Research communication in an age of mistrust

June 13 2024 / By MelindaK

People are losing trust in science

A growing proportion of the world's population don't trust science. This was one of the opening points made by Deborah Blum, an American science journalist and the director of the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in her opening keynote at the recent Society of Scholarly Publishing meeting.

The level of mistrust in research has  accelerated since the pandemic. The Pew Research Centre's 2023 survey showed over a quarter of Americans (27%) have ‘not too much’ or ‘no’ confidence in scientists, up from 12% in 2020. Another study, the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer (28 countries, 38,000+ respondents), shows that people nonetheless trust scientists (77%) more than journalists (49%) and government leaders (42%). 


The fact that the public is increasingly seeking answers for themselves (the same report shows that online searches are the most relied on sources) suggests an opportunity to build trust in science by connecting people more directly with scientists and the process of science. However, Blum pointed out, “45% of people think scientists don’t know how to communicate with people like me”.

Trust relies on good communication

The waning of support for science presents a huge risk in a year where almost half the world's population is going to the polls. A future with less evidence-based decision-making is not one I want to vote for, but that is increasingly signalled by the rhetoric of some of the world's politicians, and is alarmingly possible given a population that is losing confidence in research.

A key recommendation of the Edelman report is that "science must integrate with society". Scientists are still trusted – but they are increasingly subject to public scrutiny. To build trust in expert recommendations, scientists need to explain the rationale for their research, engage in dialogue about it, and harness peer voices as advocates. That is no small ambition. I know, because this is exactly what we at Kudos have been working on since 2013, when we formed our company with a vision to transform research communications and connect people more directly with science.

It is both a wonder and a frustration to me that the "scholarly communications sector" – the name given to research publishers and libraries –  has yet to fully embrace research communication beyond the unit of the article. The journal article remains the key unit of scholarly communication, and these generally remain incomprehensible beyond a narrow field of experts. Movements towards plain language summaries for articles have been encouraged by Kudos and others, and even mandated in some territories for clinical trials, but are still viewed as a "nice to have" rather than a critical tool for building research integrity and trust in research.

Research integrity is also a communication issue

Instead, research integrity is seen by many primarily as a function of pre-publication processes. Of course, there are significant challenges to be solved around research replication and transparency, bias, conflicts of interest, data fabrication and falsification, and plagiarism – many exacerbated by AI. This is a lot for publishers to manage, but it cannot be allowed to cloud out other opportunities. 

In an era of open science, with increasing focus on getting results published quickly and disseminated widely, solving the integrity challenge requires coming at it from both ends; not only through ensuring accuracy and reliability upstream of publication, but through explaining and giving context to the research after publication. I’ve always believed this is a huge opportunity for publishers, but it's also key for companies who produce and use research, particularly those leading innovation in healthcare and technology. Better communication is a huge opportunity, then – one that everyone in the scholarly communication sector needs to take seriously.

Investing in communication

Firstly, more investment is needed. The question of "who should pay" for research communication comes up often. Research funders are increasingly requiring that studies are communicated to broader audiences, and that funding submissions include routes to impact that show how broader benefits to society will be developed and realized. But the funding paths for this have been less clear and highly variable across different funders. Scientists are encouraged to devote grant funding to communicating outside their niche communities, but it’s rarely mandated and when undertaken, often delegated to communications agencies. Scientists rarely have the skills or time to do this themselves and training them isn’t seen as a priority.

Then there is the issue of collaboration. Explaining each article in a way more people can understand isn't easy for publishers, or for researchers. Research crosses boundaries – countries, universities, publishers, disciplines. To communicate it effectively means traversing these boundaries. Which is why we founded Kudos – as a platform through which research could be explained, shared and showcased in a manner that was meaningful for consumers more than producers of research. Encouraging collaboration and demonstrating that individual publisher and journal brands can still be developed through cooperative dissemination is core to what we do at Kudos – finding the “win-win” for publisher and reader alike.

A breaking wave

Ten years after having founded Kudos, we find that this wave is breaking far more slowly than we expected it to. Back in 2013, it seemed obvious that following the success of open access, the next priority would be requirements for more effective communication of this broad and complex body of knowledge.


Of the major challenges to improving research communication, it is perhaps funding that is the most significant obstacle. Collaboration has come to some extent, and at Kudos we’ve successfully launched major initiatives with multiple publishers that bring together and contextualise research in critical areas such as pandemics, climate change and most recently, research aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Through these initiatives we’ve demonstrated greater readership, more citations, improved Altmetric scores – all the measures that underpin research reputation.

This is the link we increasingly turn to for addressing the funding challenge, demonstrating tangible results that are meaningful to publishers, authors, and research funders alike. Access to AI, along with our growing data on how and where research is being read and by whom, reduces the need for researchers to develop these skills themselves. Through our platform and AI partnerships, we can interpret, contextualize, and present research in various formats preferred by different audiences, using performance data to optimize how, where, and when the content is made available for the best effect.

The way forward

This is such a big vision and finding the optimal pathway forwards hasn’t always been obvious. But through the support of publishers also looking to develop and broaden their reach and increasingly now too through pharmaceutical companies and other businesses looking to explain and showcase the evidence that underpins their product developments, we’re making progress.

Conceptual image of asphalt road and direction arrow

In 2024, it feels like we are coming to an inflection point for innovation in the communication of research, valuing that there is – and always has been – a broader readership for science than scientists, and that this matters. Mistrust makes it matter. 

In an industry that is significantly dependent on public funding, it is vital to our future that we explain science better to more people. It is also vital, for the sake of good decision-making and safety, that we particularly get these explanations to the people who most mistrust science.

As Deborah Blum said in her SSP keynote: we need to tell stories – engaging people, not lecturing them – and we need to repeat ourselves, often (the antithesis of "new" that journalists focus on). By educating people that science is a process, and articles aren’t endpoints, we can build understanding and trust in science and those that are producing, publishing and communicating it.

Kudos works with publishers, universities and pharmaceutical companies looking to build trust through effective communication of research evidence. To find out more about how Kudos can help you summarise, contextualise, showcase and grow an audience for your research please contact:

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