil the high purpose of making research findings accessible to a non-expert audience, who might benefit from the information, in the true spirit of the concept of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) (European Commission, 2017). On the other hand, there is the legitimate goal to promote the institution and the investigator in the public sphere to attract patients, students, donors and funding. There is therefore the potential of a conflict between communication for promotion and communication for transparency, with potential effects on the public good, of which investigators and communicators should be aware of (Tattersall, 2018).
It is acknowledged that communication offices place some emphasis on promotion and marketing and that in general, the press aims to publish impactful messages. Unfortunately, science reporting often exaggerates advice, causality, relevance to humans of animal studies and proximity to clinical implementation, with obvious implications for public expectations and even with potential dangers for health.
Scientists therefore, have an obligation to ensure, within the limits of their possibilities, that exaggeration and misrepresentation do not slip into the dissemination of their findings to the general public. This especially applies to institutional press releases, in which the scientists have a direct say and therefore clear accountability. It is appreciated that, conversely, it may not always possible for scientists to vet newspaper and magazine articles before publication.
In general, OSR investigators should strive to:
- Remain accurate and faithful to the study when popularising research findings
- Ensure that the story is presented so that members of the public/people outside of the field can understand with minimal room for misinterpretation
- Have realistic expectations about which audiences may actually be receptive to their research
- Make sure that the writer (if a professional other than the investigator) has not overlooked something notable or topical related to their research
- Realise that OSR cannot control how the research is publicised by journalists, which highlights the importance of issuing accurate press releases
Furthermore, OSR investigators should avoid:
- Misleading the public or make sensationalist claims
- Exaggerating the impact of their research
- Drawing conclusions that are not directly supported by evidence
- Expecting/assuming every research paper to be of direct public interest
Finally, and not least importantly, OSR investigators are required to contact the Press Office prior to any interaction with the mass media.