top of page

What makes a scientist seem authentic? Study says it's in the story.

Title: Constructing and influencing perceived authenticity in science communication: experimenting with narrative

Authors: Lise Saffran, Sisi Hu, Amanda Hinnant, Laura D. Scherer, Susan C. Nagel, 2020

Journal: PLOS One (Open access)


What makes a message about science trustworthy? Anyone who watches the most persuasive messengers—the Carl Sagans and Bill Nyes—can sense something beyond the science alone, some spark that passes between these communicators and their audiences that insres belief, perhaps even compels it—but what is it? Lise Saffran and colleagues at the University of Missouri set out to track down that elusive component of trustworthy science communicators they call authenticity.


Concepts of authenticity go back to antiquity. Based on a review of authenticity literature, audiences look for speakers who seem to have a recognizable personal history and values and are sending a matching message. Then they’re perceived as authentic.

Previous psychological research found audiences associate trust with a range of different qualities in communicators such as integrity, competence – even warmth and benevolence. These qualities are connected to the messenger as much as the message and are based on feeling more than fact.

This work examines how authenticity might offer insight into the causes of trust. There is currently no useful measure of perceived authenticity in the context of science communication. Saffran and colleagues had the goal of measuring authenticity, suspecting that scientists would be perceived as more authentic if their message was written in first person rather than the dry impersonal style of a peer-reviewed paper. and that different kinds of first-person messages would be seen as more authentic or less.


In a survey they offered different first-person messages about plant domestication and dating ancient corn cobs to a random sample of subjects. In one, the narrator simply talked about the research. In another, the narrator admitted making mistakes in the past. In another the narrator discussed how the findings might still have some remaining uncertainties when the research was complete. In the last message, the narrator talked about reasons for deciding to do this research. A final message was written in third person for control purposes.

The experimenters then gave all subjects an “authenticity questionnaire” measuring different qualities that earlier research had linked to authenticity. These included such questions as:

  • How much do you agree with the statement: “This researcher is a human being first and a scientist second?”

  • How likely is it that this researcher would be swayed in their research for personal gain?

As the researchers expected, first person messages were considered more authentic than the third person. But--surprisingly, scientists were seen as most authentic when they used first person to share the reasons why they did their research. Discussing past mistakes or future uncertainties had little or no effect. The authors found audiences saw researchers as more authentic when they felt a sense of connection with the researcher and when they perceived the researcher had integrity.


This is a real contribution to understanding what audiences look for when they seek a feeling of authenticity, but it still doesn't fully explain why people attribute authenticity to these qualities in a story rather than to others. The authors believe that telling an “origin story” about research caused audiences to feel scientists had a personal stake in the issue. This led them to be seen as trustworthy.

This is particularly important for scientists who are frequently seen as remote, cold intellectuals, unlike the way the audience sees itself. But this perception clearly doesn’t work the same way in everyone; subjects with more education or Republican leaning voters were less likely to see authenticity in the test messages.

The authors believe research like theirs could help create professional best practices for scientists who want audiences to see them as relatable and authentic. The problem for scientists is that public communication pulls them two ways: they need to show how “relatable” they are, but they also need to show they have special knowledge not available to others. This dilemma gets worse as the science grows more abstract and less intuitive—think quantum mechanics or gravity waves, for example.

When scientists show they have a personal history with a problem, their passion can come out as well as their eagerness to be understood. Saffran and colleagues’ experiments show that these qualities can offset other qualities that tend to undercut trust. By giving scientists and the audience ways to relate to each other as people, outside the science itself, authenticity may offer scientists a way forward.

Edited by Kay McCallum and Jacqueline Goldstein

Cover image credit: Creative Commons


bottom of page