Technical report: Social Media & Public Health Research

This blog was set up as part of a research project conducted at the Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Public Health.

The research project was focused on the use of social media in the communication of research in public health sciences. The technical report, completed by myself and Professor Thomas Söderqvist, is now ready, and I’m happy to be able to share it with you all here on this blog.

Technical Report: Social Media and Public Health Research (find abstract below)

The report is a working report and the basis for more research. We therefore look forward to critical comments, debate and suggestions for future work.

Abstract

Ten years after its introduction, web and mobile based social media have become an integral part of modern society. The point of departure for this report is that social media will also play an increasingly important role for public health researchers.

One obvious use of social media is for communication between scientists and the public. In contrast to traditional one-way dissemination, social media can foster a more intense, engaging and democratic discussion about public health problems between researchers, public health officers, general practitioners, and the general public.

By providing platforms for knowledge sharing and scientific discussions, social media also offers great opportunities for public health science networking. The cross-disciplinary and community-oriented features of social media make it ideally suited for informal and rapid communication among public health researchers globally. In addition, social media can also be utilised for data collection and data sharing and as a tool in public health teaching programmes.

Like all other modes of communication, social media has its advantages and problems. Its major strength – the rapid, informal and open structure of communication – also opens up for potential misuse and lack of quality control. Another perceived problem is that social media allegedly takes time away from research; however, as this report points out, social media, when properly used, can be yet another support tool for research.

The report ends with an overview of research topics that can help foster a deeper understanding of how social media can facilitate public health research and public communication.

The thrust of this report is that public health research communication goes beyond the mission and capacity of university communication departments; that science communication is a continuous component of the entire research process; and that public science communication is a task for individual researchers as well.


Seminar: Medicine 2.0: Social media in medical research and practice

Today, on Monday 29 October 2012, Medical Museion and the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at University of Copenhagen is hosting a meeting on social media in medical research and practice.

Social media have conquered society. They are now also making their way into medical research and practice. What can doctors and researchers gain from using social media? How will these media change medical science and practice?

The meeting will kick off with 30-minute presentations by international experts in medical science communication and also active social media users:

  • Dr. Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), advocate for ”open access publishing” and very active on social media
  • Dr. Bertalan Meskó, founder of www.webicina.com and one of the world’s leading experts in the field of medicine and social media

Following the talks, the audience will be invited to discuss with a panel, which also includes MD PhD journalist Charlotte Strøm and me who has had the honor of being refered to as a Danish specialist in medical communication Nina Bjerglund Andersen.

The event is open to everyone and will be in English. No sign-up required.

Event details:

Date: 29 October 2012, 14:00 – 16:00
Location: Haderup-auditoriet, bygning 20, Panum, Nørre Allé 20, Copenhagen
Organiser: Faculty of Health Sciences and Section for Science Communication, NNF Center for Basic Metabolic Research in collaboration with the Copenhagen Graduate School of Health and Medical Sciences.
Contact: Research assistant Lasse Frank, lasse.frank@sund.ku.dk or professor Thomas Söderqvist, thss@sund.ku.dk, tel. 2875 3801



No simple recipe for translating science

The second module of the course in Public Health Science Communication focused on Translating Science to Traditional Media. On paper a nice and concrete topic – but both choosing literature for the syllabus and preparing for the class proved a little bit more challenging. Because what does ‘translating science’ mean? And is there a recipe for doing so?

The simple answer to the last question is: no. There is no formula to follow or an optimal way of doing it. It depends on the scientific topic, the scientist, the context, the targeted audience and the chosen media. This was one of the take home messages for the students. Not a very helpful message I fear. Hopefully, they did get something out of the module despite the lack of clear-cut facts and recipes. As a theoretical background, the students were presented with some perspectives on historical developments in the theories of public communication of science. The idea was to show the students how motivations behind communicating to the public had changed over time, and how the perception of the public influences how and why scientists communicate. For me personally, understanding developments in different approaches to translating science helps me think about how science can be translated today.

Framing

The power of ‘framing’ in translating science and reaching target groups was also talked about. The article by Myers, Nisbet et al A public health frame arouses hopeful emotions about climate change gave a nice public health context and demonstrated the power of health topics which is something all people can relate to. It was however just an appetizer for the extensive ‘framing’ approach.

We also had a nice discussion about whether and why scientists should communicate to the public. And what advantages the scientist may have for communicating (as the common perception is that scientists are bad communicators). The discussion was helped along by the article Of course scientists can communicate by Tim Radford. Again, there is no right or wrong answer for this, but the discussion gave a good feel for the challenges in translating science, but also some of the mechanisms that could help this communication along.

A lot of video clips, sounds clips and images were used to inspire and illustrate different ways of translating science:

Some more examples were shared by readers of this blog in the comments section. Thanks to all, and keep’m coming.

Some practical writing tips and tools

Although the course is not a practical communication or writing class I chose to spend some time on some basic communication tricks. Tricks that I was introduced to at the Danish School of Journalism and which I have found useful – especially for my written language. Many of the concrete writing tips can be found in Roy Peter Clark’s book Writing Tools – 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (short online version is available and podcasts). Simple things like thinking about making your verbs active, choosing your verbs with care, walking up and down the ladder of abstraction, remembering the inverted news triangle, reading your text aloud while walking etc. It was all a bit rushed and a whole writing course would have been relevant – but unfortunately it could due to time restraints only be an appetizer.


Why should we do public health science if we can’t communicate it?

The course Public Health Science Communication went live Wednesday last week! And based on the first experiences it survived the encounter with the students, is still in good shape and looking forward to moving on to module two this coming Wednesday.

Since the concept “public health science communication” is still not a household concept and does to my knowledge not (yet) have a Wikipedia entry or a crystal clear definition, I found it useful during the first lesson to ask the students what they, in one sentence, considered public health science communication to be. It gave some interesting responses, of which I here share a few:

In one sentences: What is public health science communication?

  • Simplifying public health science so that it is easier to understand for the public
  • Public health science communication is the science of communication of scientific research to the public
  • Communicating the essence of public health research to the public
  • It’s an interaction among public health workers, public and policy makers to improve health of general public
  • Ways to create greater understanding amongst public, governments and general public about advances in science in particular and relevant formats
  • Communication of scientific health information translated into understandable messages to the public
  • That it is important – why should we do public health science if we can’t communicate it?

Most of the responses are not surprising, and combining them gets us around several aspects of the concept. I do however still find it a little surprising that focus is so heavily on communicating to the public. Where is communication with researchers? Only a few mention e.g. policymakers and public health practitioners. Of course the word public could be understood in its broadest sense – but my feeling is that many are thinking about Mr and Mrs Smith/Jensen/Sanchez when they say “the public”. Some also understood public health science communication to be communicating for behavioral change, which would probably fall more under health communication. Secondly, it seems that science communication is regarded as being about communicating to the public and not with the public. I look forward to expanding the students’ perception of this in the coming weeks.

All the responses are interesting, but my favorite response is this one: “That it is important – why should we do public health science if we can’t communicate it?” In my head it nails it completely.

I also asked the student what they expected to learn. Below some of their responses:

What do you expect to learn?

  • How to be a better communicator of science
  • I expect to learn something about how to communicate public health science to the public, what information is interesting for ”the public” and which strategies are useful in communicating and how I do it
  • Something about the relation between the scientific world and the public – the role of science communication
  • How to better communicate health related information to individuals  (with diverse backgrounds) + communities in an effective and respectful manner
  • A broader way of thinking/analysing/communicate science so it is easier to implement them locally/nationally/internationally
  • How to make research tangible for people outside the field. How to sell the message
  • How to communicate to the public 1) what is public health science, 2) communicate results of public health sciences
  • Challenges of communication with policy makers from public health workers point of view
  • Theories and practical stuff about communication

I’m exited about what the responses. Hopefully, the students will feel that they have been given a few tools, and a better understanding of the role of science communication in public health when the course is over. I also hope that they will have seen that public health science communication includes more than reaching the public and ‘selling messages’, but is just as much about engaging and interacting with the public (understood in its broadest sense) and that communication is not only in aimed at educating the public but may also serve a purpose for their research and for themselves as researchers.

Although the students’ expectations and the objective of the course weren’t all that different I still clarified what the course was not – and what it was intending to be. Perhaps this may be useful to readers on this blog as well.


A course in Public Health Science Communication is born…

… or at least it’s in labour… and hopefully ready to be live and kicking on Wednesday 5 September when the first lessons will be start.

When I earlier this summer asked for inputs to public health science communication literature lots of people were so kind to respond to me. Thanks to their suggestions and my colleagues at Medical Museion‘s excellent help and suggestions a reading list has now taken shape. Its been really difficult to select the literature and the final list could have taken many forms. This is a first go at it. As there to my knowledge to date only exist very little literature focused specifically at public health science communication, the below is a mix of literature from different fields.

And even though the compendia have already been printed, comments and suggestions to the below list are more than welcome!

The syllabus for the course ended up looking like this:

Public Health Science Communication – an introduction

  • Chapter 1 – The recent ”Public Understanding of Science Movement” (p. 1-18) in Science In Public: Communication, Culture, And Credibility – By Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. Basic Books, 1998. 294 pp. ISBN 0-7382-0357-2.
  • Chapter 10 – A protocol for science communication for the Public Understanding of Science (p. 242-250) in Science In Public: Communication, Culture, And Credibility – By Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. Basic Books, 1998. 294 pp. ISBN 0-7382-0357-2
  • Communication at the Core of Effective Public Health by Jay M. Bernhardt, PhD, MPH, Am J Public Health. 2004 December; 94(12): 2051–2053.

Translating science to traditional media

How science communication benefits research

 Journalism and science communication

  • Chapter 4 – Science Journalism (p. 69-96) in Media, Risk and Science by Stuart Allan. Open University Press 2002. ISBN 0-335-20662-X (pb)
  • Chapter 5 – Media issues in the public understanding of science (p. 104-117) in Science In Public: Communication, Culture, And Credibility. By Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. Basic Books, 1998. 294 pp. ISBN 0-7382-0357-2
  • Inverted pyramid (basic of structure for journalistic writing). Wikipedia (31. July 2012)
  • A manifesto for the simple scribe – my 25 commandments for journalists – By Tim Radford, The Guardian, 19 January 2011

Public Health Science Communication and social media

Science communication, museums and objects

  • Chapter 8 – Science in Museums (p. 196-219) in Science In Public: Communication, Culture, And Credibility. By Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. Basic Books, 1998. 294 pp. ISBN 0-7382-0357-2
  • Chapter 1 – Museum Materialities – objects, sense and feeling (p. 1-17) in Museum Materialities – objects, engagements, interpretations. Edited by Sandra H Dudley. Routledge 2010. ISBN 10: 0-415-49218-1 (pbk)

Public Health Science Communication and engaging the public

Public Health and risk communication 

  • Chapter 6 – Not 100% sure? The ‘public’ understanding of risk (p. 90-100) in Successful Science Communication – telling it like it is. Edited by David J Bennett and Richard C Jennings. Cambridge University Press 2011. ISBN 978-0-521-17678-1

A call out for texts on (public health) science communication

“Public Health Science Communication”. The name of the course that I’ll be teaching to master students of Public Health Sciences at University of Copenhagen this fall. It will be my first more formal teaching responsibility. I’m super exited about it, but must admit that I at the same time am a nervous rack. How did time pass so quickly that all of a sudden I’m the one who (is supposed to) know everything about science communication in public health – or at least enough to pass it on to others? On the other hand, I’m sure that most teachers had the same feeling the first time they taught, and I’m told that even very experienced teachers and lectures still feel so. In that way all my emotions are probably pretty ‘standard’.

Your favorite texts on (public health) science communication

None the less, I am reluctant yet to call myself a public health science communication expert. And in the planning phase of my course it would be absolutely wonderful if some of all you experts and non-experts working with or interested in science communication would be willing to share some tips on reading materials for the students.

What are the must reads for any science communication student? What opened your eyes to the field? What topics should be covered? Who are the good old ‘gurus’ in science communicition and who are the new ones according to you? And are there some shinning examples of good health sciences communication which I should not miss introducing the students to, and what are the examples of bad science communication? Public health is of course at the core, but examples and science communication theories from all other disciplines are more than welcome!

Science communication is understood in its broad sense. Not just as dissemination, but as communication. And it is communication between researchers, to the public, to policy makers, journalists and communicators etc.

Your help would be greatly appreciated! And I promise to keep you updated on the course’s development in the time to come.

All tips can be posted as comments on this blog or if you’re shy on email to ninabjerglund@gmail.com. I look forward to hearing from you.