‘We shouldn’t expect science to be devoid of opinion’

2 Aug 2023

Dr Catherine Richards Golini. Image: Adrian Hyde Photography

Editor Dr Catherine Richards Golini talks about some of the biggest challenges around effective science communication and why proper health literacy could be the best defence against misinformation.

Effective communication is a vital part of science, both in terms of the scientists who publish their research and the wider media who report on that research.

The challenges around science communication have become particularly evident in recent years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, when misinformation was dangerously high.

In an interview with SiliconRepublic.com, editor Dr Catherine Richards Golini said there were somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 articles on Covid-19 published within the first year of the pandemic.

“Academic journals expedited the publication process, while many of these papers were made available as preprints: unverified, non-peer reviewed articles, hosted on sites such as bioRxiv and medRxiv,” she said.

‘The emphasis on speed at the expense of accuracy is one of the biggest challenges around science communication’

MedRxiv now has a disclaimer in red against reporting these in news media ‘as established information’, but Richards Golini said that all too frequently, these preprints were reported as established information by the news media, which was hungry for any Covid-related news at the time.

“The number of papers later retracted makes it clear that they cannot be relied on by those unqualified to assess their validity. The speed of science and how it was reported during the pandemic accelerated to a point where the quality of information was compromised. The emphasis on speed at the expense of accuracy is one of the biggest challenges around science communication.”

Richards Golini works as editor for Healthcare Publications at Karger Publishers, a worldwide publisher of scientific and medical content based in Switzerland. In 2010, she started a part-time doctorate programme where she used her PhD to investigate patient communication.

“My thesis looked at the way healthcare information for radiography was written. I used a number of computer analyses to reveal all manner of interesting things, some of which may help explain why patients often struggle to comprehend written healthcare information.”

Focusing specifically on the patient-practitioner communication divide, she said it’s not always as effective as it could be. “Effective patient materials and healthcare information go far beyond the facts of a particular disease, but will include information on how you, the patient, may experience the disease, what treatments you may be offered or how to alleviate some of the discomfort or pain. In this context, healthcare information is effective when it’s comprehensible and patients understand the options available,” she said.

“Effective science communication bridges a different kind of gap, that between scientific knowledge and the general or non-specialist public. It essentially deals in facts, and not the options or possibilities of much healthcare communication. One of the aims of scientific communication is to promote trust in the scientific process but we shouldn’t expect science to be devoid of opinion, or disagreement, though these should be informed by the science.”

The importance of plain language

Richards Golini is passionate about the importance of effective plain language summaries, which can act as a tool to translate complex science into digestible bites without losing sight of the facts.

However, she believes many clinicians and those in the medical research field can struggle with plain language summaries because they consider the science to have been oversimplified.

“I once reviewed a lay language summary of a clinical trial where the client just didn’t get that a page of statistics needed to go. For the client, the stats were synonymous with robustness and transparency. In the end, he reluctantly agreed to remove them,” she said.

“A plain language summary can both omit information contained in a paper and include new, supporting information. This is done to give the reader necessary background knowledge. So, we’re not always about reducing the content. We’re making the content comprehensible to as wide a readership as possible.”

Richards Golini said there are a few questions she aims to answer when developing a plain language summary to ensure it’s doing its job, including: What is the paper about, what did researchers want to know, what did they do, what did they find out and what’s the relevance to the patient.

“We can then jazz up those answers with more detail if appropriate,” she said. “But we need to answer those questions, in an accessible, comprehensible manner. It is probably more likely that an inexperienced writer will overcomplicate rather than oversimplify. Simplifying without compromising accuracy is the harder task.”

Misinformation and health literacy

There is no doubt that the pandemic led to a feeling of having to fight against a wave of baseless scientific claims and misinformation, but Richards Golini is sceptical about how dramatic this supposed battle really is, particularly since there are many stakeholders that have a hand in this.

“The scientific community has itself contributed to the potential to misinform, with the aid of a news media desperate for a story, and a public eager for information,” she said. “And perhaps we’re being distracted by all this talk about misinformation? I am not at all in favour of preventing people from reading things, blocking website content or social media posts, removing websites – in short, censorship – is not something I am in favour of, at all. But that is all too often the preferred solution.”

She suggested that if a fraction of the efforts that go into calling out misinformation went into promoting health literacy, people would be better able to evaluate and assess the reliability of what they read.

‘Maybe one day we’ll see science in our daily lives as often as we see salacious stories about minor TV stars’

“It’s unreasonable to expect the average person to be knowledgeable enough to call out poor science, but if there were many more easily accessible plain language summaries available of good science, the average person might become better acquainted with it.”

So what can be done to make this information more accessible? For Richards Golini, it starts with the publications creating a suite of resources such as plain language summaries, videos and infographics to widen access to scientific content.

“Good communication is a skill, it must be learned and practised. But turning dry text into something engaging and accessible to the wider public is also the job of medical writers, editors and science journalists,” she said.

“I don’t know the proportion, but news media is still, I imagine, a primary source for the general public of science information. A reasonable level of science literacy will help ensure that complex scientific topics are reported accurately and without bias. Plain language summaries are a great tool for the journalist who doesn’t have the time or expertise to read a full-length paper.”

Looking to the future, Richards Golini said one of the biggest trends in the evolution of science communication is the move away from text-only options to more visual offerings.

“We must accept that we live in a highly digitalised world. I’d like to think that science communication evolves to become highly visible, easily accessible and visual, giving us accurate information in plain language,” she said. “Maybe one day we’ll see science in our daily lives as often as we see salacious stories about minor TV stars.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic