Tapping into the power of new scicomm formats to control the spread of coronavirus

As the world struggles to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, simple and appropriate science communication can be a very powerful in helping governments, local authorities, businesses, institutions, and the common public in controlling the spread and minimizing the damage caused by this pandemic.

I must admit that I just stopped short of writing the title as “Using science communication to flatten the curve.” But then, I figured that a lot of people might not relate to jargon like “flattening the curve.” Let me explain.

As the world struggles to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, simple and appropriate science communication can be a very powerful in helping governments, local authorities, businesses, institutions, and the common public in controlling the spread and minimizing the damage caused by this pandemic. Check out this GIF below showcased on the SpinOff website. In one simple graph, the reader can get an overview of how flattening the curve is a very effective and important strategy to help the entire world manage the coronavirus pandemic. The graph has now been translated into several languages for wider dissemination across geographies.

Flatten the curve

In simple terms, the healthcare system in any country of the world has a certain capacity, and if the spread of the coronavirus is not controlled, it might lead to unmanageable stress on the healthcare infrastructure and result in much higher number of casualties. Patients affected by the virus need isolation and utmost care, with some acute cases even needing ventilators to survive. Now, imagine what happens if our hospitals get a sudden influx of patients 10X their handling capacity? Many lives are bound to be lost, and healthcare staff will have to take the difficult call of deciding who gets the ICU bed or the ventilator! Do we want to be in such a situation?

Now, Dr Siouxsie Wiles, Head of the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab at the University of Auckland, has gone a step ahead to explain what experts are now exhorting – we must aim to stop the spread rather than just aim to flatten the curve. This new GIF by Toby Morris on stopping the spread presents a brilliant illustration of the importance and benefits of moving quickly to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Stop the spread!

The full article by Dr Siouxsie Wiles on what can be done to stop the spread can be read here on the SpinOff website. Governments, businesses, and various authorities need to act quickly to stop the spread.

The impact of newer, easy to consume formats

Now, allow me to elaborate on the original point I wish to make about the importance of science communication, more so of new formats in science communication, in stemming the spread of this global pandemic.

We need to understand that the public at large will always relate to something that can be consumed and understood easily and quickly as compared to complex research papers suited for a scientific audience. Just think of what has more potential to go viral on WhatsApp, TikTok, or Facebook groups worldwide? It’s always something that’s not too technical and what most people can relate to quickly.

There are several rumors doing the rounds on social media, ranging from coronavirus being an act of biological welfare to China orchestrating the entire pandemic to regain control of high-value technology companies from American and European investors at throw-away prices (phew!). And what’s common with all such rumor mills? Easy-to-consume formats that even the common man can understand and add thus to the virality of the unauthenticated information.

An unprecedented crisis requires concerted global effort

Hence, if global authorities are looking to educate the public and encourage quick and effective action, verified scientific information needs to be disseminated in easily understandable formats such as infographics, GIFs, and videos. I’d like to refer to one of my earlier posts on how The coronavirus has sparked a mini revolution of sorts in the need for Science Communication. But this is probably not enough. We need more such powerful infographics, GIFs, and videos to ensure quick action and compliance to minimize the damage caused by this devastating virus. Such formats of science communication can be a very powerful tool in driving home the point very quickly and effectively and enable quick decision-making.

Now is the time when the scientific community should embrace newer formats of communication, especially for issues that relate to direct action by the common public. The coronavirus pandemic is a crisis of unprecedented proportions and needs a concerted global effort to limit the unimaginable damage it can cause. It’s time that we take drastic steps to not just flatten the curve but also stop the spread globally. Act now!

The coronavirus has sparked a mini revolution of sorts in the need for Science Communication

Science communication is ripe for a paradigm change, and newer content formats might have a role to play. This probably hasn’t been more evident than now given the situation around the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

As I type this sentence, there are a total of 119,134 confirmed coronavirus cases* worldwide. Mainland China has detected 80,958 cases, half of whom have already recovered. South Korea (7,755), Italy (10,149), and Iran (8,042) are the new epicentres with the maximum number of cases outside China. And how, you may ask, do I know about these exact figures at a glance? This is courtesy of the Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases dashboard hosted by Johns Hopkins CSSE.

*Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases Dashboard

This amazing interactive infographic gives a bird’s eye view of the global situation around the coronavirus epidemic (the World Health Organization just stopped short of terming it a pandemic). There are several other such dashboards, but this one caught my eye immediately because of its non-technical nature and the fact that a layman can immediately start relating to the situation.

How does Coronavirus spread? (PDF)

The above PDF handout on coronavirus I’d found is a very good example of how research converted into plain and easy-to-understand formats can be very helpful to the common man on the ground.

Then, this simple graphic by Sara Chodosh posted on Popular Science shows how measles, smallpox, rubella, mumps, and SARS are much more contagious than coronavirus (COVID-19)! Now that’s the power of an infographic! (It should be noted that this doesn’t imply that measles is more fatal; it’s just that the world has dealt with diseases that are far more contagious, and the real challenge with the coronavirus is finding the right treatment and cure.)

Graphic by Sara Chodosh, Popular Science

Necessity of Reliable Data Flow

What needs to be noted here is that dashboards such as the one hosted by John Hopkins are possible only if reliable data flows in unhindered. Authorities across the world have been providing access to local data on the epidemic on a regular basis. In addition, the world’s top scholarly publishers such as ElsevierSpringer NatureWileyTaylor & Francis, and SAGE Publishing have all announced immediate open access publishing of data and findings on the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Nature has gone ahead and launched Outbreak Science Rapid PREreview—an open-source platform for rapid review of preprints related to emerging outbreaks—with support from the London-based charity Wellcome. All these efforts will go a long way in the effective treatment of patients and in helping the entire world emerge out of this crisis.

On a related note, several leading preprint servers such as bioRxivmedRxiv, and ChemRxiv too have seen a surge in the number of preprint submissions related to the novel coronavirus. But given that preprints are not peer-reviewed, some of the material lacks scientific rigour, and some has already been exposed as flawed, or plain wrong, and has been withdrawn, writes Kate Kelland from Reuters as she discusses the risks of swiftly spreading coronavirus research.

However, Kristen Sadler, former research director at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, is of the opinion that if right quality controls are in place, preprints have the potential to speed up the dissemination of research.

Furthermore, several language editing companies have gone ahead to offer free editing services to all manuscripts related to the novel coronavirus.

The free availability of reliable research data has helped various authorities and doctors battling the situation to present the public with easy-to-understand handouts for dispelling notions and preventing the outbreak from further deteriorating.

The Real-life Impact of Science Communication

Hundreds of thousands of people have been able to make swift decisions around their travel plans and decision-makers at all levels have been able to respond with urgency AND clarity. Conferences have been cancelled at the last minute, and the entire conference circuit has taken a beating. Imagine the disaster if reliable data wasn’t presented in easily consumable formats, and these huge conferences had continued on schedule.

What can be the real-life impact if science communication available in the right format is actioned on in the appropriate manner? Check out this Op-ed on Why Vietnam has been the world’s number one country in dealing with coronavirus. Which is why I feel that science communication is ripe for a paradigm change, and newer content formats will have a role to play. More power to science communication!

Note: This post was first published on the Impact Science blog.

Newer content formats for research have the potential to redefine both discoverability and impact

This post is the second in a series of posts on research discoverability. The first was on how research discoverability could potentially be a bigger problem than paywalls. Here, I discuss examples of how newer content formats for communicating research can influence discoverability and impact.

Scholarly publishing, meant for driving discovery and innovation, has ironically lacked innovation in terms of publishing and dissemination. The consumption of even cutting-edge research has been largely limited to the traditional long-form journal article with the odd article in the newspaper, as opposed to impacting society in the ways it was perhaps meant to.

While it is important that research published in journals doesn’t stray from what we know and are familiar with, the fact is that the format in which it is presented has largely remained the same for a while now. And, this does call for some thinking. For example, the need for limiting the number of articles in each issue seems at odds with how the consumption of published research largely happens online. But, that discussion is for another time. The focus here is research discoverability.

Although newer formats such as infographics and videos can supplement, as opposed to replacing the “research manuscript,” they could also potentially help researchers to zero in on the specific aspects of their work. A good infographic, for example, can summarize an entire research paper and be consumed much faster than a 6000-word manuscript.

In other words, a researcher could browse through, say, 20 infographics much faster than the same number of manuscripts to decide on which study is more allied with their research interests.

The tweet below shows how a well-done infographic can visually summarize a study effectively. The key is to use the right keywords and graphical design elements and keep the target audience in mind when designing the infographic.

The use of newer effective formats in research communication might aid in enhancing the discoverability of more relevant studies for researchers, especially those working in multidisciplinary fields. Infographics can help highlight the relevance of a finding, which is a lever of discoverability. There could be various other tools that could potentially be employed to influence various other levers of discoverability.

Think of why posters are used in conferences instead of a snapshot of an abstract? It’s because visual and animated formats go a long way in not only communicating research and engaging the general public and audiences from associated fields but also help with the consumption of research output.

On a separate but related note, abstracts have seen some level of innovation with the emergence of graphical abstracts, video abstracts, and tweetable abstracts, to name a few. Importantly, abstracts are central to the discoverability of a study. These newer formats might have enhanced discoverability, but there is scope for improvement.

Video abstracts, for example, serve as “audio-visual summaries” of not just the abstract but the entire research paper along with practical applications. Examples of such video summaries are already out there in the public domain. This video on habitual toe-walking in children is a personal favorite.

I found this video to be particularly interesting because my nephew had this nagging habit of toe-walking and wouldn’t give it up! We were all concerned about how this habit would affect the development of his ankles. This video was quite reassuring, and as it turns out, my nephew did spontaneously cease toe-walking by the time he was 10! In short, this video is just one example of how more visual representations of research output can touch lives around the globe.

Video summaries of high-impact research papers or projects could even include the proposed impact on society and show how a study has achieved its goals in terms of making a difference to the world we live in.

This, in turn, would help enhance the “real-world impact” of research. Moreover, easy-to-understand research summaries encourage dissemination beyond the realms of traditional stakeholders within the scientific community. Dr. Pavlo Basilinskyy’s research on helping cars talk better to humans is a very good example of how video summaries can be employed to help funders effectively publicize the impact of the research they sponsor.

In one of my conversations with David Wojick, a veteran consultant in the scholarly publishing industry, he mentioned that for these newer formats to gain more popularity and acceptance, they would have to be highly standardized—just as journal articles are—so people can quickly find the information they are looking for. Standardization could indeed be an indication of the maturity of new formats.

That said, it’ll be a while for these newer formats to gain a foothold in science communication. But given how these newer formats make a considerable difference when it comes to communicating real-life impact, it might be safe to say that science communication is ripe for a paradigm change. Exciting times ahead!