Tuesday 24 July 2012

Summer Homework 2: Science Communication

Research the ways in which scientists can communicate with other scientists and with the general public. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each method? What are the benefits and drawbacks of the existing peer-review method for academic publications? How do you feel peer-review could be improved?
Several methods of communication exist for scientists to educate others about their research. They range from the formal (journal articles), to semi-formal (conferences), to informal (newspapers, television shows, outreach programmes).

Journal articles and edited books
In general, when scientists wish to communicate their research formally to other scientists in the field, they need to subject their work to peer-review, where other scientists in the field read the work, try to replicate the results and give (hopefully) formative feedback that will improve the quality of the research. Scientific journals are considered the best way of achieving that. Scientists are assessed, especially if they work in universities, on the length and prestige of their publication record. With a few exceptions, it seems the shorter the journal title, the more prestigious it is, e.g. Science, Nature, Cell. The advantages are, no doubt, the prestige, the rubber-stamp of authority from the peer-review process, and the knowledge that the important researchers in your field will see your work. The disadvantages are the length of time it takes from submission to publication (18 months is not unusual), and the cost of accessing the articles for people who do not have an institutional subscription to the journal.

When scientists have work in progress, a conference can be a good place to present this, prior to publication. Abstracts (short summaries) are submitted, and subjected to a mild form of peer-review (i.e. the committee decides whether the abstract sucks or not). They are then published in a conference volume. The conference takes place, and the scientists present their work either as a talk, usually between 10-20 minutes long, or as a poster in a 2-3 hour poster session.

The advantages of this are the ability to talk to scientists in related fields, get ideas, swap knowledge of specimens/techniques, and to showcase one's own talents. It's an opportunity to collaborate with others. The disadvantages are the cost of travel and accommodation, and difficulties with getting time out of teaching or other commitments. Often, the conference organisers will have a press conference, which can raise a problem of a specimen being reported in the press that has not been officially named or published in a journal. This can be awkward for all involved.

Press releases to newspapers
If a piece of work is considered worthy, then the institution or journal may write a press release. This is sent to journalists in advance of the release of the article, so they are able to research and write their own piece. Sometimes this can result in an unfortunate game of Chinese Whispers - the press release doesn't quite get the science correct, and the news report doesn't quite interpret the press release correctly, and a scientist may find, say, that they've been quoted as saying that there are only 500 dinosaur species left to be discovered (!). However, this is probably the most common means of getting information to the general public, through the popular press. And there have been some really interesting cases that have arisen from press releases and press conferences.

Blogging and outreach
With some of the issues related to press releases, many scientists have decided to cut out the middle men (the press officers and journalists) and communicate directly with the public. Science blogging is becoming more and more popular, with big organisations such as Scientific American, Wired and Discover Magazine getting in on the action. The advantages are that the scientists get to tell the public exactly what they want to say, and the public get to ask the scientists questions directly. However, the disadvantages are that, while there are many journalists that slip up on the science, there are many scientists that really don't have the communication skills to make their science sound interesting. Plus, any old nutjob can set up a blog...

Where next?
Peer-review is a pretty decent method, all told. It gives credibility to the research and shows that other scientists have deemed the methods to be accurate and the data to be genuine. Publication in a scientific journal is a chartermark of sorts. However, it is not foolproof - there have been examples where peer-review has not caught academic fraud. I'd like to see double-blind peer-review as standard - the authors don't know who the reviewers are, and the reviewers don't know who the authors are, until publication. There is evidence that this improves the representation of female first authors, so presumably removing inherent sexism and prejudice that female authors can't do science...

Journal articles are also prohibitively expensive - it can be $35 to access a short communication in a journal, rendering much research inaccessible to people who are not at a wealthy university with an institutional subscription. However, there are moves towards open access for all government-funded research (surely only fair?), and there are pretty high-impact open access journals such as PLoS, who are giving the big academic publishers a run for their money. I would like to see more online free publication of scientific journal articles, each with the means to comment on them and debate the implications of the results or conclusions. That would be awesome.

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  1. MischievousBastard25 July 2012 at 17:58

    DUDE! http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/07/we-took-a-rat-apart-and-rebuilt-it-as-a-jellyfish/260161/

    1. I KNOW!!! It's one of the most insanely awesome things I've read in a long time. Paul said the problem was, us biologists had spent too long playing with Lego as kids.

    2. MischievousBastard26 July 2012 at 16:23

      It is awesome and it says a lot for intrinsic rhythmicity. On the other hand, I think it's a bit of what Frankie Boyle was talking about with the following joke:

      "Gonna have a go at curing cancer?"
      "No, I'm gonna see how many fruit pastilles it takes to choke a kestrel."

    3. Yeah, I see that. But imagine that the results of the fruit-pastille-kestrel-choking experiment led on to a cure for cancer... ;)

    4. MischievousBastard26 July 2012 at 16:29

      Weirder shit has happened, but I'll not let that come between me and my misanthropic cynicism.


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