How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

COVID-Explained, Finally

I’ve seen the future (of communicating research-based knowledge).

Here: So can you.

COVID-Explained is a brand new site written by scientists, researchers, and students to answer major questions about COVID-19 with simplicity, succinctness, and sound science. (It’s not to be confused with the older site COVID Explained, which has a better URL but isn’t nearly as good.)

Here’s why COVID-Explained is so good:

  • It’s based around users’ questions and users’ needs — from the way it’s organized to the way it’s written to the way it’s designed. The goal of COVID-19 isn’t to promote new research or promote one media outlet’s content. Instead,it’s to own the questions that are ratcheting up our anxiety the most.
  • The answers COVID-Explained provides are as short as possible while being as comprehensive as possible.
  • The answers are written in jargonless English in a light, appealing style. Sometimes, it’s even funny.
  • There are very few links to underlying research — probably too few. But the site’s MO is to summarize knowledge, not to translate research — because people under pressure need knowledge, not research translations.

COVID-Explained curates the pandemic, which is exactly what we need right now.

Here is COVID-Explained’s complete answer to the question “Should I wear gloves?”:

Let’s start with the question of why someone working at a grocery store checkout should wear gloves. Imagine they were not. A customer with COVID-19 comes in, touches all their groceries, then the checkout person touches them. Virus particles could transfer. Then they touch the groceries of the next person; another transfer. These all represent possible infections, so this is a way we’d see virus spread.

How to break the cycle? Well, one way is for the store clerk to wash or sanitize their hands between customers, killing any virus particles. An alternative would be for them to use a pair of gloves, and throw them out between customers. The key is that the gloves must be thrown out between customers. Just wearing gloves alone will not prevent the scenario above, you need new gloves for each person.

We can ask how this extends to you — should you wear gloves while (say) grocery shopping? During the shopping, you could be exposed to virus particles, and they could get on your hands. If you wash your hands or sanitize them after shopping and before you touch your face, this will avoid infection. You could also wear gloves and then either throw them away after shopping or wash them.

However: it is easy to use gloves wrong. If you wear the gloves, and then end up touching them with your bare hands while taking them off, you could be exposed. If you save the gloves without washing them, in principle the virus could survive (this is less likely, depending on how often you shop). Gloves are, in other words, not a substitute for hand washing.

No quotes from authorities. No references. No discussion of uncertainty. Just: Here’s the best available knowledge on that question, and the best practices to which that knowledge points. Expressed in a patient, confident tone and vivid, illustrative images — both the likes of which we rarely see in research communications.

COVID-Explained is the anti-wiki, the anti-research hub, as well as a dramatic improvement on the long usual FAQ. You can’t possibly get lost in a thicket of papers; you get what you need and move on. Emily Oster, the Brown economist who co-leads the COVID-Explained project (and who’s authored bestsellers on pregnancy and parenting and writes the newsletterParentData), told Nieman Lab that her ParentData readers were peppering her with questions about the virus. But instead of “threading this material through the work she’s already doing—the newsletter, various articles and podcasts and interviews,” she decided to build one place for those answers:

“I’m getting great information from professional immunologists and virologists, but I had the sense that they were having a hard time communicating the details of the science to a broader audience,” she said. “That’s something I do a lot of — I think a lot about communicating complicated, science-y topics to a lay audience while retaining some of the nuance — and thought there was something to add there.”

Indeed.

COVID-Explained isn’t perfect. There are lots of questions it hasn’t taken on (then again, it just launched.) But I think COVID-Explained is the future of communicating research-based knowledge, because people are exhausted and sick of assembling their own knowledge (as well as the fear they’ve missed something) through the drip torture dynamic of preprint study-next preprint study-next contradictory preprint study served up to us daily by research communications and science journalism. COVID-Explained it embodies the paradigm of one-stop science-based resource content I’ve been advocating for over the last year. It’s a recognition that, while research communications and journalism are great at telling us about the latest thing, they’re pretty bad at delivering that new information in context .

Oster herself said as much in the Nieman Lab piece:

“It would be helpful if there was a little bit more reflecting of the kind of broader consensus in some of the articles about new findings,” Oster said. “There needs to be a little more care taken in making sure that, when an article reports on some new piece of research, A) is that piece of research peer-reviewed, and B) what do we already know about the subject in this context? That’s been missing more frequently than I would like in some of this coverage.”

Oh, and COVID-Explained has all of 11 people as contributors — four of them undergraduates. So there goes your organization’s excuse why you couldn’t do a similar treatment for some of your topics’ burning questions.

Go. Emulate.