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How Reflexivity Can Make You a Better Science Communicator

Science communicators strive to convey the value of science to a wide group of individuals. Many of us do this through public engagement activities, education efforts, or by publishing science content via articles, blogs, videos, or social media. Despite our best intentions, sometimes these activities don’t reach our intended audiences or inadvertently exclude or overlook certain groups. 

How can science communicators overcome some of these challenges? By practicing reflexivity. 

What is reflexivity?

We all have reflexes - those literal knee-jerk reactions that we rarely stop to think about. And they’re not just about coordination or physical responses. We also have thought reflexes that come so naturally to us that we don’t even realize they are happening.

Reflexivity is about stopping to acknowledge those automatic habits. It makes us actively examine our beliefs, practices and reactions, and to think about how they influence us, and it’s key to inclusive science communication.

Practicing reflexivity helps us recognize how our background, identities, and biases influence our work and interactions with others. It can help us understand our privileges, mitigate power dynamics, and improve our relationships. 

Leading with Reflexivity

Embracing reflexivity will help you be more respectful, practice active listening, and, hopefully, help others feel more comfortable with you. In turn, that can improve collaboration and facilitate power sharing in making decisions and completing projects. Reflexivity can also help you practice humility, cultivate dialogue with different audiences and collaborators, and enhance your community engagement efforts.

How can I practice reflexivity?

Step 1: Examine who you are - your identities and positionalities

The best way to start your reflexivity practice is to take inventory of your identities and how they play into how you experience the world. The goal here is to evaluate your privileges and potential power relations. It can also help you gain insights into how others may see you.

Write down your identities. What characteristics and qualities do you use to describe yourself?

As you develop your list, don’t just think of the obvious ones - gender, race, nationality, academic background, profession. Dig deeper. Some examples are being a homeowner, sports fan, your relationship status, family connections, institutions you represent, disabilities or health conditions.


Step 2: Consider the identities of others in your personal and/or professional life

Equally as important as reflecting on your own identities is the need to consider the identities of others connected to you: your target audience, collaborators, coworkers, partners. Understanding them and yourself can help you find commonalities to build on and differences that might impact your relationship.

Side Note: Identities are not static, and some are more relevant to particular situations. For example, if you just earned a degree - or lost your job - you are going to enter a room very differently than you would have before graduating or being let go. Similarly, if you are a woman, your identity as a woman might be more salient in a meeting where you are the only one in the room. But, if you are a woman in a women-only organization, your race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., might be more salient.

Join us in this experiment:

Imagine a patient. Any patient at all. What do they look like? Are they sitting on a chair or lying on a bed? Are they older than you? Younger?

Now imagine a person. Any person at all. What do they look like?

Ridiculous, of course, because all patients are people. But did you, even for a split second, think of a unifying characteristic of patients that isn’t shared by all people? 

All patients are people and all people will be patients at some point. The danger of only ever referring to people with a particular disorder as patients is that every other aspect of their lives is in danger of being overlooked. That single identity overwhelms everything else that they are.

Ask yourself: What gets lost when we only see someone as a single story? What do we gain by expanding our view, and engaging with more than one identity?

CreakyJoints, an advocacy organization for people with arthritis and rheumatic disease, asked its members whether they would define themselves as patients. The responses reflect a healthy balance of opinions, from “Being a patient is my truth,” to “I’m so much more than a patient.”

We have grown used to being asked how we choose to identify ourselves in our day-to-day lives - it’s time to start having these conversations with the people we write about.


Step 3: Find ways to take action - that work for you

Thinking is critical. So is taking action. When you identify gaps, potential areas for growth, or issues that need to be addressed, you must be ready to move from reflection to action. Do something, no matter how small it might seem. Broaden your target audience. Reach out to collaborate with different organizations. Practice blind hiring. 


How can I learn more about reflexivity?

There is no one way to practice reflexivity; it will vary by person and context. Look at reflexivity as a continuous and iterative examination of self. And while this process might be uncomfortable at times, it can help us identify areas for growth, behaviors we need to modify, or topics we need to learn or unlearn. 


Step 4: Keep learning

This article is just a primer on reflexivity. If you want to learn more, be on the lookout for a free workbook, developed as part of the Civic Science Fellowship Program from Ciencia Puerto Rico due out at the end of 2023. The workbook aims to address the lack of reflexivity and inclusive science communication resources and training materials. It will define key terms and strategies and guide users through a series of questions,  considerations, and exercises to help them practice reflexivity. We are also developing workshops based on the workbook’s content, so you may see me (Andrea) and my CienciaPR colleagues at a conference or gathering near you. I hope you come say hello!

Andrea Lopez & Bea Perks

Andrea Isabel López is a Civic Science Fellow with Ciencia Puerto Rico. As a fellow she developed a reflexivity workbook for researchers and practitioners in civic science, science communication, and public engagement with science. Andrea holds an MPH in Community Health from the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. She has over 7 years of experience in different areas of the research and public health field including: community based participatory research, qualitative research, clinical research, and project management. She is the recipient of the Margaret E. Mahoney Fellowship with the New York Academic of Medicine, the Karel Scholarship, and an NIH research supplement to promote diversity in health-related research programs. Andrea was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico and is committed to advancing health equity for the Latino community and improving representation in the research field.


Bea Perks is a medical writer, science writer and journalist based in Cambridge, UK. With a PhD in clinical pharmacology, she has edited peer-reviewed journals, written for popular science magazines and worked on best-selling science books for children and adults.

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