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Scientists should be science communicators

PhD candidate Vinny Ricciardi believes research deserves to be communicated widely. His preferred method: Infographics.

About a year ago, our lab was ramping up our communications to more general audiences (check out our blog). When considering engaging in science communication, I had a knee-jerk reaction to adding another thing to my plate; as a PhD student with looming dissertation deadlines and papers to submit, how could I find time to write blog posts, create apps or infographics, or build up a social media presence?

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Amidst these concerns, my taste for interacting with broader audiences was whet when I saw its impacts for myself. My first foray into the science communication world was tweeting a paper I was lead author on. I was amazed to see my post summarizing my research study was tweeted and retweeted around 400 times. Although that was nowhere near the Tweeting-world’s appetite for three dogs sticking out their tongues (at 20k likes and 4500 retweets)!

While small farms pale in comparison to canine adoration, my small first post inspired some insightful follow-up questions from non-academics. A journalist wanted to know how our global results scaled down to the U.S. So, I made a small interactive web application to let readers explore the data set. A development professional asked if other types of small farms, like family or subsistence farms, rather than commercial farms, also followed this trend. These questions prompted our lab to work on several other projects.

From these new project ideas and positive interactions, I began to realize science communication was worth my time.

Now I want to convince you, other researchers, that you should communicate your results to a non-academic audience. There are three main reasons I think your research should and can be heard.

First, it’s a much smaller step to reach non-academics than it seems.

You’re already communicating your research. With each new analysis you have to convince your advisors, potential collaborators, colleagues, or funders that you have an interesting question and/or result. When presenting at conferences, you have to string a story together. Reaching a non-academic audience or researchers in a different field just takes a new spin on your story.

Second, it will make your science better.

From a small tweet about my new paper, I received feedback on how I could have made it better. I had two new paper ideas from reading through comments. And, I used the interactions to try out different ways to frame my research.

Third, technology has made it easier than ever to communicate your results clearly to a broad audience. There are many free tools available to make your work interactive and more enticing to non-academics:

  • Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are great ways to share your recent paper. If you don’t have many followers, try tweeting at an organization or person you think would be interested in your research.
  • There is an awesome online application called Esri Story Map (free!). With no coding skills needed, you can make very polished interactive story boards with maps built in (here’s a sample I built).
  • If you’re seeking more customizable maps that are interactive, head over to Carto DB. They have maps you can make and publish for free that don’t require any coding skills (here’s a rather overloaded sample I built).
  • If you’re a quantitative researcher, you probably use coding languages (like R and Python) for analysis. The popular R plotting library ggplot or the everso-flexible Python plotting library matplotlib can easily be converted into interactive plots with Plotly (tutorials here and here). R has its own amazing RShiny that lets R users build online and easy to deploy interactive dashboards. Python and Plotly paired up to have a similar project called Plotly Dash.
  • If you want to start tracking the lesstraditional impacts of both your research and engagement, beyond citations, try using Altmetric (also free!). It gives you a dashboard of who has cited you, tweeted about your paper, if your research has made it into policy briefs or patents, and much more (here’s a sample).
  • There are also a growing number of web developer schools that are happy for their students to pair up with researchers to communicate science (our lab paired up with the Red Academy and created this website to explore the global food system, a project led by Dr. Zia Mehrabi).

The best part about these tools, especially the interactive ones, is that they’ve helped me explore my data in new ways. I build little apps to share with my advisor, collaborators and just myself when I am trying to understand a new data set.

In essence, I think research deserves to be communicated beyond the lab, journals, and conferences. It might seem like extra work, but these new types of tools make the process easier than ever and they allow us to interact with our research and other people in a new way.

About Vinny 

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Vinny Ricciardi has a MSc degree in geography and is now a PhD candidate in resource management and environmental studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Through his research, he uses data science techniques to understand the role of small farms in the global food system. He enjoys making interactive websites to help others explore his research – check out his apps at vinnyricciardi.github.io. When he’s not at his computer, you can usually find him unicycling, mountain biking, cooking, or wandering the woods.

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