Who doesn’t know the following scenario: A client shares recent news in the form of one or more scientific publications and wants to distill their essence into a few key messages, a short editorial or a press release. The challenge in most cases is to a) correctly understand and interpret the terminology and parameters used and b) decipher the key findings and establishing why these out of the flood of information are the most critical and impactful to communicate.
Five points you should know about scientific publishing
Let’s take a step back and take a closer look at why scientific publications seem to be overloaded with information and data, often not clearly highlighting the important findings. In order to understand this, it is helpful to know a few things about the publication process itself:
- In a way publications are the currency of the scientific community. Number, impact of the selected journal and position in the author list are what decides how well a scientist is regarded in the field and in essence will be the sole driver of his/her career. This is of course a bit exaggerated but captures the essence of how the system works and explains why publications are so important to this community.
- The information presented in a publication is the result of months, or years of work, so naturally there is a lot of data, often multiple aspects of a story are packaged in a single manuscript.
- The goal of every ambitious scientist is to publish in one of the few high impact journals, namely Nature, Science, Cell and NEJM. Some will go as far as deciding not to publish data that will not make it into these publications. The more well regarded a journal, the higher the requirements for acceptance. Scientists have to present enough conclusive data to first convince the editor of the newsworthiness, and relevance for the particular journal. Once this hurdle is overcome, the manuscript will be reviewed by several external experts, who in the course of this process will ask for additional data and experiments. During this review process the experts may still chose not to recommend the manuscript for publication. The entire review process may take weeks or even months, adding even more data to the final manuscript.
- The primary audiences of scientific publications are colleagues and scientists in the same discipline, with profound background knowledge and experience. As such, the presented data and interpretations may lack “obvious” explanations.
- Finally, each journal has strict word counts, which ultimately limits the ability of the authors to go into more detail and provide more context to the readership. Still, every scientific publication is built on a few standard sections, though not always clearly separated: abstract (equivalent to an elevator pitch), introduction, materials & methods (technical details), results, discussion and conclusion. Ultimately, in order to fully understand a published article one generally has to do a bit more reading to get the full picture.
So what does this mean for us?
If you understand how the original manuscript comes together it helps tailor your approach to developing the story flow for the news summary, distilled messaging, or press release. My three key take-a-ways are:
- Actually read the full manuscript – it’s only a few pages, identify the individual sections and get an idea of how the data has been packaged. Don’t be afraid to develop a strategy of several stories rather than just one. This should not take away any of the significance or impact of the results but allows you to tell the story to your target audience while keeping the momentum of information flow over a longer period.
- Consult the introduction and conclusion section carefully. Together they will help answer the question of why this study was conducted and put the presented data in context of existing literature.
- Look up unknown terminology – in most cases a quick Google search will give you the answer. If not, look for the finer details such as whose work is being cited in the manuscript. This will provide you with further context and may help connect the dots.
Put it all together!
In many ways the structure of a scientific article and the story flow we are developing are very similar.
- Start with a punchy headline, to capture attention
- Give a brief introduction into the topic and what unmet need exists – focusing on the aspect of the story you want to tell.
- Highlight the key findings – scientific insights should be included if well explained.
Keeping all of this information in mind helps us advice clients more strategically when it comes to making the most out of their recent data publications. This way we are being mindful of the Medical Affairs team and the hard work that has gone into developing a publication while making the most out of a publication for our Communications or Marketing teams.