Scientists, do not make assumptions about your audience!

This is a post I could have written thirty years ago. The tendency of scientists (or any specialist really) to write texts assuming a similar level of background knowledge from their audience has always been a curse. However, with the advent of open access and open data, the consequences have become dearer. Recently, in what is probably one of the worst communication exercises of the COVID-19 pandemics, the CDC published an online message ominously entitled:

“Lab Alert: Changes to CDC RT-PCR for SARS-CoV-2 Testing”

Of course, this text meant to target a particular audience, as specified on the web page:

“Audience: Individuals Performing COVID-19 Testing”

However, the text was accessible to everyone; including many people who could not properly understand it. What did this message say?

“After December 31, 2021, CDC will withdraw the request to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) of the CDC 2019-Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel, the assay first introduced in February 2020 for detection of SARS-CoV-2 only. CDC is providing this advance notice for clinical laboratories to have adequate time to select and implement one of the many FDA-authorized alternatives.”

This sent people already questioning the tests into overdrive. “We’ve always told you. PCR tests do not work. This entire pandemic is a lie. We’ve been termed conspiracy theorists, but we were right all this time.” The CDC message is currently circulated all over the social networks to demonstrate their point.

Of course, this is not at all what the CDC meant. The explanation comes in the subsequent paragraph.

“In preparation for this change, CDC recommends clinical laboratories and testing sites that have been using the CDC 2019-nCoV RT-PCR assay select and begin their transition to another FDA-authorized COVID-19 test. CDC encourages laboratories to consider adoption of a multiplexed method that can facilitate detection and differentiation of SARS-CoV-2 and influenza viruses. Such assays can facilitate continued testing for both influenza and SARS-CoV-2 and can save both time and resources as we head into influenza season.”

The CDC really means that rather than using separate tests to detect SAR-COV-2 and influenza virus infections, the labs should use a single test that detects both simultaneously, hence the name “multiplex”. 

I have to confess that it took me a couple of readings to properly understand what they meant. What did the CDC do wrong?

First, calling those messages “Lab Alert”. For any regular citizen fed by Stephen King’s The Stand and movies like Contagion, the words “Lab Alert” mean “Pay attention, this is an apocalypse-class message”. What about “New recommendation” or “Lab communication”?

Second, the CDC should not have been assumed that everyone knew what the “CDC 2019-nCoV RT-PCR assay” was. Out there, people understood that the CDC was talking about all the RT-PCR assays meant to detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2, not just the specific test previously recommended by the CDC*.

Third, the authors should have clarified that “the many FDA-authorized alternatives” included other PCR tests, and the message was not meant to say that the CDC recommended ditching the RT-PCR tests altogether.

Finally, they should have clarified what a “multiplexed method” was. I received messages from people who believed a “multiplexed method” was an alternative to a PCR test, while it is just a PCR that detects several things simultaneously (in this example SARS-CoV-2 and flu viruses).

In conclusion, you can, of course, and should, think about your intended audience. However, you should not neglect the unintended audiences. This is more important than you think and not restricted to general communications. Whether a research article or a grant application, whatever scientific piece you write will reach three audience types. 

  • The first comprises the tiny circle sharing the same knowledge background, typically reviewers (if the editors do their job properly…). 
  • The second will be made up of the population at large, who will not understand a word, and frankly, are not interested in whatever you are babbling about.
  • The third is the dangerous one. It is made of people who have a certain scientific background, sufficient to globally understand the context of your text but lack the advanced knowledge to precisely grasp your idea, its novelty, its consequences. These people will read your text and believe they understood your points. The risk is that they did not. Misunderstand your point might be worse than not understanding it.

It is always good to get your texts read by someone belonging to this third population before submitting them to the journals of funding agencies.

*There is actually another very interesting story related to this topic when, at the beginning of the pandemic, many labs proposed to use their own PCR tests but could not because only the CDC-recommended test could be used, delaying the implementation of mass testing by many weeks.

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