How to broaden the reach of your research

Henry Scowcroft
Professor Peter Sasieni and his research group at King's College London

Henry Scowcroft explores how starting a blog, being active on social media and engaging with traditional media can raise the profile of research groups, build public trust in science and help find new perspectives - and even new collaborations.

Just over a year ago, the newly appointed head of King’s College London’s Cancer Prevention Group, Professor Peter Sasieni, pressed ‘go’ on one of the team’s new projects: a blog.

“I’d noticed a few other research groups had begun to experiment with blogging, and was also aware of Cancer Research UK’s own science blog. I’d thought these were really useful – and I’d wondered if it might be something we could explore,” says Peter.

“I’d thought starting a blog might be something that could bring the team together, and be a good way to broaden our view a bit - researchers can sometimes have a narrow view of our own work, and how it fits into the bigger picture,” says Peter. “Also, as we’re a cancer epidemiology unit, none of us sees patients – so, cliched as this sounds, we wanted to ‘give something back’.”

A year and 40-odd posts later, the Cancer Prevention Group blog has been a real success and traffic is healthy. From humble beginnings, the blog now features a wide range of content, from summaries of the group’s recently published papers to interviews and guest posts from colleagues working in the field of cancer epidemiology. “We try to write for a relatively broad audience, although I appreciate some of our work can be a bit niche,” Peter says. “I assume most of our readers work in the field, but that others are undergraduates or 6th formers working on projects to do with, say, cancer screening.”

“We’ve had some great feedback from our peers in the field of epidemiology, but also from clinicians and nurses. We’ve now partnered with the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre’s Early Detection Programme team, so we can share the workload and publish even more interesting stuff.”

Beyond the direct benefits blogging brings to the research team, there are broader issues at play. A Viewpoint in June’s edition of JAMA looked at the tricky issue of what scientists and clinicians can do about the well-documented decline in trust in medicine and the media that has arisen in recent years.

“As traditional news media struggle to reach people in an era of information overload and changing revenue models, it is even more important for clinicians to be involved,” note the Viewpoint’s authors, pointing to the role of researcher-authored blogs as a reputable source of news stories and evidence-based context.

Indeed, Peter’s first posts on the Cancer Prevention Group blog were to add context and insight to an issue that was, at the time, something of a media flashpoint: the IT failures in the NHS Breast Screening Programme.

And as team member Dr Alejandra Castanon found after blogging about the impact of the HPV vaccine on cervical cancer incidence, the blog’s comment function offered an opportunity to engage with members of the public about commonly held misconceptions about the vaccine. “For some people, vaccination is an emotive issue, and it was helpful to be able to blog about it, and discuss the evidence in a rational way,” she says.

This DIY approach to communication – through blogging, Twitter and other self-publishing platforms – is a relatively new phenomenon, but working with the ‘traditional’ media can help researchers too.

Dr Saverio Tardito works on cancer metabolism at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow. His group noticed that the composition of commonly used cell culture media was biasing the results of their experiments, and so developed a more physiological medium to overcome this problem.

When Saverio presented this work at the NCRI Conference in November 2018, his remark that more researchers should be aware of the phenomenon of ‘biased’ cell-culture media caught the attention of Cancer Research UK’s media team. Ahead of publication of the team’s related paper in Science Advances, they put Saverio in touch with a journalist at The Atlantic, who covered the story. The paper has now been viewed nearly 17,000 times online, and the PDF downloaded 4,000 times.

“The piece on The Atlantic helped to increase the visibility of our results in the scientific community and beyond,” says Saverio, who rates the whole experience as “extremely positive”. He is now in discussions with a potential commercial partner about the new culture medium.

Other studies supported by Cancer Research UK, such as the PEACE study and the PAN Cancer trial, have reported benefits such as improved enrolment after media coverage.

“News stories about PEACE have been really helpful – not only in terms of interest from potential participants, but also with increased interest from collaborators, allowing us to expand the number of study sites,” says Dr Mariam Jamal-Hanjani who co-leads the study with Cancer Research UK’s Chief Clinician, Professor Charles Swanton.

The two approaches – traditional and social media coverage - can even reinforce each other, as Peter’s team have discovered. “Several members of the team have found blogging a stepping stone to wider engagement, and it’s given them more confidence in speaking to the media about their work,” he says.

But it’s not all been plain sailing. “We’re still getting to grips with things like how to reach more people, and how to get meaningful insights from the blog’s stats and analytics. And it’s harder to do well than I’d anticipated,” says Peter. The group recently sought advice from Cancer Research UK’s news and content team – who run the charity’s science blog – on how to further improve their own blog.

As well as helping the group reach a wider audience and contributing to team building, Peter’s team have discovered that writing a blog has had other, unexpected, positive outcomes. “It’s really helped us think about how our research fits into the wider picture, and to make sure we’re thinking about how best to benefit people with cancer. Instead of focusing on better estimating a new test’s sensitivity, we’re now thinking in terms of ‘how can we find ways to incorporate the test into a screening programme, so that it brings people the greatest net benefit’,” Peter says.

 

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