Challenges and best practice in online science communication

This week’s post is by Bethan Davies, a Lecturer in Physical Geography at Royal Holloway College at the University of London.  Dr. Davies is a member of the Editorial Board for Open Quaternary and an expert in ice sheet dynamics in the Antarctic, Patagonia and Britain.  This post is based on a recent publication in the Journal of Glaciology about her outreach work with the website Antarctic Glaciers.

Davies, B.J., Glasser, N.F., 2014. Analysis of as a tool for online science communication. Correspondence paper. Journal of Glaciology 60, 399-406. [PDF]

Even Nature started out as "... an accessible forum for reading about advances in scientific knowledge." Image from Wikipedia.

Even Nature started out as “… an accessible forum for reading about advances in scientific knowledge.” Image from Wikipedia.

Public engagement, outreach and science impact are increasingly on the agenda. Academics are increasingly motivated to reach out; to engage the public with their work and to further their findings among the wider population  (Oppenheimer, 2011; Peters et al., 2008a, b). They want to tell people about their work and publicize their findings. Online social media, including interactive websites, Twitter, Facebook and blogs offer new possibilities for effective science outreach (Ashlin and Ladle, 2006). Websites and blogs can be meaningful tools in the public engagement arsenal, reaching large numbers of people relatively cheaply, filling gaps in traditional science journalism (Bonetta, 2007, 2009), delivering almost instant science commentary, providing context and additional information. Social media can reference –  and draw parallels with – additional relevant science (Wilkins, 2008).

However, it’s not all plain sailing, and criticism has been leveled at researchers’ attempts to use websites and blogs. One common criticism of academic websites and blogs is that they only communicate science to members of the academy; that they are the ‘water coolers’ of the Ivory Tower where researchers gather to analyse and discuss ongoing work. Recent analyses of researcher’s blogs has suggested that many may only reach a small number of already well-versed science enthusiasts (Bubela et al., 2009; Kouper, 2010), and critical evaluation as to the success of science communication efforts is rare (Shema et al., 2012). Scientific blogs may not provide extensive comment or critique, and have been accused of adding little to conventional science journalism (Bubela et al., 2009).  Jeremy Fox has argued that there is  often little communication between academic bloggers, meaning blogs stand isolated with the exception of weekly link roundups.

Although recent papers have demonstrated that online science communication can be very effective (e.g., Bonetta, 2007; Davies and Glasser, 2014; Goldstein, 2009; Nisbet and Scheufele, 2009; Peters et al., 2008b), researchers may still be reluctant to begin blogging or tweeting for a number of reasons (Table 1). For example, career credit can be limited and maintaining websites and blogs is a time-consuming activity (Davies and Glasser, 2014; Harris, 2011; Somerville and Hassol, 2011). Further, many academics are disinclined to use websites, blogs or twitter for science communication because of fear of misrepresentation or attack, fear of being ignored or not making a difference, or because of a lack of training and confidence in their communication skills (Table 1; after Davies and Glasser, 2014).

Table 1. Common challenges and mitigations for scientists engaged with online science communication. From Davies and Glasser, 2014.

Challenges Mitigations
I won’t get any credit Communication of research results increases the impact of publications. Publicly funded science should be widely available to the general public. Academic institutions and tenure committees should reward time and effort devoted to outreach.
My outreach will be misrepresented by journalists Scientists should endeavour to work with journalists, developing good communication skills and an understanding of journalistic process.
I don’t have the time Range of options available, from guest blogging, to tweeting, curation of existing media or editing Wikipedia. Join community outreach efforts.
I don’t want to be attacked for the things I say As a scientist, it is vital to be able to defend your work and research. This is an important skill for young researchers to develop. Refer to robust, peer-reviewed research wherever possible. Make considered statements and posts.
My peers will criticise me for not spending enough time on research. Outreach and blogging is increasingly seen as a useful skill and a vital part of publicly funded research, but it should not take the place of academic scholarship.
No one’s going to read what I write Joining a thriving online community is an excellent way to build attention and support.  But it’s not all about page views.
I might be breaking the rules. Check institutional regulations and work with press and communications officers and funding agencies before hand
What if I make mistakes? Be willing to correct a mistake if it is pointed out – just as you would in other work. Encourage commenting and discussion on posts.
What I say isn’t going to make a difference Thoroughly research intended audience and start with a well thought-out outreach strategy
I don’t use words good I’m not very good at writing or communicating Writing and communication skills only develop through practice. Read up on the wider literature on communication skills, and request university or departmental courses in science communication skills.


A road sign to successful academic blogging?  Photo credit: Gideon Burton

A road sign to successful academic blogging? Photo credit: Gideon Burton

Despite these difficulties, a number of researchers emphasise the positive career benefits of using websites and blogs as a tool for science communication. Benefits include promotion of their research and increased citations, the forging of new links and collaborations, increased profiles and recognition, resulting in new opportunities, the sharing of new information, and keeping up to date with new research (Bonetta, 2007, 2009; Butler, 2005; Fox, 2012; Shuai et al., 2012). Early career researchers may be more visible to potential future employers as a result of their endeavours (Bik and Goldstein, 2013). Further, new analyses have highlighted the important role websites and blogs can play in public engagement, outreach and impact (e.g., Davies and Glasser, 2014). However, in order to be most effective, websites and blogs should consider best practice and carefully evaluate their audience, rationale and role. Here, we summarise some key considerations for academics who wish to set up a science blog:

  • Identify your audience (other scientists? School children? A-level students? Undergraduates? Adults?) and analyse their needs and their scientific understanding (Smith et al., 2013).  Be prepared to evolve in response to your readers’ or users’ needs (Davies and Glasser, 2014).
  • Allow interaction, direct engagement and conversations (Davies and Glasser, 2014; Nisbet and Scheufele, 2009). This could include, for example, an amalgamation of Twitter, podcasts, social networking, user recommendations, games and commenting.
  • Make it easy to read.  Text should be easy to understand, illustrated with a strong narrative and plenty of graphics (Davies and Glasser, 2014). Human interest and narrative are fundamental to the success of the website (see tips here; Davies and Glasser, 2014; Nisbet and Scheufele, 2009; Somerville and Hassol, 2011; Stewart and Nield, 2013). Fieldwork, lab diaries and photographs make great narrative (e.g., Natural Curiosities and the EGU’s Imaggeo posts) and can act as hooks, drawing people in. A blog, being more immediate and personal by its nature, may provide more ‘human interest’ and could be more reactive, by commenting in a timely manner on recent news or publications (Wilkins, 2008). However, using blogs on their own may be problematic for education and science communication, as it is difficult for users to explicitly find subjects they are interested in (cf. Goldstein, 2009).
  • Make it easy to find.  Finally, it’s no use blogging into a vacuum. Use Search Engine Optimisation to make best use of your blog or website, ensuring that it is visible in Google search results (Davies and Glasser, 2014). Simple strategies include: linking to your blog from your university webpage (and wherever else possible), having a domain name that includes your key words, sprinkling keywords liberally throughout the text, figure names and captions and headings, and installing an SEO widget.


Ashlin, A., Ladle, R.J., 2006. Environmental Science Adrift in the Blogosphere. Science 312, 201.

Bik, H.M., Goldstein, M.C., 2013. An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists. PLoS Biol 11, e1001535.

Bonetta, L., 2007. Scientists Enter the Blogosphere. Cell 129, 443-445.

Bonetta, L., 2009. Should You Be Tweeting? Cell 139, 452-453.

Bubela, T., Nisbet, M.C., Borchelt, R., Brunger, F., Critchley, C., Einsiedel, E., Geller, G., Gupta, A., Hampel, J., Hyde-Lay, R., Jandciu, E.W., Jones, S.A., Kolopack, P., Lane, S., Lougheed, T., Nerlich, B., Ogbogu, U., O’Riordan, K., Ouellette, C., Spear, M., Strauss, S., Thavaratnam, T., Willemse, L., Caulfield, T., 2009. Science communication reconsidered. Nat Biotech 27, 514-518.

Butler, D., 2005. Science in the web age: Joint efforts. Nature 438, 548-549.

Davies, B.J., Glasser, N.F., 2014. Analysis of as a tool for online science communication. Correspondence paper. Journal of Glaciology 60, 399-406.

Fox, J.W., 2012. Can blogging change how ecologists share ideas? In economics, it already has. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 5, 74-77. [PDF] [blog post]

Goldstein, A., 2009. Blogging Evolution. Evo Edu Outreach 2, 548-559.

Harris, F., 2011. Getting geography into the media: understanding the dynamics of academic–media collaboration. The Geographical Journal 177, 155-159.

Kouper, I., 2010. Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges and opportunities. Journal of Science Communication 9, 1-10. [related discussion]

Nisbet, M.C., Scheufele, D.A., 2009. What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American Journal of Botany 96, 1767-1778. [also: Science of Science Communication]

Oppenheimer, M., 2011. What Roles Can Scientists Play in Public Discourse? Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union 92, 133-134.

Peters, H.P., Brossard, D., de Cheveigné, S., Dunwoody, S., Kallfass, M., Miller, S., Tsuchida, S., 2008a. Interactions with the Mass Media. Science 321, 204-205.

Peters, H.P., Brossard, D., de Cheveigné, S., Dunwoody, S., Kallfass, M., Miller, S., Tsuchida, S., 2008b. Science-Media Interface: It’s Time to Reconsider. Science Communication 30, 266-276.

Shema, H., Bar-Ilan, J., Thelwell, M., 2012. Research blogs and the discussion of scholarly information. PLos ONE 7, e35869.

Shuai, X., Pepe, A., Bollen, J., 2012. How the Scientific Community Reacts to Newly Submitted Preprints: Article Downloads, Twitter Mentions, and Citations. PLos ONE 7, e47523.

Smith, B., Baron, N., English, C., Galindo, H., Goldman, E., McLeod, K., Miner, M., Neeley, E., 2013. COMPASS: Navigating the Rules of Scientific Engagement. PLoS Biol 11, e1001552.

Somerville, R.C.J., Hassol, S.J., 2011. Communicating the science of climate change. Physics Today October, 48-63.

Stewart, I.S., Nield, T., 2013. Earth stories: context and narrative in the communication of popular geoscience. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 124, 699-712.

Wilkins, J.S., 2008. The roles, reasons and restrictions of science blogs. Trends in ecology & evolution (Personal edition) 23, 411-413.


About downwithtime

Assistant scientist in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Studying paleoecology and the challenges of large data synthesis.
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