Historically, science communications was the responsibility of the media and institutional press offices. But, with the continued growth of new and social media and the dramatic changes to traditional media, knowing how to navigate communications will be a boon to your research. The purpose of this article is to help you understand why communicating your science is important, and give you steps you can take to communicate your story effectively.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room: You’re not a journalist or communications specialist. You’re a scientist. So, why should you make communications a priority?
If you are an early stage investigator with prospects of tenure dancing through your head, you’re probably more concerned with publishing, getting grants, and finding collaborators so that you can do more of the publishing and grant getting. All of these endeavors are influenced by something very important in communications: visibility. Getting your research noticed by other researchers and the public can help you get more grants and find new collaborators. Becoming visible for what you do can help you do more science. But, how do you increase your visibility in an already crowded space?
The first step is simply being there. If you step back and consider your work, it’s likely that you are already implementing a rudimentary communications strategy. For instance, are you: currently developing your research program? Working on getting papers to publication? Going to conferences? All of these science-related activities involve communicating your ideas, and give you a great base from which to work.
However, you can do more. Being part of a lab, writing papers, and going to conferences is what every other scientist out there is doing. The scientific ecosystem is a noisy place, and if you aren’t prioritizing communications within your research philosophy, you aren’t going to be visible to the people who matter.
Consider the colorful and clamorous displays of animals for courtship or territory. The spoils tend to go to the loudest, prettiest, best singers, or best dancers, while the rest are left scraps. Do you want to be the bird who can’t get noticed in the crowded city? Probably not, so let’s talk about additional steps you can take to work communications into your lab strategy.
The easiest place to begin is with the scientific paper. Imagine your paper has been accepted for publication. You should treat this situation as exciting news worth sharing. Either send an email to or call your PR/news office to tell them about your paper. Do this well before the paper’s publication, so that your public information officers will be able to coordinate a press release with the publication date. Also, make sure to contact any involved funding agency. They will want to take note of the publication, and possibly develop their own press release.
Do you have a lab website? If so, make an announcement about the publication, and post a link to the paper when it is published, or post a pre-publication PDF version of the paper for people to access. Communicate with your academic department in order to make an announcement about the publication on your department’s website.
Do you use social media? If you use social media, be sure to announce the publication to your followers with either a link to your website or a direct link to the published article. Consider announcing it a few times over the course of several weeks, each time using a different link, visually interesting images from the paper, and a variety of attention-getting comments related to the paper’s content.
In addition to these basic communiques there is still more you can do to increase the visibility of your work. Even without any papers in the publication pipeline, you can still continue developing your communications channels in a variety of ways.
If you are using social media, you can take the slow and steady route to grow your online audience. Make a point to regularly share and discuss interesting topical papers or ask other scientists questions about their work. Also, use hashtags to your benefit to start or follow conversations on certain topics, and find other people who are interested in the same subjects as you. On social media as in life, interested people are interesting, and these tactics will eventually build you a solid audience online.
If you do use social media, like Twitter, it can also help you to stand out more at meetings. Sharing your conference insights on social media using conference hashtags can lead to virtual and eventually real-world interaction with other conference attendees. Also, Twitter is useful for introducing yourself to people you would like to meet at a conference.
Let’s not forget that there are other time-tested, and less digitally-oriented, ways to meet people, and to associate yourself with a particular scientific discipline. Consider hosting a meeting as a way to interact directly with other researchers who share your interests. Or, make a point of going to meetings and approaching colleagues with the offer of a talk or seminar. Essentially, being there is how you meet those potential collaborators... and Twitter followers.
The offline and online worlds work synergistically with one another. Use them both to your communications benefits; meet and be met, follow and be followed. And, suddenly, you will find that you are more visible. People will start coming to you for collaboration, help, and talks. Collaborations will lead to more papers. And, hopefully, more papers and collaborations will lead to more grants and tenure.
Of course, there is still more you can do to increase and refine your visibility if these basic communications tactics are working for you.
Once or twice a year take a step back to consider your research program from different perspectives. Consider how you can communicate your work to different audiences. Who are the audiences you want to commune with? How can you best frame your ideas for each audience? For instance, ask how your work relates to pop culture, or what ‘wow’ factor it has.
Also, consider how you can use technology to your advantage. Are there pretty pictures or videos you can post to your website and social media, or offer to your public information officer when they are preparing a press release? Are you interested in creating a lab blog or Tumblr to share your weekly endeavors or deep thoughts? What would it be like to start a podcast? Would a lab wiki or Google Docs be helpful for organizational and internal communication purposes?
Whatever you end up finding useful in your endeavor, the bottom line is that communication is a key component of any successful research program. Take the time to find out what works for you. Set limits and goals. Above all else, start communicating.