Open Communication Guidelines

These guidelines are for anyone at EPFL who communicates about our research to the general public. They were developed by EPFL’s communications department (Mediacom) and Open Science Unit (VPA-OS), with the backing of the EPFL direction, to make sure everyone within the organization is informed of the values underpinning our communications policy.

These guidelines form part of the EPFL open science strategy and are in keeping with our “open engagement with society” objective.

EPFL’s beliefs

  • it’s important for the general public to have access to objective scientific information
  • it’s important for the scientific community to maintain ongoing dialogue with the general public
  • methods used by the scientific community – such as peer review, open science platforms and representative samples – play a crucial role in scientific communications
  • guidelines help reduce the disconnect between the scientific community and the general public in terms of how key issues are discussed. This disconnect – which stems from the fact that each research institute generally has its own culture, vocabulary, rules, performance indicators and so on – tends to erode the public’s trust in science. These guidelines therefore aim to find common ground between the two groups and build trust.

Four guiding principles

Transparency | Fair disclosure | Open access | Stakeholder dialog


General guidelines

Both the EPFL community and general public deserves honesty and transparency in the content we publish on EPFL research breakthroughs, startups, benefits for society, and more. We therefore suggest you:

  • avoid words such as “revolutionary” and “disruptive,” especially when any such revolution or disruption would be far off in the future

  • avoid cultivating exaggerated fears and hopes

  • clearly indicate any funding received in relation to a research project or any other stakeholder interests

  • clearly indicate content used to promote the products or services of companies that have ties to EPFL, as opposed to content that discusses EPFL research findings (a for-profit initiative could be a startup incubator, for example). For instance, you could add the following disclaimer:

    This content is being published as part of a for-profit initiative. It doesn’t comply with EPFL’s Open Communications Guidelines.” 

    together with a link to this document.

Disclosing corrections and changes

Clearly indicate any corrections or changes made to content after publication, especially if you add a clarification or correct a number. Here’s an example of a statement you could add to the end of your article:

Edited on 13 December 2022: A quote by Prof. XXX on quantum cryptography was added to the first paragraph, and the computer’s processing speed was corrected (4,999 teraflops instead of 499 teraflops).

Discussing different viewpoints

EPFL researchers are part of a community working towards a common goal. As such, debate – and even controversy – can be an important part of the research process. Content describing research conclusions should mention the viewpoints of other scientists and the limitations of the chosen research method. This kind of transparency will help readers understand the research process, and it will reinforce EPFL’s image as a source of trustworthy information.

Telling researchers’ stories

Our researchers are human beings, not robots, and each one has a personal story. By including some personal details in your content, you can establish a closer connection with readers and build trust. These details could be personal challenges a researcher has overcome – the hardest part of their work, or whether there was a point when they felt liking giving up, for instance– or something more fundamental, like uncertainty the researcher may have had about whether they followed the right approach. The more you can tell a researcher’s personal story, the more likely it is your content will foster trust.

That said, research is a collaborative process, so along with promoting the achievements of individual researchers, you should also give credit to everyone involved and to earlier studies by other research groups that may have served as a starting point. There’s usually a whole team of students, young graduates and technicians who worked behind the scenes to contribute to a discovery. We need to make readers aware of this.

📰 Further reading

Nieman Reports – Journalistic Objectivity Is Overrated. What Really Matters Is Transparency, Accuracy, and Fairness

(13 October 2022) Journalistic practices regarding objectivity are being reconsidered in general. Traditionally, journalists have been trained to and are expected to be objective and write balanced stories – putting their personal opinions aside. But a new trend is emerging where journalists reveal the point of view they’re speaking from (i.e., their background and affiliation). Will the scientific world follow the same path?

Impact of Social Sciences – Crucial! New! Essential! The rise of hype in research and impact assessment

(16 May 2023) The study shows something of how impact criteria have been interpreted by academics and how they influence their narrative self-report submissions. The results point to serious problems in the use of individual, evidence-based case studies as a methodology for evaluating research impact, as they not only promote the selection of particularly impressive examples but encourage hyping in presenting them.

Universiteit Leiden – Leiden University professor removed for extremely unacceptable behaviour

(18 October 2022) Transparency in communications can be part of a university’s general policy, especially in the area of ethics. For example, Leiden University in the Netherlands posted a news article on its home page about a professor being removed “for extremely unacceptable behaviour”.

Fair disclosure

Readers need to be given easy access to all references mentioned in an article, even if those references come from outside EPFL. Here we mean references in the broadest sense, including data. You should provide links to all relevant outside sources (e.g., research papers, data and software) and mention any studies or other information that can help improve readers’ general comprehension. This will create additional value for our readers and build trust.

You should be transparent about the limitations of the research conducted at our School, and proactively disclose:

  • findings that haven’t been peer-reviewed
  • samples that aren’t fully representative
  • risks involved in a given study
  • potential misunderstandings that could arise
  • findings that can’t be generalized to humans

When linking to your articles, include links to open-science publications whenever possible. If one of the links to your content is paywalled, specify that with a disclaimer, such as:

While we try to promote open science whenever possible, this study appears only on a paywalled website.

On the other hand, if your content is freely accessible, you can highlight that:

This study has been made freely accessible through our open-science policy.

Open access

Everyone should be able to access our website and other online platforms. Our website is designed to follow the latest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and the open-access platforms we use are well-known.

In our view, open access means taking a proactive approach to seeking out such platforms and avoiding channels (websites, apps, media outlets, etc.) that are used only by researchers, as this would limit the impact of our research outside the scientific community. You should strive to use open-access platforms, provided they don’t corrupt EPFL messages and let you reach the right audience.

An overly conservative approach would keep our content away from the public eye and hidden from precisely those to whom you want to illustrate the importance of science.

EPFL content is published under a CC BY SA 4.0 license and isn’t covered by a paywall or registerwall. When you send Op-Ed pieces, interviews and other types of content to media outlets, you should do what you can to ensure your content will be freely accessible.

In addition, you should aim to publish content on websites and other platforms that have the same communications values we do and that use creative commons licenses (such as Wikipedia). It’s also important to actively promote the reuse of content.

Making science accessible also means explaining concepts in a way the public can understand. Recent studies have found that people generally don’t trust content they don’t understand. This means you should strive to use laymen’s terms as much as possible, while taking care not to distort the underlying scientific meaning. That’s especially true for titles, subtitles and introductory paragraphs.

Details should be given only as readers progress through your article. Avoid giving specifics about EPFL right at the beginning of your article; focus instead on your message and where it comes from. Don’t expect people to understand EPFL’s complex inner workings; people who are interested in such information will read the article through to the end.

Flesh score for wiki people
A study of the readability scores of Wikipedia pages found that articles about scientists are much less easy to read than those about other key figures. This is most likely due to the complicated nature of scientists’ work, but it also clearly shows that, on Wikipedia, science is less accessible than other fields.

Stakeholder dialogue

Design your content to answer questions that the general public may have about a given topic. The same holds true for public events and any other type of communications.

Pay attention to the timing of your content. Issuing a news article to coincide with the publication of a research paper might mean your article comes out at a time that doesn’t make much sense for your target audience. For instance, an article about snow research is probably best issued in the winter, even if the corresponding research paper is published in Nature in August.

If you believe an article could trigger a certain reaction from your readers, address that preemptively in your article. For example, if you describe a breakthrough in cancer research that could give rise to lofty expectations, then take steps to attenuate those expectations. Bear in mind that our goal is not to avoid debate but rather to lay the groundwork for science-based discussion among the public.

Make sure the right people at EPFL – whether in our communications department or among our research staff – respond to the comments and questions that EPFL receives on social media or via email.

Try to answer questions directly and take comments into account as much as possible.

If someone points out a mistake in your content or a problem with how it was written (e.g., vague statements or exaggerated conclusions), make the necessary change and let the person know they’ve been listened to.

If you end a discussion on social media, explain why. For example: “We’ve decided to end this discussion because we have the feeling it’s being flooded by trolls.”

📰 Further reading

Johns Hopkins University – Vaxchat

Johns Hopkins University introduced a Covid-19 chatbot during the pandemic, illustrating just how far the notion of “conversation” with the public can go.

RTS Découverte – questions-réponses

In Switzerland, the national broadcasing company (RTS) unveiled a Q&A system where experts – including professors from the Unviersity of Geneva, the University of Neuchatel, and the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics – answer questions from a young audience. But because the system includes a filter (discussions are moderated by a third party: RTS) and has a narrow target audience, its impact on the general public is limited.

v. 1.0, Jan 2024 – Licence CC-BY 4.0