How researchers get heard
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Why Marketers & Scientists Hate Each Other (It’s the Papers)

I’ve worked for more than 20 years with researchers as a communications and marketing professional. I’ve heard every complaint both sides could make about the other — and probably so have you. For me, the usual stereotypes (marketers are fluffy idiots, scientists are literal idiots) stopped being amusing years ago. Instead, I think it’s structure and mindset that driving the two groups toward different goals and different ways of seeing the world. Marketers have to understand those differences before they can work together profitably with scientists and build trust. This week, a short series on how to that:

  1. Science Expresses Itself in Units of Papers

Not always, but most typically. When we hear about science or hear from our scientists, it’s usually because a new paper has been published.

That’s problematic for marketers in a number of different ways:

First: Scientific journals publish an average of 2.5 million papers every year. So we have research inflation. Even if we say more than 99 percent of those have no business being marketed — that 1 percent that’s left easily overwhelms the attention marketplace.

Second: Papers are specialized communications tools, designed to be read by other specialists. There’s no getting around this, no matter how much scientists try to remove jargon from them.

  • Science — especially the science in new papers — is usually nuanced. It’s incremental. It’s full of caveats. And it’s complex.
  • The objective is to make a contribution to science first, not to advance the objectives of your organization.
  • They don’t have strong narratives — that’s not at a premium for a research paper.
  • The recommendations are often pretty timid.
  • The connections to solving real-world problems can often be tenuous
  • AND, peer-reviewed papers are often behind journal paywalls, which means no one who doesn’t have access to a university library (or knows about the websites where all papers are uploaded against the law) can read them.
  • Papers can’t easily be read by non-specialists — they take work to translate. And even when you do the work, you might find they don’t line up with your organization’s priorities or messaging.
  • So they’re not ideal foundations for marketing to non-specialists.

Third: The overemphasis on papers is creating increasing skepticism about papers as discoveries.

Scientists aren’t stupid — and they understand that a paper that purports to make a scientific discovery has a much better chance of getting media coverage, which in turn can catch the attention of funders as well as their colleagues.

  • So they sometimes overframe their findings, in their abstracts and/or when the papers are being promoted.
  • This is why Science Twitter is now a cottage industry in forcing researchers to walk back a lot of their more outlandish claims.
  • We also have increasing numbers of retractions of papers whose findings other scientists have failed to replicate, as well as a refusal by big journals to retract debunked studies they’ve published.
  • The entire incentive structure of science is now relentlessly pushing scientists toward declaring results and framing results in ways that the underlying science doesn’t support.
  • This practice will come back to bite all of us, in terms of public loss of confidence in science.
  • We’ve already seen skepticism about science in certain topics (climate science, GMOS) using funding conflict of interest as one of its main thrusts of attack.

Papers are terrible tools for marketing. The expertise behind the paper — and the authority marketing can create out of that expertise — is the stuff you want to be working with.

Tomorrow: When you work with scientists, they usually expect you to do science communications — which puts marketers immediately behind the 8-ball.