From publication to the public: Can blogging scientific papers stop people getting sick?

Webb_Mangroves2Why should academics blog? Answers to this question vary. On one hand it provides an opportunity to “spread to word” on newly published research. However, I’d argue that, more importantly, it is about getting the message out beyond the scientific community.

Do your research findings have something to offer the community?

I occupy a space somewhere between research and policy. While I undertake research, I’m also involved in disease surveillance, policy development and public health education. A critical component of my work (particularly in my role as a senior investigator with the Centre for Infectious Disease and Microbiology Public Health) is translating research for improved public health outcomes. Blogging helps me do this. Studies have suggested that this is why many other academic blog too. This also one reason why the use of social media by academics is encouraged.

I wanted the share an example of how blogging can increase the impact of your published research.

Much of the research I’ve done on mosquito repellents is prompted by questions I’m asked at public events and presentations. It is also informed by regular visits to the “insect repellent” shelves of the local supermarket. I believe public health messages need to keep place with the changing face of commercial formulations. This has led to work on botanical mosquito repellents (here and here and here), combined formulations of mosquito repellents and sunscreen and advice on using repellents in tropical areas where dengue is a risk. I’m also often pulling all this information together in one place.

wristbandOne of the most common questions I’m asked is if mosquito repellent wrist bands/bracelets protect against mosquito bites. These products seem like a great idea and an alternative to topical repellents would be welcome by many.

Clearly there is demand for information as Google searches for “mosquito repellent wrist bands” are far and away the most common way new readers visit my blog. Of the top 20 search terms used to find my blog, 15 of the phrases contain “bands” or “bracelets”.

In 2009 I published a paper titled “Do wrist bands impregnated with botanical extracts assist in repelling mosquitoes?” in General and Applied Entomology. This is a very small journal published once per year by the NSW Entomological Society. The journal doesn’t have an impact factor and I suspect that many of the papers are only read by members of the society who receive a hard copy in the post. Once papers are 12 months old, they are made available on the website to download as PDF but I have no idea how frequently they’re accessed, particularly not by the general public.

Why did I published that work in General and Applied Entomology? Good question. At the time I probably didn’t appreciate how much interest would be in the work. The other issue is that I’d had some trouble getting “negative” results of mosquito repellent testing published. Also, as a member of the local society, I was keen to contribute and this was a relatively straight forward paper to write. Hindsight is wonderful though and clearly this could have gone elsewhere.

The results of this research could easily have been locked away in scientific literature obscurity forever. Fortunately, I started blogging.

repellentrackI recently wrote about the publication in the post “Do mosquito repellent wrist bands work?“. This is now one of the most read posts on my blog with over 22,000 views of the article since late November 2013. Would I be excited if that many people read a paper of mine online at a Journal’s website? Of course. I get excited when over a 1,000 people read or download a paper!

Perhaps most importantly, the key message from that paper is freely available and easily accessed by those in search of information. There is also the backing of a peer-reviewed publication if people want to dig back a little deeper to find more information about the science behind the testing of these products. This isn’t the kind of information usually provided in fact sheets and websites of local health authorities.

The other benefit of have a blog is that it provides an easily accessible place to redirect people to who are asking questions via Twitter. I could always direct people to journal articles but often all they can access is the abstract. I’d prefer to send them to my blog.

Does this change people’s opinions? That is a more difficult question to answer but I would hope that with that many people accessing my article, the message is getting out there. I hope it is also spreading as much by word of mouth as well as via the world wide web. I’ve been contacted and quoted in a number of online and print publications so the post has also provided a stepping stone for contact with other media outlets.

This is just one example of how maintaining a blog and writing about published research can help improve public health awareness. Hopefully that blog post will stop a few people getting sick from mosquito bites in the coming years.

Why not join the conversation on Twitter and help share other examples of where blogging about scientific research has helped the community access public health information.