Research Perception Building

Does public science communication need quality control? Three ways journals and publishers can uphold its accuracy and integrity

Recently, concerns have arisen about how science is misrepresented and exaggerated, especially when communicated to non-scientific audiences. Distorted and overhyped science has serious consequences, the least of which is eroded public trust. As a countermeasure, journals, universities and publishers have chosen to create their own “message,” that is, explanations of research for lay audiences in the form of press releases, infographics, etc.

Creating and disseminating summaries of research articles—whether through text or images or videos—is now a widely adopted practice among journals and publishers. Such content has many advantages: it improves public scientific literacy and trust in science, widens the reach of the journal (especially to lay audiences), enlivens the journal’s social media feed, enhances its brand image, etc.

Simultaneously, journals and publishers are also looking at ways in which they can ensure that the content they generate is accurate and not exaggerated. One of the reasons behind such measures is that exaggeration in news has been found to be strongly associated with exaggeration in press releases. A 2019 study in the UK showed a disconnect between the actual scientific evidence and the headlines of a number of university-generated biomedical and health-related press releases. A key problem in these press releases was that they made causal claims based on correlational evidence. These findings suggest that press releases in particular need additional monitoring. Recently, an article arguing that smart voice control devices could affect young children’s social and cognitive development received considerable media coverage; however, critics pointed out that this coverage gave undue importance to what was essentially a viewpoint article with no new empirical evidence.

Accordingly, while it’s great that journals are taking on the added responsibility of science dissemination, the question arises if the content that is being created requires additional checks for quality, especially scientific integrity. The intention would be to ensure that the promotional content accurately describes the science without accidentally misrepresenting or exaggerating it in any way in an attempt to make it easier to understand for the lay audience.

Below, we outline three approaches journals and publishers can adopt to maintain the accuracy and integrity of research promotional material.

  • Author and reviewer involvement

The submission requirements for authors can be expanded to include a brief statement (in non-technical language) on “why is this paper important for patient care,” “who will benefit from the findings in this paper,” etc. If this statement is included with the submitted manuscript, peer reviewers may be able to vet its content without much additional effort. They can thus flag any exaggeration or distortion for the authors to correct. This statement can form a working basis for future press releases, video summaries, etc.

  • Cross-functional teams

Journals can set up a team containing a balanced mix of subject-matter and content specialists as well as communications professionals to create and disseminate article promotional content. This allows the journal to leverage a variety of skillsets, producing material that is attractive and engaging without compromising accuracy and integrity. Depending on budgets, such a team can be either in-house or outsourced to a trusted agency.

  • Training

Yet another option for journals and publishers could be periodical training of content staff on scientific integrity, particularly on language nuances, as well as media relations. Such training could be conducted by veteran science communicators, including those who teach science communication at a graduate level.

Journals and publishers will have to weigh the costs and benefits of these approaches, including the hidden costs in the form of time and effort from their staff. Ultimately, each organization may combine one or more of the above, to develop robust quality control mechanisms for its science communications.

In conclusion, quality control should be an important part of the process of generating research promotional content. Reliance on submitting authors for the vetting of such content is unlikely to be feasible for many journals as these authors themselves may prioritize getting maximum attention toward their research over presenting a balanced view of their work. Public science communication from journals and publishers will continue to gain in importance, and newer processes must be put in place to ensure and maintain the integrity of what is being communicated to the public at large.

Marisha Rodrigues

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