At the Green Science Policy Institute, where I work to communicate science to the public, we’ve seen at first hand how using a good communications strategy for scientific papers can lead to positive change. As a non-profit organization that works to translate science on harmful chemicals into better policies and business practices, it’s an indispensable part of what we do.
Papers are excellent tools for scientist-to-scientist communication, but often, especially with hot topics such as environmental health, it’s important to adapt them into something that can be used by the world’s media. This will ultimately help them have greater impact. For example, publicity around studies1 that found a carcinogen known as chlorinated tris and other harmful flame retardants in products and furniture for children contributed to the chemicals no longer being used in these products in North America.
Colleagues from universities, charities and government agencies often come to us for help in promoting important environmental-health papers. We use a simple process to reach the world’s media, and this could be applied to other scientific fields.
Of course, not all research studies are destined for headlines — even some of the most important science is not digestible or relevant enough to the general public to warrant media coverage. If you’re not sure whether your research is newsworthy, ask your institution’s press office or the journal editor handling your paper, or consult a simple guide from the American Geophysical Union. If you think your next paper could capture the public interest, you can extend its reach by following a few crucial steps.
Set an embargo
The most important way to make your paper newsworthy to reporters is to make sure it’s new. Once a paper is published online, its news value declines hour by hour.
The way to combat this is to make sure that you (or your press officer, either at your institution or at the journal publishing your paper) share a draft with reporters, along with a lay summary of its contents, on the condition that they do not publish any stories on it before a prearranged date. This time period is known as an embargo, and often applies for a few days or weeks before the paper is published in a journal. This ensures that reporters have the time to produce a story that will remain unpublished until your paper is out.
The journal’s author guidelines should tell you its policy on publication dates and embargos, and its press office can often provide more information. For example, Nature’s guidelines explain that once a publication date for a paper is set, authors are allowed a six-day embargo to pitch to journalists before publication.
Sometimes, a journal will let you pick the day and time of online publication. The best days are the middle of the week, to avoid getting lost in journalists’ pre- and post-weekend e-mail clutter, and the best time is early in the morning, before editorial meetings and afternoon deadlines. For more on embargo-setting with journals, read our tip sheet.
Find your hook
Even with a perfectly timed publication date, you need to convey the newsworthiness of your paper through a press release (see ‘Resources’). To do this, your press release should use one or two angles — or ‘hooks’ — that appeal to news values. Common hooks for science news include:
• Broad impact: does what you found affect a large segment of the population?
• Currency: does your paper connect to issues that are already in the spotlight?
• Injustice: does your paper highlight ethnic, socio-economic or other inequalities?
• Irony: are your findings unexpected?
• Controversy: is your paper likely to elicit a backlash from special-interest groups?
• Local: are your findings especially relevant to a particular geographical area?
As an example, our colleagues at the University of Toronto in Canada published a paper1 measuring flame-retardant concentrations on people’s hands and electronics, and in house dust, in June 2020. This was early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when health and science reporters were largely assigned to covering the virus.
However, there was a take-home message that the paper shared with a lot of the coronavirus coverage: the importance of washing hands. Our press release explained that, like viruses, harmful flame retardants can transfer between surfaces and hands. This generated news articles citing the paper as more evidence for the need to wash hands during the pandemic.
Are there people or organizations other than your co-authors who should be part of communicating your paper? This could be a community group that’s directly affected by what you’re studying, a government or industry leader who wants to endorse your findings and communicate the paper to their peers, or a non-governmental organization with expertise in the policy implications of your research.
Bringing stakeholders into your communications can give your research context and human interest, and it can illuminate solutions.
You can involve partners by quoting them in your press release, or even suggesting they do their own press release or campaign after your paper is published. The earlier you involve these partners in the research process, the better.
For example, in June, the institute and our collaborators published a study2 finding potentially harmful per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in just over half of the 231 North American make-up products we tested. Before picking a date to release those findings, we reached out to a group of US politicians who are leading legislative efforts to reduce consumer exposure to PFAS. We then coordinated the release of the paper with the introduction of a Senate bill to ban PFAS in cosmetics, making a big news splash for both the problem and a solution. We also gave advance notice of the paper and bill to the advocacy group Breast Cancer Action, who kicked off a campaign to get Americans to ask their representatives to support the bill the same day.
Some scientists are wary of seeking press attention, fearing their findings might be exaggerated, sensationalized or otherwise misrepresented. This is a legitimate concern, particularly in health research. For example, news articles sometimes overhype biomedical studies conducted on animal models and cultured cells. There’s even a Twitter account dedicated to amending the headlines of such articles with a clarification: “IN MICE”.
The source of misleading coverage isn’t always overzealous journalists. Research from Cardiff University, UK, suggests that overstatements can often be traced back to university press releases. You should have ultimate control over the content of your press release, and you can strengthen it to curb bad coverage3. In fact, multiple studies have found that more-accurate press releases don’t receive less coverage, and that the coverage is more accurate4,5.
This means you should ruthlessly fact-check your press release and any other materials before they are finalized. This is especially true if collaborators or press officers contributed to the press release. Any inaccuracies or even subtle exaggerations that slip through might be amplified by the media. You should take a critical eye to statements related to causality and where necessary, add words such as ‘may’, ‘could’ or ‘potentially’.
You also want to make sure the press release isn’t misleading by omission. Include important context and caveats (was the study in mice?) prominently in the press release.
Make your plan
Because these steps usually involve multiple parties — authors, journals, press officers and partners — you should write down your communications plan. A thorough communications plan should walk you through the preparation, messaging and distribution of the press release and any other materials. You can find a template to start your plan here.
This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.
Yang, C. et al. Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. 7, 585–593 (2020).
Whitehead, H. D. et al. Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. 8, 538–544 (2021).
Sumner, P. et al. BMJ 349, g7015 (2014).
Sumner, P. et al. PLoS ONE 11, e0168217 (2016).
Adams R. C. et al. BMC Med. 17, 91 (2019).
The author declares no competing interests.