Decades of inequity and homogeneity in the world of biomedical research—which we call the biomedical research ecosystem—have reduced research quality and public trust worldwide. To address these…
This piece received an honorable mention in the Reimagine Biomedical Research for a Healthier Future Essay Challenge, organized by the Health Research Alliance and PLOS.
Author: Sue-Ling Chang is a research professional at CHU de Québec-Université Laval.
Summary: The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that the scientific research ecosystem needs to be more open and transparent. In an era when scientific information is more prolific than ever before, fueled primarily by mass media, it is easier for information to be misinterpreted. For an ordinary citizen, easily accessing and consuming scientific evidence is challenging, revealing a gap between knowledge and the public. We can use the existing research infrastructure to bridge research and community through activities that increase reachability and inclusivity, promote empowerment, and value community participation.
The divide between science and community has never been more apparent than during the COVID-19 crisis. In this context, in which a scientific phenomenon has overtaken our daily lives and dominated the media and even popular culture, regular citizens have been deluged with “science-y” material like never before. If we have learned anything in the last couple of months, the gap between research and community must close.
Unfortunately, research infrastructure, as currently organized, remains largely inaccessible to the mainstream. This unapproachability also feeds public distrust. The question is, why?
In an epidemic with mounting pressure to disseminate information, conflicting information or scientific miscommunication can easily be interpreted as dishonesty or bias by the public [1,2]. The evolving and iterative process of science is familiar to those working in scientific research, but not to ordinary citizens. If past epidemics are any indication, public mistrust and negative perceptions of individual scientists will increase over time, especially among laypeople . Case in point, trust in scientists is already fleeting, down 7% from 2020 . Public distrust is all the more important, considering that epidemic-induced mistrust leads to lower compliance with public health policies .
Therefore, narrowing the research-community gap requires bridging the divide by empowering knowledge consumers and cultivating a more reachable, accessible, collaborative, and supportive research ecosystem. Fortunately, we can adapt by capitalizing on existing knowledge frameworks and vehicles.
Bringing science to the people
Science knowledge is embodied in scientific articles. However, accessibility has been an important barrier to sourcing scientific information, as certain scientific articles are only available at a cost. But as open access becomes more popular, will it be enough to facilitate access and cultivate scientific literacy? Arguably, no.
The goal of open access is to make peer-reviewed literature freely available online . It is purported to “unite humanity in a common intellectual conversation” . Still, this literature must first be found and read. Therefore, a more significant hurdle to knowledge access, and probably more relevant, is the issue of reachability: for one to access information, one needs to know where to source it. The reality is that, unless they work in science, the average person is probably unfamiliar with scientific data repositories, such as Pubmed or Medline, and would not know where to source scientific information—regardless of whether journals are free.
One strategy to mitigate reachability barriers would be to boost dissemination of lay abstracts. Currently, introductory abstracts are prerequisites for scientific manuscripts. However, they are mostly recapped versions of the manuscripts themselves, filled with jargon and terminology that are not readily understandable to the non-specialist reader. Thus, journals should consider adopting simplified lay abstracts, in addition to scientific abstracts, and these should accompany all articles accepted for publication. These knowledge products could then be funneled through social media channels, such as Facebook, Twitter, or news media.
Kuehne and Olden  advocated for layperson-friendly abstracts written by the authors of the manuscripts as means to increase the reach, impact, and transparency of research findings. Further, they suggested that discussing findings in the authors’ own words could mitigate suspicions regarding data distortion and transparency . Indeed, if science is to be trusted, then it should be disseminated separately from partisan rhetoric in order to prevent the conflation of research with governing bodies .
The framework for adopting lay abstracts is already in place, as abstracts are required for all manuscripts. And while producing lay summaries is challenging, since they must be written using accessible language while also capturing public interest, some initiatives have already shown promise in addressing this issue. For instance, a proposal for Canada’s AGE-WELL network features co-creation of lay abstracts as a partnering activity with community individuals and includes a lay writing workshop . This approach not only considers how scientific communication is conveyed to promote accessibility, and thus inclusivity, but suggests that to achieve this goal, who is involved in the process matters . Lay abstracts represent a viable mechanism to narrow the gap between scientists and the community by making them both players in the same arena.
Empowering people to learn
With lay abstracts becoming more prevalent, they could then serve as catalysts for participatory community activities, such as community journal clubs led by science community members. Academic journal clubs are a widespread strategy to train students to evaluate scientific evidence critically—could we not borrow from this activity and use it as a platform for community learning?
In academia, journal clubs are an active learning strategy that allows students to view themselves as agents of the scientific community by participating in the scientific process through appraising the literature . Indeed, activities that promote dialogue are much more effective than one-directional activities, such as presentations, keeping the audience interested and engaged .
Community-based journal clubs could take shape as Facebook Live broadcasts, town halls, or meetings in local coffee shops, in which scientists and laypeople engage in a collaborative effort to appraise a scientific article. Research on the benefits of such journal clubs has shown that partnerships between community members and academic researchers are critical for successful implementation of the clubs . Notably, to maximize engagement, community journal clubs should be led by different stakeholders, such as older persons, people of color, LGBTIQ people, indigenous communities, and other individuals from underrepresented groups. As a communication vehicle, lay abstracts may be a critical component to drive interest among community members who participate in journal clubs .
Importantly, community journal clubs borrow from the concept of scientific dialogic gatherings, which consider adults as active agents of their own scientific learning . These collaborative spaces cultivate self-literacy, as well as analytical and critical thinking skills . Furthermore, scientists who participate in community journal clubs can curate their findings and help empower laypeople by accompanying them on their learning journey through reflection, and more importantly, egalitarian dialogue . This equal partnership can help dispel the view that scientists are elitists comfortably confined in their ivory tower . Community journal clubs could help reorient public outreach activities away from an “information in, information out” approach, and towards a dynamic, inclusive, and equal learning process.
Valuing the scientific experience
Perhaps Goethe had it right when he suggested, as surmised by Holdredge , that when considering all aspects of our work we ask, “How can I make myself into a better, more transparent instrument of knowing?” We might progress towards a powerful answer by considering the perspective of Eichengreen and colleagues , who stated that the divide between research and community exists because scientists are viewed as elites.
Research findings are often curated and disseminated without featuring scientists at the forefront. In other words, other people—not the scientists themselves—circulate findings. Therefore, information is distributed unattended, unframed, and ripe to be distorted or used to satisfy personal biases.
More specifically, scientific findings are often packaged up by journalists or others and disseminated in a digestible format for consumers. However, as we have learned from the COVID-19 experience, public confidence in science has eroded ; this climate of suspicion is further exacerbated when findings are disseminated through third parties. This issue highlights the need for a more direct approach in which scientists come to the people.
A powerful strategy to address these problems is for scientists to leverage the reach and prominence of social media in order to inform lay knowledge consumers directly. Scientists can take advantage of popular media channels, such as Twitter, Facebook, or blogs by adopting a leading role in communicating their own research findings. This approach, in turn, values their experience and expertise.
Unfortunately, carving time for public engagement activities may be problematic in a traditional academic environment that instead prioritizes and rewards scientists for their number of publications and grants. Indeed, time constraints are considered major impediments to scientific outreach efforts . Community outreach activities are not considered value added by the research ecosystem, as they are not deemed to be important for career attainment.
In order to raise the value of public outreach activities, we might rethink how resources are allocated to motivate researchers. Funding agencies can take a leading role in valuing outreach activities by allowing scientists to request funding for these activities in their proposals, as is already the case for publication costs. If public outreach activities are required to have the same degree of rigor, seriousness, and effort as scientific efforts, scientist participation cannot be expected to be free. Therefore, funders should make it mandatory to include one such activity in grant proposals and provide financial means to do so. Academic departments can also encourage these activities as valued added and factor them in when considering promotions, in order to increase scientists’ willingness to participate and improve their communication skills.
Adapting infrastructure to close the gap
What is the goal of research if the outputs cannot be used to empower knowledge consumers? The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that scientific literacy requires more than the spouting of facts and information. In this new era of skepticism and information distortion, research outputs would be better disseminated using a “from the horse’s mouth” approach. However, because knowledge is malleable, it is vulnerable to misinterpretation and misrepresentation. Therefore, it cannot be transmitted unattended and requires pedagogical support.
We can use current research infrastructure to narrow the gap between research and community through widespread adoption of lay abstracts, leading community journal club-like activities, and providing scientists with incentives. Furthermore, information needs to be transmitted and packaged in a way that does not infantilize the audience, so as not to break the equality promoted through these activities.
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Sue-Ling Chang, MPH, MSc is a research professional working in the area of breast cancer molecular epidemiology in the Division of Oncology at the CHU de Québec – Université Laval Research Center and Cancer Research Center in Quebec City.