The mental models that individual scholars have of science communication – how it works, what it is supposed to achieve and so on – shape the way these academics actually communicate to the public. But these mental models, and their prevalence among scholars, have rarely been analysed. Drawing on a large-scale, representative web survey of academics at universities in Germany, Austria and Switzerland ( n = 15,778) from 2020, we identify three mental models that are prevalent among scholars, and that correspond to conceptual models found in science communication theory: ‘Public Understanding of Science’, ‘Public Engagement with Science’ and ‘Strategic Science Communication’. The results suggest that the ‘Strategic Science Communication’ model is particularly prevalent among academics in precarious employment and female scholars. Extrinsically motivated academics, that is, those under pressure to win grants, also seem to use science communication more strategically. The ‘Public Engagement’ model is prevalent among older and female scholars, while ‘Public Understanding’ is particularly prevalent among scholars who find their work especially meaningful. Findings also reveal that academics’ mental models largely align with the way they practice science communication.