Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Sabine Louët, CEO, & Karla Fallon, COO SciencePOD. Full disclosure: SciencePOD offers content marketing solutions and services including science journalism, writing, editing, design and multimedia production for academic publishers, industries and organizations with an R&D focus.
These are no ordinary times. We face a pandemic together and we are all trying to grasp how we will be affected now and into the future. As we look to make sense of this public health emergency, people’s appetite for information grows along with the belief or hope that it will help us to better understand, respond, and cope with the effects of this novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Yet, faced with a flood of information and with false news spreading more quickly than true stories, a further challenge arises. How can people distinguish between fact and fiction, that is, between evidence-based information and misinformation (false information)?
Growing appetite for health information
There is an important lesson in this for the scholarly community, one that requires a radical shift in perspective, as we realize that the audience for complex scientific and medical information is not as limited as we have, until now, assumed – and that this provides an opportunity to combat misinformation. Amid the fear, the pain, and the uncertainty, there is one positive outcome that the scholarly community can work toward as an immediate and long-term goal: reaching broader audiences with evidence-based content and, in turn, improving health and scientific literacy.
The scholarly community is in a unique position to respond to a newfound appetite for accurate and valid medical and health information. But responding is not enough, our goal should be to go further – to leverage people’s curiosity, deepen their knowledge, their ability to recognize trustworthy sources of information, and enhance their connection to the broader science and technology that impacts their day-to-day lives.
Throughout the course of this pandemic, people have demonstrated a desire to understand even complex medical and scientific concepts related to COVID-19, from ways of preventing its spread to potential cures on the horizon. People have been given the opportunity to consume much of this scientific information in an accessible language. Who would have predicted a few months ago that so many would now be conversant in concepts and methods of epidemiology, immunology, or virology: Think of the #flattenthecurve hashtag trending on social media, for example, or discussions on the difference between ‘infectious dose’ and ‘viral load’.
A more proactive industry stance
So far, the medical and publishing industry has responded to the pandemic and people’s thirst for information by re-examining and readjusting priorities, strategies and activities. Much of this response could be described as reactive – removing paywalls and opening up select catalogues to accommodate clients and the public. Note, for instance, the broad collections of COVID-19 and COVID-19 related content made widely available by scholarly publishers. This has been a valuable and sensible approach.
But there is an opportunity to be proactive as well, to continue to respond to a wider thirst for knowledge AND to encourage it as well. That is, there is an opportunity for the scholarly community to promote scientific and health literacy with evidence-based content that takes into consideration engagement and readability (i.e., expressed in a language that is both accessible and useful to a target audience).
All too often scientific and health information is siloed, restricted to the few who have access to it and the expertise to decipher it. In this context, we have long assumed that the audience for complex scientific and health concepts is limited. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven this wrong on a global scale.
Our experience during this pandemic suggests that it is not necessarily the complexity of the concept that is an obstacle to reaching and engaging broader audiences. Rather, it is how the concepts are communicated.
The peer-reviewed, published article model remains indispensable as a means of accurately communicating research findings and methods, particularly to a scholarly community. But communication need not end there.
Publishers (and authors) can seize this chance to reach and communicate with a wider audience through evidence-based content beyond the peer-reviewed article. This means, for example, transforming their published research articles into engaging digital stories. These stories can take myriad forms: non-specialist research summaries or highlights, news stories, Q&A interviews with authors, infographics, magazine-style features or collections on the latest research trends, short author- or research-centric podcasts, videos or animations. What these digital formats have in common is that they are easily accessible and shareable. They are made for the wide audience of a digital world.
The shift to digital as an opportunity for publishers
The accelerated move online that has taken place during the pandemic is unlikely to slow. As veteran publisher David Worlock puts it, “What happens when the list of changes you have predicted for the next decade largely take place inside a fortnight?” The answer to this: we adapt and quickly.
Ironically, confinement may provide publishers with the space and time for in-depth reflection to identify opportunities arising from these changes. Specifically, embracing digital stories takes advantage of people’s enhanced desire and incentives to understand scientific and medical findings in published research. It also responds to the need for enhanced research visibility and accountability mandated by funders. For this to happen, specific barriers to wider use of digital stories and social media need to be overcome: quality and trust.
Quality and trust issues can be addressed with an evidence-based approach to content/digital story creation. This requires a combination of subject matter expertise, creative skill, and commitment to accuracy. In an evidence-based approach to digital stories, quality control and validation are built into the process of transforming a complex message – say, the key findings in a peer-reviewed paper – into an engaging digital story for a wider audience.
The evidence-based digital story, in any form, is typically created by a team of professional science or medical content creation experts; it is properly referenced and its scientific accuracy is validated by a paper author or an editor in chief reviewing the final piece, for example. Alternatively, an author may create a digital story based on their research and a content expert will attempt to mold its readability for one or multiple wider audiences. The second option has obvious disadvantages. Researchers and scientists are not – and should not be – expected to be expert ‘content creators’. Instead, their energy and time is best spent focusing on what they do best: scientific and medical research.
Storytelling to boost scientific literacy
Another advantage of an evidence-based approach to digital stories/content is that the result is eminently suitable to supporting wider health and scientific literacy in our societies. Consider the recent efforts by fact-checking teams in the media to combat coronavirus ‘fake health advice’.
Now picture a world where the wider scientific community, policymakers, funders, health practitioners, technical consultants, investors, teachers and students, journalists, and citizens have a direct and open window into the most recent, novel research and they can trust and understand it. And that this is made possible through the efforts and investment of the scholarly community – which may even find new sources of revenue from directly or indirectly (via advertising) monetizing such content
There is currently a tug-of-war among publishers and authors over who should pay to promote published research. Given that journals live and die because of their reputation, evidence-based digital stories should be an integral part of a publisher’s journal promotion efforts. Alternatively, in an Open Access scenario, the costs of creating evidence-based digital stories could be added to the APC, giving the author the option to do so by ticking a box. This may become more valued as authors are increasingly asked to communicate the outcome of their research to wider audiences when their research is supported by public funds.
Evidence-based digital stories may also serve as an antidote to false information. Typically, only the occasional peer-reviewed article goes viral. Digital stories, on the other hand, are shareable stories. Discerning fact from fiction starts with providing an alternative to the false information and with very deliberately pointing to and referencing primary sources (the research paper). Already, the European Medicines Agency, which regulates new drug candidates, makes it mandatory to submit a lay summary alongside each new clinical study. Often these are commissioned to professional medical writers and editors.
One theory behind the fast spread of falsehoods is their novelty. ‘We like new things’ goes the argument, and ‘people who share novel information are seen as being in the know.’ If this is the case, publishers, and authors, may have an edge – they have at their fingertips the findings of the most recent research from all over the world. Novel and important research need not be publishers’ best kept secret. Rather, the published, peer-reviewed paper becomes the foundation for understandable, accessible and shareable evidence-based digital stories.
Living through this pandemic has revealed that our needs for information and knowledge are evolving. The scholarly community is in a unique position to adapt and respond to this with trusted, evidence-based content that informs, educates, inspires and promotes the health and scientific literacy of our audiences, our citizens, and our societies.