The COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us that it is very important, perhaps vitally important, to keep the public informed of the latest research findings. Public health is, in a sense, depending on the right information reaching the public in a timely manner.
Traditionally, research findings have been disseminated via what is called the peer reviewed literatures. It is a privilege for academics, researchers and related professionals to have access to some of these resources. The importance of peer reviewed publications to the scientific community is undisputed, as they support the development of evidence base and facilitate knowledge exchange between scientific communities across borders.
We must, however, also look at the direct impact that our work has on the wider public. This is especially important for peer reviewed publications in the wider areas of health and social care, where the findings of some research studies may directly facilitate a behaviour change that might be beneficial to the individual and the public. For example, very early in the course of the pandemic we recognised that the risk of dying because of COVID-19 is twice as high for obese people than people with healthy BMI. The question we should be asking is: whose job really is to inform the public about this terribly important finding, if not ours, the researchers’? Also, what role should our institutions (Universities or otherwise) should be playing in this continuum of knowledge exchange?
With most people today being confident users of digital media, the traditional way of academic dissemination solely or mainly happening behind the “closed doors” of peer reviewed publishing appears to be anachronistic, cumbersome and ineffective in certain respects. Arguably, open access, online journals have made some research available to the public, as this can be accessed online for free. Although this is true and it does represent a good step towards the right direction, accessing the open access websites and understanding the scientific language that the academic publications are written in is a challenge perhaps for most people.
When research findings are presented by the more traditional media (television, press and the wider Web), we must consider the possibility of them being miscommunicated, misrepresented and misinterpreted. Whether this occurs willingly or not, is immaterial, as it does carry a risk to the individual and to public health.
Of course, not all research needs to be public-facing, as not all research can have direct wider impact or application. However, we may have reached the mature recognition, and this is what this article is calling for, that every institution that sponsors or hosts research that is potentially important for the public, develops the processes and the infrastructure, and fosters the expertise amongst their staff to assume a positive role in this very much needed continuum of knowledge exchange between the experts and the public.