2G. Ethics and responsibility in research communication
Knowledge of science is undoubtedly powerful in terms of its effect on our daily lives and society in general. That is why science, and researchers, should be subject to public scrutiny. This is also why research communication should not only be about gaining public acceptance of science, but also about helping people understand the limitations and uncertainties of science.
To be ethical, research communication must be based on solid research and sound evidence. No amount of good communication can make up for bad science and therefore communication must never be used to sugar-coat results or to camouflage a weak research effort. It is equally unethical to “cherry pick” only those research results that suit a specific agenda. For example, in the case of biomedical research, the pressure to produce positive findings can cause scientists to focus on the therapeutic potential and keep quiet about potential adverse effects.
“To communicate effectively – to make the institution look good – you need to develop a reputation for honesty. You need to earn the trust of the public and of reporters (but never expect them to take your word for anything – it is, after all, a reporter’s job to verify). To do those things you have to actually be honest and trustworthy.” Matt Shipman, science writer and public information officer at North Carolina State University, USA
When communicating with the public, research communicators (and researchers) should be honest and transparent about the social implications of the research. They should clarify all relevant findings pertaining to a specific issue, including aspects of risk and uncertainty and admit openly what they do not (yet) know or understand.
Social science researchers undertake considerable engagement within their research processes and can play a valuable role in helping to understand publics, mobilising and contributing expertise and assist in the strategies, methods and protocols used in a research communication setting. It might be of value to consult a social scientist at your university when communicating research that has implications for society.
The dangers of hype over hope
When researchers, or universities, make themselves guilty of exaggeration and overstating research findings, this creates false hope and unrealistic expectations. These unethical practices damage the reputation of the institution and erode public trust in science in the long term. It is equally unacceptable to cherry-pick just certain favourable studies or results for public communication and stay mute about the rest.
When researchers hype up or even falsify their research results for academic prestige or to get media attention, they commit fraud. More ethical questions arise when scientists go to the media prematurely with results and intentionally bypass the scrutiny of peer review.
It may be tough in some cases, but research communicators can play a key role in advising scientists to steer clear of exaggeration and overselling. Research communicators have every right to refuse to participate in committing fraud.
Just like research communicators, science journalists subscribe to a code of ethics. Reviewing journalistic codes of conduct can be a useful reminder to communicators about the rights and responsibilities of the journalists with whom they work. Find out more about the code of ethics of the Society for Professional Journalists; and that of the International Federation of Journalists.
Points to think about
Who is responsible for research ethics, and the clearance of ethical approvals, in your university? This person, or office, may be able to provide useful information about how your institutions ensures adherence to ethical principles.
What codes of conduct do journalists in your country subscribe to?
Are there relevant codes of conduct for public relations or communication officials in your country or region?