Science is faced with a unique and modern problem of communication: how do you explain the complicated results from scientific studies to an enormous audience of non-scientists ? Moreover, a staggering number of scientific articles are published each day in academic journals around the world [2,3]. The scientific researchers who publish in academic journals largely write for other researchers and are therefore unprepared to write for non-scientist audiences; worse, their use of passive language has the danger of miscommunicating important findings by the time it reaches the news. Press releases can be misleading as well, overstating results so as to attract funding and coverage. News outlets in turn favor flashy titles for their work, which risk overstating the impact of a scientific study or obfuscating conclusions.
Consider a recent case of miscommunication, an article published in September 2015 about the transmission of amyloid beta, a hallmark component of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), famous for accumulating in the brain in deposits and producing so-called “amyloid plaques.” The article, titled, “Evidence for human transmission of amyloid-β pathology and cerebral amyloid angiopathy,” was published in the prestigious journal Nature. It essentially described how in eight individuals who had died of iatrogenic (caused by medical treatment — in this case, receiving pituitary hormone derived from cadavers) Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, post-mortem analysis revealed some amyloid beta deposition in the gray matter of the brain that resembled AD . It was an important publication in part because it provided additional evidence pointing to a seeding effect of amyloid beta, meaning that introducing some misfolded amyloid beta could form the “seed” for a larger deposit, thereby creating something that would resemble the pathology of AD.
Naturally this finding of a seeding effect was both interesting and contested among researchers in the scientific community, but the true danger came from the swift global concern that followed, prompting many people to ask, “Is Alzheimer’s disease contagious?” Reading such an article title alone, in the news stories that followed, a great number of people assumed it was [5,6,7]. The Nature paper’s title, talking about “evidence for human transmission,” certainly encouraged this belief.
News media misinterpreting these results as evidence for Alzheimer’s disease being contagious was perhaps inevitable, in part owing to the flashy title and passive language and that appeared in the Nature paper. Flashy titles attract audiences and set the tone for the editor before publication, and like a good résumé, they provide a snapshot of the study which will affect how the editor approaches the rest of the paper. Passive language, on the other hand, allows scientists to argue for conclusions without overstepping their bounds and declaring proof or causality, which realistically takes years to establish. Even then, many scientists would say there never can be true proof of causality, but only broad correlations and a large body of research that substantiates a claim. Because of this need for passive language, articles are often restricted to sieving their results through phrases such as “this figure suggests that [this agent] is responsible for [effect],” “our findings implicate that [biological mechanism] plays a strong role in [disease progression],” or “our study should have relevance for future studies.”
Pointing out the extent to which scientific articles are written without definitive claims is not to criticize scientific writing or to express doubt at the validity of studies that use such passive, nebulous language, but there is a strong tendency to express findings in a way that (a) exonerates the authors from future criticism should their findings be wrong and (b) employs extensive use of the third person voice, which estranges the authors from their work and gives the data a seemingly sovereign authority that the authors themselves could not possibly possess. Whereas some of the most distinguished journals such as Nature and Science have become stricter in their requirements for avoiding passive or ambiguous language, the main problem still exists, in that scientists are expected to communicate their results in a way that strongly asserts their conclusions without making it seem as if their findings completely explain a problem.
That scientific communication continues to struggle with difficult problems such as passive writing necessitates that scientists bring about effective public communication via alterative means, such as personally engaging a general audience, allowing scientists to discuss their scientific work firsthand. To encourage use of such alternative means, funding organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have begun to award grants based not only on the quality of the research proposal and potential impact of the work itself, but also on the ability of the awardees to effectively reach a general audience through public services such as educational outreach. Likewise, research universities boast a number of organizations that allow for scientists to become involved with volunteer opportunities such as elementary classroom visits. Such visits are particularly beneficial because younger audiences are much less likely to be reading dense academic journals.
However, even with the apparent educational virtues that are to be gained by encouraging firsthand interactions, academic journals remain the primary and most effective method of communication, reaching the largest possible scientific audience. As well, scientific publication remains the metric used by funding agencies and tenure committees to determine a given scientist’s career advancement. Submissions to top academic journals are a necessity, as the elite status conferred by publication in these journals is often necessary to secure future funding and personnel for labs. The intense pressure to publish well encourages the use of flashy titles, passive language, and in the most notorious cases, dramatization of the impact of a study, as these are all expedient techniques to increase the likelihood of publication and therefore career advancement in an incredibly competitive and often-underfunded sphere.
In light of these problems with scientific publication and science communication as a whole, it is important that scientists remember that science is not sovereign — it is rooted in partnerships. Scientists partner with funding agencies, partner with their collaborators, and even, in a way, partner with the scientists that came before them, “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Too often, scientists forget that they are partnered with the public as well, and that without the general population, their work would have little impact. Indeed, one might consider that scientific ‘breakthroughs’ are called such because they disrupt a wall that too often separates the research process from the public sphere.
Ideally, studies should not only be written for interpretation by other members in the academic community but also for the general public, many of whom are very curious about science. Moreover, the general public realistically should be able to understand where their taxes are going. For these reasons, it is crucial that the results of studies be written clearly and responsibly so that they do not cause misinterpretations in a domain that is already challenging, albeit fascinating, to understand.