Guest post: Strategies for helping your research reach a wider audience

Note from Meghan:  This is a guest post from Richard B. Primack and Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie; Richard has written guest posts for us before, including one on using a professional editor. This guest post is on a topic that I get asked about regularly when I travel for seminar trips, so I suspect it will be of interest to readers. I’ve added some thoughts of my own throughout the post below.

 

As scientists, we love our research and want to share our findings far and wide. As ecologists and conservation biologists, we especially hope that our findings affect policy, management, or everyday stewardship. And funding agencies remind us that we must ensure our research has broader impacts that benefit society, beyond just publishing scientific papers. But how do we effectively communicate our research? Here, we share some tips about how researchers can communicate research to the media, and reach audiences beyond peer-reviewed journal readers. We use examples from a recent paper of ours published with co-authors.

Make your research exciting—identify your hook. In our recent paper, Phenological mismatch with trees reduces wildflower carbon budgets, published in Ecology Letters, we emphasized that we are building on the observations of Henry David Thoreau; Thoreau was the “hook” that we use to attract much of the interest in our research.

Make the message easy to understand—tell a story. We wrote a press release that told a story about our research and highlighted key points in non-technical language and without jargon. Even though Richard’s academic home of Boston University does not generally issue press releases about scientific papers, our summary helped reporters quickly understand our work, its significance, and potential angles that could interest readers or listeners.

(From Meghan: if you’re having a hard time finding your hook or story, there are some great resources. Randy Olsen’s And, But, Therefore structure is great, and laid out in detail in his book, Houston, We Have a Narrative. The Aurbach et al. “half life” activity (described here) is also a helpful way to find your message.)

Provide informative, high-quality photos. We take many photos to illustrate our research and the key results. Sometimes these photos are carefully staged to illustrate the research process or results. Reporters are more likely to write a story if excellent photos are available.

A man wearing a baseball cap is crouched down in a field. In one hand, he is holding a field notebook. The other hand is reaching out towards a plant with yellow flowers.

Having good photos, such as this carefully arranged shot of Primack working in the field, helps to create media interest.

(From Meghan: these are so important, and often people forget to take them! I agree that carefully staged photos are valuable. Getting videos is very helpful, too, including for reporters to use as “B roll”. I recently shared various short snippets with a reporter—I was glad to have them, but also wished I had more! Another example of how videos can be helpful comes from this recent story by some of my colleagues at Michigan, which went viral because a student on the trip, Maggie Grundler, thought to pull out her phone and capture a quick video of a very cool interaction.)

Reach out to the media and be responsive.  We emailed our press release and eye-catching photos to contacts in the media. One of them liked the story and wrote an article about our work for the Boston Globe. He was writing the article on tight deadline, so we promptly answered his numerous questions.

(From Meghan: A couple of things related to this: first, reporters are often working on much, much tighter deadlines than we are used to—they might need to file the story by the end of the day they contact you. So, you need to be quick about responding to them, but it also helps to give them as much lead time as possible. Second, reporters generally will not share their story with you ahead of time for you to review. It’s very different than working with a university press officer!)

One thing can lead to another. The Boston Globe writer pitched the story to National Public Radio, and he will interview us for a radio program in April.

(From Meghan: One thing can lead to another….or not, or maybe it does but with a big delay. One of the things I didn’t really appreciate when I first started doing more science communication is that you can spend a lot of time talking to a reporter and it can end up going nowhere. [example 1, example 2] It can be really frustrating! If anyone has advice on how to make this less likely, I’d love to hear it!)

Get with social media. Caitlin tweeted about the article, creating buzz in the twittersphere. We wrote a short summary of our paper for our lab blog—essentially a shorter, more conversational version of the press release—with links to a pdf of our article. Our lab blog has been viewed around 100,000 times in 6 years, so we estimate that this will be 500 views of this story, a nice complement to the Twitter buzz.

Publish on-line. To generate publicity within our Boston University community, we wrote an article for BU Research, using the press release as a starting point. This article further widened the audience who will hear about the research, with relatively little additional effort on our part.

Leverage institutional networks.  The other co-authors of our paper reached out to their universities and media contacts, sharing our press release. The paper received added coverage in institutional publications and websites of the University of Maine and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

(From Meghan: another reason this can be useful: one press officer might not be interested or might not have the time, but someone else’s might.)

Send out pdfs.  We emailed a pdf of our paper to 100 colleagues in our field, along with a very short email summarizing the key points of the article, again pulling from the same basic story in the press release and blog and Twitter posts.

Each paper and project are different, but hopefully this post has given you some ideas of things to try.

Other resources:

Compass – https://www.compassscicomm.org

The Op Ed Project – https://www.theopedproject.org/pitching

Cahill Jr, J. F., Lyons, D., & Karst, J. (2011). Finding the “pitch” in ecological writing. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America92(2), 196-205.

Merkle, B. G. (2018). Tips for Communicating Your Science with the Press: Approaching Journalists. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America99(4), 1-4.

Friday links: how to make science more accessible and posters more effective, and more

Also: rural communities can be revived by creating/growing college towns, and more!

From Meghan:

I enjoyed this blog post by Amy-Charlotte Devitz about the anxiety that comes along with needing to wonder if events, buildings, etc. will be accessible. She notes:

you don’t want to make people feel like a burden because of their accessibility needs. Feeling like an inconvenience or annoyance is an everyday struggle for me and it is one shared by many others, especially if their disability is not an obvious one.

It’s definitely relevant to those of us who organize events and who teach. Charlotte’s piece reminded me of this earlier Chronicle piece about creating a welcoming classroom, where the author, James Lang, talks about an event he attended related to accessibility. At the event, a student said:

What we don’t want is to be made to feel like we are a burden to you because we have requested accommodations. Many of us already have this feeling that we’re burdening you, and it really helps if you can treat us like you want us to be in your course. We’re not asking for accommodations to make your life difficult, or because we’re trying to get away with something. We want to be in your course. We just need your help learning the best we can.

which led Lang to reflect:

Although I like to believe that I work hard to make my classroom a welcoming place for all students, I had never fully considered the burdens of a lifetime spent making requests for accommodations, and how that might weigh on their understanding of themselves and their sense of self-worth.

On to posters: This video generated quite a bit of discussion on twitter this week. It’s long (~20 minutes) but I think it has an interesting take on the problem (it goes much deeper than just “posters have too much text”) and has a concrete suggestion (including a template) for how to solve the problem. I don’t know that I will use the template exactly, but I have to make a poster for later this month, and I am sure it’s design will be influenced by this video, especially it’s call to use negative space more in posters. (One valid critique of the video that has been made by folks on twitter is that it makes it seem like it’s trivially easy to figure out the take home message for one’s study, when this is actually a skill and takes thought and effort.)

And, finally, this tweet from my colleague Dan Rabosky merged the above themes, raising more important points about accessibility, including at poster sessions:

 

One thing that everyone can do during regular talk sessions is to use the microphone and not claim that your voice is loud enough for everyone to hear. (I’ve been guilty of not using the mic myself, unfortunately.) This article by Goring et al. has more ideas on how to make conferences more accessible.

From Jeremy:

A vision for reviving the rural US by creating/growing college towns. Seems very cogent and well-argued to me, and I don’t just say that because I’m a prof who likes college towns. But obviously, we can’t know for sure if it would work without trying it.

Is Galileo overrated?

First cut results of poll on manuscript rejections: we deal with a lot of rejection

I recently did a poll asking readers about their experiences with manuscript rejections. This was based on thinking about different submission strategies, including wondering about what the “right” amount of rejection is. In this post, I lay out the big picture results, and then end by asking about what further analyses you’re interested in.

There are lots of figures below, but here’s my summary of the key results:

  • respondents to this poll reported a lower acceptance rate at the first journal to which they submitted a manuscript (48.4%) than in the recent Paine & Fox survey (64.8%). They had vastly more respondents (over 12,000!!!), so I trust their number more; other potential factors that might also contribute are discussed below.
  • it’s not uncommon for people to need to submit a paper to 3 or more journals before it’s accepted.
  • it’s surprisingly common (at least to me) for people to take the “aim high, then drop if rejected” strategy
  • people are submitting to stretch journals pretty often—and sometimes it pays off
  • there’s a decent amount of uncertainty in terms of how well a manuscript fits a particular journal (on the part of authors, reviewers, and/or editors). This suggests that the concluding advice of Paine & Fox (“We therefore recommend that authors reduce publication delays by choosing journals appropriate to the significance of their research.”) is sometimes easier said than done.
  • people aren’t totally giving up on manuscripts as often as I might have thought they might (but this might be explained by the demographics of the poll respondents)

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If your field experiment has few replicates (and it probably does), intersperse your treatments rather than randomizing them

The last experiment I did as a graduate student was one where I wanted to experimentally test the effect of predation on parasitism. To do this, I set up large (5,000 L) whole water column enclosures (more commonly called “bags”) in a local lake. These are really labor intensive, meaning I could only have about 10 experimental units. I decided to use a replicated regression design, with two replicates of each of five predation levels. These were going to be arranged in two spatial blocks (linear “rafts” of bags), each with one replicate of each predation level treatment.

left picture shows two objects in the distance in a lake; the most obvious thing about them is fencing at the surface; the left picture shows a close up of one of them where you can see five individual bag enclosures

Left: two experimental rafts; right: a close up of one of the rafts, showing the five different bag enclosures

As I got ready to set up the experiment, my advisor asked me how I was going to decide how to arrange the bags. I confidently replied that I was going to randomize them within each block. I mean, that’s obviously how you should assign treatments for an experiment, right? My advisor then asked what I would do if I ended up with the two lowest predation treatments at one end and the two highest predation treatments at the other end of the raft. I paused, and then said something like, “Um, I guess I’d re-randomize?”

This taught me an important experimental design lesson: interspersing treatments is more important than randomizing them. This is especially true when there are relatively small numbers of experimental units*, which is often the case for field experiments. In this case, randomly assigning things is likely to lead to clustering of treatments in a way that could be problematic.

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A statistical profile of recent EEB faculty job applicants (UPDATED)

In my continuing quest to know All The Things about the ecology faculty job market, I compiled some data on recent EEB faculty job applicants. How many positions does the typical applicant apply for these days? How many publications do they have? How many interviews and offers do they get? And is there anything besides the number of applications they submit that predicts the number of interviews or offers they’ll receive? For the answers, read on!

Attention conservation notice: long-ish post ahead, but stick with it, the most important and surprising results are at the end. And I think it’s of broad interest to many of you, not just to current EEB faculty job seekers. And there are lots of graphs. 🙂

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Poll: are EEB faculty job seekers receiving good advice about the EEB faculty job market?

My recent post on when the ecology faculty job market first became so competitive sparked a lot of good discussion, here and on social media. One point that came up is that, because the ecology faculty job market has changed over time, what might once have been good advice to ecology faculty job seekers might now be bad advice. Anecdotally, I feel like I often see this complaint from faculty job seekers in ecology (and evolution): that too many profs these days are giving bad advice, because they don’t realize how much more competitive the faculty job market is today than it was back when the prof in question was on the job market.

I sympathize deeply with anyone who’s received bad advice about the EEB faculty job market, as some people have. It’s hard enough being among the many people chasing comparatively few TT faculty positions without also receiving bad advice! I was fortunate to receive uniformly excellent advice myself, and so I’d like to do what I can to help make sure others get good advice too.

In order to improve the advice that EEB faculty job seekers receive, it would help to first know something about what advice they’ve gotten, from what sources, and how good it was. So I got to wondering: how common is it for EEB faculty job seekers to receive bad advice, or at least what they consider to be bad advice? From what sources does bad advice most commonly come? In particular, how common is it for EEB faculty job seekers to receive outdated advice, as opposed to advice that’s bad for some other reason? I wonder about that last one because, as best I can tell, almost everyone who currently holds a tenured or tenure-track faculty position in ecology experienced a very competitive job market as an applicant (i.e. was hired in 1980 or later). Plus, it’s not as if current profs only know about the faculty job market from their own experience as applicants–many have since served on search committees, for instance.

Hence this short poll! This completely anonymous poll is for everyone who holds, has held, seeks, sought, or plans to seek a tenured or tenure-track faculty position in ecology, evolution, or an allied field. Please take 60 seconds or so to fill it out! I’ll summarize the responses in a future post.

Friday links: statistical significance vs. statistical “clarity”, philosophy of science vs. cell biology, and more (UPDATED)

Also this week: peer reviewers vs. peer reviewers, the history of logit models, philosophy vs. the Cleveland Browns, and more.

UPDATE: At the last minute Meghan added the best link of the week and I didn’t get the chance to blurb it until now. How much do you know about the “Menten” of Michaelis-Menten equation fame? If the answer is “nothing” (as it was for me, to my embarrassment), you need to follow Meghan’s link, it’s amazing.

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Only a few days left to apply to the TT position in evolutionary/comparative biomechanics at the University of Calgary!

The Dept. of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary is hiring a tenure-track asst. professor position in evolutionary/comparative animal biomechanics. Link goes to the ad. The application deadline is Mar. 18.

If you think you might want this job, you should totally apply! Here’s why:

  • We are taking non-Canadian applicants seriously. I, and several other faculty in my department, are living proof that Calgary does hire non-Canadians. Don’t take yourself out of the running by not bothering to apply because you assume, incorrectly, that it wouldn’t be worth your time because you’re not Canadian.
  • You’ll be able to get research funding. Federal funding for basic research is much easier to get in Canada than in the US or most other countries, which makes it much easier to set up and sustain a long-term research program without having to constantly chase money.
  • Calgary is a great place to do comparative/evolutionary biomechanics. We’re a big public research university. And between the biological sciences department, the geosciences dept., the strong primatology group in Anthropology, the Kinesiology faculty, the medical school, the vet school, and the Royal Tyrell Museum 90 min. drive away, you can’t throw a rock around here without hitting an evolutionary biologist, a vertebrate paleontologist, someone working on human biomechanics, or someone else whose research interests overlap yours.
  • Canadian health care! Plus, the University of Calgary offers good extended health benefits that cover additional stuff on top of what the government covers.
  • Canadian faculty positions are 12 month positions. None of that US summer salary nonsense here.
  • The Canadian Rockies. They’re a 45 min. drive from the university. Here’s what they look like. Don’t you want to ski and hike and bike and camp and climb rocks and fish and raft and snowshoe and stuff?
  • Calgary is a nice, affordable city. Housing in Calgary isn’t nearly as expensive as in Toronto or Vancouver. You’ll be able to buy a house as an asst. prof.

A bit of broader advice for anyone thinking of applying, but worrying that they might not be “competitive”. Remember that you can’t estimate in advance how likely you are to be interviewed for any given faculty position. That’s in part because recently-hired TT faculty in ecology and allied fields vary hugely on any measurable dimension you care to name, even among recent hires into the same department. The only good predictor of the number of interviews you’ll get is the number of positions you apply for. Remember as well that faculty job seekers (and faculty themselves!) tend to greatly overestimate how many papers a typical new hire has, and how many it takes to be competitive. Finally, you have no idea who else will apply (and neither does anyone else, because the application deadline hasn’t passed yet!). Don’t fall into the trap of taking yourself out of the running by convincing yourself you wouldn’t be competitive.

If you have any general questions about the department, university, city, or Canada that aren’t specific to this position, I’m happy to answer them. Inquiries about the position should go to Doug Storey, our Head of Department, headbio@ucalgary.ca.

How pragmatism resolved the age old battle between rationalism and empiricism (or what is the scientific method?)

If you want to simplify philosophy of science down to the point of gross oversimplification, it has been a millenia long debate between rationalism and empiricism. Although both could be found among the classic Greeks, rationalism was dominate from the time of the Greeks to the Renaissance (almost 2000 years). Rationalism holds that knowledge comes from logical thought. Think Euclid who established the axioms/proofs style of geometry. Or Plato’s cave which emphasized that our senses are crude and misleading (observing mere shadows on the cave wall) in capturing the underlying true essence (the perfect objects outside the cave creating the shadows which we cannot see). Empiricism on the other hand believes that knowledge comes from our sensory experiences of the world outside our mind and mistrusts the mind. Empiricism and rationalism are endpoints of epistemology (the philosophy of how we know things). But they have also been major motivators for scientists framing how to do science.

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