Communication

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My Essay on How Being Human Led Me to Better Science Outcomes

“…For a long time, I relied on my research training and use of rigorous scientific knowledge to try to meet my communication objectives, but I didn’t get far. Surprisingly for me, it wasn’t until I allowed myself to fall back on just being a human that I really started to make positive headway in having meaningful conversations with people about sharks. While my focus has been on the topic of ‘sharks’, the insight I developed could easily be interchanged for ‘vaccines’, ‘agriculture’, ‘reproductive medicine’, or any of the myriad other research fields that involve emotionally-fuelled, ethical debates over what constitutes right and wrong.

Scientific discovery is unquestionably exciting. However, the critical reliance on technical detail, statistical significance and reproducibility unfortunately tends to produce rigid, to-the-point scientific publications. The process works well for scientists communicating with their peers, as the exciting ramifications of the data can be more easily deduced by these specialised audiences. But ‘science speak’ doesn’t often lead to opportunities for greater impact. I learned that for science to make real waves within the broader community, we need to be prepared to invite in the ‘human-factor’. This can be quite confronting, because, well, humans are unpredictable and carry all of the emotional baggage that has been purposefully removed from science….”

Check out my full essay on how being human led me to better science – and science communication – outcomes!

https://www.sciencewritenow.com/essays-craft-memoir/being-human

They’re IN!

Congratulations and good luck to everyone involved with applications submitted in Round 2 of the ARC Linkage Projects 2020 scheme!
But an extra nudge of good luck to the investigators who invited me to help develop their proposals. The calibre of these applications was exceptionally high.
It’s always so exciting to glimpse the potential of where excellent science can take us.

A Rice Industry in Northern Australia?

Hot off the press (and something quite different to my past publications)!

Thanks to support from the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (and partners) and The University of Queensland, I had the privilege of being involved with the situational analysis for developing a rice industry in Northern Australia, and writing up the project reports. I learned soooo much about the Australian rice industry, its history, and the great and exciting potential for its future.

Did you know northern Australia is home to four native species of wild rice?

Some interesting background information on the importance and need for rice includes:

Rice is one of the three most important grain crops in the world and contributes significantly to fulfilling global food needs. In fact, rice is the most important grain in terms of nutrition and calorie consumption (AgriFutures Australia 2017).

Rice is grown in many regions across the world, with diverse production methods. Surprisingly, though, despite the fact that the rice genus (Oryza) is comprised of 27 species (Stein et al. 2018), we are heavily reliant on just a very small fraction of the potential Oryza gene pool.

Overall, the market for Australian rice sits at around 130,000 tonnes of indica rice domestically and a further 1,700,000 tonnes internationally (SunRice 2019). Yet in 2019, Australia was only able to produce 55,000 paddy tonnes of rice. Improved and regionally expanded rice production would allow for more Aussie rice on the shelves. Production in northern Australia could also reduce the environmental footprint of rice production in Australia.

So, a rice industry in northern Australia? It would take a bit of time, effort and resources to properly and concertedly build the industry up, but seems like it could certainly be possible, profitable and a win for Australian agriculture and rice-loving consumers!

Our final report has just been published! You can check it out here: https://crcna.com.au/resources/publications/situational-analysis-developing-rice-industry-northern-australia-final-report

Boosting the #IMPACT of your research

Highly meticulous, data-driven scientific studies and social media content seem to fall at complete opposite ends of the information spectrum. Even when the science is really exciting, the peer-review process seems to remove all broad-reaching appeal from the text. Inevitably, Reviewer 2 will suck every last iota of effort to attract wider interest in the study, with the comment ‘Speculative!’. So sadly, research articles tend to be dry, dense and impersonal. On the flip-side, there is social media. Click into Twitter for a break from the daily grind, and you’re almost guaranteed to be met with an overabundance of in-your-face extreme opinions masquerading as facts behind a cloak of unaccountability. It’s no surprise that these outlets attract very opposite audiences.

Except, maybe they don’t. In fact, it seems that boosting #nonscientificimpact could actually help researchers to also boost their all-important scientific impact. Here’s why…

Scientific impact is incredibly important for researchers. It is used as a distinguishing criterion in gaining and maintaining research jobs, being promoted through the ranks of academia, and for winning competitive funding. One of the key metrics that is often used to gauge scientific impact is citation count, or the number of times a researcher’s work has been referenced in other peer-reviewed articles. Not only is this relevant as a stand-alone measure, but citation count also feeds into other metrics of esteem, such as an individual’s h-index and i10-index.* These metrics are biased and ineffective in being truly comparative for many reasons, yet this sort of detail is still heavily relied on in the various facets of academia.

So how does social (and mainstream) media come into play? Well, fortunately, science for the sake of science is a thing of the past. As a result, now more than ever researchers need to be able to generate and prove that their work will in some way be of value and interest to the real world. And in line with this, metrics that only show the potential of a researcher to disseminate knowledge through the scientific world just don’t cut it anymore. This is where ‘non-scientific impact’ comes in.

Non-scientific impact is generally defined as a research publication’s online footprint. This could be likes and shares on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, mainstream news coverage, or mentions in online blogs. Quite simply put, this is a measure of the importance of the research to the lay public. Funding bodies, especially publicly funded-funding bodies, now expect researchers to provide proof of their ability to reach public audiences. Metrics on non-scientific impact (such as the Altmetric Attention Score) can come in very handy here.

Generating non-scientific impact can be really daunting for many researchers. This sort of communication not only requires an excellent grasp of the science, but also a really thorough understanding of the non-scientific landscape that the work fits into. Generally, one of these things is far clearer than the other, and therefore easier to tackle. This is understandable, given that it often takes a whole lot of individual studies – often across different disciplines – to be able to genuinely and convincingly answer the tough, big-picture questions that the public tend to ask (which may or may not relate directly to your particular study). Also, in order to really get through to the public in an impactful way, researchers need to add a whole new level of skill: ‘being engaging’ to their communication style repertoire. Unfortunately, this is not often taught in research – although things are changing for the better in this regard.

Engaging broader, non-scientific audiences can definitely be challenging. But if you’re thinking about your career, or winning that next grant, it’s absolutely worth the effort. A recent study published in PLOS ONE found a strong association between the non-scientific impact (e.g. the number of mentions in popular media, including traditional mainstream media, as well as social media platforms) and the scientific impact of research (citations). This study does come with the proviso that there was not a directional link between the two, but if you can manage to get your research into mainstream and social media, you are certainly improving your chances of also generating more scientific interest.

How do you get your research into the media? Here are a few tips:

  • Make your writing accessible and as easy to read as possible:
    • Avoid jargon and acronyms;
    • Use consistent terminology that is broadly understandable (or at least clearly defined);
    • Keep your writing brief;
    • Allow your work to tell a story, complete with a setting for context and narrator, so that it can be easily followed (really!);
    • Link ideas with conjunctions (e.g. ‘therefore’, ‘but’);
    • Use correct punctuation and grammar.
  • Make the effort to really understand and present your work in the context of an [appropriate] real-world application.
  • Don’t wait for the media to come to you – reach out to them! Most institutions have marketing and communications teams, so they should be your first point of contact. If you don’t have access to this sort of support, then do it yourself: develop a brief media release that details your key findings and their ramifications to the broader public, then search for journalists who have reported on similar content previously and contact them. This is your first opportunity to practice engaging and captivating a general audience.
  • Build your (or your research groups’) social media channels, and maintain them! You have to put effort into these for them to generate results. Regularly add content and be sure to engage with and support others, too.

 

As a final note, while scientific impact and popular media impact both have their place and relevance, actual real-world impact is not accounted for by either scientific or non-scientific impact measures. Ironically, the ‘comprehensive’ impacts of scientific studies, which cover the impact of research on the economy, society, culture, public policy/services, health, the environment, and quality of life beyond academia, are hardly ever quantified due to the huge amount of time and resources it takes to fully ascertain and corroborate this information. However, some do exist, for example the UK’s Research Excellence Framework. This type of measure may become more mainstream in the future through more automated methodologies. Until then, you’ll just have to rely on case studies of your work to get this level of impact across.

 

*For those lucky enough to have never needed to care about these metrics previously, ‘a scientist has index h if h of his/her Np papers have at least h citations each, and the other (Np − h) papers have no more than h citations each’ (Hirsch 2005). The definition in itself is clear proof that this is a measure for academic interest only! However, I must say, I love how well it proves the above ‘dry, dense and impersonal’ argument so perfectly! The i10-index is much simpler: the number of publications with at least 10 citations. However, and again true to science, thanks to its simplicity, its value is extremely marginal, especially for comparing more senior researchers.

 

The dreaded proofread

Congratulations: you’ve written the last word, and fixed the last edit. You’re so close! But one pesky little thing still stands between you and submission: the dreaded proofread.

Admittedly, proofreading can be tough and perhaps a bit unpleasant. You’ve worked the text to death already and are honestly well-and-truly over it. Also, it’s too easy to lose focus and simply skim through the words on autopilot, filling in anything missing and auto-correcting errors without even realising they’re there. In fact, this is exactly how the most proficient readers read all of the time! But when it’s your own work, the ‘skimming action’ inadvertently tends to go into overdrive because you’re so familiar with the content. So even if you do the right thing and take the time to go through the proofreading process, you might still be left with a few niggling typos or errors. Been there-done that!

In some situations, an error here or there is easily overlooked (not to mention completely forgivable, since, like I said, we’ve all been there!). However, in other cases, nothing short of perfection is expected. And when the number of individual, seemingly minor typos adds up, your credibility and professionalism may start to come into question. Typos, grammatical errors and awkward sentence structure can also negatively impact on readability. After you’ve put so much time and effort into your work, this is surely not the outcome you’d be hoping for – or the way you’d like to be remembered by your audience.

How can you prevent these proofreading blunders? Here are some of my suggestions:

  1. AWAY. FROM. THE WRITING! If you’re planning on proofreading your own work, great! But do yourself a favour, and give yourself a break. Once you’ve finished drafting and finalising the text, pack it up and forget about it for as long as possible (within reason, of course). This will help you to re-set, and allow you to be a bit fresher (and therefore more tuned-in to the detail) when you do come back for the proofread. I once found a substantial error in a book manuscript I had written the very last time I got to see it before it went to press. I was only supposed to be approving the final typesetting, so had a very short window to turn the document around. But luckily, I used that time to do one last full read-through. In the text, I was detailing the difference between two commonly (but incorrectly) interchanged terms. Then, when I actually went to make my point, I used the wrong one of the two. This not only made the sentence completely wrong, but contradicted the exact point I was trying to make through the paragraph more broadly. So, in conclusion, it would have made me look really silly, and I dare say, greatly reduced my credibility for the rest of the text. By the time I noticed this error, I had already reviewed and worked through the text extensively, had it externally copy-edited, read by two editors, re-read it again myself, then had it externally proofread. I only managed to pick-up on this mistake after I’d been away from the material for quite a significant period. Errors and typos happen! But you will always be the expert on your own work and no one will ever know it as well as you do! Therefore, making the time to do this type of review yourself is definitely worth it, and by putting some time between you and your work, you’re more likely to catch these sorts of things, as well as any less-significant typos.

 

  1. Buddy-up! Okay, let’s be realistic. Highly recommended, or not, no one actually allows time for a break between finishing their writing and doing the final proofread. In fact, if you leave time for a proofread at all, you’d be ahead of the curve! There is almost always a deadline at-hand, and most of us use every last second of our time (and maybe a few seconds more) to refine and perfect the content. This doesn’t leave a lot of opportunity for a break, only to come back later refreshed, revitalised and raring to proofread. This is where a buddy can come in handy. Find someone who you trust to exchange work with in a mutually beneficial proofreading partnership. Or, if proofreading really isn’t your cup of tea, give them your work for whatever you can provide in return. I’ve bartered my proofreading time with friends in the past for coffee, babysitting, cocktails… all the essentials! So, find a grammar-savvy friend and start doing some detective work to figure out what their soft-spot might be.

 

  1. When in doubt, contract out: You don’t have time to mess around; you just need it done, and done well. You need a professional proofreader! Professional proofreading services are especially beneficial if English isn’t your native language. Or, if your document is really long and you know you don’t stand a chance of finding a friend who is that indebted to you. Yes, you will have to pay for this service. But proofreading is a skill, and it probably takes far more time than you’d like to believe. The benefit? Well, the work gets done to a very high quality, and you don’t have to do it! Instead, your work is reviewed by a completely fresh set of eyes with no familiarity to the text. The added bonus is that proofreaders who aren’t in your field or discipline will quickly pick-up on any unexplained technical lingo or jargon that your readers may also not understand. A win for readability and comprehension! Contracting your proofreading work out means that you’ve gained all of that time back, which can be dedicated to whatever the next most-pressing job might be. Or… maybe just for a well-earned break! After all, I lost your full attention at the mention of coffee and cocktails, didn’t I?

Thoughts on recent shark incidents

I’ve had a few requests for interviews following the shark incident in Tasmania last Friday (17.07.20). Unfortunately, due to being unwell, I wasn’t able to accept any of the interviews. This was really frustrating, as I would have loved to have been able to reach out and talk to the community at this time. This is what I would have liked to have been able to say:

First of all, to the father and son who were involved in the incident off Stanley, Tasmania: I can’t imagine what you went through on the day, and in the aftermath, which I imagine is ongoing. It would have been a horrifying incident that I’m sure is far from behind you. I don’t know the specific details of what happened, only what has come through the media. But from this, I would concur with what others are saying, in that it was a really strange and unusual event. I’m sure that hearing this is doing nothing to ease the trauma that was caused. In fact, the rarity and isolated nature of this sort of interaction may be doing exactly the opposite. I hope you are both able to recover physically and mentally as quickly as possible and as well as possible.

To the community: Sharks are an incredibly complex group of animals, and we are continually reminded of how little we actually understand them. This is in no way due to a lack of effort. While general interest tends to focus on just a handful of shark species, because they are iconic and/or because of their potential to cause harm to humans, it must be recognised that there are over 500 different species of sharks. They are all unique and different, and each has reason for us to make the effort to understand them better.

It’s frustrating, but even when it comes to the ‘big three’ in terms of potential for negative human-shark interaction (white, tiger and bull sharks), we still struggle to grasp even the most basic of desired knowledge. We don’t know how these animals will behave in various situations, what motivates them, and most importantly, why they sometimes show a curiosity or interest in humans. This is hard to accept, but it is the reality. Sharks are wild animals, and with that, comes unpredictability. We can study many animals with relative ease in their natural settings and habitats, but large, highly migratory, oceanic species like these preclude most methods of behavioural study that we use for other animals. The diversity between species also means that we need to be asking these questions on a species-by-species basis. Furthermore, individuality within the same species (just like variations due to personality withing human beings) means that there will always be anomalous occurrences even to things we think we know.

Although the past few weeks seem to suggest otherwise, shark bites on humans are still rare events. This makes drawing out any sort of statistically-relevant answers, or even trends, extremely difficult, if not impossible. The ocean is full of risks; sharks are only one of them. And in comparison to other risks present to water users; the risk sharks pose remains minor. While this is of no help to those (including family, friends and responders) who have had the unfortunate luck of being on the other side of these statistics, it’s something important to keep in focus. There simply is no way to protect everyone against every situation; risk is a part of living and it’s something we must accept. The same can be said for sharks: there is simply no way we can prevent against all shark bites. It is simply a risk that must be assumed by water users. All’s we can do is continue to learn, and continue to take all reasonable precautions in respect of these animals, and the other mighty forces of nature that shine through when we’re out and about in the oceans.

While it may seem unrealistic in light of the events of the past few weeks, hopefully our understanding and respect for these very important animals will continue to improve to the point where coexistence is easier, and becomes an obvious decision.