NATURE CAREERS PODCAST

Working Scientist podcast: How to get media coverage for your research

Your paper has been accepted, reviewed and published. Now you need to get it talked about by journalists, the public, your peers and funders.

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A published paper is all well and good, but it is hard for it to have much impact on the wider world if nobody is reading it.

Pippa Whitehouse recalls seeking advice and media training from colleagues in her university press office when her first paper was published.

“I recorded some soundbites and listened back to them and reflected on how to communicate information very clearly. It gave me a lot of confidence,” says Whitehouse, an Antarctica researcher at the University of Durham, UK.

”All of the interaction I've had with the press has been really positive,” she adds. “It can seem a little bit daunting to begin with, but if you give it a go I think you'll find the media are very interested in finding out about science.”

In the third episode of this four-part podcast series about getting published, Jane Hughes describes her role as director of communications and public engagement at The Francis Crick Institute in London.

She and her team help 1,500 researchers communicate their science to the press, public, policymakers and funders. Hughes recommends reaching out to press-office colleagues as soon as possible to discuss a paper's potential for attracting newspaper, broadcast or online media coverage.

Researchers can take other steps themselves to get a paper talked about, she tells Levy. ”One thing that can make a difference is an image, a video or something alongside the paper that you can share on social media,” says Hughes.

She also warns against over-hyping a paper's findings. ”Try not to sensationalize or over-simplify. You can work with your press office to make sure the message gets across properly.”

This editorially independent podcast is one episode in a four-part Working Scientist series on getting published. It is supported by the University of Sydney. Find out more about this content.

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Transcript

A published paper is all well and good, but it is hard for it to have much impact on the wider world if nobody is reading it.

This four-part Working Scientist podcast is supported by the University of Sydney. Explore our research at sydney.edu.au.

Adam Levy

Hello, I’m Adam Levy and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. In this series, we’re looking at the treacherous task of publishing a paper.

In the last two episodes, we’ve looked at what it takes to get your paper published. In episode one we broke down how to prepare a manuscript, and in episode two we looked at how to navigate the peer-review process. In this episode, we’re going beyond the paper itself and looking at how to promote your publication. After all, a published paper is all well and good, but if no one’s reading it, it’s hard for it to have much impact on the wider world. Last week, we spoke with Heike Langenberg, who is the chief editor of Communications Earth & Environment. Heike told us all about responding to peer reviewers, but during our conversation, she also gave me her top tip for getting your research read.

Heike Langenberg

Well, the best way to reach as many people as possible, I would say, is before publication, and that is to write a paper that is concise, clear and easy to understand so that people who want to read the paper can easily do so.

Adam Levy

Which makes sense – making your paper readable will help people read your paper. But there are other steps researchers can, maybe even should, take to help get their papers seen, seen by others working in science of course, from researchers in the same field to potential employers or funders and seen by the wider world outside of academia, from policymakers to the general public. Psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda is based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, and he has experienced first-hand how important it can be to humanise your research by telling a compelling narrative.

Dixon Chibanda

One of my big publications was linked to the work that I do here on the Friendship Bench, which is a brief psychological intervention delivered by trained community grandmothers. At the time, I kind of underestimated the impact that would have, but I also learned from that the importance of telling your story because all of a sudden, you get this attention and as a researcher it becomes very important to be able to tell your story. So, if there’s a message I’d like to send out there it’s that whatever work you’re doing, make sure you’re telling your story.

Adam Levy

Of course, explaining your work to an audience, whether they’re experts in your field or interested members of the public, can be nerve-wracking, but those nerves are worth conquering, says Dixon.

Dixon Chibanda

Naturally, most of us do get a bit nervous or anxious when we stand in front of a crowd or an audience to talk about our work, but I think there are ways of preparing yourself. What we traditionally do in our team if anyone of our team members is going to be presenting to an external audience, we will practice within our closed group. I always say to my PhD students, ‘If you cannot articulate the work that you’re doing in your local language for the villagers in your local village then you’re missing the point.’

Adam Levy

Reaching out with your work isn’t just about giving talks though. It can also involve pushing your paper out through the media. That can mean traditional media – newspapers, radio, etc. Or it can mean social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, even YouTube. It can feel quite unnatural to take these steps, especially early in your career, says neuroscientist Agustin Ibanez. He’s at the Institute of Cognitive and Translational Neuroscience in the Argentina and the University of California, San Francisco.

Agustin Ibanez

It was a very, very late-stage strategy. So, for my first paper, I never was on Twitter, Facebook or in any newspapers.

Adam Levy

Now that Agustin has gained more experience collaborating with researchers around the world, he’s become accustomed to pushing his work to wider audiences.

Agustin Ibanez

Now, we use a lot of social media to disseminate our work. We also sometimes, when we publish a really good paper, we contact different newspapers or journalists and try to disseminate like that.

Adam Levy

Many researchers can be wary of these kinds of interactions. After all, no one wants to see their work misunderstood or misrepresented. For Agustin, this concern is especially pronounced in Latin America, where he is primarily based.

Agustin Ibanez

Yeah, I think there is a tension between how to attract more people, how to be very clear about the results. And I will say that in general in Latin America, there really is an absence of scientific journalist training. So, the journalists, in general, try to highlight as much as possible the results and sometimes this means that they say something more than is really happening in the work.

Adam Levy

But in spite of this risk, Agustin feels that the payoff from getting your work disseminated makes the effort more than worth it.

Agustin Ibanez

It’s not an easy way but after you make this additional effort, you realise how important it is to integrate the results with opinions and with society at large.

Adam Levy

Environmental scientist Jen Burney of the University of California, San Diego knows that getting a paper seen is a tricky balancing act with getting a paper well understood. Fairly early in her career, she learnt this the hard way when a paper she published got a lot of attention but not necessarily the right kind of attention.

Jen Burney

I had a paper that I wrote when I was a postdoc. That was when I learned the hard lesson of writing a press release to go along with a paper because it got picked up fairly widely and it got pretty wildly misinterpreted.

Adam Levy

Over the course of her career, Jen has gained a few insights in how to ensure that her work is represented as faithfully as possible. One is to work out in advance what areas of confusion might be.

Jen Burney

Typically, having been through the peer-review process, you understand where the potential misconceptions are about what you’ve done. The way somebody else reads your work in the peer-review process is really useful for thinking about the way that the public might read your work and what needs to be made really clear.

Adam Levy

Some researchers are great at taking steps to promote their own work, ensuring that it’s well understood. But even if that’s not your strength, support is often at hand to help you get your work seen.

Jen Burney

One thing that I found really helpful is working with my university’s news office. The university loves to publicise what their faculty and students are doing, and so if I have a paper that’s accepted and I know when it’s going to come out, I will work with our liaison in the news office to write a press release.

Adam Levy

Antarctica scientist Pippa Whitehouse of Durham University in the UK has also gained a lot from working with her university’s press office. Not only can they make sure that work gets seen by the press, but they can also provide training so that any interviews with journalists are that much less daunting.

Jen Burney

So, I contacted the people here at Durham and they forced me to record some soundbites and listen back to them and reflect on how to communicate information very clearly. That gave me a lot of confidence, and all the interaction I’ve had with the press has been really positive, actually. It can seem a little bit daunting to begin with, but if you give it a go, I think you’ll find that the media are very interested in finding out about science, and I really enjoyed it as well.

Adam Levy

It’s clear that press offices are incredibly useful hubs for researchers, and press officers typically have plenty of advice. So, I got in touch with Jane Hughes, Director of Communications and Public Engagement at the Francis Crick Institute, which is just around the corner from Nature HQ in London. Jane’s job means supporting quite a large number of researchers.

Jane Hughes

Overall, it’s 1,500. About 1,200 of them are in science roles and then there are about 300 support staff.

Adam Levy

That seems like quite a lot of people to be managing the public image of.

Jane Hughes

Yes, it’s a lot of responsibility sometimes, but it’s a wonderful place to work.

Adam Levy

Now, when it comes to promoting their own work, when do you think scientists should start thinking about how their paper will reach as many people as possible?

Jane Hughes

My advice would always be as soon as you know that you’ve got a paper that’s been accepted for publication and you’re thinking, ‘This is a good one. I’m excited about this. I think people are going to be interested I this.’ Even if you’re not sure, that’s the point when you should be getting in touch with your press office because the more notice that we’ve got, the better it is in terms of thinking, ‘How can we make this make the most impact possible?’ As soon as you get a feeling that it’s worth letting the press office know about it, please do. And even if you’re not sure, come and have a chat with us because we can talk through with you what your research is about, and we’re the ones who really know is this is going to get in the papers? Is this going to be something for us to have on our websites or social media channels? Is this something that people are going to be interested in and excited about hearing more about?

Adam Levy

Now, I suppose not all of the promotion goes through the press office. Are there steps that researchers can take on their own to kind of do their own outreach?

Jane Hughes

Well, I’ve been thinking about this, and one of the things that really makes a difference is if there’s an interesting image or an interesting video or a bit of extra kind of stuff alongside the paper which you can share on social media, that you can get people looking at and thinking about that just gives it that bit of extra kind of interest and helps bring the research to life. To take one example, I was looking at a paper that one of our researchers published a few months ago, and he had a really nice little video showing how tumours evolve and how they can evolve differently, and that video was something that we put up on our social media channels and shared, and people really got what he was talking about because they were able to look at that video and understand it, and it was just interesting. Even if it’s not going to get into the papers or get on television or on the radio or on other people’s websites, that’s enough for you, if you’ve got something like that, to share on social media and get around the people who you follow and who follow you, and it can really easily take off from that.

Adam Levy

I’d definitely say as well, just from making podcasts, when there’s a paper and you think, ‘Oh, look, they’ve got some audio of these bats exploding,’ or whatever it happens to be, then you think, ‘Oh, well, people are going to love to listen to this.’

Jane Hughes

Yes, exactly. And another of our researchers was actually doing a talk at the Crick about the work he’d done looking at the behaviour of pregnant mice and how pregnancy changes the way mice behave. He had a teeny little video of a mouse going and getting food and being more defensive of baby mice even if they weren’t that mouse’s baby mice, and just seeing that video really brought to life the research that he was doing, so those are the kinds of things that really work for people who are trying to understand your research and are really kind of shareable.

Adam Levy

And that’s also something that one of the researchers I interviewed, Pippa Whitehouse, mentioned for getting your work seen by academic audiences, that having great figures or a smart title can help get your work seen.

Pippa Whitehouse

A key one is to have a killer figure in there. I had a paper published recently, and I’ve definitely seen the main figure used by others in talks more than it’s actually got citations at the moment. I think it’s important to think about the title. A lot of ways that people get their journal alerts now are by selecting keywords, and so it’s definitely worth thinking about what keywords need to be in there so that it appears on people’s feeds when they get those alerts.

Adam Levy

Jane, that’s what researchers themselves can do to make their work more appealing. What’s actually the role of the press office in all of this?

Jane Hughes

A press officer knows all of the journalists in your field. They know the science journalists on different newspapers and on different broadcasters and all the relevant websites, and what they can do is talk to you about what your research consists of, think about who’s going to be interested in it and then start having conversations with them. And just by warming them up and getting them interested, it increases the chances that they’re going to want to write about it or interview the researcher about it or do something about it when it actually appears and is published. And then the other thing they can be thinking about is if this is a really big piece of news and it’s got the potential to get on television, for example, or get on the radio, they can be thinking, ‘Okay, well who are they going to want to interview about this? Who are they going to want to film? What are they going to want to see?’ So, it’s all that kind of planning in advance and laying the groundwork ready to go so that when the paper is actually published, it’s got the best possible chance of getting the most attention from the people who are most likely to be interested in it.

Adam Levy

Now, I know for a lot of researchers, the prospect of some of this might be a bit scary – the idea of getting the wrong kind of media coverage, perhaps, or things being reported in the wrong way or also just the limelight being shone on the researcher as an individual. What would you say to researchers who are a bit more nervous about their work being broadcast more broadly?

Jane Hughes

Actually, that’s where the press office comes in. If you’ve got a good press office where you work, they’re going to work very hard to make sure they talk to the right journalists who aren’t going to try and sensationalise or oversimplify your research, and by having that time to have those conversations in advance and really explain the research, they’re going to work with them to make sure that it gets across properly. But I think there’s another side to that as well, which is be aware yourself that you must avoid over sensationalising, over hyping, over promising on your science so that it doesn’t kind of oversell the research you’re doing.

Adam Levy

Of course, some researchers go above and beyond to promote their work and others giving public talks and going on Twitter and other social media. Do you think this is something all scientist should be doing?

Jane Hughes

I guess I would say this because of the job I do, but yes, I do. I think one of the responsibilities as a scientist that you have is to help people understand the work you’re doing and kind of create a climate which is supportive of what you’re doing. As scientists, everybody has a responsibility to try and break down those barriers and help the people who are wary and that don’t understand it and perhaps haven’t studied science at school or haven’t studied it to a very high level, help them to understand it. If members of the public don’t understand it and don’t understand why it matters then it kind of makes your job more uphill work. It makes your job harder.

Adam Levy

As a press officer, what’s your favourite part of the process?

Jane Hughes

I think my favourite part is when you’ve talked to somebody and thought, ‘This is really exciting. This is a really interesting piece of work. I think we can get some journalists interested in that.’ And then you see that actually happening. So, really early in my time here, I worked with one of our researchers, Charlie Swanton. Seeing his really important work getting lots of visibility and people right the way around the world seeing it and understanding the importance of it – it’s such a thrill. And going back to what we were talking about earlier, seeing it being reported in responsible way that made it clear why that was research that had the potential to change the lives of people with cancer in the future, but it wasn’t going to do it tomorrow. That was a real thrill.

Adam Levy

And on the flipside, are there any, I suppose, pet peeves you have that you come across all the time?

Jane Hughes

Well, I think the pet peeve, again going back to something I was saying earlier on, is when you’ve tried very hard with a journalist to get them to understand, or else you haven’t been able to have a conversation with the journalist, and they’ve picked up a press release and haven’t talked to you and then they have just pulled unconnected facts out and overhyped something and turned what was a story about an important piece of maybe early-stage research, and they’ve turned that into something that really overpromises and gets people who think they might be able to benefit from this tomorrow excited and invested. And there may be somebody with cancer who is clinging on to hope because they’re in the late stages of the disease, and I hate to see those people getting their hopes raised and then dashed because they realise that actually, what they’re reading about is an exaggeration of what the research has actually done.

Adam Levy

Do you ever get surprised by the papers which do get the press excited?

Jane Hughes

One of the things about getting things in the media is that you never know what else is going to be in the news that day, so it’s very unpredictable, and there can be days where you’re taken by surprise because it just happened that there wasn’t much else going on and so something that you thought might get a little bit of interest actually got a lot more. So, it is really unpredictable.

Adam Levy

Are there any particular pitfalls that you would say researchers themselves should be aware of when they’re promoting their work, either by themselves or with the support of the press office?

Jane Hughes

Really avoid over sensationalising or over promising with your research. Be straightforward about what it is actually saying, and then don’t feel you’ve got to show off how difficult or complex or hard to explain your research is because that’s going to just be a big turnoff to people who don’t understand it. You’re going to be talking to people who have got all sorts of other things to try and get their attention, so just make it as simple and clear and straightforward as you can.

Adam Levy

That was Jane Hughes of the Francis Crick Institute. And our researchers have more tips on how to have productive interactions with journalists. For one, Jen points out that the timescales of news cycles are very different to the timescales of most research.

Jen Burney

Yeah, I think it’s important to take those requests seriously and importantly, to take them in a timely manner because science proceeds at a very slow pace compared to the press world. It’s typically really fun to talk to reporters. It’s a really interesting view, particularly because science reporters often have a really a much broader understanding of the scientific world than a given scientist in their domain, so I like hearing what their perspective is on this.

Adam Levy

And all of this isn’t just about getting more people to know about your work. Dixon points out that disseminating your work can have direct benefits on your research, whether you’re spreading the word through the press, social media or talks.

Dixon Chibanda

So, I do all of those things and I think that’s helped me tremendously over the years, not only to get the publicity for the work that we do but also to network with alternative funders who are interested in the work that we’re doing. So, it’s good to not put your work away once it’s published, but to really ask yourself how can you take it to the next level.

Adam Levy

So, promoting your research can get it to a wider audience and help form connections with other researchers and even funders. But there’s another more personal benefit to all of this too. Here’s Agustin.

Agustin Ibanez

The really, really important thing is to learn how to explain in a more simple way your research. This will make you a better researcher. So, when you can explain in a clear way what you are doing, you understand better your own research.

Adam Levy

So, where next for you and your publications? Well, we’ve discussed how to get that paper published and publicised. But the paper landscape is changing, and the way the process works may be pretty different in the future. And we’ll be discussing exactly that – the future of the paper – in the next and final episode of this Nature Careers podcast. See you then. I’m Adam Levy.