How NOT to Write About Research!

Researchers Have an Ethical Obligation to Help the Public to Distinguish between Results That Are Technically-Significant to Researchers but That Have Overall Modest Impact for the Public.



Research audiences are familiar with the technical complexities of research. Even then, it is difficult to describe technically-complex research, be it biomedical, economic, or market research, accurately and accessibly for research audiences. However, accurately describing technically-complex work for non-researchers may be impossible and, in some cases, ill-advised. Science Magazine, a respected scientific research journal, published a tongue-in-cheek 5-step recipe for creating blockbuster mainstream media stories from scientific results that are technically-significant to researchers but that have overall modest impact for the public.

  1. Blind ‘em with science!” Fill the title with jargon that only the researchers’ closest collaborators will understand. If the title contains obscure abbreviations and acronyms, so much the better. If the title isn’t sufficient to obscure the overall impact for the public of the results, then make sure that the text of the paper is incomprehensible to 99.9999% of people, as well.
  2. Ask a non-researcher publicist to attempt to distill the obscurely-written research paper into more accessible language into a press release for the public. The description for the public shouldn’t be incorrect, exactly. However, it should describe accurately that, while the paper describes a technically-significant advance that is very important to researchers, the overall impact of the research for the public is modest or non-existent.
  3. Enlist collaborators to support spreading the message to the public of the “ground breaking” nature of the “ground-breaking”, technically-significant but overall modest impact research. Ask a quasi-research organization to hold a press briefing about the newly-published, “ground-breaking”, technically-significant but overall modest impact research. Focus the publicity on “ground-breaking” without specifying that the research is technically ground breaking. Don’t point out that the research is important to other researchers but not necessarily to the public.
  4. Obtain a quote from a well-known and respected scientist about the importance of the “ground-breaking”, technically-significant but overall modest impact research. Don’t point out that the well-known and respected scientist is referring only to the “ground breaking” technical significance of the paper to researchers.
  5. Allow the recipe to simmer unattended for 24 hours to allow the mainstream news media to grab the bone, shake it, and transform the technically-significant but overall modest impact research into “Something Wonderful!
2001: A Space Odyssey. Dir. Stanley Kubrick  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968  [film]












Sarcasm aside, accurately describing technically-complex work for non-researchers has an ethical context. As Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre in London, said, “Running a press briefing on discoveries in basic science always poses a dilemma. Is it better to leave alone basic science like this; or to present it as accurately as possible to journalists, even if it ends up generating speculation on its future application?  I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to that.”

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