Just the Facts or Are We Salesmen?
By Marianna Evola
In our current political climate it very easy to see that communication can be a tricky and/or manipulative endeavor. And, it is our current political climate that triggered my focus on the responsibility of academic communication for this month's Scholarly Messenger column. Don't worry, I'm not going to address politics, I barely want to listen to politics right now. Rather, I thought it important to address two seemingly conflicting communication agendas in research. To develop a successful academic career, we need to "sell" the importance of our ideas to colleagues, industry and/or grants committees. However, as scientists, we strive for objectivity and factual communication is an essential part of objective reporting of research data. Therefore, when endeavoring to communicate responsibly, where do facts end and sales begin?
"As we conduct research, it is important to acknowledge that half the battle is learning how to communicate the results of your research effectively," wrote Taylor Townes in a 2016 RCR training summary. This quote came to me in a summary from a Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) trainee. It was very timely since I had been working on a column that addressed responsibilities associated with academic communication. When I read it, I laughed because I am always surprised how trainees have an uncanny ability to address issues that I am currently contemplating for my monthly column. I immediately emailed her to see if it was alright for me to use her quote and she happily consented. It is an effective example that students as well as faculty realize the importance of effective communication and recognize that there are many challenges as they aspire to be skillful communicators.
The struggle to write and keep current on our research communications is a long-standing one in science. It is much more fun to brainstorm at lab meetings, design and conduct experiments, analyze the results and then move on to the next experiment. We don't want to stop conducting experiments, organize our thoughts and words to lay out a cohesive story of why and how you conducted the research and what your research results revealed. From my experience, I think one of the challenges of writing is that most of my colleagues have thought about their research in many directions at one time; many possible outcomes, many possible experiments and we want to address them all at the same time. A single idea expands like a starburst, as do the experiments. In contrast, writing requires us organize those thoughts into a linear story. It is difficult to take clusters of ideas and thoughts and responsibly and accurately lay out a clear story that everyone can understand. As such, it is much more enticing to simply move onto the next experiment. Many graduate students, myself included, have moaned about their desire that a research career should be more about having fun designing and conducting research and less about communication. However, to survive in academics, you rapidly have to adhere to the adage, publish or perish. You will not have an academic career if you do not build one through communication. As such, like the RCR trainee asserted above, it is critical to learn to communicate your research results effectively.
Often, presenting a research poster is the first opportunity that graduate students have to engage in research communication. In my roster of RCR presentations, one of the topics that I am frequently asked to address is "How to Construct and Present a Research Poster." The audience for that particular topic tends to be a fun mix of brand new students embarking on their first poster presentation and more seasoned students that are always looking for tips to continue to improve their presentation and communication skills. During the presentation, one of the first things that I tell the students is that it is critical for them to educate their audience on "why they should care" about the research. If a presenter does not tell the audience why they should care, the audience will not care. During meetings where researchers read poster after poster and attend symposia throughout the day, it is easy for their minds to tune out. Thus, it is critical for the presenter to wake them up by telling them why this presentation is very important. This assertion almost immediately stimulates a conversation amongst the students on the need to sell your ideas. The more senior students have already engaged in activities (i.e., publications, writing grants) where they learned the need to sell the importance of their ideas and data and they rapidly chime in on the importance of this issue. And they also rapidly describe how disheartening it is to present to a bored or inattentive audience.
I'm always impressed by the students that have already learned that to some extent, they need to be a salesman and sell their ideas. I find this amusing because after years of attending conferences, it never ceases to amaze me how often I attend poster or oral presentations where the presenter fails to sell the audience on their ideas. Rather, they too often jump right to their methods and results without presenting the context and importance of their research and discipline. Now, at large national meetings, this may be appropriate because the audience at many presentations tends to be highly specialized. Meetings are so large that attendees are very selective regarding how they spend their time and what presentations they choose to attend. However, at smaller meetings, the audience is often much more diverse in their specialization and interest. Failing to spend time orienting the audience to the importance of your work will result in losing the attention of many members of your audience.
I'd like to say that this is a mistake of young researchers or new presenters. However, too often, I have also witnessed senior scientists jump right to their methods and results without orienting their audience. Or, if they do have a slide to orient the audience, they rapidly run through 2-3 bullets and rush to get to the meat of their presentation. In defense of our senior colleagues that choose this strategy, often the audience is in attendance because they closely follow the activities of the research group. As enthusiasts or close colleagues, we are prepared for the presenter to jump into the meat of the presentation. The problem with this practices is that unfortunately, some junior researchers adopt the presentation style. However, because junior researchers lack status and have not yet attained an academic following, when they fail to focus their audience they lose the attention of very busy minds.
However, in contrast to my assertion that as academics it is critical to "sell your ideas", there is an opposing point of view that it is not appropriate to sell ideas. Rather, there are academics that feel that factual communication, without agenda is the only appropriate means of reporting research. The pop culture misquote of Dragnet's Joe Friday always comes to mind when I think about this proposed communication style, "Just the facts ma'am." I remember when I was a graduate student, a friend of mine complained that his mentor would not let him use color in his presentation posters or slides. His mentor felt that using color distracted the audience from the data, and presenting data was the entire point of academic communication.
Although I have more mercy for my audience and realize that color helps us focus, I do agree that objective reporting of the facts is a critical component of academic communication. Thus, during my presentations on presenting posters, I also address the need to clearly address the detailed methods and results of one's presentation. In other words, presenting facts and only the facts without bias, is critical for scientific communication. We are a population that like to read clearly defined methods and results. We want to see every objective step of a research design and every data point on a graph or table. Once we are familiar with an area of research, we often don't bother reading the introduction of a scholarly publication. We page immediately to the methods/results and often stop there. Research methods/results are factual communication and we expect to understand the research and data by reading those sections alone. They should accurately describe what a researcher did and what they found without the interference of interpretation by the researcher. Methods should be organized and accurate with no omissions on procedure, no trade secrets. Results should be reported with precision and appropriately represented on graphs. Lying with statistics is not acceptable.
I remember attending a lab research exchange where a fellow graduate student was presenting data on a proposed treatment for substance abuse. His graphs made it look like the intervention was having large effects. However, midway through his presentation he was called out by his own mentor. She revealed to the audience that his assessment tool was ran on a 100 point scale. However the student's graphs were only showing a 10 point scale. Thus, he was hugely magnifying the actual results and making it appear as though the intervention had made a large impact, when in fact, his actual results were notably smaller. He was embarrassed by his mentor and learned a valuable lesson about misrepresenting data by manipulating the axis of graphs. Although, he did present facts, his facts were influenced by an agenda, thus they were not "just the facts".
So, this brings me to an important question, as academic researchers are we salesmen or should we stick to the facts and only the facts? Well, as the senior students that attend my seminars would tell you, we have to be both and thus, we actively need to attend to our responsibilities as communicators. Yes, in the current competitive academic world, we are competing to have our words read and our ideas assessed. We are competing for the attention of our colleagues and our competitors. We are competing for limited research dollars. Thus, it is critical that our colleagues realize the importance of our ideas. If no one finds your work important, they will not agree that your work should be published and furthermore, grants committees will not argue that your excellent work should be funded. It is essential that young researchers learn to sell the importance of their ideas. The creator of research best understands the importance their ideas and discoveries and needs to educate their audience on that importance.
That being said, as a researcher, it is critical to always remember that when it comes to presenting your methods and results, you need to present the facts. The data are the data. You cannot embellish results. Again, the data are the data. Those words have been repeated to every graduate student by every mentor throughout the history of modern science. The data may be significant or they may be inconclusive. The data may be robust, unreliable or highly variable. Or, there is my favorite, the data could be significantly inexplicable, and require much hand waving to explain. But the data must be handled and presented with objectivity.
Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.