I’m under no illusion that the job of most research communicators is to promote research — which results, inevitably, in errors of spin and exaggeration of individual research findings and impact.
Research needs promotion. That promotion also needs interrogation. Both are necessary, but research comms acts too often about both as if it’s putting on a school play, not engaging in professional practice. We’re jealous of other people’s really successful promotional efforts, as if there’s a world that exists without promotion. We’re secretly pleased when someone else’s study or the promotion of it goes down in flames — but are we submitting our own marketing and communication to scrutiny so we can learn and get better?
The researcher Benjamin Bryant asked late last week on Twitter if there were any other Twitter feeds like @justsaysinmice, the now wildly popular account that flags medical research findings with results promoted as applicable to humans but, alas, have only been tested in mice (or rats, or dolphins, or petri dishes). As one wag put it: “adding ‘in mice’ to many science headlines drastically improves their accuracy.”
@justsaysinmice is a sensation among medical scientists and science writers, who both delight when colleagues are called out for overhyping a study and are terrified of themselves being called out by it. Although there is still no shortage of material for James Heathers, the scientist who runs @justsaysinmice, to choose from, it’s not an exaggeration to say the account has bent toward accuracy how medical research is covered, at least by media on Twitter. Which is why Bryant posed his question this way:
@justsaysrisks, which several of Bryant’s followers suggested, might eventually be an even more important #scicomm intervention than @justsaysinmice. @justsaysrisks calls out science communication and journalism that confuse relative risk (the ratio of one risk to another) with absolute risk (one risk subtracted from another).
For instance, writes Gid M-K, the keeper of @justsaysrisks, headlines for a recent study about skipping breakfast and risk of dying heart disease blared that skipping breakfast doubled that risk, as compared with eating breakfast every day.
Actually, the rate of heart disease for people who always ate breakfast was 0.64%, and 0.73% for those who never ate it. That means the relative risk was 14%, but the absolute risk — the increase in risk — was only 0.09 percent.
“Another way to put this is that 6 in 1,000 people who always eat breakfast die from heart disease each year,” writes M-K, “whereas 7 in 1,000 people who never eat breakfast do.” Not much of a headline, of course.
The confounding of relative and absolute risk happens all the time in research comms and reporting — for the sake of a good headline. But for the sake of research, @justsaysrisks should have at least as many followers and as much buzz as @justsaysinmice. There should be other accounts as well (someone else in Bryant’s feed suggested an N<20 account).
But, as with newspaper corrections, the flip side of these accounts worries me: As long as they’re doing the job (and Twitter catches the other egregious examples), no one else need worry. No skull horns here.
Takeaway: Promotion should push your messages right to the limits of what scientific credibility can justify.
Interrogating that promotion should show you precisely where those limits are.
The two combined are the essence of a good research comms and marketing practice. One can be as creative in interrogation as in promotion. The pleasures are subtler, but the value is equal.