Opinion: Communication Crisis in Research

The problem threatens progress and stems from both a lack of attention to clear discourse and a scientific culture not focused on critical challenges.

By David Rubenson | January 30, 2013

FLICKR, RICK“I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” -- Mark Twain

Prospects for understanding cancer, Alzheimer's disease, cardiovascular disease, and other afflictions have never been brighter. However, a class I teach on presentation techniques at Stanford University School of Medicine, and similar experiences at the UCLA Brain Research Institute and City of Hope National Medical Center, have made me aware of a communication crisis that threatens progress. While presentation techniques are important, the crisis is deeply rooted in a scientific culture that is losing sight of Mark Twain’s simple wisdom.

It is often acknowledged that scientists don't communicate well with the public, but increasingly they don't communicate well with each other. The typical biomedical research presentation has become a dizzying whirlwind of incomprehensible slides, presented at lightening speed and labeled with unreadable font sizes and abbreviations known only to the speaker. Publications also pose problems. Many scientists report they don't have time to evaluate or even read the deluge of articles coming from the growing number of print and on-line journals. A recent New York Times article argued that the problem of scientific retractions is reaching a critical point. While many factors contribute to scientific inaccuracy, the sheer volume of publications and the obliqueness with which many are written, clearly play a role.  

This crisis of communication has developed slowly and almost imperceptibly. During the last 40 years the need for effective communication has increased while the quality of that communication has declined. This growing gap threatens progress.

Multiple factors have increased the need for clearer scientific exchanges. One is sheer size of the biomedical research enterprise compared to 40 years ago. The nation’s largest annual conference on brain science had 1,396 attendees in 1971 and 32,357 attendees in 2011. The largest cancer meeting grew from 630 to 31,800 in the same period. Such large meetings make it difficult to pose questions to speakers and engage colleagues in discussions that “set off the light bulbs.” Back at the home campus, a similar growth in infrastructure size has had comparable effects. New levels of clear and effective scientific communication are needed to stand above the cacophony of daily emails, space planning concerns, and other confounding factors that accompany the enlarged research enterprise.

Increased specialization also increases this need. There is consensus that scientific progress now requires combining knowledge from different sub-disciplines of human biology. "Team Science," "multi-disciplinary," "translational," are the buzz words for this consensus. However the language of sub-disciplines is by definition more specialized and extra efforts are needed to talk across the micro-vocabularies. The growing importance of computer science and engineering in biology adds to this scientific Tower of Babel.

While these factors have increased the requirement for effective scientific communication, the actual quality of scientific communications has declined. For good, and often for bad, the slide presentation has become the most ubiquitous mode of scientific communication. Misuse of easy-to-use presentation software packages, like Microsoft PowerPoint, has eroded transparency. There is no longer a need to focus on the most important conclusions and the relevant supporting data. Today it is too easy to bring dozens, even hundreds, of slides that show every bit of data a laboratory has generated. It is not uncommon for individual slides to contain six or eight unreadable graphs. Quantity has replaced discretion.

I asked a senior scientist and friend of mine, "Why would anyone show a presentation slide with eight unreadable graphs?" He pointed out that such slides are a great excuse not to prepare. He argued that the audience would expect a thorough explanation if shown a single clearly labeled graph. This would require that the speaker dedicate time to think about what the audience needs to understand and to work out the appropriate language. An overly complicated slide can be quickly glossed over with an oral narrative that has little to do with explaining the visual. The visual and audio presentations work against each other, destroying the rationale for a slide presentation.

It is not surprising that scientists feel compelled to minimize preparation time. Researchers are pulled in too many directions. Growing infrastructure costs, coupled with declining federal research revenues, have increased the institutional pressure to obtain grants, manage bigger laboratories, and raise funds. Regulatory and administrative burdens seem to grow continually. There are academic duties to fulfill, and requests to take part in conferences, review panels, and workshops across the country. The words, "I'll write the presentation on the plane," are spoken too often.

The communication problem is not confined to slide presentations. Scientists are under intense pressure to publish and the volume of articles is overwhelming the community. The community needs to return to an old model exemplified by the renowned biologists Edward Lewis and Jacques Monod, both of whom won Nobel prizes in 1965 while publishing only selectively throughout their careers. While beyond the bounds of current academic tradition, progress would be accelerated if each scientist were limited to publishing a very small number of quality publications each year.

My monthly class on presentation techniques tells me the communications problem is broad-based and a symptom of complex challenges of scientific culture and education. Attendees represent the biomedical research spectrum: neuroscience, cancer, infectious disease, immunology, etc. Methodologically a majority are molecular or cellular biologists, but epidemiologists, bioengineers, and behavioral researchers are well represented. They are outstanding young scientists at early points in their careers. They are not shy, they speak well, and they can easily master the technical aspects of any communications tool. Where they struggle is formulating an overarching scientific question and identifying the data that brings insight to that issue. They struggle with making a convincing and understandable scientific argument. This tells me that the quantity over quality problem has seeped into our education and training programs and that mentors need to spend more time helping young scientists better understand the context for their work.

A few communications classes will not solve a problem that has developed slowly over many decades. It is rooted in a frenetic culture that overvalues the quantity of activities over purposeful scientific interchange. Progress depends on our community focusing on its most significant accomplishments and identifying the most critical challenges. It is up to our scientific leaders at the national institutes, foundations, and academic centers to recognize this problem and realign priorities and goals appropriately. Such realignment would involve both direct attention on communication techniques and greater emphasis on scientific achievement and clarity over metrics such as laboratory size, grant dollars, or numbers of publications.

David Rubenson is the associate director for Administration and Strategic Planning at Stanford Cancer Institute.


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Avatar of: jeenious


Posts: 45

January 30, 2013

Regarding the statement, "The typical biomedical research presentation has become a dizzying whirlwind of incomprehensible slides, presented at lightening speed and labeled with unreadable font sizes and abbreviations known only to the speaker."

There is nothing new about varieties of communications techniques, and the motives that drive them.  Some of the differences between sophomoric writing and post-grad writing derive from differences in the number and kind of tricks of the trade of impressing others.  And all too often, between the lines and among the buzz terms is expressed what Samuel Clemens might agree, if he were here to comment, is a desire to obfuscate and thence to dazzle.

Perhaps a panel of psychologists, if they were to study the writing styles, and graphic presentation styles, of those who do scientific research for a living, would concur that academic specializations in scientific rigor would do well to include in their curricula some courses on the "psychology of written and graphical communication," in quest of mature expressive skills to match one's comprehension of any subject he would write on.  

The mature writer, it might be argued, is one who has worked through the frivolities of self-assertion to a level of thinking and communicating that optimizes not one's own erudition but, rather, the erudition of the "sharer's" audience.  Some writers/speakers/graphics providers seem to have a mature awareness and appreciation for benefitting the recipient, rather than amazing him or her.  Some presenters, on the other hand, seem bent upon dispensing with a need to prepare an audience for any new findings or interpretations of them, by providing the audience with enough background essentials to enable (them) to put the new into a meaningful context.  And, specilizations being so distantly estranged from one another as they are becoming nowadays, the audience unprepared for one's new message may very well be "peers" in the sense of a general level of scientific literacy, yet not "peers" in one's particular specialty.  

Lack of awareness of, and lack of a feeling of obligation to intellectually nurture, one's audience is possibly the single greatest missing link between an effective researcher's own understanding and appreciation of something new (and what else, pray, is worth sharing?) and bringing others into a shared circle of awareness and appreciation of that new wisdom.

Avatar of: Bob Harrison

Bob Harrison

Posts: 5

January 30, 2013

I agree with David on all of his critique. My own perspective is that an understanding, in depth, of the research that you do requires that you are aware of others' work and also how your findings might relate to other fields and subspecialties. Scientific publications and presentations should be geared to maintaining this sharing of knowledge. Communication skills are extremely important. The expansion of the scientific world demands, as David Rubenson points out, better (or different) types of communication. However the burden of extra-scientific pressures (getting grants, dealing with institutional needs, peer reviews etc.) distract scientistes from such essentials.

Avatar of: JToeppen


Posts: 37

January 30, 2013

Formal means of communications in science are now subject to rapid change.  You Tube has changed the way many people share their science.  Blogs and responses to articles are common.  There is a self organizing aspect to this. The informal nature of blogs allows wild conjecture and critical responses.  Group members can be the harshest and most useful critics.

Dull and poorly presented papers will be soon forgotten and the contents ignored in a world commpeting for attention.  Well presented data is likely to include 3D videos when people finally learn and master modern tools.  


Avatar of: Bryan_Maloney


Posts: 1

January 30, 2013

A slide with eight unreadable graphs is not a shield against preparation. It is viewed as a sign of preparation. The well-designed presentation, poster, or other communication risks derision in the present day for having "too little". We The expectation is to deluge with data.

January 30, 2013

Don't despair. The future of science-writing and communication is in good hands. I manage a student-run blog called "Curious Young Writers" where outstanding high school science students are posting  compelling stories about non-traditional animal models helping researchers solve some age-old human health mysteries. Building creative transfer teams, these students are engaging others by providing a platform where original photographs, animations, drawings and podcasts will enhance the written word. Check it out: curiousyoungwriters.wordpress.com. We are just getting started but expect to grow this exciiting opportunity as word spreads. 

Avatar of: JohnC


Posts: 13

January 31, 2013

David, I like your article and agree entirely. Your statement 'Where they struggle is formulating an overarching scientific question and identifying the data that brings insight to that issue' is damning in the extreme, however, sadly correct.

Richard P. Feynman was quoted as having said 'If you can't explain what you are doing in five minutes to a lady in a bar, you don't know what you are doing. It would be good if we had videos of some of the really good meetings like Cold Spring Harbor, or the Gordon Conferences of the 60's to the 80's where intellectual analysis and biting (merciless but fair) discussion was considered as important as, if not more important than, a well equipped lab.

Avatar of: mightythor


Posts: 88

February 1, 2013

A fun and fascinating rant.  The author hints at two distinct though not  mutually exclusive reasons for poor presentations:  simple incompetence, and a positive intention to obfuscate.  In other words we may be looking at facilitative incompetence.  If that is the case, trying to teach people how to communicate is not going to help much.  Lack of clarity is a convenient cover for lack of content.  The beauty of this strategy is that we don't have to admit to ourselves what we are doing. 

Avatar of: jean-luc Lebrun

jean-luc Lebrun

Posts: 2

February 1, 2013


The quote given at the head of the article is incorrectly attributed to mark Twain - It is from Blaise Pascal (lettres provinciales XVI)

The author proposes to return to the times of Jacques Monod when publications were fewer and more significant. The world has changed too much since then. The number of researchers in the world has grown fast, especially outside the United States (1.2 million in China alone in 2006 - http://eu-research.blogspot.com). Publications in well ranked journals is now a key performance indicator of a lab director's performance. Grants weren't a big thing in Monod's time, they are today, and with them comes the need to publish rapidly to show productivity and preliminary results.

I do agree with the author that presentations are mostly soporific. They could be improved if scientists had a better model to refer to other than the overcrowded bullet or graphic slide. The claim-evidence model (also named assertion - evidence) leads to great improvements in one's presentation. But models aren't enough, as the writer of the article and some people who commented state: Presentations will improve once presenters start understanding the needs, expectations, and limitations of their audience.






Avatar of: sciencementor


Posts: 1

March 6, 2013

While I agree with the assessment of communications in this article, I would like to know the author's opinion on how to effectively measure quality of communications vs. quantitative approaches. Institutions traditionally look at metrics, such as publication number, journal impact factor and grant funding levels, because these metrics are tangible and easily tracked. What alternate metrics could feasibly be used to measure research productivity? A call for changes in a system needs to be accompanied by practical solutions.

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