Talking About Data: Lessons from Science Communication

As a person who worked for years in psychology and neuroscience laboratories before coming to work in academic libraries, I have particularly strong feelings about ambiguous definitions. One of my favorite anecdotes about my first year of graduate school involves watching two researchers argue about the definition of “attention” for several hours, multiple times a week, for an entire semester. One of the researchers was a clinical psychologist, the other a cognitive psychologist. Though they both devised research projects and wrote papers on the topic of attention, their theories and methods could not have been more different. The communication gap between them was so wide that they were never able to move forward productively. The punchline is that, after sitting through hours of their increasingly abstract and contentious arguments, I would go on to study attention using yet another set of theories and methods as a cognitive neuroscientist. Funny story aside, this anecdote illustrates the degree to which people with different perspectives and levels of expertise can define the same problem in strikingly different ways.


A facsimile of a visual search array used by cognitive psychologists to study attention. Spot the horizontal red rectangle.

In the decade that has elapsed since those arguments, I have undergone my own change in perspective- from a person who primarily collects and analyzes their own research data to a person who primarily thinks about ways to help other researchers manage and share their data. While my day-to-day activities look rather different, there is one aspect of my work as a library post-doc that is similar to my work as a neuroscientist- many of my colleagues ostensibly working on the same things often have strikingly different definitions, methods, and areas of expertise. Fortunately, I have been able to draw on a body of work that addresses this very thing- science communication.

Wicked Problems

A “wicked problem” is a problem that is extremely difficult to solve because different stakeholders define and address it in different ways. In my anecdote about argumentative professors, understanding attention can be considered a wicked problem. Without getting too much into the weeds, the clinical psychologist understood attention mostly in the context of diagnoses like Attention Deficit Disorder, while the cognitive psychologist understood it the context of scanning visual environments for particular elements or features. As a cognitive neuroscientist, I came to understand it mostly in terms of its effects within neural networks as measured by brain imaging methods like fMRI.

Research data management (RDM) has been described as a wicked problem. A data service provider in an academic library may define RDM as “the documentation, curation, and preservation of research data”, while a researcher may define RDM as either simply part of their daily work or, in the case of something like a data management plan written for a grant proposal, as an extra burden placed upon such work. Other RDM stakeholders, including those affiliated with IT, research support, and university administration, may define it in yet other ways.

Science communication is chock full of wicked problems, including concepts like climate change and the use of stem cell use. Actually, given the significant amount of scholarship devoted to defining terms like “scientific literacy” and the multitudes of things that the term describes, science communication may itself be a wicked problem.

What is Scientific Communication?

Like attention and RDM, it is difficult to give a comprehensive definition of science communication. Documentaries like “Cosmos” are probably the most visible examples, but science communication actually comes in a wide variety of forms including science journalism, initiatives aimed at science outreach and advocacy, and science art. What these activities have in common is that they all generally aim to help people make informed decisions in a world dominated by science and technology. In parallel, there is also a burgeoning body of scholarship devoted to the science of science communication which, among other things, examines how effective different communication strategies are for changing people’s perceptions and behaviors around scientific topics.

For decades, the prevailing theory in science communication was the “Deficit Model”, which posits that scientific illiteracy is due to a simple lack of information. In the deficit model, skepticism about topics such as climate change are assumed to be due to a lack of comprehension of the science behind them. Thus, at least according to the deficit model, the “solution” to the problem of science communication is as straightforward as providing people with all the facts. In this conception, the audience is generally assumed to be homogeneous and communication is assumed to be one way (from scientists to the general public).

Though the deficit model persists, study after study (after meta-analysis) has shown that merely providing people with facts about a scientific topic does not cause them to change their perceptions or behaviors related to that topic. Instead, it turns out that presenting facts that conflict with a person’s worldview can actually cause them to double down on that worldview. Also, audiences are not homogenous. Putting aside differences in political and social worldviews, people have very different levels of scientific knowledge and relate to that knowledge in very different ways. For this reason, more modern models of science communication focus not on one-way transmissions of information but on fostering active engagement, re-framing debates, and meeting people where they are. For example, one of the more effective strategies for getting people to pay attention to climate change is not to present them with a litany of (dramatic and terrifying) facts, but to link it to their everyday emotions and concerns.


Find the same rectangle as before. It takes a little longer now that the other objects have a wider variety of features, right? Read more about visual search tasks here.

Communicating About Data

If we adapt John Durant’s nicely succinct definition of science literacy,What the general public ought to know about science.” to an RDM context, the result is something like “What researcher’s out to know about handling data.” Thus, data services in academic libraries can be said to be a form of science communication. As with “traditional” science communicators, data service providers interact with audiences possessing different perspectives and levels of knowledge as their own. The major difference, of course, being that the audience for data service providers is specifically the research community.

There is converging evidence that many of the current plans for fostering better RDM have led to mixed results. Recent studies of NSF data management plans have revealed a significant amount of variability in terms of the degree to which researchers address data management-related concepts like metadata, data sharing, and long-term preservation. The audience of data service providers is, like those of more “traditional science communicators, quite heterogeneous, so perhaps adopting methods from the repertoire of science communication could help foster more active engagement and the adoption of better practices. Many libraries and data service providers have already adopted some of these methods, perhaps without realizing their application in other domains. But I also don’t mean to criticize any existing efforts to engage researchers on the topic of RDM. If I’ve learned one thing from doing different forms of science communication over the years, it is that outreach is difficult and change is slow.

In a series of upcoming blog posts, I’ll write about some of my current projects that incorporate what I’ve written here. First up: I’ll provide an update of the RDM Maturity Model project that I previously described here and here. Coming soon!

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One thought on “Talking About Data: Lessons from Science Communication

  1. […] Talking About Data: Lessons from Science Communication […]

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