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Communicating our research is vital, but what should we aim for when we do it? Alexandra Freeman looks at the thorny problem of whether scientific papers should inform or persuade and suggests a potential solution.
After a career as a documentary maker, setting out to “inform, educate, and entertain”, then working as the head of a research center whose motto is “to inform and not persuade”, I’ve found myself noticing the difference between those aims, and so looking with fresh eyes at how we communicate research.
I was used to trying to grab an audience’s attention by addressing them directly, telling them a good story and giving them a clear take-home message. Then I joined the Winton Centre for Risk & Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge and discovered ‘evidence communication’. Its aim is to communicate information to help others to make decisions. This means helping people understand all the evidence that they want and need to inform their decision, but not influencing that decision with your own opinions.
For example, if you are gaining informed consent from a patient, or appearing as an expert witness in court, your duty is to inform rather than to persuade. At the other extreme, if you work in PR or marketing, your job is clearly to persuade. Between these two extremes lies a spectrum. In my previous role making science documentaries, I didn’t really think how much my job relied on engaging people, entertaining them, and thinking in terms of ‘messages’. That was just what good communication meant to me — but it’s persuasive.
Think about the types of communication that you do — how much do you think you should be informing and how much persuading? Where should public health communications lie? Science advice to government? Academic papers?
|Measure of success
|Change in behavior or attitude
|Focus of communication
|Audience to understand the information
|Audience to believe the information
Being maximally informative undermines being maximally persuasive, and vice versa. Informing means communicating uncertainties and limitations to your knowledge, even inconvenient truths. If you’re aiming to persuade, those are best left out: what you want is a nice, easy, convincing story. It’s important, then, to work out where you want your communications to lie on the spectrum and ensure that your communication style reflects it.
Many of you may have mentally placed (at least some) academic papers quite far to the inform end of the spectrum. But is that what is being incentivized?
Have a look at a few leading science publisher’s guides for authors and what they say they are looking for in an article, and why. I suspect you’ll find phrases like ‘a focused message’, ‘streamlined narratives’, and ‘making your point’ in order to maximize readers and citations (you can find examples of such guidance here and here). It’s classic advice about how to write persuasive articles that are likely to change people’s thinking or their practice. Those who research the transmission of information from scientists to the public and policy-makers, though, point to elements of spin coming in during the writing of the journal article (later built on in the press release and then the press coverage).
For those working in the media, whose incentives could be said to be justifiably skewed to entertainment and engagement, this might be excusable, but I think it is a fundamental problem for science.
Trust and trustworthiness
There’s another property that differs between the inform and persuade ends of the spectrum, and that’s around trust and trustworthiness. If you don’t know the philosopher Professor Onora O’Neill’s work then I’d highly recommend her TED talk on the subject. She distinguishes between trust and trustworthiness. Trust is the gift of your audience. If you, as a communicator, want to be trusted, you could try to trick people into it, and much of marketing does that. But, she says, the world doesn’t need more trust overall, it needs more well-directed trust. It needs people to earn that trust, through being trustworthy.
Researchers studying trust suggest that the motivations of a communicator are a crucial part of an audience’s judgement on whether to trust something. We often see this in our own work, when we ask for people’s reasons for trusting or distrusting an information source. Does the communicator have a stake in the outcome? Do they want you to do something or believe something for their benefit, rather than yours? People don’t trust journalists because they have a story to sell, just like they don’t trust salespeople (too much persuading). Conversely, people trust health professionals because they believe they only have patients’ best interests at heart (pure informing).
The incentive structure in science, then, based around journal articles, whose guides for authors encourage persuasion (reader-friendly narratives, neat take-home messages and an aim to try to change people’s minds and behaviors (the “impact” of the work)), is setting science up for a fall: it’s not being trustworthy and there’s a danger that it will lose people’s trust as a result.
I think we need to tackle this structural issue.
I think there is a place for clear, persuasive stories and that is in the dissemination of findings to those who might use them. Equally, though, I think there is a bigger place for pure informing: recording the full details of methods, failures, full data sets, full and multiple analyses etc. Communication of this sort of information needs a different toolkit. It doesn’t make a good read but, like the supplementary information of papers, this kind of communication is vital to allow research to build on what has been done before, and to be trustworthy.
Tackling the problem
My suggestion is that we split the two aims of persuasive dissemination and informative recording in scholarly communication.
I think we should allow the journal system to continue to concentrate on the route they are already taking — towards shorter, more narrative, reader-friendly summaries of findings — probably written by increasingly specialist writers. These reporting articles, then, can link to a new primary research record for readers who want more detail.
This new research record, sitting alongside the journals, would be the ‘version of record’ of all primary research work. It could take a different format from familiar papers to suit its very different aims. Not forced into a narrative, not designed purely for print, this record is free to be in a format that incentivizes communication that is maximally informative. Research assessment (such as peer review, promotion and hiring consideration, even grant applications) could then move to be done on this new research sharing platform. This is where researchers will be incentivized to share all their work, in full, and it can be fully Open Access.
Journal articles, instead, would be free to adopt the shortened formats already being used by many generalist journals, without detailed methods, and can use paywalls: the primary research behind the articles will all be freely available (in a different format) elsewhere.
Within this system, researchers will no longer find themselves pulled in two directions on the inform–persuade spectrum by the incentive structures: the incentives of the new primary research record will match those of purely informing. Journals, too, can concentrate on good writing, which will attract readers. Their articles will rely on (and accurately represent) the work being shared in the research record, and their business models will no longer conflict with the need for openness. Institutions and funders, meanwhile, can finally assess work on its intrinsic qualities — the aspects that only come to the fore when work is shared in full and without spin or a focus on results.
Since I think this is such an important issue for science, I have been working to create a system to do this which launched in the summer of 2022, called Octopus.ac with the backing of Research England. In a way, it’s pulling together the attempts to avoid publication bias and incentives for questionable research practices of initiatives such as the Journal for Negative Results, Registered Reports, or F1000, the faster sharing offered by preprint servers, and the breaking up of narrative formats championed by similar platforms such as ResearchEquals. A holistic approach, though, I think is important. Researchers need to know where the version of record is and how their work will be judged in order to know where to write for and how to write.
I think journals, institutions, researchers and funders can all benefit from a clear separation of venues where research is written so as to inform, and places where stories are sold. In the meantime, we each have individual responsibilities when we communicate. Since I’m writing with a persuasive aim — I want to change the way that you think about your research communication, and how you do it — I have take-home messages. They are: think about your writing style each time you write, and if you think you should be informing, strive for trustworthiness; be open about your uncertainties and limitations, pros and cons; and beware the attraction of a simple story over full disclosure.
Ironically, then, I hope I’ve persuaded you that being persuasive is not the only way of communicating, and not the most trustworthy way to communicate. And that we need to be trustworthy as researchers if we want to earn people’s trust.
About the author
Alexandra Freeman is the Executive Director of the Winton Centre for Risk & Evidence Communication, which researches, teaches and implements trustworthy communication to help others make evidence-informed decisions. She is also Director of Octopus Publishing CIC. ORCID: 0000-0002-4115-161X @alex_freeman