The Efficacy of Podcasts as A SciComm Strategy


The impact of multimedia such as audio podcasts on the dissemination, accessibility, perception, and understanding of science has been researched at an increasing rate in recent years. Some research findings have demonstrated the effectiveness of podcasts as a tool in connecting scholars with practitioners (Yuan, Kanthawala, & Ott-Fulmore 2021), while others have discussed their usefulness as a combatant of pseudoscience and disinformation (Amer, 2020). Research findings have even shown that using podcasts as a means of science communication can have profound persuasive impacts on the listener, even if the topic at hand is one that is historically controversial (Kurdi, Benedek, Mann, Ferguson, 2021). Of course, the effectiveness of multimedia approaches, especially podcasts, is deeply influenced by having an intentional structure and strategy in place. What may be surprising is how fundamentally different the approach must be as compared to the traditional Deficit Model (Reincke, Bredenoord, van Mil, 2020), sometimes requiring a complete reformulation of how we think about communicating science (Ye, 2021). Despite the growing body of research demonstrating the communicative efficacy of podcasts, there remains a barrier: adoption. As with anything new, widespread adoption can be a slow process. Fortunately, that is yet another area in which research is taking place (Merhi, 2015). Part of that process involves understanding listener behavior and other engagement metrics (Chan-Olmsted, Wang, 2022), as well as exploring their use both as an entertainment source and as a purposeful instructional tool (Hew, 2009). Another area deserving deeper analysis is the overall fiscal and temporal feasibility of creating podcast content for education purposes (Young, Pouw, Redfern, Cai, Chow, 2021). These recent studies have revealed a new world of opportunity in science communication in an era where its importance grows more every day.  

Review of Literature

A Strategic Approach

Creating effective and impactful science communication content, whether informal, part of a nationwide campaign, or combating pseudoscience on the internet (Amer, 2020) requires a strategic approach. Reaching an audience is challenging enough which is why the adoption of new methods to meet the people where they are at is so important. Engaging the audience, keeping their attention, building trust, and creating an impact requires a deliberate approach with a deep understanding of who the audience is, their behaviors, and motivations. It is an approach contrary to that most in academia are accustomed to or comfortable with. It is personal. Traditional science communication approached the task in accordance with a so-called Deficit Model. The findings of Reincke, Bredenoord, and van Mil (2020) highlighted the importance in shifting away from that approach to a new strategic model based on dialogue. Their work centered on a 2017 effort on the part of The UK Royal Society called the Genetic Technologies Public Dialogue as well as a Netherlands initiative surrounding the development of public dialogue on human genetic germline modification (HGGM), both of which aimed at encouraging the public to form desirability opinions on genetically modifying human germline. The researchers at these conferences came from differing disciplines, including biomedicine, ethics, and reproductive medicine, and attended. Reincke, Bredenoord, and van Mil examined whether or not the respective expertise of the presenting researchers was sufficient in making them effective communicators with the public. Ultimately, they found that most experts employed a Top-Down approach to communication which incorrectly assumes positive opinions form with increased knowledge or awareness, and the effectiveness of their communication suffered as a result. It is recommended that researchers instead adopt the Dialogue Model, sharing knowledge, listening and learning, and investing in relationships in a model based on valuing non‐scientific forms of knowledge, such as cultural and experiential knowledge, as equal to scientific knowledge, and that above all it is a responsibility of researchers to do so.

While the previously referenced study did not focus explicitly on podcasting as an avenue for communication, it sheds light on what types of communicative strategies are most effective. It so happens that the strategy deemed more effective lends itself naturally to the medium of podcasting. Yuan, Kanthawala, and Ott-Fulmore (2021), studied extant science podcasts and analyzed which strategies they employed. According to a survey of 157 science podcasters, the most important goal for them is to pique people’s interest in science and to demonstrate the usefulness of research over time, a sentiment shared by almost anyone with a vested interest in communicating science. Furthermore, their findings revealed that podcasters commonly employ a variety of communication methods, but they are frequently not the result of a systematic communication plan. Creating a universal structure behind the dialogue model would surely be a worthwhile endeavor in the pursuit of equitable and accessible science communication. 

Redefining What is Achievable

When thinking about adopting new mediums for science communication, it is important to be clear about what science communication is, even if that itself requires some redefining. In Amer’s paper (2020), The Craft of Science Writing editor, Siri Carpenter, discusses the differences between science journalism and science communication, how to structure stories, explain complicated ideas, and other skills that go into good science writing, and all of those are part and parcel with the findings made by Yuan, Kanthawala, and Ott-Fulmore (2021) whos findings will help to increase efforts to connect scholars with practitioners such as podcasters by recognizing the relevance of theoretical frameworks in practice. Many science organizations, such as scientific societies, are beginning to engage in public engagement through channels such as podcasts, and they are recognizing and attempting to improve their engagement capacity by acknowledging this goal-setting process rather than focusing solely on specific communication skills. The research highlights the potential value of adding science podcasts to science communication initiatives, and it encourages academics and podcasters to think about specific communication goals that might be met through podcasts.

A recurring element that has been discussed thus far is how effective science communication should be seen as more of a dialogue, and podcasting is uniquely suited to meet that new standard. Most formats revolve around a discussion, usually with some type of expert, and even though the audience member is not directly participating in the conversation, they cannot help but feel a part of it. It is that sort of fostered deep connection that makes podcasts so powerful, even persuading the implicit mind of listeners. In 2021, Kurdi, Mann, and Ferguson published findings that simply reinterpreting target stories or ideas that are traditionally negatively received has a significant impact on the final reception of the idea, with large shifts toward the positive. 

Each of the studies mentioned in this section has in some way revolved around a perspective shift in what makes science communication good and the role that podcasts can play, even for long-running institutions. Ye (2021) looked at Scientific American’s 60-Second Science podcasts from a genre standpoint to see what structural and linguistic tactics might be used to reformulate scientific discourse for a wider audience. They conducted a Move Analysis on 110 representative texts which revealed a structural pattern: an engaging Orientation, a foregrounded Claim followed by the development of its Credibility, the traditional Introduction-Methods-Results-Discussion, and a distinctive Termination often spiced with witty humor. The fundamental components of academic abstracts, research presentations, and science news reports are all included in this pattern, but with minor adjustments strategically made to enhance accessibility and engagement. Some of those adjustments include inclusive pronouns, reader pronouns, self-mentions, inquiries, and hedges, as well as weaving researchers’ voices into the podcasters’, resulting in a highly dialogic and interactive approach. 

Wider Adoption | Conclusion

The power of podcasts as a science communication tool has been well-documented at this point. The question that remains is the feasibility of wider scale adoption, either as an instructional tool from expert to students or audience or in a more casual sense. Part of that puzzle is in identifying what factors influence the adoption of a podcast by a listener. Merhi (2015) identified usefulness, advantage, and enjoyment as being the largest influencers of podcast adoption. Mobility, self-efficacy, ease of use, and image were all identified as indirect influencers. Chan-Olmsted and Wang (2022) found similar results in the first-ever comprehensive examination of podcast user behavior, motive, and motivations through a large-scale national survey—despite podcasting being around since the early 2000s. The researchers found that the biggest drivers of podcast consumption were entertainment, information, and audio platform superiority. 

The previous two studies provide a perspective from a leisure standpoint but do not highlight the different challenges and opportunities presented by using podcasts instructionally.  Young, Pouw, Redfern, Cai, and Chow (2021) analyzed the feasibility of incorporating or creating podcasts into medical education. Ultimately, they found podcasting to be incredibly low-cost in exchange for sustained high levels of engagement throughout the study period with virtually no cons. Hew (2019) reviewed previous empirical studies which had been conducted on the use of podcasts in K-12 and higher education studies and the effectiveness of their implementation. He found that the most frequent use of podcasts in an educational setting revolved around being provided as either a supplementary resource to be reviewed at the student’s discretion or as a direct lecture recording which had clear convenience benefits, and analyzed the efficacy of having students create their own.

The impact of multimedia such as audio podcasts on the dissemination, accessibility, perception, and understanding of science has been clearly defined and demonstrated. Feasibility in regards to implementation and production has been analyzed and found to lack barriers. The list of ways in which podcasts can be used as a tool for increasing scientific dialogue in the public in impactful ways has only expanded. These recent studies have revealed a new world of opportunity in science communication in an era where its importance grows more every day.  

Literature Cited

Yuan, Kanthawala, S., & Ott-Fulmore, T. (2021). “Listening” to Science: Science Podcasters’ View and Practice in Strategic Science Communication. Science Communication, 107554702110650–.

Amer, Pakinam. (2020). Working Scientist podcast: Science communication made simple. Nature (London).

Kurdi, Benedek, Thomas C. Mann, and Melissa J. Ferguson. “Persuading the Implicit Mind: Changing Negative Implicit Evaluations With an 8-Minute Podcast.” Social psychological & personality science (2021): 194855062110371–.

Reincke, Cathelijne M, Annelien L Bredenoord, and Marc Hw van Mil. “From Deficit to Dialogue in Science Communication: The Dialogue Communication Model Requires Additional Roles from Scientists.” EMBO reports 21, no. 9 (2020): e51278–e51278.

Merhi, Mohammad I. “Factors Influencing Higher Education Students to Adopt Podcast: An Empirical Study.” Computers and education 83 (2015): 32–43.

Young, Benjamin, Andrew Pouw, Amanda Redfern, Fei Cai, and Jessica Chow. “Eyes for Ears—A Medical Education Podcast Feasibility Study.” Journal of surgical education 78, no. 1 (2021): 342–345.

Hew, Khe Foon. “Use of Audio Podcast in K-12 and Higher Education: A Review of Research Topics and Methodologies.” Educational technology research and development 57, no. 3 (2009): 333–357.

Chan-Olmsted, Sylvia, and Rang Wang. “Understanding Podcast Users: Consumption Motives and Behaviors.” New media & society 24, no. 3 (2022): 684–704.

Ye, Yunping. “From Abstracts to ‘60-Second Science’ Podcasts: Reformulation of Scientific Discourse.” Journal of English for academic purposes 53 (2021): 101025–.

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