Research communication vital to combating information disorder

By Christopher J. Keane, Vice President for Research

January marked one year since the first known case of COVID-19 was found in the United States, and even closer to home, in the state of Washington.

The COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world in a matter of weeks, requiring every person and organization to shift the way they live and operate. At Washington State University, researchers were provided guidance on limiting on-campus research activities based on public health considerations. This meant a shift to conducting much of the work of our research enterprise via telework. For nearly 150 WSU researchers, it also meant pivoting their research from existing projects to research contributing to our understanding of COVID-19 and its impact on society.

While the way we conduct research required us to be flexible and adapt to an ever-changing crisis, it also did something else for research. The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled the need for research to the forefront of public attention. From tracking to treatment to prevention, our researchers are expanding our understanding of the current COVID-19 crisis while helping to lead international efforts to identify and stop the next potential pandemic.

As researchers, our emphasis on communication of facts provides a vehicle to counter another rapidly growing and important threat: information disorder. Today, information disorder has an increasingly constant presence as we saw dramatically demonstrated in the January 6 U.S. Capitol riots and throughout the pandemic. President Joseph Biden called for a return to truth and an end to the deliberate spread of misinformation in his inaugural speech.

A recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) workshop report discussed information disorder and its connection to science communication in further detail. During this session, Claire Wardle, co-founder and director of First Draft, a leading nonprofit focused on research and practice to address information disorder, discussed a number of strategies to combat information disorder. Wardle emphasized topics such as the importance of communicating science in a visual way that elicits an emotional response. I urge you to read the workshop report and look at the related presentations.

Our WSU colleagues are also active in this area. A recent survey analysis by WSU researcher Yan Su found that the more people rely on social media as their main news source, the more likely they are to believe misinformation about the pandemic. For the study, Su analyzed responses to the 2020 American National Election Studies Exploratory Testing Survey, which was conducted at the start of the pandemic. Of the 3,080 people who submitted questionnaires, a little more than 480 said they believed at least one of two pieces of misinformation about COVID-19: that the coronavirus was developed intentionally in a lab and that there was currently a vaccine for the virus. Su compared this data to the participants’ other responses on the survey related to social media use, levels of worry and trust in scientists, and how much the respondents valued discussions with people of differing viewpoints.

So how do we, as researchers, work to combat information disorder?

Scientists often place a large emphasis on focusing on writing journal articles and other items for scientific audiences. Equally as important, however, is the ability to translate science and communicate it to populations who are skeptical towards certain scientific conclusions. Translating complicated concepts into terms and ideas the public can understand is not always easy. However, when scientists communicate effectively beyond their peers to broader, non-scientist audiences, it builds support for science, promotes understanding of its wider relevance to society, develops critical dialogue about the solutions science offers, and encourages more informed decision-making.

As participants in the WSU, national, and international research enterprise, we all need to continually enhance our communication skills and, thus, more effectively convey our scholarly work and its benefit to the public. This was recently discussed in a timely blog post by our colleagues Colleen Kerr, vice president for external affairs and government relations, and Allison Coffin, associate professor in neuroscience at WSU Vancouver. They also pointed out that WSU now has a Graduate Certificate in Research Communication, available to any research-oriented graduate student at any campus across the WSU system. This is an important step forward for WSU.

In conclusion, as members of the WSU research community, we must continually improve our research communication skills and devote the time to communicate our research beyond our scholarly communities to the public. To the extent we do this, we will more effectively convey our scholarly work and fight information disorder. In the Office of Research, we look forward to working with faculty, staff, students, and WSU leadership in pursuit of this goal.