Annual Meeting Reports

Transforming Journal Content for the Public’s Use

Storytelling is the basic unit of communication that connects us with each other. It can be difficult for scientific journals to make their content accessible and available to a broader audience that is not necessarily part of the scientific community but may be interested in or affected by the findings reported. It is difficult to communicate what we don’t know to an audience made up of “regular people”. But most scientific studies have good stories behind them. Telling those stories in a compelling way is crucial for disseminating information to a wide audience.

Disseminating information faster and more efficiently is key to reaching a broader audience. If a breaking story or influential research is being published, be sure to alert the mass media. Embargo your research; give the press access to the news before the research is officially published. You can use your authors’ academic connections, such as a university’s or department’s press office, to spread the news concerning the story via press releases. Be sure to get your information to the press as soon as possible. Provide at least a few days for the embargo.

When looking for articles and stories to bring to the public’s attention, be selective. Two aspects of a story make it relevant and interesting to an audience: timing and proximity. Timing is pivotal in publishing a story. An article about beach-hole deaths is relevant if published in June but has a much smaller impact if published in January. Proximity affects how much the audience will be affected by a story. The closer the story is to the audience, the bigger its impact.

A former senior medical writer for WebMD, Daniel DeNoon suggested that the audience consider the question, What are people going to read? Medical news can have a large influence and is likely to be covered by the mass media and to reach ordinary people. Human studies, late-stage studies, and women’s health studies are usually interesting to the general population. Perspective and editorial pieces help to put findings into context and make it likely that the lay press will understand and report study results. When celebrities are affected by unusual or compelling medical issues, there is intense mass-media interest in these issues. “Gross” stories, such as stories about flesh-eating bacteria, also easily catch readers’ attention.

Mike Stobbe, a public-health reporter with the Associated Press, listed six types of studies and stories that he’s wary of: animal trials and phase I or II trials; studies that identify genes and explain disease development, especially of rare diseases; studies in which researchers have a conflict of interest; studies that present findings in relative terms; stories that raise questions rather than provide answers; and stories that give conflicting opinions.

When scientific information is published for a broader, nonscientific audience, a disconnect between the writer and the audience can be common. Karen Hilyard is assistant professor of health communications at the University of Georgia, a National Science Foundation fellow, and part of the Foundation’s “To Think, To Write, To Publish” project. The project bridges the disconnect between scientists and the public through creative nonfiction. Scholars and writers collaborate on creative nonfiction that discusses research to engage the public. Creative nonfiction is a new and accessible way to raise awareness about scientific issues. It uses scenes, action, dialogue, and inner monologue to tell a story that reads more like a novel than a news story. The researchers can write a memoir-like reflection or a third person account. Creative nonfiction can also use verified facts to recreate scenes in history. It shows, rather than tells, readers why they should be interested in the story.

This session offered creative ideas for helping publishers to make their journals’ content more accessible to a broad audience. The speakers addressed press-release strategies, recommended topics for press releases, and discussed modes of communication, especially creative nonfiction.