New insight into the motivations of today’s science communicators

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Words: Andy Ridgway

Why do those who blog, tweet, run events at festivals, give talks and engage in all the myriad of other forms of science communication do what they do? What do they aim to achieve when they communicate science?

While many of those who communicate science may well be too busy to ponder these questions day to day, they are important questions because, perhaps subconsciously for the most part, they influence the nature of the communication work they do. Not only that but when we look at these aims and motivations of science communicators at the macro scale, they provide an insight into their perceptions of the relationship between science and society. Are science and society connected and integrated, or somewhat disconnected?

It’s why questions about the motivations and aims of science communicators were an important part of the latest research organised by UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit as part of the European Commission-funded RETHINK project  which is exploring the nature of online science communication and how people make sense of science online.

A questionnaire, developed by Elena Milani, a Research Fellow within the Unit, and Unit co-directors Clare Wilkinson and Emma Weitkamp, was distributed to science communicators in the UK, The Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Portugal, Italy and Serbia and sought to find out more about why science communicators do what they do and how they do it.

Many of the 778 people who responded were press officers (just over 140), or described themselves as freelance communicators or writers (nearly 120). We also received responses from journalists and researchers, as well as those who described themselves as a blogger, YouTuber or social media influencer and a whole host of other science communicators.

What the questionnaire responses make clear is that for many of those who communicate science across Europe, it’s an enthusiasm for science that lies behind what they do. Many of those who communicate science said they do it because it’s part of their job. Others say their motivation, which might be very relevant at the moment, is to counter misinformation.

What was also noticeable was that nearly 300 of our respondents said their motivation was to ‘educate’ others about science. Perhaps not surprisingly then, when Europe’s science communicators were asked what they hoped to achieve when they communicate science, the most popular responses were ‘inform’ and ‘educate’.

This implies that in the minds of many who communicate science, the way we produce knowledge through science is distinct from knowledge use by society and how society might contribute to that knowledge. Knowledge is a one-way street that leads from scientists to the outside world.

That said, a fairly high proportion of European science communicators, 65%, said in the questionnaire that they are looking to create conversations between researchers and the public. This implies a more blurred line between science and society – a two-way street, with knowledge exchanged between scientists and the outside world.

This is interesting in its own right. But the nature of the science and society relationship has assumed greater significance and visibility since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s why there’s never been a more important time to think about this relationship, and maybe RETHINK some aspects of it.

In addition to asking science communicators about their motivations and aims, the questionnaire also sought to find out what they communicate, how they communicate science (whether they use social media or blogs for instance) and the barriers that stand in the way. The full report, including how this research links to science communication theory and previous research, is available here:

Thanks to researchers at Athena Institute, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in The Netherlands, Copernicus Science Centre, Poland, Vetenskap & Allmanhet, Sweden, Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica António Xavier, Portugal, Sissa Medialab, Italy and the Center for the Promotion of Science in Serbia for their help in translating and distributing the questionnaire.

How we mapped the vast online science communication terrain

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The number of people writing, tweeting, instagramming, blogging, podcasting, vlogging about all things science is unfathomably large. Then there’s the universities, the charities, the businesses and so on who are adding to the mix. It’s no wonder then that the online science communication terrain isn’t mapped. We know it’s out there, yet exactly who is doing what, where and how is something we only have snapshots of information about. Yet mapping this vast terrain is exactly what we’ve been trying to do within the Science Communication Unit as part of our work on the European Commission-funded RETHINK project .

The RETHINK project involves 10 institutions across Europe including VU Amsterdam and Ecsite, the European network of science centres. Together, we’re trying to explore how science is communicated online so we can see what’s working well and understand more about what’s going wrong when it’s not, such as the audiences that aren’t being reached. To start this process, we needed a better view of the online science communication terrain in terms of who is doing the communicating, the platforms they are using and the forms their communication takes.

Given the terrain’s scale, we decided to set some boundaries to our exploration. Firstly, in conjunction with the other RETHINK project partners, we decided to concentrate our mapping efforts on three topic areas – climate change, artificial intelligence and healthy diets. These topics were selected because they are important to all our lives. But they also represent very different online habitats; with different individuals and organisations doing the communicating and very diverse subject matter. It means we get a richer insight into how varied the online science communication landscape is.

Secondly, we limited the number of each type of communicator we would map to 10. So, for example, once we had found 10 universities communicating about climate change, we would stop. Otherwise the mapping would have been an insurmountable task. After all, what we were really aiming to do was to explore the different types of communicator as well as the forms of communication they are involved with. We were mapping the extent of the terrain – how far it reached and what was there – rather than trying to measure the peak of each mountain; the number of specific types of organisation or individual communicating about each topic.

To get an even better view of the terrain, the mapping was carried out by RETHINK team members in seven countries across Europe – Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and Serbia as well as the UK. Each country chose two of the three topics they were going to map. Again, to make the exploration more manageable.

To make sure we could compare the online science communication terrains in different countries, the exploration needed to be carried out in exactly the same way in each country.  So Elena Milani, a Research Fellow within the Science Communication Unit, developed a ‘mapping protocol’ – a set of instructions for researchers in each country to follow when they were exploring.

So what did we find? Well, across the seven countries, 697 different individuals and organisations that communicate climate change, artificial intelligence and healthy diets were identified. Digging into the data in a little more detail provides some interesting insights, including:

  • Climate change has the widest range of individuals and organisations communicating about it online of the three topics. In other words, it has a particularly rich communication environment.
  • The online science communication landscape is complex – there are large differences in the types of communicators, the platforms used and content shared between science-related subjects.
  • With all three topics, many of the sources of information are not traditional experts, such as scientists or health practitioners. Nor are they traditional mediators of information, such as journalists. There are lots of alternative sources of information, such as non-professional communicators and support communities.

But this is just the start. Having a clearer view of the landscape thanks to our mapping will help with the next stages of RETHINK, such as understanding the connections formed by communicators with their audiences.

For the full report on the online science communication mapping carried out by the RETHINK team across Europe, visit: https://zenodo.org/record/3607152#.Xh1zmRdKjOQ.

To learn more about the project overall visit: http://www.rethinkscicomm.eu/acerca-de/

Within UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit, the RETHINK team includes Elena Milani, Emma Weitkamp, Clare Wilkinson and Andy Ridgway.

The organisations involved with RETHINK are: Science Communication Unit, UWE Bristol, VU Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Ecsite, Zeppelin University, Germany, SISSA Medialab, Italy, Danish Board of Technology Foundation, ITQB Nova, Portugal, Center for the Promotion of Science, Serbia, Vetenskap and Allmanhet, Sweden.

Researching images on social media – nuts and bolts

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Images and videos are pervasive online, these days, web articles include at least one image or video. On Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat these visual contents are even more common, and social media platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, Instagram, and Pinterest are entirely dedicated to their sharing.

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Images can emphasise textual messages, or even convey a message without text at all (Hankey et al., 2013), and they can increase the visibility of a tweet and how often it is shared (Yoon and Chung, 2013). There are so many images on social media that these platforms have become picture databases, and these have become subject to research. For example, Vis et al. (2013) explored images production and sharing practices on Twitter during the UK riots in 2011; Tiggemann and Zaccardo (2016) analysed Instagram images related to the #fitspiration movement, addressing their potential inspiration for viewers and negative effects on viewers’ body image; and Guidry et al. (2015) investigated the content and the engagement of pro- and anti-vaccine images shared on Pinterest.

My Ph.D. research uses one of these databases – it focuses on vaccine images used for advocacy that are shared on Twitter. Sourcing the images that are my data may sound simple, after all, I only need to download my data from Twitter, right? However, it is rather more complex than that. To start with, there are many different communities on Twitter, and they share images on a range of different topic. They may also share images on the same topic from different angles; for example, if we search #health on Twitter, we will see pictures related to healthy food, obesity, fitness, losing weight, public health policy, etc. So, the biggest challenges are how to find the communities of interest and then to develop a data analysis strategy that uncovers how they use their pictures.

To help me narrow the potential field of image research for my PhD, I asked the following questions:

  1. What topic am I interested in? Which communities do I want to study?
  2. Which social media outlets would I find most interesting/useful for my research?
  3. Each social media platform is used by different audiences, so it is important to think about the overall question we are asking. For example, young adults use Facebook, whereas teenagers prefer Snapchat, and Chinese people may be on Weibo.
  4. Where are these communities from? Which language(s) do they use?
  5. If we focus our research on Europe, we have to take into account that Europeans speak different languages. If we focus on English language, we have to consider that our images will come from all over the world, but especially from the US, UK and Australia.

Afterward this initial sifting, I had more questions to answer:

  1. What keywords should I use to search on my chosen social platform (in my case, Twitter)?
  2. Each topic and each community has its own “slang” or “dialect” and therefore keywords. On Twitter, for example, users in favour of vaccinations tweet their content including the hashtag #vaccineswork, whereas people against vaccines use mainly the hashtag #vaxxed and/or #CDCwhistleblower.
  3. How can I find the relevant keywords?
  4. Previous research on social media can suggest some terms; in my case, keywords such as vaccine(s), vaccination(s), vaccinate(d) and immunes(z)ation (Love et al., 2013; Salathé et al., 2013). Searching for these generic words, I found both tweets with and without hashtags that talked about vaccines. However, some communities use specific keywords which may not include these terms (e.g. #vaxxed) and they may use these keywords to label their tweets as relevant to the topic. For example, a tweet claiming “They’re poisoning our children #CDCwhislteblower” and showing an image with a child whilst being vaccinated, would be relevant to vaccinations even if it did not mention “vaccine” or “vaccination”. This tweet would not appear in my research if I set my data collection using only generic words, thus I needed to search for relevant hashtags as well.
  5. How do I find relevant hashtags?
  6. A first step would be considering which hashtags previous studies used, then searching Twitter for generic hashtags and see which other hashtags people use. There are also some online tools that can be helpful, such as Hashtagify.me, Get Tags and RiteTag.com. These online software packages suggest correlated hashtags and their popularity.

Answering these questions helps us define the criteria for data collection, but they also show how complicated research on images shared on social media is. As with any data collection method, planning, defining and developing are key for research drawing on online images. We need to be able to justify the approach we took and show that the data collection process is robust. This means, as with many other types of data collection, that we need to pilot and test our data collection methods ensuring that they deliver the material we anticipate and which will validly help us to address our research question. There are so many pictures online, uploaded, downloaded, edited and shared, that the choice of image collection methods becomes key to ensuring the quality of the study overall.

 

Elena Milani

 

References

Hankey, S., Longley, T., Tuszynski, M. and Indira Ganesh, M. (2013). Visualizing Information for Advocacy. Nederlands: Tactical Technology Collective.

Love, B., Himelboim, I., Holton, A. and Stewart, K. (2013) Twitter as a source of vaccination information: content drivers and what they are saying. American Journal of Infection Control [online]. 41(6), pp. 568-570.

Guidry, J.P., Carlyle, K., Messner, M. and Jin, Y. (2015) On pins and needles: How vaccines are portrayed on Pinterest. Vaccine [online]. 33(39), pp. 5051-5056.

Salathé, M., Vu, D.Q., Khandelwal, S. and Hunter, D.R. (2013) The dynamics of health behavior sentiments on a large online social network. EPJ Data Science [online]. 2(1), pp. 1-12.

Tiggemann, M. and Zaccardo, M. (2016) ‘Strong is the new skinny’: A content analysis of #fitspiration images on Instagram. Journal of Health Psychology [online].

Vis, F., Faulkner, S., Parry, K., Manyukhina, Y. and Evans, L. (2013) Twitpic-ing the riots: analysing images shared on Twitter during the 2011 UK riots. In: Weller, K., Bruns, A., Burgess, J., Mahrt, M. and Puschmann, C. (2013) Twitter and Society. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., pp. 385-398.

Yoon, J. and Chung, E. (2013) How images are conversed on twitter? Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology [online]. 50(1), pp. 1-5.

What IS storytelling? What IS NOT storytelling?

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What IS storytelling? What IS NOT storytelling? These two questions opened the 9th conference on “Storytelling: Global Reflections on Narrative” I attended from the 10th to the 12th of July in Oxford (UK). As participants, we were asked to reply, and we gave completely different answers, depending on our academic field and personal experience.

We defined storytelling as an engaging and dynamic form of communication, which must not be boring at all. Moreover, we emphasised the fact that storytelling does not include only what is told, but also what is kept silent, what is not remembered, and what is changed, and that it encompasses many points of view, many different stories, and many different ways of telling the same story.

During the conference, each speaker contextualised storytelling in a different field: literature, history, sociology, communication, education, sciences, and even medicine; and we discussed the topic taking into account professional and personal experiences as well, thus getting a broad and inclusive overview of storytelling.

Storytelling is not only influenced by the discipline in which it’s studied or applied, but also by many other factors, such as background, culture, education, ethnicity, nationality, social class, gender, and age of storytellers and of the audiences.

Novels, advertisements, TV shows, etc. communicate a story using language, semiotic signs, stereotypes, metaphors, and rhetoric figures that are tailored for specific target publics. Moreover, stories usually reflect the social values and characteristics of the audiences. For example, in Japanese anime the homogeneity of the Japanese society is represented by the possibility each character has to become the protagonist of the story, whereas individualistic feature of the Western societies is depicted by the presence of only one main character in Western comics.

Medium may change the way we tell or listen to a story. We read novels in a sequential way, page after page from the beginning to the end, whereas we can read a story on social media in a relational way (as in mind mapping), jumping from one point to any other as we please. Moreover, in digital interactive documentaries and videogames, we (as audience) can even change the story.

Storytelling also differs in its applications: we can use it for conveying information or entertaining, but we can also use it for advocacy campaigns, education, and research. Indeed, storytelling can be a suitable technique for advocacy, due to its capability of engaging audiences emotionally and personally, and it is effective in involving students in school lessons as well, and in stimulating their critical thinking, communication and writing skills, creativity etc.

The use of storytelling in the research field is particularly interesting. By analysing either ancient books or new TV fictions, we can investigate the individual characteristics of authors as well as well the social beliefs, values, and imaginary of a specific historical period, and we can study how they changed over time. We can acquire similar data by collecting witnesses’ stories of a specific event, as well as asking the research subjects to write a narrative on a specific issue. For example, patients’ stories on how they perceive their disease and how it is affecting their quality of life can provide further information to improve our comprehension of the disease from a clinical point of view, understand patient-physician communication, or improve the health care system. Even collecting stories on digital media and videogames we can yield insights on individuals and social groups’ characteristics.

What is storytelling? What is not storytelling? Though it may be very difficult to give a concise and inclusive answer to these questions, we can say that storytelling provides many different opportunities and challenges in science and health communication as well as in research.

Find out more about the conference ‘Storytelling: Global Reflections on Narrative

Elena Milani – PhD student, Science Communication Unit.

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