Why the pen is sometimes mightier than the pipette – Part 1

Author: Paul Krzyzanowski, 04/10/13

If Edward Bulwer-Lytton were a biologist two centuries ago, he might have quipped that the pen is mightier than the pipette instead of immortalizing the sword in his expression. Yet phrases emphasizing the power of words have been around for nearly three thousand years and are more relevant to your science than you might think. While there are those that feel data should speak for itself there’s proof out there that data, when given the right voice, carries itself to people who would otherwise leave it ignored.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of participating in the Stem Cell Network’s Soft Skills Workshop and take away a whole toolbox of communications strategies for scientists. The day was split into two sessions, one that focused on communications to public (lay) audiences, while the second encouraged us to examine research projects from a commercialization angle. It’s the kind of training that I have previously said should be offered to graduate students.

The Communications to the Public session featured two presentations from John Rennie, the 7th Editor in Chief of Scientific American magazine.

Rennie reminded us that there’s an audience of people interested in science that don’t “do science” on a regular basis. This huge demographic of people aren’t trained in experimentation but who nonetheless have an intense desire to learn, or least be aware, of what’s happening at the forefront of biology, physics, or any other discipline.

It’s a refreshing reminder to any researcher who wants to have a wide impact. When writing manuscripts, too often it seems that there are only four people in the audience: an editor and three referees.

Rennie also distilled a key question for us to keep in mind at all times: What problem does your audience care about, and what is the practical significance of what you’ve discovered that solves that problem? Yes, it’s a broad question that can be applied to multiple ways. Here’s an example:

Suppose for a moment that you’ve just published a paper on a new type of RNA-based signalling inhibitor (sorry, it’s been done). In this study, the authors evolved an RNA to inhibit Angiopoietin 2, which normally encourages the growth of blood vessels in tumours; so when Angiopoietin 2 is blocked, tumours shrink. How could you frame this?

For a broad academic audience, you might emphasize the possibility of finding other native RNA molecules that function the same way, while academic groups specifically studying Angiopoietins might like to hear that you’ve developed a tool that can help their research. A lay audience might want to know how you’ve put science closer to making a new class of drug a common feature in a clinician’s toolbox.

The presenters in the Communcations for Public Audiences session: Ben Paylor, John Rennie and Lisa Willemse

Lisa Willemse, the Stem Cell Network’s director of communications, complemented John Rennie with a session emphasizing the importance of media outside of traditional academic journals, and convincing many of the benefits of engaging newspapers, magazines, and especially social media.

Did you know that the benefits of being mentioned in traditional media flow back to citation rates of academic articles? I didn’t.

It’s not even a new phenomenon –the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a study twenty years ago showing that scientific articles that end up in the popular press receive over 70% more citations over great, but unmentioned, research. That popularized science gets noticed more isn’t a revelation at all, but the effect is so pronounced it’s remarkable. This NEJM article alone still leaves me wondering why teaching communications techniques isn’t incorporated into graduate curriculums everywhere.

Willemse also showed that Twitter is a great tool for sharing news, as Ben Paylor wrote recently, and it’s also been shown that highly tweeted articles are much more likely to end up highly cited.

The importance of lay summaries in grants was also taught, as Willemse walked us through how they are used to write media releases and used by journalists identify researchers to interview. Key point: Don’t underestimate the usefulness of a well written, jargon-free, yet relevant lay summary!

The afternoon session was focused on communications within the context of commercialization and I’ll focus on this in a post next week.

Research cited:
Phillips D.P., Kanter E.J., Bednarczyk B. & Tastad P.L. (1991). Importance of the Lay Press in the Transmission of Medical Knowledge to the Scientific Community, New England Journal of Medicine, 325 (16) 1180-1183. DOI:
Eysenbach G. (2011). Can Tweets Predict Citations? Metrics of Social Impact Based on Twitter and Correlation with Traditional Metrics of Scientific Impact, Journal of Medical Internet Research, 13 (4) e123. DOI:

The following two tabs change content below.

Paul Krzyzanowski

Paul is a computational biologist and writer living in Toronto. He's been a contributor to Signals for three years, writing articles for the general public about how biotechnology and biomedical research can be used to solve pressing medical problems. Alongside Paul's experience in computational biology,
 bioinformatics, and molecular genetics, he's interested in how academic research develops into real world, commercial technology, and what's needed for the Canadian biotech industry needs to grow. Paul is currently a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research. Prior to joining the OICR, he worked at the Ottawa Hospital Research 
Institute and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Ottawa, specializing in computational biology. And finally, Paul earned an H.B.Sc. from the University of Toronto a long time ago. Paul's blog can be read at www.checkmatescientist.net
Tags: , , , , ,

3 Responses

Leave a Reply