Anna Jonsson

The knowledge strip: The art of communicating and collaborating beyond ivory tower and market stalls through comics

The purpose of this communication project is to convey and create commitment to research through comics. We build on an ongoing research project about knowledge production in collaboration between different sectors and actors. Since that project is now entering a final phase, it is important not only to communicate the results of the project but also to create a greater understanding of society s long-term provision of knowledge. Letting science meet an art genre, allowing for research results to be reflected upon through a “different lens”, offers opportunities to gain new insights and creates interest among the general public that support for a stronger foundation of research in society. Through texts and comics we will investigate challenges and scientifically developed strategies to strengthen knowledge production in collaboration. The project is based on the insight that we need to find new ways of communicating research, without oversimplifying or trivialising research results. Our assumption is that the comic format invites a broader audience and attracts curiosity. This should create good conditions for research to be utilized by as many people as possible, which ultimately is an issue about democracy. Through collaboration with a cartoonist, with the expectation to reach beyond the scientific sphere, we intend to combine the power of combining text and comics in order to improve conditions for research communications.
Final report
This communication project takes its starting point in the debate on fake news and resistance to knowledge. The role of science in society is being questioned and populistic views on whether science can be trusted are gaining ground via alternative communication channels and alternative facts. At the same time we see how incentive structures within academia, in which quality is measured by the number of scientific articles and citations, lead to discussions about the need to communicate “useful” and “meaningful” research. In times when measurability is paramount and higher education management demands breakthroughs, the resulting behaviour risks fuelling distrust of the role of science in society.

We see two risks. One is that researchers address themselves to like-minded people and submit texts which reach and interest only their own small group of researchers. This spreads a picture of the researcher as out of touch with reality, sitting in an ivory tower, someone who only communicates with their own in the pursuit of recognition and prolific scientific publication. The second risk, which can be seen as an attempt to rectify this stereotypical portrayal of the researcher, is that the research community faces calls to communicate more with the general public. This sends a conflicting image, where the researcher is instead described as a market trader. Science must be made comprehensible, useful and relevant, an approach that risks leading to anxiety and a desire to be “popular”. The very act of communicating “popular science” risks engendering populism when researchers allow themselves to be steered by other groups’ ideas and expectations of “entertainment” and their demands for simple, mediatized, black and white answers.

Against this background, we argue for the need to explore and find new ways to communicate research and give space to the rich nuances of knowledge. One way to do so is to let science and art meet. It allows for opportunities to mirror both the research project and the research result with “new eyes”, which can be described as a reflexive learning process. This can also be seen as a form of self-defence against knowledge resistance. The intersection between art and science opens up for new thoughts and boundary-crossing dialogues and creates opportunities to reach beyond group thinking. The initiative for our communication project is also rooted in the research project “Beyond the market stalls and ivory towers: A study on integrated science for sustainable provision of knowledge” (FSK15-1081:1). In the course of our work we identified a need to investigate new ways to talk about and at the same time nuance the view of collaboration, which was long characterized by the two polarized images of the researcher. The purpose of this project has thus been to convey and create interest for research results showing how knowledge can be developed in collaboration between academia and practice. The aim of our work with “The knowledge strip” has been to communicate both the research process and the result; our goal has been to strengthen the position of research in society.

We have thus worked concurrently with “The knowledge strip” and our research project on collaboration. Mikael Klintman chose not participate in the communication project due to other commitments. This meant that we – Anna Jonsson, Maria Grafström and Axel Brechensbauer – were able to extend this project and engage further in activities to communicate the results of our communication project.

To achieve the project’s aim we decided the meeting between science and art – in our case comic art – would permeate our work through an edited volume of essays centred around collaboration between academia and practice, the view of knowledge and the role of science in society. All the authors invited to contribute understood that their essays would be interpreted in a comic strip. The project thus developed specifically around the edited volume, which allowed us to examine, and to develop an understanding of, how comics can be a part of, and contribute to, our analytical work. Allowing the collaboration to permeate and be a central part of the work with the edited volume, rather than simply using the comic format to illustrate a number of texts, meant we were better able to achieve the purpose of the project. It also allowed us to make the comic format a part of our own process, which has given us new insights into how we can understand and talk about science communication. For the first ten months we worked intensively on reading and talking about the edited volume’s comics and texts. It was clear that we all saw and took in different aspects, which contributed to new thoughts and reflections. We have chosen to reflect on, write down and discuss the insights from our own process and it is above all this which has been at the centre of the remainder of the project.

Our target group has been decision makers and the general public. Attempting to reach out to a wider audience than those already interested was an important starting point, as it enabled us to have a stronger influence on decision makers. Greta Thunberg is a good example of how the power of engagement based in science leads to change in society. Our goal has been to communicate research in a way that is inclusive regardless of gender, ethnicity, age or education. That was also the reason for why we wanted to explore the role of comic art for how to understand and communicate research.

We have constantly studied and discussed the effects of different communication channels and can see that our best response has come from the conversations we have been invited in to. While it is difficult to prove this more fully, our efforts have aroused curiosity and engagement, and we have had the opportunity to present and discuss our work in various contexts. We have also been interviewed and taken part in workshops to further spread knowledge about our project. People who have read or heard about our project via various channels have expressed their appreciation of our initiative. It has inspired others to study the meeting between art and science, and a number of people have contacted us to discuss the opportunities with using comic art as a method for communicating research.

The outcome of our project has led to new collaborations and conversations. Anna Jonsson has also been elected to two expert groups for improved understanding of research communication, the Swedish Research Council’s proposal for an increased focus on communication in research education and V&A (Public and Science)’s engagement in the EU-funded project Rethink. Axel Brechensbauer has received enquiries about comic art and similar assignments. We have thus achieved our goal of reaching out with new formats. See below for material and distribution.

We have learned many things, which we have discussed and written about in various contexts. One key learning is that it is possible to visualize what is assumed, not only what is explicitly stated. We have gained new insights with regard to how visualization can contribute to research work, both in understanding one’s own process and in conveying its significance and the results of the same. In our case, the main insight is that the comics have resulted in new ideas arising and being challenged and conceptualized.

The meeting between science and art has to date been discussed mainly as a way of communicating research, of reaching out to the public with research results. What we have learned reminds us of the importance of understanding and using that meeting in our own research process. Science communication must be understood as a part of the research work, and not simply as communicating final results to society. It is also important to create conditions for communicating inwards, to the research community.

The aim of this project has been to spread knowledge about how comic art can be used to convey and create interest in research in order to contribute to society’s sustainable knowledge provision. We hope that what has been learned from our meeting will also prove useful in communicating other research projects.

We have used a number of channels to spread material and information about our communication project. We have under the name The Research Comic Group” created a website and also connected to Instagram and Twitter. For some weeks during 2020 we distributed and made the comic art – that was produced and published in the edited volume – visible, together with quotes from the essays, on a weekly basis. We have also regularly distributed both sketches and photos from our own process to inspire interest and curiosity for the (knowledge) creation process itself.

Prior to our book release in October 2019, and after our opinion article in Dagens Nyheter, we sent the edited volume to selected people. It was sent to government ministers and other researchers who promote the role of knowledge and education in society and who are engaged in attempts to find new pathways to and from science. We have also sent the book to selected representatives for the comic art scene, and distributed it to others in our private networks. To reach a broader audience, we have printed information folders and postcards about our efforts and comic art which we hope have reached other interested individuals. This material has been handed out ongoing in places we have visited in Sweden, and in Almedalen in 2019.

Further distribution has been possible thanks to the support of Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, and to V&A and the Swedish Research Council. The participants in the "Forum for Science Communication" have, in addition to showing their interest, also helped to spread information about our communication project. More information about this is given below.
Grant administrator
Stockholm University
Reference number
SEK 400,000.00
Communication Projects
Other Social Sciences not elsewhere specified