Reading List EN

RL #019: Why Communication is a Crucial Part of any Science Endeavour

At Oikoplus we offer science communication. But why actually? What was the purpose of communicating research results to a broad audience again? Isn’t there a specialised audience for research? Isn’t it enough for those who know about it to read and talk about research? Well. There are valid reasons for a broad approach to scientific outreach. In this Reading List, you will find some of them.

In German, there is the expression “coming down to earth”. The metaphor is used to call for a discussion to be calibrated back to the shared factual basis when it has gotten out of hand and untruths or lies have crept in. Knowledge of facts and facts are the result of research and science. So it is precisely the ground from the metaphor that is at stake. And it is not only experts who walk on this ground, but all of us – even if we all leave it occasionally. Some more rarely, some more often, whether consciously or unconsciously.

For a more inclusive science

In 2015, Mónica Feliú-Mójer summarised for Scientific American’s blog why effective communication makes for better science. When scientists are able to communicate effectively beyond their peers to a broader, non-scientific audience, it strengthens support for science, promotes understanding of its broader importance to society, and encourages more informed decision-making. Communication can also make science accessible to audiences traditionally excluded from the scientific process. It can help science become more diverse and inclusive.

Science for the common good

In texts on science communication, one reads time and again that researchers should not lose contact with society. Of course not. Why should research stand outside society? Ideally, research should serve society. However, this relationship between science and civil society is by no means self-evident. In an article for The conversation, Toss Gascoigne and Joan Leach, both professors at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University, argue that the 20th century can be read as a long plea for sience communication in the interest of the common good.

Not even researchers read research papers only

Dmitry Dorofeev takes a short excursion into the history of science communication. In an article on the importance of science communication in layman’s terms, he starts from the 19th century. According to Dorofeev, in 1895 an editor of the Viennese daily newspaper Neue Freie Presse learned by chance about the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen, but recognised the significance and placed an article on the front page of his newspaper. The London Chronicle, the New York Sun, and by the New York Times did later pick up this article. The rapid dissemination of this imaging method in mass media, certainly contributed to the fact that X-ray technology was mentioned in 1000+ scientific articles the following year, says Dorofeev. After all – and this is still true today – researchers do not only inform themselves in specialised publications.

Promotion or PR?

Communicating research and science in a way that as many people as possible can participate is a noble reason. It allows society to benefit and researchers to inform themselves about the work of their colleagues. In addition, science communication increasingly serves as advertising and PR for individual research institutions and science locations. Empirically, Peter Weingart and Marina Joubert at Stellenbosch University in South Africa looked at the motivations to engage in science communication. Based on their findings on the ever-increasing actively pursued science communication, the authors conclude that a distinction between educational and promotional forms of science communication maintains the credibility of science.

There are a number of good reasons for communicating science and the results of research in a way they are understandable and interesting. The most important of all reasons remains that the ground of facts cited at the beginning must be ordered. Because curiosity, knowledge and innovation grow on it. 
 In our ArcheoDanube project, we are therefore trying to make archaeology accessible to tourists in a sustainable way and to make the results of research on the history of the Danube region accessible to as many people as possible. Indeed, the coordinators just published the fourth newsletter of the Interreg project.  

Reading List EN

RL #018: Writing with fluency: reducing energy in the reading process

In academia, we read all the time. We read long texts, short texts, monographs, anthologies, and abstracts. In the natural sciences, papers are usually shorter and follow a tightly organised structure. As for the social sciences, by contrast, the texts are longer and more fluid in structure. In both, we find figures of speech, examples and comparisons. They provide a framework for the results and add meaning. Across all disciplines, however, readers devote energy depending on the quality of the text. Reading energy is what this Reading List is all about.

Et= Esyn+Esem

In 2014, alarm bells were ringing all across the US scholarly community: for the first time in 35 years, scholars were reading fewer! Soon it turned out that the analysis was wrong and the title of the article confusing: scientists read 264 articles per year or 22 per month and have never been reading more. In an article published in Nature, Richard Van Noorden provides insight into the details of scientists’ reading habits.

For every new article, colleagues engage with previously unfamiliar narratives and writing styles. Without knowing the content, they invest energy in it. The total energy required to process a sentence (Et) is made up of two components: syntactic energy (Esyn) and semantic energy (Esem). At least, this is how Jean-Luc Lebrun argues in the book “Scientific Writing” published in 2007.

The best way to understand the energy required is … well … to read. How difficult is it for you to decode long, complex sentences and – more importantly – were you able to grasp the contents alongside their structure? To clarify the complexity of self-written sentences, it helps to underline all the main statements (the compound of noun and verb). The greater the gaps between the underlined passages, the more cumbersome the formulations. We have arrived at Lebruns’ core.

Foto von D0N MIL04K von Pexels

Break sentence structures

There are a number of strategies to help readers save energy when decoding sentence structures and instead spend it on understanding the content. In 2013, Tomi Kinnunen et al. from the University of Eastern Finland published SWAN – Scientific Writing Assistant. Outlined in a paper, SWAN built on the premises established by Lebrun and looked for particularly challenging sentence structures in texts: nested sentences, nominal structures, and long-windedness. Today, digital solutions such as Grammarly take over this function. But beware and continue breaking grammatical structures if beneficial to the readability. Also in academic essays.

Punctuation marks are particularly important when breaking up sentence structures: Commas, semi-colons, colons and dashes. In a blog post by the Writing Cooperative, Karen deGroot Karter shows how punctuation supports readability. Stephen Wilbers is more detailed. He devotes Week 21 of Mastering the Craft of Writing to the use of punctuation marks. His thesis is that while all punctuation separates, they offer different stylistic possibilities. Commas can be played around with.

Concluding remarks

Readability can be measured. For this text, a WordPress plugin did the job. The Flesch Reading Ease of this Reading List is 49,5. The text is considered difficult to read. The reason for the low score are sentences that are too long and too few transition words. However, it would be wrong to be put off by this. There are certainly readers and authors who would describe the text as easily readable and – overall – understandable. Assuming there are 22 articles a month and 264 articles read by every scientist per year, this likely applies to many scholarly publications. Nevertheless, examining one’s own writing from an energy perspective is certainly helpful. It’s a crucial step in making individual thinking and ideas approachable to others.

Reading List EN

RL #017: Ethics in Science Communication

In this rather short reading list, we address the question of whether there are ethical standards that science communication should adhere to. A simple answer is: yes, of course. On closer examination, however, the question is not so trivial. For debates about ethical issues are omnipresent in science as well as in the communication industry. The laws of the communications industry do not apply to science. Scientific standards do not apply to the communications industry. In practice, this not-so-small difference became clear at the beginning of the Corona pandemic, when the government of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia commissioned a study and this was then exploited to the maximum by a professional PR agency, possibly also leaving the interpretation of the scientific results to the PR agency. The case is summarised in a (German) article by KOM- Magazin für Kommunikation.

The Good Scientific Practice

The high standards it sets for itself in the production of knowledge make research become science. These standards of scientific work include transparency and the reproducibility of its methods as well as aspects such as honesty, accountability and reliability. In sum, adherence to scientific standards leads to Good Scientific Practice. Scientific standards are the answer to the question of how research must be conducted in order to be recognised as science. They ensure that scientific knowledge is distinguishable from empirical knowledge, anecdotal knowledge, mere tradition or religious knowledge. They ensure scientific integrity. A comprehensive definition of these standards can be found in the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity.

Constant Self-Assessment

However, Good Scientific Practice alone is not necessarily sufficient to also meet ethical standards. Good scientific practice answers the question of how research is to be conducted in order to have integrity. Ethical standards also touch on the question of what should or should not be done in research. This involves the role of human and animal test subjects in research, the handling of personal data, from photos to the individual human genome. When it comes to the question of ethics in science, many research institutions rely on the constant self-assessment of researchers. The European Commission provides guidelines for the implementation of such self-assessments in EU-funded projects.

The Good Science-PR

All this concerns science. But what about ethics in science communication? Are there also standards and criteria for good science PR and dissemination, or even for the ethically correct SciComm? To put it in a nutshell: Yes, there are such standards, e.g. set up in 2016 by Wissenschaft im Dialog and the German Federal Association of University Communication (Bundesverband Hochschulkommunikation). They can be found here.

Reading List EN

RL #016: Minecrafts’ large chicken collider and curiosity in research

In this Reading List, we look at how curiosity in science is political and how it sets standards for science communication. I start with the computer game Minecraft. After finding curiosity, we move on to a few Good Reads that address the connection between curiosity, science, and politics. The Reading list closes with some remarks on the links between explorers’ urge and science communication. Have fun reading!

Motivation unlimited: the large chicken collider

With 235 million copies sold, Minecraft is the most widely distributed computer game in the world. The aim of the game is to combine cube-shaped raw materials and use them to construct buildings or similar structures. The players mine stones and wood, search for oil, fire, and else. They explore a reference system quite similar to the real world. And indeed, Minecraft offers chemistry courses for both, the real world and the Minecraft universe. Study chemistry by combining resources in Minecraft. Why not?

In Minecraft, the day lasts twenty minutes sun always rises in the East. To understand the physics underlying the combination of resources, users created science experiments within Minecraft. Rob Schwarz has compiled five of these in a blog post on Stranger Dimensions. The most significant of all experiments: the large chicken collider. Much like CERN in the real world, the chicken collider intends to reveal what is the smallest possible block size in Minecraft.

Screenshot of the large chicken collider in Minecraft. Watch the video here:

Curiosity and the unexpected

What inspires knowledge are the results of the efforts of a thought process. And to communicate the results as well as the underlying curiosity, communication is of particular importance. In Culture, Curiosity, and Communication, Nigel Sanitt explains why communication is the only constant in a science otherwise built on sand. The communication Sanitt refers to is both, stimulating and limiting. Those who poorly communicate research curiosity will face incomprehension and prohibition. Let me expand a little.

On the political dimension of curiosity, Dan M. Kahan et al. demonstrated in a 2017 study published in Political Psychology that information processing driven by scientific curiosity counteracts politically motivated information processing. In other words, people with research curiosity distance themselves from and question political narratives. Their results are not of immediate use to politicians. Furthermore: scientifically curious people appreciate unexpected results. They are less eager about confirming the status quo.

After the successful collision of two chickens in Minecraft’s quantum collider, they vanish: neither the usual raw nor a roasted chicken remain. What remains are feathers only. Did the chickens turn into energy? Was one of the two chickens an anti-chicken in its combination of raw materials? As the results of the experiment spread, the community begins to theorise. The game physics of Minecraft becomes subject to doubt. Would that be possible in an authoritarian Minecraft?

Curiosity in science

It is clear that curiosity has an effect on science. What triggers curiosity and how can we exploit it are not. In the Forbes online edition, Diane Hamilton gives an answer to the first of the two questions: fear, assumptions, environment, and technology trigger curiosity. A Wharton University podcast with astrophysicist Mario Livio reveals: “Curiosity has several kinds or flavors, and they are not driven by the same things.” Curiosity is everywhere and for everything; it only needs inspiration and nurturing.

Curiosity varies in form and intensity. Sometimes it is restricted.

Supporting or suppressing people’s curiosity is the key to success. However, when talking about curiosity in the context of science communication, this means communicating empathically, writes Elaine Burke. Why, should people be interested in your research? In addition to that, you should focus on relatability. Allow your audience to relate.

Coming to an end I return to Minecraft. Understanding how curiosity works in science, Minecraft remains a mishmash of completed, abandoned, and never-started projects. Ten years ago, the large chicken collider succeeded in reaching people and inspired them to question the Minecraft universe. Regardless of the topic, therein lies the aim, but at least the mission, of good science communication.

The mystery about the smallest possible block size in Minecraft remains unsolved.

Reading List EN

RL #015: Citizen Science: Choose your Communication Wisely

This 15th issue of the Oikoplus Reading List is about Citizen Science in theory and practice. Read on to discover 10 principles for Citizen Science projects, practical tips, and theoretical reflection on the concept of Citizen Science.

Citizen Science is one of those terms that seems new and innovative, although it actually refers to an ancient concept. Namely: people who are not scientists doing research. This has been happening all the time. And there are prominent historical examples. When, for example, Wilhelm Herschel discovered Uranus in 1781, he was the director of an orchestra. Astronomy was his hobby.

When we use the term Citizen Science or one of its many neighboring terms (community science, crowd science, crowd-sourced science, civic science, volunteer science, or volunteers monitoring), we often refer to a comprehensive introduction on Citizen Science formulated by Alan Irving from 1995. A more current overview of the citizen science concept and the potentials of citizen science is provided by Rick Bonney (2009). Even more recent is the comprehensive introduction ,Citizen Science – Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy’ by Susanne Hecker (2018). Included amongst other: 10 Principles of Citizen Science.

Don’t ask what you can do for science. Ask what science does for you.

With the growing number of Citizen Science projects, questions of philosophy of science and epistemology naturally arise. In the 1970s, Paul Feyerabend explored ways to open science to society. His paper “Science in a Free Society” is a worthwhile introduction to Feyerabend’s work. Find a comment on it, here.

Feyerabend’s Citizen Science understanding is the subject of a text by Sarah M. Roe. She argues, that “Feyerabend teaches us that while the current citizen science movement focuses primarily on what citizens can do for science […] the movement should also focus on what science can do for citizens and what science can learn from citizens.”

Mobile apps and OS to support Citizen Science

But if you’re reading this, you probably don’t just want to deal with Citizen Science theoretically. Perhaps you want to implement your own project. If you want to collect specific scientific samples or artifacts, you might want to use a mobile app. Take Sapelli, for example. The app results from a British research project and grew into an open-source project enabling the collective collection of artifacts. Quite simply on a smartphone.

Not only has the software for collecting scientific samples become easier to use and more connected. Hardware has also become more affordable. An article on describes how mobile phone cameras document insect species. Also on, Australian ornithologist Hugh Possingham describes why he would like to see as many people as possible become involved as amateur scientists. His argument: “If citizens immerse themselves in gathering knowledge and asking questions, they gain power – and are far more likely to engage in participatory democracy.”

Back to the theory…and the communication of Citizen Science

Swedish linguist and knowledge theorist Dick Kasperowski takes a somewhat more critical view, in a 2016 interview. He states“[...] citizens are only invited to do certain defined tasks like classifying or collecting data. You are not involved in all stages of the research process, even though that might be an ideal or rhetoric put forward. Citizens do very seldom formulate hypotheses or theories, for instance. No one is forced to take part in citizen science, but it has been criticised as a way of getting labour for free. I wonder what Marx would have said about it.” But now it becomes quite theoretical again. Sorry for that.

At the end, I would like to refer to a very practical publication. ‘Communication in Citizen Science’ by Carina Veeckman and Sarah Talboom (2019) offers a useful guide to developing a successful communication strategy in citizen science projects. After all, communication is the central key to successful citizen participation in research projects.

Reading List EN

RL #014: Well-run and successful meetings

Team meetings, project meetings, informal gatherings, and conferences. It is impressive how different meetings are conducted and experienced. Without focusing on online meetings, this reading list collects publications and ideas on the topic.

Well-managed meetings

Good meetings save time and are productive. They create a pleasant atmosphere and convey appreciation. They achieve a goal, a compromise, or a basis for discussion for subsequent meetings. Some basic requirements apply. A room with windows is one of them. An agenda that can still be adjusted and modified. Space for discussions beyond the agenda and, depending on the meeting occasion, at least the prospect of catering.

From Unsplash.

But then the meeting begins. On his streaming channel, Max Castéra explains the model of group dynamics created by Bruce Tuckman in 1969. It shows the four phases of a (professional?) get-togethers. In his model, Tuckman divides meetings into Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing (Abstract to Tuckman’s original). The most significant insight for me was how important time is for creating group dynamics, and the fact that goal and time are relational. And you can influence that.

Shaping group dynamics in meetings

If you are organizing a meeting on an alpine pasture or self-catering hut, you can find the catalogue for group dynamics exercises of the Austrian Youth Red Cross. “Know your own Team! writes Mindtool in Improving group dynamics. The list of dominant characters within groups is also informative. The most comprehensive list for leading and shaping meetings and seminars is from Kevin Yee et al. He collects 289 freely accessible and comprehensibly categorized ideas for interactions.

From Unsplash.

Agenda and sense of time

I start with work situations. I don’t think the perfect agenda exists. There are, however, plenty of considerations on the topic. See here and here. If we then include the active shaping of group dynamics in the agenda, it usually becomes apparent that the program is ambitious. Boosting productivity comes in handy.

You could minimize the time to find solutions. In 1999, Bluedorn et al. argued in the Journal of Applied Psychology that meetings in which people stand, take 34% less time to reach solutions. The scientists compared the solution-finding process of 56 group constellations.

From Unsplash.

There are other ideas for active (time) management. For example, the Pomodoro Technique (app recommendations). The timer organizes one’s own, but also groups dynamic work processes in 25-minute intervals with breaks. During breaks or at the beginning of a longer session, you can exercise and activate your body and mind (e.g. the Active Meetings Guide der Emory University). More radical approaches are in the 16 Out of the Box Meeting Ideas by the Great Barn. Get out, drink coffee. Radical?

Good Meetings

I leave with a good feeling, knowing that we have taken a step forward. I have new ideas. There were creative and productive phases. And breaks.

I attended many well organized and excellently led meetings. People with marvellous skills in rhetoric, strategic empathy, and para-verbal aspects. But his is for further reading lists to come.

Reading List EN

RL #013: About being brief

I once had a co-worker who included the phrase “Sent from Mobile Phone. Excuse brevity.” in his eMail signature. I don’t know if he really preset this signature only on his cell phone, or maybe for practical reasons on his other devices as well. In any case, I kind of liked the phrase in the signature, because it made me not wonder about terse phrases in his mails and didn’t consider them rude.

Finding the right balance in communications work is not easy. When is a video too long or a text too short? Is something too long because it really does contain a lot of detail, or is it just because the wording is excessive? How much attention can be expected from target groups? How much impatience should be assumed?

The 8 second attention span myth

For years, a number has been circulating in the media about attention spans. The average attention span of media consumers has fallen to eight seconds, it is often said. But this information is obviously not tenable as a verifiable fact. Natasha Keary describes in a readable article in the blog of the digital content publishing company Turtl how the figure of eight seconds has made it into media reports worldwide and why it is better off in the realm of myths than in pretty presentations and communication strategies.

280 characters: Has it changed Twitter?

Short messages that can be captured quickly still have their place in online communication, of course. Twitter has focused on brevity from the very beginning. As recently as November 2017, the maximum character length in tweets was increased from 140 to 280 characters. This was intended to make discourse on Twitter more deliberate and polite. Professor Yphtach Lelkes at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania has studied how Twitter has changed as a result of the move.

Science communication on Instagram

Text is not the focus on every communication channel. On Instagram, for example, it’s primarily about visual content. Can complex content be communicated there at all? Is it possible to communicate science on Instagram? And should scientists use their individual accounts for this purpose? A lively debate developed around this question and the associated gender aspects as early as 2018. At the time, an opinion piece by Meghan Wright in Science caused a stir. Her critical position at the time: “Publicly documenting what a cute outfit I wear and how sweetly I smile in the lab won’t help me build a fulfilling career in a field where women hold fewer leadership positions, are paid less, and are constantly underappreciated.” For a summary of the debate this kicked off, check out the generally very readable science communication blog

Science communication going TikTok

That was 2018. Of course, digital attention has moved on since then. To TikTok, for example. There, too, brevity is in demand. Robert Lepenies from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) describes in a presentation what science communication on Tiktok can look like.

Did you make it to the end of this text, or was it too long? If you are still reading, you may remember the ex-colleague mentioned at the beginning. In the meantime, he assured me, his eMail signature for mails sent on the road is “via mobile. pls excuse brevity.” Finally, even very short communication formats offer room for optimization.

From our projects

At Oikoplus, a varied and, on balance, successful year 2021 is coming to an end. A lot has happened in our projects despite the pandemic and many changes caused by it. Updates on our archaeology-tourism project ArcheoDanube can be found in the current ArcheoDanube Project Newsletter. And in the Horizon2020 project EnergyMeasures, which contributes to the reduction of energy poverty in Europe, there a current EnergyMeasures Newsletter has also been published recently.

Reading List EN

RL #012: Newsletters: a Direct Link

Having written about meta-themes such as Common Sense and Relatability in science communication lately, this issue focuses on newsletters. Anachronistic? No Front, the only form of a newsletter that is out of date is the one in typewriter font and formatted by your email programme. But much has changed. And even if Google Trend indicates that newsletters have reached their absolute bottom as a search term, there are good reasons to take them more seriously again.

Reverse the trend

Newsletters are in fashion. And that is no coincidence. In the Journalist, Catalina Schröders argues that the new hype around newsletters has mainly to do with the fact that money can now be earned with them. As an example, Schröders cites the Heated newsletter published by environmental author Emily Atkin. It generates 6-figure revenues annually. With more companies offering authors simple designs and processing payments, new business models have emerged.

A second reason why more independent authors are starting their own newsletters is social media. In his NPR article, Bobby Allyn explains that journalists of this world want to write less for algorithms and more for readers again. Is this more satisfying? Probably. Is that sustainable? Sometimes. You need to have enough followers.

Followership in science

US chief virologist Anthony Fauci would not fail to generate a large number of followers at the moment. Packed in weekly digests, he could provide thousands of people around the world with news about the virus. For those who don’t have the followership of contemporary virologists, Jessica Lawlor on the Muck Rack blog suggests an alternative: pitching independent newsletters. As with companies, the same should apply to research projects. Contributed content is the keyword here. And where could scientists contribute content? Have a look here: Improbable Research, Sunday Brain Food, Important, not important, the Marginalian.

How to Newsletter?

Of course – a newsletter and contributed content are two different things. In many project applications, a project’s newsletter is listed as a must-have. Most newsletter providers have thus published detailed how-to newsletter guides. Most offer video tutorials. Relatively simple yet comprehensive introductions can be found here and here. We are looking forward to reading from you!

Reading List EN

RL #011: Commons Sense: Creating Commons by Science Communication

Of the commons in theory and practice, in urban traffic and vaccine development – and in french film.

This Oikoplus Reading List comes not as usual in the middle of the month, but with a little delay. Because the Oikoplus team has been busy. As part of Sustainication – Association for Science Communication and Sustainability, we organized a partner meeting at the ArcheoDanube project in Vienna’s new Sonnwendviertel, an area of urban development and renewal.

There was little time for writing a reading list. But being guests for a couple of days in the pleasantly low-traffic new development, we noticed once again how strangely our cities distribute the space they offer.

Don’t you always find it curious how much space is given to cars in our cities? Of course, it could be that the traffic planners of past decades had no idea that there would one day be as many cars as there are today. Nevertheless, they have earmarked enormous amounts of space for car traffic. As a result, the car shapes people’s perception of urban space. And this is reflected culturally, for example in film. Even more, says historian Janosch Steuwer: “For various reasons, film in particular forms a natural ally in the dissemination of unrealistic images of car traffic.” In a readable article in the Swiss online magazine ‘Geschichte der Gegenwart’ (History of the Present), he devotes himself to cinematic images of car traffic.

The question of how much public space society should grant to motorized individual transport repeatedly touches on the concept of the commons. How much space should be public commons, how much space should be privatizable, and what is a fair price for it? Thijs Lijster addresses the tense relationship between the commons and capitalism in an article that can be read on Eurozines. In it, he gives an overview of the debate on the question: What are commons, and what makes them so?

Jacobin magazine uses a very concrete example to illustrate the tension between privatization and socialization, namely the enormous profits from the Covid 19 vaccine. Since this article was unfortunately only published in German, for the English readers of the Reading List here is a link to an English article on the topic from the US edition of Jacobin.

The question of what “belongs” to whom is, of course, not merely a legal question of ownership and possession, but also a social question of access, participation and availability. This becomes particularly clear in the example of traffic space mentioned at the beginning. The Mosaik Blog has published an article on the social aspects of road construction whose density of facts and figures is impressive. After all, this is about science communication.

And to take science communication a bit further: Science has – even if not always – the claim to produce social commons. The Commons Institute, a network of people from research, teaching and practice, has dedicated itself to the principle of commoning and thinking about it. On its website, the institute regularly links to articles worth reading on the topic of commons.

Until the next Reading List. Then hopefully on time again.

Thomas Stollenwerk

Reading List EN

RL #010: Creating Relatability in SciComm

Communication succeeds when it creates relations.

I have little idea about mechanics. Physics was one of my favorite school subjects only for a very short time. Whether I liked the subject had been depending entirely on the teachers, and how well they taught it. The other day, I saw a Youtube video that was all about mechanics, about differential gears, precisely. And I thought it was great. 

With the video, it’s like the physics teachers of my school days: the right delivery can create enthusiasm for a subject. When enthusiasm or at least an increased interest in a topic is aroused, a relation is created. And that connection, that relation, is what science communication is all about. Your goal in scicom should be to create connections to science, that is, to communicate relatable.

Jan Baetens takes a look at relatability in a blog article on the Cultural Studies department’s blog of the University of Leuven. The blog, by the way, has the beautiful claim “Blogging since 1425.” “Something is narratable if it can be retold,” Baetens writes, “but that is only the first and oldest meaning of the word. Today, “narratable” also refers to works that someone (a reader, a listener, a viewer) can “identify with.”

This current concept of relatability is mostly encountered where fictional content is discussed. In a feuilletonistic context, the term was discussed in 2014 by Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker, quite critically. Mead believes that cultural audiences can be expected to make a connection to the content presented itself, and that criticizing something for not being relatable enough is not really a legitimate criticism of content.

For art and the criticism of it, this may be true. Science communication that is not relatable to the audience has missed its target, one could argue.

Science communication that is not relatable to the audience does not succeed in showing the relevance of a topic. It does not succeed in triggering in its recipients the feeling of being affected by the topic, of being closely related to it. Fortunately, the Internet offers plenty of tips on creating relatability. For example, from Joe Lazauskas on the platform Contently.

A similarly pragmatic and commercial approach to relatability in communication (work) has an article by Ton Dobbe on his website Value Inspiration. Dobbe works as a “growth consultant for tech entrepreneurs”. For him, creating relatable content is about being more human. “A good start is to be more human in how we communicate with our ideal target audience. Like we’re having a conversation over a cup of coffee.” Is this the advice on conversational tone? And is it really helpful in science communication? Here and there, certainly.

Relatability is also ephemeral. At least that’s what Amil Niazi thinks about Ellen DeGeneres’ U.S. TV show in an opinion piece in the New York Times. The long-running, highly successful TV show is about to go off the air. Niazi sees a reason for the show’s waning popularity: “There’s no question, in the end, that Ms. DeGeneres has had an incredibly successful run as an effervescent daily TV presence for many Americans. But she also serves as a reminder that even the most relatable celebrities are still putting on an act, still trying to sell us on an image.” To be sure, the host has been very relatable to her audience. But a few public scandals have caused the relations to crack. Communication is always about credibility, too.

The video about differential gears from the beginning of this text illustrated to me in the simplest way what a differential gear is, when it is used, where it is installed, why it is important and how it works. What, when, where, why, and how are constantly at stake in science communication. Providing different audiences with the right answers to this question is what relatability is all about. The texts linked in this Reading List did that for me. They were relatable for me. I hope the readers of this Reading List feel the same way.

Thomas Stollenwerk