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Scientists say the pandemic increased public attention to research, but that this didn’t always—or even often—translate to increased understanding, based on a new study of the pandemic-era research environment from Elsevier. Misinformation and harassment of researchers was rampant, and scientists say they need help communicating their work with more clarity and confidence.

Even so, many U.S.-based researchers say they’re now more likely to pursue research questions that align with topics of public interest or current events. And while they fear politicization of their work, a significant share of scientists are hopeful increased public attention can allow them to influence policy decisions.

Recommended policy interventions for institutions include formalizing science communication training, starting with Ph.D. students; hiring trained science communicators; freeing up faculty time for public outreach; improving incentives surrounding the peer-review system; and drafting clear codes of conduct on how to manage online harassment and threats—then supporting and protecting researchers under fire.

Mary Woolley, president of Research! America, who was involved in the Elsevier study, told Inside Higher Ed that this period in science is—happily—“by no means just a return to business as usual. There is much more interest in academe in training researchers in public engagement, very much including training in communication.” That said, “the rewards system in academia still only rarely recognizes that researchers add and create value in a multitude of ways—including engaging with policy makers, media, public health officials, health-care providers and other diverse communities outside of academia.”

Researchers also need “specific support from their institutions in learning how to respond to the growing trend of online abuse,” Woolley said. “The survey shows that acrimonious interaction around research online, among peers and from the public has been difficult for the research community—especially in the last two years.”

Policy makers can help by investing in science awareness initiatives, identifying effective communication methods and educating the public on common research terminology, Elsevier’s study also says.

Misinformation, Misunderstanding

The report, called “Confidence in Research: Researchers in the Spotlight,” is based in part on a global survey of 3,000 researchers conducted earlier this year. About one-10th of those were based in the U.S. Of this subgroup, 78 percent said that the pandemic has increased the importance of separating good-quality information from misinformation; 79 percent said the pandemic increased the importance of science bodies and researchers explaining research; and 51 percent said the pandemic shows the importance of making research available quickly as preprints.

Some 27 percent of the U.S. group said that they now view publicly countering false or misleading information as an important element of their role in society. Half are very confident in their ability to explain their research methods publicly. But only 13 percent are highly confident about communicating their findings on social media.

U.S.-based researchers also said they’re now more inclined to communicate uncertainty and caveats when sharing their research, and to ensure their work is peer reviewed. One-third (36 percent) said they’re less likely to share their opinions on social, political, economic or environmental issues on social media, but about a third (31 percent) are actually more inclined to share their raw data publicly.

Forty-four percent have personally experienced or know a close colleague subjected to some form of abuse or acrimonious interaction online—and U.S. researchers are more likely to report having a hostile online environment that respondents in countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Japan. Just 35 percent of U.S. researchers said they actually enjoy engaging in discussions about their research online or on social media, compared with the global average of 47 percent.

The Elsevier survey wasn’t just for COVID-19 researchers. But scientists who’ve studied or commented on research on the virus also have reported attacks on their credibility, threats of violence and more. In a 2021 Nature survey, 15 percent of 321 respondents said they’d faced death threats.

About two-thirds (66 percent) of the U.S. scientists Elsevier surveyed said that the pandemic increased public attention to their work, but nearly half (47 percent) do not think that the public’s understanding of the research process has improved.

Some 79 percent of U.S. scientists are worried about the politicization of research. Other areas of concern are oversimplification of complex research and lack of public understanding of how research is conducted.

Asked about maintaining confidence in the face of public scrutiny, researchers said that the following boosts their own confidence about citing another’s research: peer review (81 percent) and methodology (77 percent).

Some 59 percent of U.S. researchers would like more opportunities to engage with policy makers, and 57 percent want communications training.

Forty-four percent are hopeful increased public attention can allow them to influence policy making.

Increasing Confidence in Research

Elsevier’s study was informed by a literature review, expert interviews and roundtable discussions around the world, in addition to the survey. The publisher and its partners aimed to gauge researchers’ perceptions about the impact of the pandemic, see how researchers changed their behavior as a result of the pandemic, identify gaps in researchers’ confidence in the production and communication of research, and identify interventions.

To counter misinformation, the report recommends that scientists collaborate with social media platforms and policy makers. It urges further research on which mechanisms and platforms already are proving valuable for this purpose.

In addition to better training and support, researchers told the report’s authors that they wanted to be rewarded in personnel decisions for their contributions as peer reviewers. Beyond this study, many journal editors say it’s increasingly hard to find volunteer peer reviewers for articles due to burnout, broken incentive systems and other factors, and that this is making long submit-to-publication timelines longer.

Ann Gabriel, senior vice president at Elsevier and study lead, said Monday that the “expectations of the researcher’s role in scientific communication have shifted considerably over the last few years. There are key challenges they face, including politicization of research, oversimplification of complex research and a lack of public understanding of how research is conducted. These challenges bring an opportunity to better support and reward researchers to develop the skills to facilitate meaningful engagement between researchers and the public. I see an opportunity to support researchers in this way, rather than return to the status quo.”

There’s a “clear need to collaborate across stakeholder groups, including not only researchers, but the academy and libraries, government and funders, as well as media, to co-create interventions,” Gabriel said. “The pandemic has shared a lot of lessons learned, and the research community is telling us what they need as we all emerge.”

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