What the ‘venomous bees’ story tells us about science communication

Last week, most of the mainstream Australian news media reported on a University of Melbourne press release about a new study from researchers in the Department of Pharmacology. The study analysed data from Australian public hospital admissions and death records from venomous bites and stings over the period 2001-2013.

All the media stories sent the same message, launching off the popular international myth that Australia has the most venomous creatures on Earth. Finally, this study had evidence to prove that Australia’s bees and wasps were more deadly than our snakes or spiders!

Native spider-hunting wasp (Pompilidae) dragging a paralysed spider across our dirty floor.
Native Australian spider-hunting wasp (Pompilidae) dragging a paralysed spider across our dirty floor.

Technically, the media stories were accurate, and the data in the study did show such a trend (in simplified terms). But this is another great example of how using the generic term for a whole taxonomic group, e.g. ‘bees’, can be seriously misleading. Continue reading

Informal language isn’t the key to better engagement

A recent editorial in Nature magazine claims that scientific language is becoming more informal. The editorial discusses a new linguistics study, includes a subtle plug for the Active Voice dogma, and ends with the interpretation that modern biologists are now keener to build a connection with their readers, compared to our academic ancestors. Hooray for science communication!

But before we get too carried away, let’s look at the paper and the context.

Lost in translation. The Nature editorial is titled “Scientific language is becoming more informal”. The editorial talks about a linguistics study published in the academic journal English for Specific Purposes by linguists Ken Hyland & Feng Jiang titled “Is academic writing becoming more informal?”. And the author’s actual answer to this question in the first sentence of the Discussion is “it depends”.

The paper is a great read and provides some useful food for thought. But it would be misleading to claim that it provides a convincing argument for informality across all scientific writing. Continue reading

On 7 years of Ecology Blogging

I have been blogging here at Ecology is Not a Dirty Word for 7 years this month! Thank you to everyone who has read and shared my posts over the years!

I remember registering this site, keeping it private and then sitting on it until I decided if it was a good idea. Eventually I gave up deciding and wrote my first post…and I’m glad I did.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about ecology blogging over the years:

What is an Ecology blog? Ecology blogs weren’t really a ‘thing’ when I started, so I had no baseline to work off. And not much has changed, according to a Google trends search for “ecology blogs” vs. “science blogs”. The red line is ‘ecology blogs’ (i.e. no data):

If you ask bloggers and readers, everyone has different opinions on what an ecology blog is. Some ecology blogs are academics writing about doing ecology for their peers; some explain ecological science or application to a general audience; some do both. I prefer audience diversity so I aim for both. But I get far more engagement from non-academic audiences, which I love (see my top posts below). I think it really helps to start blogging with a particular audience in mind, but it’s also okay if that changes over time. Continue reading

Ecosystem services vs. disservices: it’s really not that simple

A key argument against the ecosystem services concept is that it doesn’t account for most of the ecological complexity around us. This is a valid criticism. The ecosystem services concept is based on an idealised economic stock–flow model, which is pretty simplistic and unrealistic when you apply it to a real social-ecological system (i.e. any system based on human and nature interactions).

Identifying a particular ecological process as a ‘service’ because it benefits humans in one time and place overlooks the principles of basic ecology: outcomes of interactions between species and environments change across space and time.

Recently, some scientists have argued that quantifying ecosystem disservices is the best way to account for this complexity. Disservices are essentially the opposite of services, outcomes of natural processes that affect humans negatively, like disease spread, or pest damage to crops.

But this could be just another wild goose chase. Continue reading

Scicomm is not new

‘Scientists shouldn’t have to do scicomm’ is a thoroughly modern misperception.

Communicating science has been ‘normal’ for centuries, from painted messages on cave walls, to classical orators and beyond. From ancient times, scientists took their responsibility to share science with people very seriously.

Yet today, mastery of language and the art of non-scientific communication are rarely taught or encouraged in modern science degrees. History isn’t taught much either.

Instead, many science students and graduates train to be skilled data collectors and ‘facts’ wranglers. Scientists are consistently bombarded with rigid anti-eloquence ‘rules’ that only succeed in suppressing the power of language – never use passive voice, don’t use big words, shorten your sentences, simplify your message etc. etc. God forbid you should sound like you care about your subject matter. Continue reading

Co-authorship in science communication

Authorship is a really important issue when publishing academic work, particularly when multiple authors are involved. It’s about giving appropriate credit for intellectual property, but also about authors taking responsibility for their work. Leaving off an author’s name who did contribute to the research is just as bad as including an author who didn’t contribute anything at all. Most institutions and academic journals have standards and guidelines to help authors understand these issues.

But how does a scientist navigate the co-authorship issue when translating their work beyond their discipline?

Say you have co-authored an academic paper that’s just been published in a journal, and now you want to translate those findings into a popular science article for a public audience. Who should initiate the scicomm piece? Do all authors on the paper have to be involved? Continue reading

Why I ‘liked’ your blog post: on sharing content for science communication

The Internet is no longer a space for readers to simply consume content passively, it’s now a place where readers can actively engage with content and its author. Social media, in particular, are based on content sharing and discussion.

As a medium, blogs are different to news, books or academic literature. They are community-focused…but the content acts as a go-between for author–audience interactions, rather than a quod scripsi, scripsi contribution from the author. For bloggers, having a social media presence and not engaging with your social network is like going to a dinner party and sitting in the corner all night with your back to everyone.


Here’s an engagement tip not often mentioned in the ‘how to blog’ guides. Sharing other people’s posts is a positive and effective way to expand your network. So what are the best ways to share other people’s content without losing your own individual voice? Continue reading