7 Qualities of a Respectful SciComm Community

This was originally a guest blog I wrote for shareyoursci.com. They’re a great site for science communication resources, so you should go check them out!

The theme for the 2019 Science Talk Conference in Portland, Oregon, was ‘Community’, a fitting topic considering how quickly the field of science communication is growing and evolving.

Science communicators engage with both science and non-science communities, and must be adept at maneuvering between the two. But what about the SciComm community itself? How can we nurture a space where science communicators of all kinds can feel connected and supported in their efforts? The importance of building a strong SciComm community—one that welcomes diversity and practices inclusion—was the focus of much of Science Talk.

Many of this year’s presenters talked about the qualities that they feel define a strong community, and these same qualities were discussed in the workshop I led on the second day of the conference. I’ve distilled these qualities down to seven key components of a successful community, which just so happen to spell out the acronym R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

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1. Representation

Keynote speaker Maryam Zaringhalam addressed the question of who speaks for science head on. “Representation is a big problem in SciComm,” she said, encompassed by sexism, racism, and elitism.

Most people immediately think of Bill Nye when they hear the term ‘science communication’. Many of us have cringed at being called “the Bill Nye of…(fill in the blank)” or “the female Bill Nye”, as if this one well-known (white, male) person sets the standard for what a science communicator looks like and acts like. Nothing against Bill Nye—he’s done a lot for SciComm—but its problematic that other types of SciComm identities and perspectives may be considered less valid or visible in comparison.

Representation is important because we all need to be able to see ourselves in our community, be able to relate to others, and feel confident in our individual identities.

2. Empathy

This is a huge one for me. I believe that a lack of empathy is at the root of many of our societal problems, from political polarization to the detrimental “war on science.”

While as science communicators our goal to responsibly present science by being transparent, and often objective, we must also recognize that we are all driven by personal values. If we can’t acknowledge and respect the values of those we are communicating with, we will likely fail to reach them or build lasting relationships. We need to be able to empathize with others, even if they hold different values than our own.

As many presenters at Science Talk mentioned, being a successful science communicator means being a good listener. Listening to your target community is a big step toward making meaningful connections. Indeed, if you can connect with that community based on some shared values or goals, they are much more likely to be receptive to new ideas. This extends to our own SciComm community too; we should be able to respect that we each have valid experiences and perspectives.

3. Support

We all want to feel supported. How do we create a community where we can effectively support each other? Susanna Harris, founder of The PhDepression website and social media platform, spoke to this in her talk about creating online communities. According to Susanna, a successful community is a place (virtual or otherwise) where you gain something by participating, but also feel responsible for the wellbeing for other people in the community. It’s a place where we lift each other up and feel mutually supported, where we can celebrate our differences while recognizing what binds us together.

4. Protection

I’m not talking about Godfather-style mafia protection, but a strong community should create a ‘safe space’ where its members can be themselves without being judged or harassed. For science communicators, having a strong community means that your peers have got your back when you are attacked by trolls or abusive voices.

Building a community where members feel protected involves creating rules and guidelines for that community that establish a foundation of respect and inclusion. Panelist Sarah Myhre emphasized the importance of creating safer institutions where women, ethnic minorities, LBGTQ+ individuals, and others are free from abuse and prejudice. Without safe communities and institutions to support us, she argued, how can we focus on being successful communicators, scientists, etc.?

5. Equality

In a similar vein, equality is critical to maintaining a community where members feel like they can contribute effectively without bias or prejudice. Many Science Talk participants spoke about their experiences as minorities being blocked by gatekeepers to media, journals, institutional leadership, or other avenues of power controlled by non-minorities.

The tide is slowly turning in some institutions where leadership and participation is diversifying—but we still have a long way to go. Creating a strong SciComm community will require conscious effort toward supporting equality, diversity, and inclusivity; and as Francesca Bernardi and Katrina Morgan (founders of Girls Talk Math) mentioned in their presentation, this in turn will help diversify science more broadly.

6. Connection

A common thread among Science Talk presentations was the important role of storytelling in connecting with your audience. We all have personal stories, and sharing those stories helps us connect with others—whether they are part of “our” community or one we are reaching out to.

As one Science Talk audience member said to panelists, “I want to know your personal story, what got you here, what kept you going. I want you to go beyond reason, and into emotion.”

Hearing how others overcame obstacles (internal or external) to get where they are today helps inspire us and connect us to each other. Many presenters emphasized that a “successful” SciComm interaction means making a meaningful connection. This applies both within and between our communities.

7. Trust

Finally, any community must be built on mutual trust. We must be able to trust that we have each other’s best interests in mind, are willing to support each other, and that our communication is based on integrity. Just as we as individuals want to be considered as trustworthy sources of science information to our audiences, our community should reflect this same trustworthiness by upholding the values we feel are important for respectful scicomm.

Just A Little RESPECT

Feeling supported, connected, and heard are the things that lay the foundation for effective science communication (or effective anything). It was encouraging to hear such wide consensus among SciComm-ers of all kinds about the need for building a community based on mutual respect, where we can boost each other and in doing so boost ourselves and raise the bar for SciComm as a whole.

While the seven elements I outline above are relevant to any community, there are a few additional qualities identified at Science Talk that are particularly important for catalyzing our science communication community: namely, enthusiasm, creativity, and curiosity.

The youngest presenter at Science Talk this year was Parin Shaik, a freshman in high school who participates in the Science & Us SciComm program led by and for high school students. She described how entering the world of SciComm helped her overcome her fears about studying science, and opened up a world where “Sailor Moon and photosynthesis can co-exist!” In other words, SciComm allowed her to integrate her love of art and entertainment with her interest in science. She found her enthusiasm.

“Make your enthusiasm for science contagious.” Encouraged Dianna Cowern, YouTube’s “Physics Girl”, who gave the final keynote address. Her talk galvanized participants into celebrating their curiosity and making it ‘go viral’.

I think this is one of the things that I love most about our growing SciComm community—our common enthusiasm for and curiosity about the world around us, and our passion for sharing what we learn with others. In the workshop I led, participants described their aspirations for a strong SciComm community. You can review the list of aspirations and measurable results we came up with, and even contribute your own, on this google doc. I hope that the ideas captured in this document provide a basis for ongoing conversations about the qualities we want our SciComm community to embody into the future.

I hope we can use the elements of RESPECT to create a space where science and scicomm welcomes everyone. As Maryam said in her keynote, “the greatest asset we have is our community.”

How Can We Overcome SciComm Misconceptions?

What makes someone a science communicator? A science degree? Journalism credentials? A lab coat and penchant for cheesy science humor?

How can we make room for diverse voices and backgrounds to participate in scicomm and feel a part of the scicomm community?

This community has grown exponentially over the last several years, helping reinforce the importance of good scicomm for engaging non-scientists, increasing interest and trust in science, and applying science to societal issues. However, with the rise in scicomm, a number of concerns have popped up (particularly by scientists) about who has a “right” to communicate science, how they should communicate it, and whether science communication is having a positive or negative impact on public perception of science.

In this vein, I’ll be convening a workshop at this year’s Science Talk in Portland, where I hope to encourage reflection on how we can create a supportive and inclusive community while promoting transparent, trustworthy approaches to science communication.

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Do you need to be a scientist to be a science communicator? Can you be a serious scientist if you spend a lot of time communicating? Believe it or not, these are still ongoing scicomm debates.

As a PhD trained scientist who transitioned to a full-time scicomm career several years ago, I still sometimes struggle with feeling a part of the science communication community, and feeling like I have the “authority” to call myself a science communicator. I see others struggle with these things too–like for example, Allison Gasparini, who writes about the difficulty of having the “right” mix of science background and journalism training to compete for scicomm jobs.

On the other extreme, there are super confident non-scientist communicators out there who have no problem self-identifying as purveyors of science to the masses. Some of these folks are writers or journalists who do a great job of digesting and translating science into engaging and useful pieces of communication. Others (knowingly or unknowingly) misinterpret scientific findings, or worse share unverified or false scientific information that mislead the public–whether it be about nutrition, GMOs, vaccines, or what have you.

While most scicommers would agree that scicomm is a critical component of science, it is important to address the concerns of scientists and others about what makes responsible science communication (e.g., citing reliable/verifiable sources, disclosing any biases), and how we can support scicomm-ers in this endeavor.

In my workshop I plan to facilitate discussions around best practices of responsible and effective science communication–principles that anyone, no matter their background or training, can implement to reinforce a transparent approach to science communication. From there I hope to elicit some concrete recommendations on how the scicomm community can support us as individuals to do effective and engaging science communication. I’m excited to hear what misconceptions have most plagued others, and what strategies scicomm folks have for promoting an inclusive scicomm community that values transparency, accuracy, and respect.

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Pssst! What’s the secret to great science communication?

If you plan to attend Science Talk and want to be part of this conversation, I encourage you to join my workshop at 9am on Friday, April 5th. If you won’t be at the conference but want to participate in this conversation, I welcome your thoughts, feedback, and questions via email or social media!

This workshop will be just the beginning of a broad conversation about how to create a supportive, inclusive, and transparent scicomm community–and all voices are welcome. The objective of my workshop is to produce a working document of best practices that can continue to be honed and expanded upon as the field of scicomm evolves.

Four Things Every Science Communicator Dreads about Conference Posters (and how to avoid the things!)

I have a deep, dark, shameful secret to admit—poster sessions at conferences make me cringe. There, I said it.

It’s not actually the sessions that bother me—I think they provide an opportunity to have one-on-conversations with colleagues and prospective collaborators, all while partaking in (hopefully free) booze and greasy snacks.

No, it’s the posters themselves that make my science communicator heart sad. When did it become the norm for posters to have infinitely small text, ridiculously jargony language, and obscenely dull visuals? Why isn’t anyone making use of the many at-your-fingertips editing and design apps to jazz up their posters these days? Who are those people taking time to actually read any of these wall-mounted journal articles? They must be angels.

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“Look how much fun we’re having designing this conference poster!” said no grad student ever….until now.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve walked past a poster that grabbed my attention and reeled me in for a closer read, and one of those times was because the poster was about manatees—my all-time favorite ocean animal. But the other times were posters that used an eye-catching design, graphics, and images, and more importantly didn’t include superfluous text. Most other posters look like they’ve downloaded their template straight from the PowerPoint starter pack:

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I think that all conference posters should be, nay deserve to be, eye-catching and creative. I don’t really blame the poster authors for the current state of blandness. Most of us are just following advice, templates, or examples from senior members of our field, assuming that a conference poster has to follow a specific set of poster-design commandments passed down through the ages. Poster sessions have become as standard as talks at scientific conferences, and the ‘poster presentation’ is a rite of passage for most graduate students.

But guess what? There are no poster commandments. And the budding young scientists rejoiced.

There are recommendations and guidelines for conference posters, but almost no conference committee requires that a poster be designed to look exactly like a scientific paper smooshed all onto one page. It’s true! Release the shackles. I looked up poster guidelines for several of the largest science conferences in my field, and not one of them prescribed a strict template. In fact, most stressed that less text and more visuals were preferred, and that posters should be used to spark conversation, not summarize your work in full detail.

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Here are some scientists rejoicing in the knowledge that they never have to use PowerPoint Template #3 again to design a conference poster.

Here are three examples of poster guidelines I found on conference websites:

The American Geological Union (AGU) states, “Include the background of your research followed by results and conclusions. A successful poster presentation depends on how well you convey information to an interested audience.”

The International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC): “Text should be limited to brief statements. Each poster should make a unified, coherent explanation of your work. Materials, both textual and visual, should be of professional quality and clearly legible from a distance.”

Ecological Society of America (ESA): The only specific poster guidelines listed on the ESA website are related to poster size dimensions.

So why aren’t more scientists breaking free from the standard PowerPoint three column poster template? It may be fear of breaking an unwritten norm and losing esteem in the eyes of their colleagues. Or it could be they just don’t realize that they have nearly a blank slate upon which to slather creativity and novelty. Either way, in the hopes of encouraging at least a few future poster presenters out there to consider changing it up, I’ve created a list of five things to avoid when making a conference poster, and what you can do instead. This isn’t an exhaustive list of pointers for designing a good poster—there are plenty of sites out there with that kind of information (like this, this, or this). My list is more about hacking away at the wretched habits of generations of boring posters, and moving into an era free from (okay, at least less dominated by) columns and boxes.

If you consider these four points the next time you are tempted to default to that icky PowerPoint template, your local science communicator will thank you, and may just give you a big grateful hug. And if you need help with a design, don’t be afraid to reach out to the #scicomm community!

Alright, without further ado, here are four  conference poster no-no’s according to a scientist turned science communicator:

1. Text, text and more text.

Your poster doesn’t need to describe every detail about your research. That’s what the interaction at poster sessions is for—the talk with other people about your work. Focus on the broader context and importance of your research, rely more on visuals, and provide your contact info so interested folks can contact you if they want to know more. A viewer should “get it” in 30 seconds. You can provide in-depth information in a handout.

A good rule of thumb I’ve seen is that if you removed all the body text from your poster, your visuals should still be able to tell a story. If you’re really feeling bold, do away with paragraphs all together! Just use dot points and key phrases that people can easily follow. Also, try to keep 40% of the poster area empty of text and images. I would also love to see more posters with titles that I can understand without needing five PhDs (one is enough for me, thanks!). Simple language does not mean less scientifically sound.

Here’s some inspiration:

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This poster uses key highlights and large visuals to tell a clear, engaging story without much text.

 

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Brief text, large and interesting visuals, and contrasting colors really draw the eye to this poster.

2. Boring boxes in boring columns in boring colors.

While you don’t want your reader to be confused about how to follow the story you present on your poster, there is no law stating you have to use 3 columns with one box for each section and the standard Microsoft color scheme. There just isn’t. You can still organize your points from top to bottom and left to right, or by separating text using boxes in some cases, but you can do this and still make an interesting design. Think infographic instead of scientific poster.

Here are some examples:

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You can take a slightly unconventional approach to poster design and still get your points across clearly with a little creativity.
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This poster takes a bit more of an infographic approach to explain their research activities.

3. Low quality images that look like pixelated blobs.

Okay, so you’ve thrown a bunch of images on your poster to take the place of the text, but you failed to consider whether they were high enough resolution, or whether anyone would be able to tell that that pixelated bunch of brown cells is actually a soil sample under a microscope. Instead, make sure to use high quality images (check the file size and resolution), crop as necessary to focus on key parts of the image, and try to use photos that have contrasting colors or clear features that enhance your research story. Do you study wombats or pitcher plants or tardigrades? Use several awesome photos of them on your poster! Even if you study something less glamorous or more abstract, use drawings, cartoons, or photos of the habitat/region you study that draw attention to your topic, like this poster:

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This poster uses a fairly standard layout, but with minimal text (yay dot points!), and lots of helpful visuals that enhance the research story. Evidence that you don’t have to go full rogue to make a better poster.

4. Complicated figures that make people run away scared.

Similar to using bad images, bad figures negate the point of using visuals in your poster. I know it takes added time and effort, but I beg of you to simplify graphs, charts, or other figures so that they are easily interpreted in under 10 seconds. Again, you want people to ask you questions. While you’re at it, make sure they are high enough resolution to read clearly at full size. Don’t just plop a big graph on your poster to take up space and reduce your need to come up with descriptive text. Instead, highlight just the most important or interesting outcomes of your research, and leave your readers wanting more.

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This was a poster featured on betterposters.blogspot.com, and while they gave some advice on how to improve some of the layout choices, the author did a good job of keeping things simple, putting the results up front and center with simple visuals, and even making a question box for people to leave comments.

Do you have other suggestions or thoughts about conference poster design and presentation? Leave them in the comments below!

BTW, here’s an Infographic version with the 4 poster No-No’s for those who want a way less wordy version!

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