Communicating Science 2.0: Getting the message out in a wired-up world

Getting a scientific message out from behind the lab doors can be a daunting task in this wired-up world. I gave a talk about this in Paris recently. Read on for the linked up version of the talk, the slides and, when I get hold of it… the video.

Max’s Note: I was invited to give this talk on Communicating Science 2.0 at the Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau (near Paris) as part of a series of seminars organised by the Aristote Association. They are a learned society focused on the latest advances in IT and Networks. They bring together academics, businesses and entrepreneurs to present and discuss on the topic. This particular session was about Web 2.0: from theory to practice and it took place on 12th October 2011. I am completely indebted to Jean Michel Batto and Yohanan Winogradsky (both from INRA) for the invitation and opportunity. So, here goes…



Here’s the summary: “Arguably the biggest innovations in academic publication in the past 350 years have been the removal of “Dear Sir” as an introduction (around 1750) and the move to electronic publication in the past ten years. This second point has significantly changed the landscape of science. For example, in biomedical sciences the corpus of publications has doubled since 1995 to approximately 20 million papers. This year could see one million papers published alone which is about two publications per minute. This makes navigating the scientific literature a challenge with some estimates suggesting that a full 30% of researchers’ time is taken up with information management. Going beyond scholarly publication and getting the message out to a broader audience from this ocean of information is proving hard too. This is particularly troubling (for some) as more and more funding bodies now insist on demonstrable outreach and communications activities as a condition of funding. With main stream media business models collapsing (the development of the internet has had a part to play in this) and journalists having to deal with hundreds of press releases in a day, many have been left wondering what to do. This is were Web 2.0. technologies will make a difference. With examples of some success stories, I will demonstrate how web 2.0 approaches to communications may well be the only viable channel for most scientists to get their message out from behind lab doors.”

Here’s the linked up version of the talk (it took about 20 minutes to give it):

Some Context

Authors, writers and journalists often get paid for their work by publishers. If you are a scientist, it doesn’t work like that. You are expected to write the paper as part of your job and hand it over to a publisher (often releasing copyright to them) for free. You get no fee or royalty on your work.

Most of the time, the publisher then sells your work for a profit. And, that includes selling your work back to you and your institution. On top of this, the publisher also expects you, as a scientist, to get involved in peer review, again, for free. So, two of the major inputs to the academic publishing business are supplied for free. This has been explored recently.

The real rub is that this system has existed since 1665.

And that is where we start a discussion on communicating science 2.0. 1665 was the year that we saw the first publication of academic journals as we know them today. The French got there first with the publication, in January 1665, of Le Journal des Sçavans. Two months later came the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Taking a random sample from a 1708 edition of the Philosophical Transactions you’ll see an eclectic mix of topics including work on light bulbs, compressed air and a new route to California. They clearly didn’t have any particular preference on language either given the appearance of papers in Latin.

Take a look at the first article of this particular edition.  You will see a letter from a certain Mr Anthony van Leeuwenhoek (notable for now being regarded as the Father of Microbiology). It’s a rather gory account of him feeling under the weather, taking a pen knife to his tongue and examining the white fluff he found under a microscope.

The notable point about this paper/letter is the “Honourable Gentlemen” you see at the top. This was typical of the time. Most scientific communications were between scientists and written as letters. Journals were set up to spread the word about the findings more efficiently. The phasing out of that singular phrase of “Dear Sir” is possibly the biggest ever innovation in academic publishing until the Internet became viable for the common man (i.e. 1997). Ok, there have been some structures built into articles in journals (think abstract > introduction > methods> results > discussion etc) but that is about it. Nothing has really changed since those first publications. The system of discovery, write paper, peer review, publication, garner comments, peer review and publish has remained the same since the beginning of the modern academic publishing system.

and then came the Internet…

The big revolution (and this is the one I think is critical) has been the ability of academic publishers to publish electronically. It has resulted (almost imperceptibly) in a blast of scientific information. If you inspect the rate of publication of articles available via PubMed (so read biomedical sciences) you will see that the rate of publication appears to pick up at exactly the point when to internet became widely viable. You might also see that the number of active journals is increasing but hardly reflects the increase in papers published each year.  Take a look:

The rise and rise of biomedical literature publishing rates (Source: Pubmed)

Whistles… Convinced yet?

Now I am not saying that this is definitive or accurate. Confounding factors might well be involved although I have been able to verify the claim that the database is largely inclusive after 1951. The point that is striking is the rate of publication today. At the current rate we should hit publication of just short of 1 million articles on biomedical sciences this year… that is 2 articles published every minute.

This is why I contend that there is a scientific information flood… and getting heard in all this is becoming hard. Publishing is probably no easier than it was in 1997 but there has been a considerable increase over the past 10 years or so.

Reaching a broader audience

Going beyond scholarly communications and moving towards a broader audience is also getting tougher. I believe the incentive to go broader with communications will hit home very soon. There is good evidence now that major public research funding agencies (including this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one) insist on outreach and communications activities as a pre-requisite for research funding. The NSF go further saying that grant funding is judged on two criteria, intellectual capacity and broader impact, and in the later case partly on previous communications activities of applicants. As research budgets continue to be put under pressure, it is probably fair to say that the scrutiny of proposals will get tougher and that demonstrable communications activities will become critical in winning grant funding. The incentive to publish and communicate is growing fast.

Shrinking channels

Whether or not you subscribe to the view that there is a ‘crisis‘ in science journalism, one thing that is clear is that the quality of stories reported in the media is certainly variable when it comes to science (see the slides for examples). Specialist magazines and bloggers that focus on science produce some excellent engaging work. At the other end of the spectrum, we still have to endure sensationalist headlines based on flimsy evidence and questionable PR. Reporting bad science, pseudo-science and “medicalisation” are all still big business in the media.

Illustrating the issue

In 2009, 59% of science journalists said they work on more items per week than in 2004 due to editorial demand. EurekAlert!, the clearing house for science PR run by the AAAS publish more than 75 press releases daily (based on a date search). Some journalists claim they now receive hundreds of press releases directly every day. This makes getting attention from journalists hard and for journalists this represents a severe burden in their jobs. As I said earlier, the scientific community are publishing a vast amount of material – approximately 2,400 biomedical research papers are published every day in PubMed (2011). The pinnacle of scientific endeavor (certainly in the biomedical sciences) are clinical studies and systematic reviews. According to a study in PLoS Medicine, 75 clinical studies and 15 systematic reviews are published every day.  It is probably fair to say that the current system represents complete information overload for the journalist.

The phenomenon of churnalism – re-writing press releases and passing it off as original journalism – is still rife in many media outlets. According to Nick Davies, the author of Flat Earth News, 80% of science stories are now not original journalism and are based partly or purely on PR. The phenomenon now even warrants its own web site which according to itself is a crowd-powered churn engine. Here is a perfect example from The Telegraph (March 2011) to illustrate the issue. This piece (again in the Telegraph in February 2011) is 96% cut and 97% pasted from the press release from UCL (they even copied the video and added their own logos). No doubt a coup for the PIOs at UCL, but you’ll be forgiven for asking questions. Finally, according to this report, 60 – 70% of the weekly quota of science stories come straight from the pages of five top journals. There are over 27,000 academic journals listed in the National Library of Medicine Catalogue which suggests the public are likely to be seeing a very restricted image of science as a whole.

According to research conducted by the DG Research of the European Union media professionals indicate that “There is an overload of scientific information that cannot be properly used or cannot be used at all because it has not been adapted (emphasis from report) to what the media needs. The media are not receiving information in a format that they can quickly and easily digest and this is a very significant problem. Science stories will not be used, or will be featured less prominently, if they are overloaded with complex information which is not easily useable or translatable into everyday language. Lack of relevance is a key issue and lack of understanding of what makes a good story means that because there is limited media space for science, there is less coverage overall, or a concentration on “sensationalist” stories which are easy for the media to use, but of lower quality. This perpetuates scientists’ fears that data is misrepresented by the media.”

From a scientific perspective that is a truly worrying conclusion, with little apparent change since the publication of the report. I also know from my own experience, that this issue is not widely acknowledged in the scientific community as getting press attention is not the major driver for scientists… at the moment.

So, what options are left?

Simply publishing a research paper is unlikely to result in any further coverage of the work. There is too much being published every day and without some sort of promotion, it is unlikely to get any attention. There is always the option of a press release but as I showed earlier, you will be competing with many others. Of course, if you can get published in a very high impact journal, your topic is interesting and understandable and you want to get some coverage, you have a better chance. Unfortunately not everyone can publish in Nature.

Communicating Science 2.0: Examples

This is why I contend that Web 2.0 might be a very attractive option for pushing a message further than the academic paper. Here are some examples of successes.

Obesity Panacea

This is an example of Web 2.0 helping scientists push a message further than the academic paper and having some success. One of the bloggers published a paper in a fairly prestigious journal and despite promoting it at conferences received little in the way of citations or attention from the press. They blogged about it, receiving over 12,000 page views and 70 comments in a week. That is a serious achievement in terms of knowledge translation. As they point out (on another blog), publishing in a prestigious journal basically made no impact until they decided to start discussing it online a few months later. It does not end there. After digging around a bit, there are further mentions, blog posts and news articles relating to the paper here, here, here, here and here. And, of course, there is also the article at MSNBC which certainly helped push the message further in October 2010.

Retraction Watch

A great example of Web 2.0 helping to change academic publishing methods. Retractions are thankfully quite rare (although on the rise). When papers do get retracted it is helpful to know why (for a number of reasons). Unfortunately academic publishers are not always very forthcoming with the details. Enter Retraction Watch, publishing regular exchanges between themselves and editors at numerous journals. And it seems to be working. As they keep tabs on evolving stories there are notable changes being reported. However the most remarkable point is the reach that the blog itself is achieving. According to Ivan Oransky (one of the authors), who I managed to speak to recently in London, they receive ‘about 100,000 page views per month‘. For such a specialised topic, that is a truly remarkable achievement.

The correcting mechanism

As I detailed earlier, main stream media don’t always get it right. This is where blogs, Twitter and other social networks have stepped in. Scientific blogging has exploded over the past 3-4 years with so many (±2000 are registered here) appearing it can sometimes be tricky to keep up. Taking a look at some of the controversies that have been covered (#arseniclife is a particularly good example) you can get a good idea of how powerful the system has become.

Open access publishing

How web 2.0 is inverting the academic publishing business model. Basically, this approach to publishing means scientific papers are published without (cost) restrictions to the end user and in some cases with unrestricted re-use. This is significant as the charges for access to traditionally published journal content can be excessive. Without institutional access you can expect to blow about $35 per article (it makes discussions over paywalls at newspapers look faintly ridiculous). A number of notable open-access publishers have become very successful in the past 5-10 years (i.e. PLoS and BioMed Central). The interesting development (and probably a good reason for their success) is that some major research funding bodies now insist that the research they support is published via this route. You can see their point. They often want widespread dissemination of the results. It is also often paid for by tax payers so making tax payers pay again for accessing the results seems counter-intuitive (although under the traditional model, the publishers have managed to get away with this for many, many years). Open access publishing is simply not viable without the web (the costs of print vs possible advertising revenues is probably well out of balance for most journals). Open access will only grow.

Unpublished negative results

Web 2.0 has not managed to crack this one yet, but I believe it will. Unpublished, negative results are a huge issue in science. Unfortunately they might also be a bi-product of much of what I have talked about above. Negative results are inevitable in science. And, not all leads, lead to Nature as such. Unfortunately they can be extremely demotivating and the incentive to publish is just not there in comparison to a really exciting discovery. However, assuming that the experiment is well designed, they are still a relevant result. Repeating experiments that are bound to fail (because someone had done it before, found out but then not reported it) costs money and in the case of clinical trials, even lives. There is also a more sinister side with evidence of journals refusing papers with negative results because they believe they are of “no value to their readership”. Reviewers holding up papers with negative results is also an issue because of worries over possible damage to the research area and hence their own programmes. The list goes on. At present there are journals of negative results although their impact is limited and certainly not solving the issue. A mechanism is needed to put published studies in the context of performed studies. I believe web 2.0 might hold the solution to all this with the sweet point lying somewhere with post-publication peer review (very difficult without web 2.0), machine readable metadata (impossible without web 2.0 and a network) and speed of publication (i.e. clicking a button to publish). It’s not there yet, but I believe it will not be long.

There are plenty of other examples and I’m sure that they will appear here (on the blog) in time.

Summing up

There is a changing landscape of opportunities for scientists to communicate their work. There is a looming incentive to do more of it (a cause de funders) but traditional channels of opportunity are shrinking. Web 2.0 should not be ignored. It might even be the channel to establish yourself as a thought leader in your particular field. Sometimes Web 2.0 might be the only channel available and it can work. The language of engagement is different however and requires a style that is different to that used in peer-reviewed scientific publications and at scientific conferences. You also have to want to communicate. As I have experienced, it can be a disaster if the motivation is not there. And finally, the key to getting it to work is to start small in a niche and build (not the other way around). That’s how Facebook managed it…

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