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Communicating Politically Sensitive Research: Tips for Societies and Publishers

Science today is more politicized than ever. Biomedical research in particular has attracted a lot of attention, be it from Covid-deniers pushing back against mask mandates or overenthusiastic journalists reporting on hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma as a cure for SARS-CoV-2 infection. In this scenario, academic societies and publishers need to strike a balance between publishing the “latest advances” and taking steps to prevent these “advances” from being distorted, exaggerated, or misunderstood. In an era where a single preprint can cause widespread havoc, societies and publishers are uniquely poised to fight against misinformation and promote scientific literacy. Here are some ways they can do so.  

Create the narrative

Societies and publishers can collaborate with the author(s) of a research paper to create a plain language summary as well as a press release around the paper. When the findings from a study are accurately summarized in non-technical language and this summary is publicly available, the chances of the findings being misinterpreted are lowered.

Share the narrative

The press release should be disseminated to trusted journalists and reputable wire services, so that the earliest coverage around the paper can be accurate. In the press release, it’s a good idea include a contact email ID and/or a phone number for the press to get any further details required.

Shape social media

Societies and publishers should proactively promote the research paper on social media while including links to the original paper, to control the social media narrative around the research. Here, it’s important to cover all popular platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter, which serve as primary news sources for a significant proportion of the population. Further, the paper should be summarized using a variety of content formats, including videos if possible, considering the significant role of video platforms like YouTube in spreading fake news.

Check whatever is publicly available

If a paper is likely to attract significant public and political attention, it’s helpful to review all parts of the paper that are publicly available. For instance, the abstract should be checked to ensure none of the statements can be twisted or misunderstood, especially the numerical data. If any of the artwork is being made publicly available, the legends should be as detailed and self-explanatory as possible.

Don’t overlook preprints

Societies and publishers should discuss the presence of any preprints with the authors, particularly if there are significant changes between the preprint and published paper. The authors can choose to update the preprint, withdraw the preprint, post a link on the preprint server to the peer-reviewed version of the paper, etc.

Conclusion

In a politically volatile context, science communication is often more difficult than usual. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, topics like immigration, vaccination and autism risk, and climate change attracted considerable controversy. Research societies and publishers therefore need to realize that they can wield a great deal of influence over how science is communicated and thereby understood and applied. Disseminating research accurately nowadays can not just save scientists’ reputations but also save lives.

Marisha Rodrigues

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