Publicity and Outreach Done Wrong

I guess we all saw the publicity surrounding Ida, the Fossil That Will Change Everything. Well, in the same week two papers with my name on were also published online, but received nowhere near the same publicity. On reflection, it’s obvious we didn’t hype the papers enough, sticking to claims that were (a) actually in the paper, and (b) weren’t utter hyperbole1. So, too late, here is what we should have done.

h3. Mutshinda, C.M., O’Hara, R.B., Woiwod, I.P. What drives community dynamics? Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B, doi:”10.1098/rspb.2009.0523″:
This paper shows that most of the temporal variation in communities of species is due to the environment, not interactions between the species or within the species. It important for ecologists (I think), but how to sell it sex it up for the general public?
The obvious hook is anthropogenic climate change. It’s to do with the environment and isn’t mentioned in the paper, so it’s perfect. We should have organised lots of photos of pretty animals (I suppose we should have started by using data from species cuter than rodents), and explained that our analyses show that they’re at the mercy of the environment, and can’t react to it. We could find some pest species, and say that they’ll increase in number, and won’t stop (hm. Actually, rodents are so bad after all). The cuter declining species can be used on the front page of The Sun underneath the headline “CONDEMNED TO DIE!”, and on p2 “What will happen to the Great Tits?”. The Guardian can have some colourful moths above a story about secularisation and the lack of any enduring myths. The Daily Telegraph will just want to know how much the taxpayer paid for the crabs’ free power3.
From this we can develop a 13-part series on how communities are responding to climate change, with some young starlet going round the world experiencing all sorts or weather. We might even squeeze some science in there: perhaps Mike could demonstrate some MatLab code.

Jaatinen, K., Jaari, S., O’Hara, R.B., Öst, M., Merilä, J. Relatedness and spatial proximity as determinants of host-parasite interactions in the brood parasitic Barrow’s goldeneye (_Bucephala islandica_). Molecular Ecology. doi:”10.1111/j.1365-294X.2009.04223.x”:

This is easier, as it involves sex and relationships. Goldeneyes will happily go round laying their eggs in the nests of other birds. What we found was that they tend to lay them in the nests of relatives, not just the nearest nest.

Hang on, this can’t be right.
This is screaming out to be used in chat shows. We should have contacted Oprah to have a caring, sympathetic interview with the ducklings, asking how they felt about being abandoned with their cousins. The foster mum could also be questioned on what she thought of all this (“I dumped a couple of eggs in Cath’s nest as well, so I can’t complain can I, eh? Quack.”[2]).
If that doesn’t work out, we’ll pitch it at Jerry Springer. This will be a different show: we’ll get a mother who laid an egg in here sister’s nest, and then had it callously chucked out of the nest. Tearful she can complain about how she wouldn’t have been able to care for the little duckling, but her sister had lots of room. Of course, the sister will then be brought out to defend herself, to a backdrop of film of cute duckings, and discarded eggs. With any luck, feathers will fly.
We can follow up with a show about the drakes, and how they don’t care, but hang around the pond drinking and going “quack”.
I’m sure there are lots of other papers that could undergo a similar treatment. What recent papers of yours could be sold to the lowest denominator like this? Or have you read a recent paper you think should be hyped beyond all bounds or reality?

1 I should note, in fairness, that PLoS’s weren’t to blame and didn’t take part in the hoopla.

2 These are Canadians, just like Cath

3 One data set came from Hinkley Point

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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2 Responses to Publicity and Outreach Done Wrong

  1. Heather Etchevers says:

    I liked the treatment, Bob, and it worked to the extent that I went and looked at papers I wouldn’t otherwise have read.
    (Congratulations, by the way!)

  2. Bob O'Hara says:

    Thanks. But now you’ve got to treat your papers in the same way.
    Could be a reason to do some serious brain-storming over coffee.

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