Publicizing your research results

Network News Spring 2008, Vol. 21 No. 1
Network News

The LINX experience

Recently a paper appeared in Nature (Mulholland et al. 2008) covering some of the core results of the second phase of the Lotic Intersite Nitrogen Experiment, known as LINX. This large, cross-site study has been funded by NSF and includes a number of LTER sites and investigators. In this article we relate our experience with publicizing the work, which evidently has been successful.

LINX talks and papers synthesizing data from across sites tend to carry large authorship lists and involve multiple institutions. There is a good reason for this: the latest work involved 72 coordinated stream experiments in eight regions across the United States, including Puerto Rico. The LINX experiments were 24-hour stable isotope additions to streams to study nitrogen cycling. Each experiment entailed a carefully coordinated measurement blitz by a team of five to10 people, including senior principal investigators (PIs) on site, followed by months of laboratory work.

We felt that it was critical to work with our home institutions and with the National Science Foundation to publicize the LINX paper, and we did this in the two weeks leading up to the date of publication. The overall LINX group prepared for the publication by drafting a one-page statement to serve as a press release. Every member had a chance to see it and make suggestions, helping avoid the potential confusion that could have resulted if each group did their own pieces in isolation. Individual PIs were free to customize the press release to highlight their own involvement or the context of their research in a particular region. The resulting versions of the release were ready to go as soon as the news embargo was lifted, and the NSF and individual institutions moved speedily to get them into the right hands.

The press releases had to strike a balance between being scientifically newsworthy, yet interesting and relevant to the public. In the LINX case the "broader impacts" of the research were easily conveyed because excessive nitrogen in the environment is widely recognized as a problem and is associated with major environmental issues, such as algal blooms and oxygen depletion in marine coastal waters. It usually helps to mention linkages to issues at the forefront of public debate; in our case the relationship between increasing biofuel crops (corn ethanol), which require greater use of nitrogen fertilizers, and nitrogen loading to streams proved to be one that the press picked up on.

Also crucial to successful publicity was the willingness and accessibility of the PIs to speak with the press. One must pay constant attention to the telephone and email during the first couple of days after the announcement of the paper and respond as soon as possible. Everyone from the media who contacted me for commentary had a deadline measured in hours or even minutes, and their calls or emails always seemed to arrive after normal working hours.

We were pleased with the publicity the paper generated, reaching national popular media such as Time magazine and US News & World Report, and winning space in numerous science news media. The news is still spreading through the Internet, as members of the team are still getting requests for comment and more information about the LINX studies from non-governmental organizations in the US and internationally.


Mulholland, P.J., A.M. Helton, G.C. Poole, R.O. Hall, Jr., S.K. Hamilton, B.J. Peterson, J.L. Tank, L.R. Ashkenas, L.W. Cooper, C.N. Dahm, W.K. Dodds, S. Findlay, S.V. Gregory, N.B. Grimm, S.L. Johnson, W.H. McDowell, J.L. Meyer, H.M. Valett, J.R. Webster, C. Arango, J.J. Beaulieu, M J. Bernot, A.J. Burgin, C. Crenshaw, L. Johnson, B.R. Niederlehner, J.M. O'Brien, J.D. Potter, R.W. Sheibley, D.J. Sobota, and S.M. Thomas. 2008. Stream denitrification across biomes and effects of anthropogenic nitrate loading. Nature 452: 202-205.