Once upon a time, a strange breed of people called ‘systematic reviewers’ used to shut themselves away in dark places, work very hard and for a long time, and eventually slide underneath their door their mysterious product, a shiny new systematic review. This would be taken and stored very carefully, and very secretly, in a document (let’s call it a scientific journal) which could only be seen and understood by those with enough gold to pass through the paywall and who knew the meaning of the special and secret words used in it. Which was all rather a shame as the contents were often quite precious and could be very useful to large numbers of ordinary people. For anyone wanting a neat graphic showing what a systematic review is, I recommend you click here. For those wanting elephants, you’ll have to wait a bit longer.
This rather miserable situation is changing. More than a year ago, at the UK Cochrane Centre, we embarked on a mission to encourage people to engage with evidence and especially to share Cochrane reviews with, well, everyone, as we’re all potential or current patients. We have lots of good stuff to share with those who plan, purchase or provide healthcare and especially here in the UK. We are also interested in engaging with people beyond the UK’s shores, something to which digital technology perfectly lends itself, of course. It’s been a year since we dusted off our dormant Twitter account, revamped our website and jumped into the world of social media with both feet.
At this point, I was going to take you through the nitty gritty of how we share Cochrane reviews now; the meetings to look at what’s new and why it might be important, the blogging and tweeting, the posting on Facebook and LinkedIn. Don’t get me wrong, this is great and I’m delighted to be sharing around sixty reviews a month in this way. But the bit that really excites me is the stuff I’m hearing, the conversations I’m having and the beautiful unfolding of how evidence is taken up and used (or not!), considered and criticized. Here are some of the things I’ve discovered in this first year of using social media and that I think are important.
Listening is vital
Novelist Paulo Coelho has it right. “Twitter is my bar. I sit at the counter and listen to the conversations, starting others, feeling the atmosphere.” Yes! This is quite so, though I would add to this ‘joining in conversations’. It’s no good just rushing in there and shoving your latest, favourite bit of evidence in everyone’s faces. I do a lot of listening on Twitter, hearing what people are talking about. Existing conversations can be great entry points for introducing a Cochrane review, say, on a topic being discussed and while you’re at it adding value; being useful is a great thing and one that’s likely to gain you some new followers as well as encourage the existing ones to stick with you. People thinking about using Twitter for the first time often express concerns about information overload, but it’s a far cry from having your email inbox filling up with messages demanding your attention, for you can dip in and out as suits, reading as much or as little as you want. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on tweets mentioning you, but being able to see these in a separate stream makes this easy.
Sometimes you’ve got to talk about elephants
This may not appear in many social media guides but it’s in mine and it follows on from listening. If you’re going to engage with people, you’ve got to go to where they are and talk about, or show them, things they are likely to be interested in and in ways which are accessible and appealing. Frankly, sometimes you have to talk about elephants (handy for us that the Cochrane Stroke Group inhabits the same space as two, in the wonderful anatomical museum in the University of Edinburgh). Many, many people will neither have heard of Cochrane nor care about it, so it’s no good us thinking that’s the magic word that opens every door. But we all, I think, respond to a story, to images, to shared human experiences and concerns.
I was interested to see the debate between some science communicators on Twitter yesterday about whether it was okay to use the birth of the Royal Baby as a hook to bring people to other things they probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Whilst I accept that it may confuse or even alienate some (and who expects everything that they click on to be just what they need, want or like?), I think this is a thoroughly good thing to do. We have good evidence, for example, that continuous support through labour has a number of benefits for mums and their babies. I want as many people as possible to hear about that and the baby story was an opportunity to get it to an audience including many who would not come looking for Cochrane but for whom this evidence is highly relevant. And so, to the general public.
‘The general public’ is a mythical beast
It doesn’t exist. Thank you, Alex Brown, for ending my confusion on that one, or at least explaining so clearly what of course I knew. On writing for a general audience, he asks “which one?” and points out that ‘non-specialist’ isn’t helpful either, as there are lots of ways not to be a specialist in a topic. You can hear more from Alex on this in his SciLogs blog ‘The general public is like a misused apostrophe’ (and I see he sneaked an elephant into an earlier post too!). Having decided that we would write these blogs mostly for ‘the general public’, we immediately hit the reality that this is an enormous and varied audience and to regard medical terms as the preserve of health professionals while the rest of us sit outside our caves mumbling about ‘heart attacks’ and ‘piles’, is a long way from reality. We also know that some people, and not just doctors and statisticians, really want to see those tricksy little numbers that tell them how confident we can be about a review’s findings.
For now, we’re mostly leaving out the stats, but we’re thinking about a way of letting you reveal them if you wish to. We’re making sure we say something about the quality of the evidence; this is so important to know yet can be hard to find out. We’re also trying to write clearly. It was also through Alex that I discovered Up-Goer Five, which has kept scientists busy recently, attempting to explain their hard ideas using only the ‘ten hundred’ most common words in English, which is what this web-based text-editor permits. We’ve had fun, alongside our game Social Media Roadshow participants, having a go at writing about Cochrane reviews in Up-Goer Five, which certainly made us think hard about the language we use, but sometimes resulted in having to use more complicated phrases to avoid using a ‘banned’ word that we all felt would be widely understood.
What do you think?
There seem to be things to learn every day – new technology to explore, ways of improving how we communicate, discovering what encourages people to engage and what falls flat. It’s scary, it’s exciting and we’re convinced it’s worth doing. It would be great to hear what you think. What do you find engaging or off-putting? What are your social media successes or discoveries? Do tell us!
We’ll be talking more about engaging through social media at the Cochrane Colloquium in Quebec this September and will have a poster linking to this blog. We’ll link to the poster here so watch this space!
Alex Brown Do you Speak Science? blogs at SciLogs ‘The general public is like a misused apostrophe’ 13 June 2013; ‘Why do kidneys need cells?’ 21 April 2013.