Setting the terms for zoonotic diseases: Effective communication for research, conservation, and public policy

Julie Teresa Shapiro, Luis Víquez-R, Stefania Leopardi, Amanda Vicente-Santos, Ian H. Mendenhall, Winifred F. Frick, Rebekah C. Kading, Rodrigo A. Medellín, Paul Racey, Tigga Kingston

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Many of the world’s most pressing issues, such as the emergence of zoonotic diseases, can only be addressed through interdisciplinary research. However, the findings of interdisciplinary research are susceptible to miscommunication among both professional and non-professional audi-ences due to differences in training, language, experience, and understanding. Such miscommuni-cation contributes to the misunderstanding of key concepts or processes and hinders the development of effective research agendas and public policy. These misunderstandings can also provoke unnecessary fear in the public and have devastating effects for wildlife conservation. For example, inaccurate communication and subsequent misunderstanding of the potential associations between certain bats and zoonoses has led to persecution of diverse bats worldwide and even government calls to cull them. Here, we identify four types of miscommunication driven by the use of terminology regarding bats and the emergence of zoonotic diseases that we have categorized based on their root causes: (1) incorrect or overly broad use of terms; (2) terms that have unstable usage within a discipline, or different usages among disciplines; (3) terms that are used correctly but spark incorrect inferences about biological processes or significance in the audience; (4) incorrect inference drawn from the evidence presented. We illustrate each type of miscommunication with commonly misused or misinterpreted terms, providing a definition, caveats and common misconceptions, and suggest alternatives as appropriate. While we focus on terms specific to bats and disease ecology, we present a more general framework for addressing miscommunication that can be applied to other topics and disciplines to facilitate more effective research, problem-solving, and public policy.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1356
Issue number7
StatePublished - 1 Jul 2021


  • Bats
  • Chiroptera
  • Conservation
  • Emerging infectious diseases
  • Public health
  • Science communication
  • Zoonoses

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Infectious Diseases
  • Virology


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