Communication: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Posted by Lloyd Stringer @lloydstringer2

In this age of mass communication, you’d think that we would be able to communicate our ideas well without any misunderstands occurring. Because of the junk that is filling the internet, we are encouraged to write short and punchy articles (providing supplementary files where the reader can actually find out what was done), and then advertise what we have done to improve the likelihood of being read.

I have been lucky enough to experience different sorts of science communication. I have tried tweeting, but I freely admit that social media isn’t my style- I rarely access my facebook account, so you can imagine how well I treat my twitter account. Another approach I gave a go, was a press release of an article I wrote a few months back. At least with this medium I was able to gauge the uptake by the public. After it was published in the Herald (probably in the online form only) it was picked up by Farmers Weekly (online and printed). It was at this point I knew it was out as I had family members and work colleagues contacting me.

Now there is a point to me blowing my own trumpet. While the press release we made was accurate, the rapid Herald release contained inaccuracies- which I believe looks bad for me (if any of my peers read it).


The second Farmers Weekly article was a much better experience. I had a phone interview with the reporter, then the reporter sent a draft of the article so I could confirm and revise if needed, leading to better outcome for all.

A more recent experience is being caught in the ugly cross-fire between two groups of scientists with ‘opposing’ ideas of fruit fly eradications. I write ‘opposing’ as it appears that both groups are having separate conversations. An article which I am a co-author on was severely criticised and it all looks to be a misunderstanding based on our use of the words ‘same data’, we meant eradication data, where the group with the concerns has interpreted it as exactly the same dataset as theirs. In hindsight this is understandable. Rather than get pulled into the mire, we have decided not to reply to the accusations as:

  1. The journal (tabloid) appears to be trying to egg the discussion on with the use of boxing gloves above the article titles (to increase sales?)
  2. This type of communication is prone to misunderstandings and any outsiders or policy makers will be starting to question the validity of any of earlier reported results.

Boxing gloves

I guess where I am going with this is that we do have the pressure to communicate our information quickly, we are responsible for the words that we write and it is worth the time to ensure that we are as accurate as possible.

Lloyd Stringer is a PhD student at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland, and scientist in the Biosecurity Group and Plant & Food Research, Lincoln. He is studying the effects of population management tools on insect Allee thresholds. He is supervised by Max SucklingJacqueline Beggs, and John Kean

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