What’s going on in the communication of research

natahanGuest blogger for this session is Nathaniel Gore, Editorial Project Manager at PLOS, where he manages PLOS Collections. Having previously managed online literature collections at ProQuest, his main interests are in content curation and discoverability.

Chaired by Martijn Roelandse,  Senior Editor at Springer Science+Business Media, the third session of 1:AM asked What’s Going On in the Communication of Research?

Renée Hlozek, from the Department of Astrophysics, Princeton, was first to attempt an answer and started with some advice she was given by a colleague earlier in her career: “It’s fine to communicate science, as long as you don’t tell anyone!” This attitude to “outward” science communication has, thankfully, started to change: not only is public engagement valued by funders,  but it is appreciated as being beneficial to the world at large.

But what about “inward” communication – scientists communicating with other scientists? Renée took the example of a research article which received a lot of media attention recently as it claimed to have detected the echoes of the big bang. A story this big – both in terms of public interest and scientific claim – naturally got a lot of attention from the astrophysics community. Very quickly a Facebook page had sprung up and was being used by scientists to discuss and assess the data; very quickly the data was being questioned. As well as being a good example of the value of Open Access, this was constructive, realtime, open post-publication review in action, facilitated by online communication tools.

This is a good example of how online science communication has moved from being more than an outreach tool to a tool to further science, says Renée, and altmetrics can provide a way to quantify such community connection and involvement with a scientific work.

Bjoern Brembs, Professor of Neurogenetics at Universität Regensburg, took a somewhat different view on the progress of online science communication, arguing that not much has changed, or not in the ways or as quickly as he would like to see. As a tenured professor, Bjoern doesn’t have the time he used to have to blog, tweet or to comment on lots of papers online, and therefore argued that the internet should have provided more tools to claim this time back.

His concern is that the gap between tech “luddites” and the “avant garde” is increasing, and technology should concern itself with pulling those luddites into the 21st century via the development of applications and infrastructure to facilitate research and make it more efficient. Giving the example of uploading data to Figshare and being able to manipulate it – or communicate it – not only for different publishers but also to create augmented figures, Bjoern believes that by creating more tools such as these, which researchers can quickly see the benefits of, will result in greater uptake. Greater uptake would lead to greater efficiency, and the more efficient a researcher can be in doing their research, the more time they have to communicate it.

Whether this is about technology itself, or lack of education about technologies available to researchers and how they can use them, is an interesting question.

Finally Brian Wecht, the co-founder of The Story Collider, spoke about the importance of storytelling to scientific communication. Describing how The Story Collider had been inspired by storytelling slams in New York, Brian (a jazz musician turned theoretical physicist) and a fellow storytelling scientist created a venue for people, some of them scientists and some not, to tell stories about science.

The interesting point that Brian made is that The Story Collider is not supposed to be an educational offering; in fact, storytellers are restricted to three lines of scientific explanation. But what it does do is provide a stimulus, a tool for piquing people’s interest in science and its communication by making it accessible and relatable.

So what is going on with scientific communication? A lot, that’s for sure. There are certainly two distinct aspects of scientific communication which Rénee neatly categorised as inward and outward: researchers communicating about research with each other, and communication of research to the public for purposes of outreach and explanation. This is not to say the two are mutually exclusive – researchers are people too! – but it’s an important distinction as the style, the tools and the methods differ.

It’s worth making this point, however: Renée and Bjoern both spoke via video link on Google hangouts; the session is already available to view on the internet; a lively discussion about the session took place as it happened on Twitter; I have been able to blog about it from the auditorium. Communication is changing, getting faster and more efficient with every day. How we capture and assess that communication needs to keep up.

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