Navigating the popular science media ecosystem today can be daunting for researchers. There are broadcast, print and online media outlets to talk to about your findings, a wide variety of social networks to use as platforms for networking and sharing your research in progress, and podcasters who want to interview you. There are outlets like The Conversation that may invite you to write editorial and news content, high-gloss multimedia content services and creative professionals for hire, and a range of magazines and other online venues that promise to translate your work for broader audiences.
In the midst of this busy media ecosystem, you may have a hard time deciding what platforms are best for communicating your work or commenting on broader scientific news and issues. There’s also often a monetary concern whether we like to acknowledge it or not. When should you communicate science out of a sense of duty or just for the love of it, when should you get paid, and when is it worth paying to communicate your own work?
The issue of paying for and/or getting paid for science communication activities is one that recently became salient for me in a variety of ways. Just as an example, I often have to navigate requests to travel to and speak at scientific and professional science communication conferences. When I’m being asked to present my expertise related to science communication and social media from a professional standpoint, I typically turn down requests that don’t involve travel expenses and honorariums, except when I’m presenting on my own research. Then again, my own research blends with my professional services as a science communication consultant, so the pay vs get-paid issue gets complicated. I think this issue is one that many of us don’t think enough about, or don’t learn enough about, before we are faced with potentially tricky situations.
Let me tell you a story demonstrating an example of this. A number of researchers I know have been contacted by a UK-based science magazine titled Research Features, which through e-mail expressed interest in covering their work. Several of these researchers were subsequently featured within the magazine, online and/or in print. At first glance, the magazine appears to be a glossy, technical but popular science publication boasting articles and Q&As with a variety of high-profile researchers, written by professional communicators. However, more digging reveals that each 4-6 page magazine article requires the profiled researcher(s) to pay a significant chunk of change, upwards of $2,000, to have their work featured. The magazine noticeably lacks advertisements of any kind, and boasts that all of its content is published under a Creative Commons license. It’s unclear exactly how the magazine targets researchers to feature, as some researchers have been contacted based on non-peer-reviewed publications including their research grants or thesis work.
You might ask, what’s wrong paying for high-gloss, supposedly well-written and accessible articles about one’s own research? After all, many researchers are accustomed to paying to have their research articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals (especially when paying for open access publication), and these only reach a small audience of other researchers. Many scientists, especially those enthusiastic about #scicomm, would rather spend money translating their work for a broader audience. And in many cases, there’s nothing wrong with paying for communication materials related to your research. In fact, I encourage researchers to contract with creative professionals including scientific illustrators to create high-impact #scicomm materials.
But several red flags went up for me when I looked closely at Research Features. For one, the magazine’s articles are written to look like journalistic or scientist-profile features, while in reality they are more like public relations materials in disguise. There’s a major lack of transparency here, and transparency is arguably one of the more important characteristics of effective and ethical science communication today.
Allow me a quick sidebar on the importance of transparency in #scicomm. Science communicators have a responsibility to be transparent with the goals and intentions of their messages and communication materials. Passing paid public relations off as anything but is not adhering to this responsibility. The extent to which scientists adhere to transparency and authenticity in communication of their research can impact public trust in scientists and science, which is something we should be concerned about in a society that views scientists as competent but not necessarily warm, or ethical. Scientists and science communicators should always be upfront about potential conflicts of interest.
\ tran(t)s-ˈper-ənt \
Free from pretense or deceit. Easily detected or seen through. Readily understood. Characterized by visibility or accessibility of information especially concerning business practices.
The astute reader of Research Features might notice a lack of writer bylines, direct researcher quotes and quotes from outside experts that are the norm for journalistic pieces, but the magazine uses pull quotes and Q&A sidebars in the place of these traditional practices. Also, nowhere in the magazine is there any mention that these articles were funded by the researchers themselves. Finally, I have a huge issue with researchers spending their hard-earned personal funds or research dollars on content that they don’t retain copyright over and that is driving traffic not to their own sites, universities or scientific institutions, but to a non-journalistic outlet created by a small number of creative professionals.
From my perspective, an article in Research Features is at best not worth paying for (especially since the magazine has a potentially vested interest in misrepresenting its reach and readership), and at worst leads less astute readers to believe they are reading features of research selected by scientifically or journalistically informed editors based on potential for public impact, not the ability of the researchers to pay for a glossy article.
Note: Following a series of not-so-complimentary tweets I published about Research Features this week, the Operations Director for Research Publishing International, a “media agency” that from what I can tell publishes Research Features, contacted me wanting to provide “clarity about our business and speak to a fellow SciComm enthusiast in the process.” I responded, but have yet to engage in an in-person call with the individual.
I wanted to write this blog post not only to urge caution among researchers who receive requests from Research Features or outlets with similar business models and publication structures, but to address the broader issue of who pays for science communication.
I’m a huge proponent of researchers engaging in science communication in general, both to translate their own work and engage in communicating scientific news and issues more broadly. I’m also a proponent of researchers dedicating grant funds, for example, to producing communication materials that translate findings or encourage public engagement, but only when the source and intentions of these materials are clear. For example, I used crowdfunded research funds to pay science illustrator Jen Burgess to create an infographic about science blog readers based on work I had published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. But this graphic is clearly attributed, both to myself and to the illustrator, and I retain license to share this graphic however I’d like to share my research findings.
Paying for science communication materials, especially with designated professional or grant funds, is a great way for researchers to enhance the impact of their work and support professional science communicators and creatives in the process. High-quality scientific art, infographics or research videos are great examples of materials potentially worth paying for. But as a researcher, if you go this route, you should always keep in mind that you have a duty to represent your work realistically and ethically to a public audience. It should be clear how these materials were paid for, where the information came from, who created them and for what purpose. You also have to watch out for yourself – be cautious if you are asked to pay for materials that you won’t end up having control over or rights/license to, or that won’t drive traffic and engagement back to primary scientific information sources.
As a researcher, you should also be aware that there are plenty of opportunities to share your work that don’t require the rare research dollar, much less money from your own pocket. Take advantage of your university or other press office and/or public information officer if you have one, who can help create articles and videos about your research for free (it’s often their job to do so!) They will often work with you to write these articles themselves, or occasionally use university/organizational/institutional resources to pay freelance science writers to produce engaging, accessible content. (Again, such writing should never be passed off as journalism.) These individuals will also help you share your work with media professionals, who may cover your work within publications whose business models rely on advertisements, reader subscriptions, non-profit structures, etc. Traditional media outlets will never charge you for articles they write about your research (unless you are somehow paying for an ad).
You can use social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) and/or reach out to science bloggers in your field to share your research in progress or expertise with a broader audience. There are also outlets like The Conversation that can amplify your research and/or scientific expertise to a broad audience, and that will publish edited pieces you write and pitch to them for free. And finally, there are often no end of science outreach activities you can volunteer to participate in locally, such as science café talks and museum events, that serve as venues for you to communicate your science and encourage public participation.
On the flipside, there are times when you might want to or deserve to get paid for your science communication activities, writing and expertise. Let’s first establish when you shouldn’t get paid. As a general rule, in accordance with journalistic ethics, researchers don’t or can’t get paid for communicating their own research findings. If a journalist is covering your work, you should never expect to get paid, receive research dollars as a direct result, or even to see a copy of the story before it gets published. (If you get to approve everything you said or any information you provided before publication by a media outlet, that’s a hint this is public relations, not journalism.)
You shouldn’t get paid, other than through research or student travel awards, to present a research talk or poster at a scientific conference. Especially if taxpayers funded your research, I could argue that you have an obligation as a member of the academic community to share your findings accessibly with taxpayers in public venues. But you also shouldn’t have to pay for this, unless it’s at a public engagement event budgeted into your project grant.
I believe scientists can get should get paid for their science communication activities when they are writing journalistic/editorial content or sharing information they’ve collected that is not related to or applicable to their own research or academic promotion. As a researcher, you might expect to get paid to give a talk for the professional development of others, for example, or to write articles for media outlets or scientific organizations that involve journalism and/or original research, interviewing, information curation, etc. For example, I got paid good money to write original articles for the “Front Matter” or “Outlook” sections of scientific journals like EMBO Reports and Nature Magazine. Each of these articles required several months of literature review, information collection, interviews and writing, and were overseen by experienced editors whose primary responsibilities were to magazine readers. In fact, I had a piece I spent months on turned down for publication based on editorial review (a piece on women in science which I later published on my blog.)
You might also get paid for pieces or blog posts you write for media outlets like The Conversation or American Scientist, or scientific organizations and publishers, as long as these aren’t written for the purpose of communicating and promoting your own research. That’s where it becomes unethical to accept pay.
Katie Burke writes on Twitter: “I really think scientists should try getting paid #scicomm gigs before they pay others to help them. There is huge demand for #scicomm. If someone new starts small & asks for feedback, they will get the skills they need. Then again, if it's PR […] they should pay for it. But if it's outreach, education, storytelling, etc., then they should be paid, IMHO [in my honest opinion]. It takes a ton of work to do well. There are a lot of new services that ask researchers to pay for workshops etc. Some are great, but some are also pretty $$$. I think a lot of scientists new to #scicomm underestimate their ability to learn this on their own.”
What about other science communication related activities, like workshops? Communication workshops for scientists abound. Some are relatively cheap, like a workshop I helped put on for SciFund Challenge on Instagram for Scientists, and some are exorbitantly expensive. They can be worthwhile, but I don’t think researchers should break the bank or necessarily spend a significant portion of research dollars on communication training. But are also many free science communication workshops for scientists.
If you are researcher at a university or other scientific organization, there’s a high probability that you already have free access to science communication seminars and even extensive training, workshops and speaker coaching opportunities. Check with your public relations or strategic communications office, at your college, university or organization, to see if they offer any media training or workshops. At many universities, graduate students have banded together to create and host science communication training and workshops for other graduate students. There may also be workshops you can attend for free at the leading research conferences in your field. There are also great science communication training opportunities and resources online, such as at Compass Scicomm. And then there are opportunities to practice and get feedback on your oral science presentation skills, such as via Three Minute Thesis events and the TEDx and TED programs.
Finally, if there’s a paid science communication workshop you really want to attend, just ask – your university or organization may sponsor you to go, or you may qualify for a travel or professional development award you can put toward the workshop.
I hope this has been helpful! If you have any questions or concerns about when to pay or get paid for science communication activities, let me know! I’m happy to answer and/or amplify your questions on Twitter, @fromthelabbench.