Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Overcoming barriers to effective research communication

Dissemination or Communication: a rose by any other name would smell as sweet

At the EGI Community Forum last week, I had the pleasure of participating in one full day of media training by Martin Ince, principal of Martin Ince Communications, and Wendy Barnaby, a freelance journalist and former chair of the Association of British Science Writers. Many of the participants were seasoned professionals hoping to refresh their media skills, meet others in the field, and learn new tricks of the trade. It was great to see several researchers present. As the session abstract illuminated, researchers need to know how to talk about their work. If they don’t publish, they perish. If they can’t write a successful grant proposal, their research won’t be funded--end of story.

The professional story-telling effort in our industry is commonly called “communication” in the US and “dissemination” in the EU. We share the difficult task of translating highly complex scientific and technical content so that the general public and legislators understand how research benefits humanity. With many competing priorities in a dire global economy, they must believe that a continued investment in cyberinfrastructure, or e-infrastructure, is money well spent.

Understanding cyberculture is half the battle when communicating its merit. European architecture is far more complex than in the US. For one example, Globus is the common middleware platform in the US on which all resources perform (including high-performance, high-throughput, and cloud technologies). In the EU, these same resources function across multiple middleware, including UNICORE, ARC, gLite, and dCache.

The other half of the battle is overcoming language-based communication barriers. Among the EU’s 27 nations, there are 23 official languages. While English is a second language (ESL) for most EU and many US researchers, it is the common language of the global research community.

Many researchers spend their days working alone in a lab with little opportunity or need to speak others. At home, they may live alone or converse with family in their native language. With limited practice, it is difficult to achieve more than a rudimentary command of non-native written and oral language sentence structure and grammar. Yet, most possess a sophisticated scientific and technical vocabulary. When they write, or prepare presentation slides, it is common for ESL authors to use more words than necessary, which requires more time for others to process. Consequently, important aspects of their message can be lost or misinterpreted.

Among native-English speakers, varied accents and figures of speech can take time for others to process. There are subtle variations in the language depending on the culture of origin. UK English includes different spelling of words than US English—programme, vs, program; s often replaces z, etc. There are disparate meanings for common terms and figures of speech—of course, technology vernacular can be different everywhere.

At industry conferences, with a flawless presentation, the audience may grasp 70% of the content, losing 30% in their attempt to understand new technical concepts. If the same material is presented by someone who speaks softly, mumbles, or rushes through their slides before the audience can read them; comprehension can be as low as 10%.

What should communication and dissemination officers do?

Story-tellers must be persistent in their effort to gather the facts. It has been estimated that 40% of all communication is nonverbal. Therefore, face-to-face conversations will bear more fruit than an attempt to glean information from e-mail and presentation slides. E-mail stands a better chance of being acknowledged by someone you have actually met. However, the globally-distributed culture our industry enabled makes it less likely that we will interact in person. This is why communication professionals and researchers should take every opportunity to personally engage at industry conferences, workshops, and meetings. Unfortunately, budgets are tight and travel isn’t always a priority. In that case, using Skype and other video communication tools can be somewhat effective. If travel is impossible, make sure to let your administration know that these tools are needed.

How can the research community help?

Since technical information requires additional time to process, presentation slides should be concise, and the delivery as slow and audible as possible. Use a microphone if one is available. Because most technical conference participants are multinational, it is very helpful for presenters to complete, and submit, their slides in advance. This allows participants (and communicators) to access the information before, during, and after the presentation. Previewing slides is helpful to anyone who is visually or hearing-impaired. Most importantly, it allows time for the dissemination team to find errors and content duplication (among co-presenters), and to test-drive the presentation with local technology to make sure it functions properly. Unfortunately, it is common practice for presenters to tweak slides until the last minute making these important steps impossible. Finally, whether or not English is your primary language, when preparing content for the media, seek help from the communication professionals at your institution, or federated e-infrastructure/cyberinfrastructure. They know how to tell an effective story and where to send it for maximum results.

Hopefully, through collaboration and understanding, the research community and professional story-tellers can work together to overcome common barriers to effective communication so the stories are heard by the people who matter!

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