During the century of Journal of Experimental Biology's existence, science communication has established itself as an interdisciplinary field of theory and practice. Guided by my experiences as a scientist and science writer, I argue that science communication skills are distinct from scientific communication skills and that engaging in science communication is particularly beneficial to early-career researchers; although taking on these dual roles is not without its difficulties, as I discuss in this Perspective. In the hope of encouraging more scientists to become science communicators, I provide: (i) general considerations for scientists looking to engage in science communication (knowing their audience, storytelling, avoiding jargon) and (ii) specific recommendations for crafting effective contributions on social media (content, packaging, engagement), an emerging, accessible and potentially impactful mode of science communication. Effective science communication can boost the work of experimental biologists: it can impact public opinion by incisively describing the consequences of the climate crisis and can raise social acceptance of fundamental research and experiments on animals.
By 1923, the year that the first issue of Journal of Experimental Biology (JEB) was published, science-themed public lectures, radio shows and news articles were becoming commonplace (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1923; Bowler, 2006; Lafollette, 2002). Experimental biology has its share of science communication champions, including two of JEB's earliest authors: Lancelot Hogben and Julian Huxley (Hankins and Rutledge, 2023). Hogben's bestselling books on mathematics (Hogben, 1937) and natural sciences (Hogben, 1939) brought these topics to mass audiences. Huxley wrote extensively for popular audiences, frequently appeared on radio and television and even directed an Oscar-winning wildlife film, The Private Life of the Gannets. Beyond the individual pursuits of its authors, JEB publishes several article types that are more accessible to general audiences. ‘Inside JEB’ and ‘Outside JEB’ articles have, since 2003, summarized new and exciting research within the journal or field, respectively. More recently, interviews in the Conversations (since 2017) and Early-career Researcher (ECR) Spotlights (new for 2023) cover the work and personal stories of researchers.
Today, many writers, presenters, producers, podcasters and other science communication professionals have roots as experimental biologists. I've pursued science writing almost as long as experimental biology: my first peer-reviewed paper was in JEB's April 2015 issue (Borowiec et al., 2015) and my first blog post for Oceanbites (https://oceanbites.org/) came out in September 2015. The Oceanbites blog posts led, in June 2017, to my first professional (paying!) science writing job at Massive Science (https://massivesci.com/), a US media outlet that trained scientists how to write for popular audiences. Since then, I've written an order of magnitude more popular science articles than scientific articles. Some of my bylines are in BBC Science Focus (https://www.sciencefocus.com/), Nature (https://www.nature.com/), Canadian Science Publishing (CSP) blog (https://blog.cdnsciencepub.com/), the entirety of Crash Course: Zoology (a video series available on YouTube) and, of course, two dozen Outside JEB articles published between 2018 and 2023. In this Perspective, I describe my experiences as a scientist and science writer and provide recommendations for scientists interested in engaging in science communication.
What I've learned as a scientist and science writer
Science communication skills are distinct from scientific communication skills
Scientists are knowledgeable about their specialty and engage with other experts through conference presentations, grant applications and journal articles (‘scientific/academic communication’). However, expert-to-expert communication skills do not automatically translate into the ability to communicate with non-expert audiences (‘science communication’) (Brownell et al., 2013). This is because science communication uses different approaches to meet different goals compared with scientific communication (Burns et al., 2003; Green et al., 2018). Academic communication: (i) assumes considerable knowledge of the scientific method and topic in its audience (Baron, 2010; Merton, 1973; Sharon and Baram-Tsabari, 2014); (ii) emphasises the scientist's position as a supposedly unbiased, neutral and ‘disinterested’ party to build credibility and authority (Committee on the Conduct of Science, 1989; Merton, 1973); and (iii) favours an impersonal, unemotional and precise writing style (Sand–Jensen, 2007). By contrast, science communication aims to make an emotional connection with the audience using storytelling and generally avoids extensive use of scientific jargon.
Science communication skills can be taught and scientists improve with practice. After a couple of years of freelancing for Massive Science, I took on a staff editorial position there, which remains the most important experience in my development as a science writer and editor. I read a lot of really good work and learned a lot about the editorial side of publishing by evaluating and commissioning pitches, providing feedback on drafts, writing headlines and other article ‘furniture,’ and factchecking. One of the most rewarding parts was facilitating the growth of scientists into competent science communicators. Most new writers submit first drafts that read like simplified scientific papers, with long and mostly irrelevant introductions, a textbook-like passive explanatory tone and lots of jargon. A writer's second submission is always better: a snappier opening, more narrative elements and measured use of jargon. The third attempt is often even better. These experiences, along with others, such as facilitating a science writing internship and managing the Canadian Society of Zoologists (CSZ/SCZ) blog, proved to me that most scientists can learn to write for general audiences with the right support.
Engaging in science communication has benefits, particularly for early-career researchers
Science communication activities make you reassess how to present your ideas, consider new perspectives and challenge you to communicate in a way that conflicts with standard scientific practices. This all encourages critical thinking and evaluation of the goals and outcomes of science – a healthy and productive thing for any scientist to do.
Developing science communication skills is especially beneficial for early-career researchers (ECRs) such as graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. As ECRs, we have years or decades less experience in writing, presenting and other critical skills compared with established researchers. While scientific communication and science communication are different, they share core competencies like knowing how to structure a paragraph or slide logically, how to manage the pace of information and how to offer a convincing argument. Science communication activities are an additional opportunity to use and sharpen these skills. In my case, I've had hundreds – maybe thousands – of hours of extra practice from writing and/or presenting grants, articles, talks and workshops about science communication. I think that it's made me a much better writer.
Beyond professional development, science communication activities showcase your work to wider audiences, contribute to your public profile and expand your network. This process happens naturally over time with solely academic writing, but this extra practice from engaging in science communication activities speeds up and enhances your growth into a known expert and leader in your field.
Demonstrated expertise in science communication should also have benefits in the academic job market as funding agencies and institutions increasingly recognize its value. Interviewers and grant reviewers may be experts in a field, but often not the specific sub-topic covered in the proposal and will appreciate clear and accessible explanations of key ideas, making the implications of the work obvious. There is also something to be said for the security of maintaining an active non-academic career while navigating a hyper-competitive job market and stagnant academic funding environment.
Engaging in science communication has its costs
My experiences in science communication are overwhelmingly positive. You get to learn about interesting science and chat with the interesting people involved in the research. The Massive Science Slack channel is still active, and we keep in touch. Being a known ‘SciComms’ person can lead to additional opportunities for conference talks, panels and advisory positions. However, being a science communicator is not without its costs and frustrations. Juggling full-time scientist and part-time science writer jobs will regularly torpedo any evening and weekend plans, although both freelancing and academic research do have relatively flexible hours. Even getting to the stage where science communication is a job is difficult, as it typically requires weeks, months or even years of uncompensated work to build a portfolio.
Most of my encounters with other scientists have been positive and encouraging, though there are occasional tensions. There remains a (shrinking!) minority who are unconvinced that good science communication is just as important and valuable as good scientific research. They'll think you're wasting your time and will probably disregard your expertise. Another common tension, albeit one more specific to science writing, is that some scientists (as writers or as interviewees) are attached to explaining things in a very particular way, and dislike it when you deviate from their preference. For example, my replacement of ‘increase’ with ‘uptick’ was not an acceptable way to describe a small change in a variable. I can understand this attitude to some extent – misleading headlines are a nuisance – but there's a difference between ‘wrong’ and ‘not how I like to do it’.
Finally, there are risks that come with being a ‘public’ intellectual. Science communicators strategically remove barriers between themselves and their audience to facilitate engagement with scientific works. While this encourages trust and builds relationships, both of which are crucial for effective science communication, it also increases their potential exposure to hostility (Britton et al., 2019; Iyengar and Massey, 2019). This is especially true for science communicators who challenge stereotypes of how scientists look, sound or act (Amarasekara and Grant, 2019; McDonald et al., 2020; Park et al., 2021).
Like ticks and mosquitos in the summer, trolls are a fact of online life. The usual advice for dealing with trolls is to: (i) recognize when you are being trolled, as they can sneak up on you (Dammann, 2019), and (ii) block, ignore, mute or otherwise disengage with these bad faith actors. You'll never ‘convince’ them to agree with you, especially if they are bots, and I think there are better uses of your time and energy (Dammann, 2019; Pillai and Ghosh, 2022). I've had one memorable but very minor troll encounter and my only response was to click a report button. It was a public comment on an article about how mummichogs are amazing model organisms. Some highlights of the comment included referring to mummichogs as ‘victims of research’, calling research ‘immoral and unjustifiable…animal abuse’. In all seriousness, opposition to research involving animals is something to which experimental biologists are especially vulnerable owing to the nature of our work. There isn't an easy answer to handling these attitudes because they often have an emotional or moral component alongside a knowledge component. One suggestion is for scientists and their institutions to be more transparent about rules and regulations, as well as how experiments are conducted, as a way to alleviate distrust and counterbalance the one-sided nature of information about animal research available online (MacArthur Clark et al., 2019).
Getting started with science communication as a scientist
Science communication is an interdisciplinary and rapidly expanding field. While there is no single path to becoming a science communicator, most trained as scientists, gaining subject matter expertise as graduate students before honing their science communication skills. Below, I describe some general considerations for scientists interested in science communication.
Know your audience
The unofficial slogan of science communication is ‘know your audience’. This means understanding their perspective, interests and concerns, and using that knowledge to inform your choices. Science communicators learn about their audiences in a variety of ways, including direct interactions, consuming media that targets the audience and partnering with organizations that work with the audience. Rookie science communicators may also find an audience profiling exercise (https://shareyoursci.com) – which investigates the interests, concerns, background knowledge and other characteristics of possible audience members – to be helpful in exploring and defining their potential audiences.
Tell a story
Stories are fundamental and universal to the human experience. Science communicators leverage the power of storytelling to add context and meaning to the unfamiliar and the strange (science!). These narratives increase comprehension, interest and engagement in non-expert audiences (Dahlstrom, 2014; Green et al., 2018). Most stories fall into a handful of broad narrative structures (Green et al., 2018; Reagan et al., 2016) that begin, progress, and end with a central conflict (Borowiec and Freud, 2023).
By centring a hypothesis or research question as the conflict, we can map the natural progression of a typical scientific study onto Freytag's Pyramid, a classical dramatic structure (Fig. 1). The question–experiment–follow-up approach that characterizes modern science mimics the rising action as each sequence contributes information that moves the study forward. Once we gather enough information to accept or reject the hypothesis, our science story reaches its climax as the conflict is resolved. Next, we tie up loose ends, acknowledge caveats and discuss the wider implications of our work in a discussion section (falling action). Finally, dramatic and scientific conclusions are similar in their focus on how the world (or field) is altered now that the conflict is resolved.
Aside from the scientific method, experimental biology has many other stories to tell. Why not dig into an interesting setting such as the top of a mountain, the depths of the abyssal zone or a high-tech laboratory? What about the interesting characters you encounter in these places like animals that thrive in extreme environments or the scientists who study them? I'd bet just about any experimental biologist could come up with a story that showcases the wonder of the natural world or the tools that we use to understand it.
Watch the jargon
Jargon is specialized language used between experts as shorthand for complex ideas. Jargon is not exclusive to science or even technical fields (e.g. PIM, TOI and fishbowl mean something to hockey players and fans, but not casual viewers). One approach is to replace jargon with more accessible terms, metaphors or analogies (e.g. CRISPR-cas9 works like molecular scissors). However, jargon is not necessarily bad, and conscientiously incorporating some jargon into science communication activities can work towards goals such as informing an audience or building relationships by welcoming them into the ‘expert club’ of jargon users. In these situations, it is important that the jargon is limited to only necessary terms, clearly defined or explained and given appropriate context, especially if the term can be ambiguous.
Social media for scientists
Scientists have been slow to incorporate social media into their workflow, though this is changing (Brossard and Scheufele, 2022; Collins et al., 2016). Social media is a powerful tool for science communication, and scientists engaging in social media can enjoy a slew of social, professional and personal benefits, such as increasing citations of their work, challenging stereotypes of what scientists do or look like, and finding community (Côté and Darling, 2018; Jarreau et al., 2019; Luc et al., 2021; Montgomery, 2018; Saunders et al., 2017). Here, I provide specific recommendations for social media as an emerging tool of science communication.
Features of effective social media posts
Social media is highly accessible, capable of rapid dissemination and friendly to multimedia formats; all features that make it an effective venue for science communication activities. As always, the first consideration should be the audience and ‘where’ to find them as individual platforms vary in their reach and demographics. A related consideration is which platform works best for the science communicator's approach, as they vary in their formatting (e.g. videos versus text) and culture.
Despite the variety of social media outlets available and their unstable nature due to frequent rule changes and updates, there remain some universal considerations for crafting effective social media contributions: content, packaging and engagement (Fig. 2). The content of a post includes its core message (‘What do you want your audience to know?’), the context around this message (‘Why is it important?’) and a hook (‘Why is it interesting?’). All science communication contributions, social media or not, should incorporate these considerations in some form.
Packaging refers to features that promote the spread of the content on the platform by improving its visibility and shareability. A high-visibility post stands out in an audience member’s feed with an eye-catching (‘scroll-stopping’) image or other feature. A shareable post is self-contained and easily understood without additional context. Savvy social media users also exploit embedded tools such as hashtags to improve performance in the platform's algorithm so that audience members are more likely to discover the author's contributions.
Audience engagement is critical for success on social media. It is good practice to remind your audience to like, comment, share or otherwise engage with the post to increase its performance on the platform. Other calls to action such as signing a petition may be appropriate depending on the context. Long-term engagement through relationship-building with your audience is also important, as social media audiences expect some degree of acknowledgement such as replying to comments, crowdsourcing topic ideas from the audience or even organizing events such as in-person meet-ups or ‘ask me anything’ sessions.
The future of experimental biology is entwined with science communication. As we reflect upon JEB's first 100 years and look towards the next century, we need more scientists to blend extensive subject-matter expertise with the unique skills, approaches and conventions of science communication. Much of the work that experimental biologists do answers fundamental questions without immediate applications beyond the field and the value of this work must be justified to funders such as taxpayers. Many of us rely on animal models; a practice that not everyone finds acceptable. Through our research, experimental biologists also have a lot to say about controversial political, economic or social issues like climate change. These are all tasks in which scientists and science communicators are uniquely positioned to succeed and, in doing so, share what we experimental biologists love so much about our field.
Thank you to two anonymous reviewers for their feedback on an earlier version of this article.
B.G.B. is supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Postdoctoral fellowship and a L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Supplement.
The author declares no competing or financial interests.