The more academics fear being involved in media storms, the less they feel free to explore topics they consider important. Tim Ellis/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Talking about our work is important but it can land researchers in trouble

In recent decades, the public engagement of academics has increased enormously: the results of academic research are often shared with the public via the media and blogs; academics are interviewed on radio and television shows; and they publish popular books for non-specialist readers, while social media reaches a wide audience instantly.

Though some old-fashioned academics may still live in an ivory tower, many others are more or less enthusiastic “inhabitants” of the web. But this new level of engagement is producing problems and conflicts for which many academics are ill-prepared.

Harms of hype

Some of these problems arise from the communication of research: over-hyped and out-of-context claims may be harmful or misleading.

Claims of sex differences in the brain, for instance, are reported in the media, often in ways that downplay how small the reported effects actually are. And when – as often happens – the effects fail to be replicated, these latest results are not reported.

Many people come to have the impression that “science” has shown the brains of men and women differ in ways that affect cognition, while scientists themselves recognise that any such claim is, at the very least, controversial. They know very well that subsequent research may often reverse the results of a study, but the public may give excessive credence to single studies. And there’s evidence that the negative stereotypes that are thereby reinforced are harmful to women.

In the age of the internet, negative effects may be greater than ever, because so many people can be reached in such a short time. Even if a research paper receives little or no media coverage, it may be tweeted, linked to on Facebook and come to the attention of thousands.

At the same time, universities are under pressure to show that their research is relevant to a broader public (in fact, funding may depend on showing this) and put pressure on academics to share their research.

Many people have the impression that ‘science’ has shown the brains of men and women differ in ways that affect cognition. Allan Ajifo/Flickr, CC BY

Bad research and bad communication of research can cause harms to the broader public and to particular groups (think not only of reporting of spurious gender differences, but of Andrew Wakefield’s now discredited paper on the supposed link between autism and vaccines). But miscommunication can cause harm to academics, too.

A case study

In February 2012, one of us, together with Alberto Giubilini, published the article After birth abortion, why should the baby live? in the Journal of Medical Ethics. The paper dealt with the issue of personhood and with what the authors called “after-birth abortion”.

The philosophical core of the arguments was not entirely new as similar views had been expressed by a number of philosophers, including Michael Tooley, Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan, among others. The main point developed in the paper was that if killing foetuses may be considered morally permissible because they don’t possess personhood in a morally relevant sense, then killing newborns should be considered morally permissible on the same grounds.

The authors didn’t discuss any difference between infants affected by disease and healthy ones, they just focused on the difference between persons and non-persons. Nevertheless, many people – both in academia and outside academia – took the paper to be an invitation to kill disabled children.

The authors found themselves in a media storm, which was partly due to the fact that the arguments of the paper were not always faithfully reproduced by newspapers, blogs and radio and television programs. The reaction of the non-academic public (and of some academics too) was extremely negative, and sometimes literally violent.

Over the three years after the publication of this paper, the authors received hundreds of insults and death threats via email. Their personal and professional lives were turned upside down, and the negative impact of such bad publicity continues.

The dangers of academic language

This example illustrates how misunderstandings can occur when an academic article uses words that have become specialised in a specific discipline. A case in point is the word “person”.

Even if a research paper receives little or no coverage by the media, it may be tweeted, linked to on Facebook and come to the attention of thousands. ForgottenGenius/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

A person is, in everyday language, a human being or an individual. But in bioethical debates, “human being” and “person” are not synonymous: “a baby is a human being but not a person” or “a primate is not a human being but is a person” are meaningful – and defensible – claims.

Unfortunately, press releases and articles don’t take into account the different uses of the same words in different contexts. As a result, the public may misunderstand the claims and may turn to email or social media to express their outrage.

Of course, the public funds a great deal of research and has a right to know and to express an opinion on the funded work. And academics and universities want their research more widely known: we think it matters, both because it advances knowledge and critical thinking and because it betters lives.

But the more academics fear being involved in media storms, the less they feel free to explore topics they consider important. Academics and the public both stand to lose from a kind of preventive censorship that may arise.

Better ways

We need better communication, not less communication. And we need academic articles to be accessible to the public while reducing misunderstandings as much as possible.

In an environment where research is more widely available – as journals turn to open-access models, the internet makes pre-prints available to everyone – and in which universities sometimes require academics to engage with the broader public, it’s important to provide a means to head off misinterpretations and distortions, and ensure that researchers are trained to communicate clearly.

We also need journalists to get back to “digesting” scientific articles for the public instead of merely copying and pasting what’s written in press releases or papers abstracts. Researchers have more to gain from this than mere exposure: we might just learn something from the consumers of our research.

The more people read us, understand us and interact with us and evaluate our work, the better our work will be. But we need to ensure the public reads and understands what we actually said and meant.