Ask an Ethicist: Should I engage with lay audiences about my research?

March 25, 2016

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: As a graduate student, I find a lot of misinformation online concerning my area of research. Much of this appears on internet message forums and on posts I read on various social media sites. Should I feel compelled to engage in discussion as an expert, especially since I have several related publications?

An Ethicist Responds: This is a broad question that has many underlying dimensions, including those that would venture into specific areas such as those dealing with copyright claims and embargoes.  In light of this, I intend to only discuss why direct engagement with the public about research is vital for success in science and scholarship.  So my purpose is twofold: 1) to provide some reasons why you might want to engage with the public; and 2) to discuss—specifically— some outlets for research that exist outside of the peer-review system where we traditionally find a home for the products of our efforts.

The person often credited with being the first popularizer of science, Carl Sagan, did a particularly fine job justifying science communication by offering two reasons: The first he called “naked self-interest,” which was the obligation of the scientist to demonstrate to the public where their money was being spent, which in turn can increase public willingness to fund research. The second was sharing the enthusiasm the scientist or scholar intrinsically has about his or her work as a means of self-fulfillment.

I’d like to build on the reasons offered by Sagan:

First, you must consider the value of your time and realize these discussions often become quite lengthy.  So, if you hope to apply your knowledge and expertise effectively to inform the public in a friendly manner, you would likely direct your efforts to websites where you are already established as a frequent contributor, or start on sites that are more popular. Here you make yourself accessible to answer questions or inform misconceptions about areas where you have significant knowledge. The point, of course, is that you are first and foremost an ambassador of science and scholarship so your approach to offering information is crucial. In this respect, science communication and public engagement can and should serve as a two-way exchange of information. For instance, what does your audience want to know? If, by chance, there is misunderstanding about an area where you have expertise, why does this misunderstanding exist? By first exploring these questions, you will be better positioned to craft a response that may help slowly change the narrative. You must, however, avoid believing the public lacks the ability to think critically or understand your data. In the arena of science communication, your particular skill lies in conveying your knowledge, making yourself accessible to assist with (not correct) understanding, and presenting the literature and data to the best of your ability, devoid of disciplinary jargon or technical language (the use of metaphor is a great way to make things relatable). At the end of the day, you’re informing an audience that still retains the agency to arrive at their own conclusions. If you’re successful in this pursuit, your social media posters, who you suggest often post misinformation, may be influenced enough to pursue the topic further, which increases the odds (but does not guarantee!) their conclusions may in time agree with the accepted body of research.  

Next, I want to briefly point out that sharing your research has the potential to increase citations and encourages interdisciplinary collaboration. Like you, many scientists and scholars are natural consumers of science and regularly spend time online, and by “getting your name out there” you increase the odds that others outside of your discipline or particular research niche will become aware of your work. Moreover, as the problems facing society grow ever larger (see Wicked Problems), the need for and interest in interdisciplinary collaboration rises.  

On this last point, some have suggested engaging the public jeopardizes the reputation of a researcher among his or her colleagues. This belief, sometimes referred to as The Sagan Effect, suggests as the public popularity of a scientist or scholar increases, the quality of his or her work suffers. Fortunately, there is little evidence to support this claim. In fact, a study containing “data from more than 3,500 scientists” found the inverse to be true. On the whole, there doesn’t appear to be much risk for scientists and scholars who engage in public discussion about their work. And, as the technology for discussion and engagement expands, I believe the obligations for public engagement will become even greater.

Finally, when considering whether to engage in discussion, you should be aware of the benefits the Internet plays in reaching audiences typically unavailable to scientists and scholars just a few short years ago. With the emergence of large internet forums that host sub-forums dedicated to providing scientists and scholars a mechanism for communicating directly with interested people , expanding social media options, growing number of podcasts, and the rise in popularity of blogging and vlogging, it is truly a great time to be enthusiastic about the mediums for knowledge transfer that exist beyond peer-review. For example, one popular outlet where the public actively requests knowledgeable experts, many from academia, can be found at the large Internet forum, This active forum (with 10.2 million subscribers of this writing) hosts a moderated series known as “Ask me Anything,” which recruits scientists and scholars by audience request to discuss areas related to their research and/or expertise.

In the end, while you must decide for yourself if you feel comfortable engaging with the public about your research, the advantages to doing so are many, including those from which you’ll benefit, and—if you do it well—for science and scholarship more broadly. One final caveat: aside from the benefits of science communication and public engagement, there are considerations of which to be aware, including those mentioned earlier (e.g., copyright, confidentiality agreements, embargoes, etc.). Prior to sharing your work or data, ensure it does not compromise your responsibilities to your publishers or sponsors.

Brad Woods is a research ethics educator in the Office for Research Protections and affiliate faculty member in the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources and the Environment and Community and Economic Development graduate programs. His work involves education in the responsible conduct of research and ethical questions related to natural resource extraction and rural community development.

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Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.

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Last Updated May 19, 2016