Last week we welcomed Dr Kristen Marhaver to Talks@Mendeley. She travelled all the way from the Carmabi Research Institute in Curacao – one of the oldest research centres in the Caribbean where she studies coral reefs – to discuss how researchers can communicate their work more effectively, and what pitfalls they are likely to encounter along the way.
She started off by explaining that her keen interest in Science Communication (and Digital Science in particular) came from a passion for the ocean, her concern over its collapse, and a wish to make a positive contribution towards conservation.
She expanded on the theme of her recent Wired Article, talking about the problems that come from treating scientific research as a disposable commodity rather than a durable good, to be built incrementally over time.
“We have this situation where a paper that took 5 years to produce, which addresses 500 years of biology, gets 3 days of press attention. My question is, what happens in day 4? The media noise simply doesn’t match the severity of the problem.”
The main problem, she believes, stems from the fact that science is not the news, but gets treated as such. And by approaching it as an ephemeral commodity, we’re doing a huge disservice to the research community and society in general.
“Science News shouldn’t be something that ages. It shouldn’t be taboo to talk about science that was published last week, that is just absurd.”
She also pointed out that Twitter is becoming a useful aggregator of science news:
“We’ve reached a sort of speed limit on Twitter in we can’t produce enough news for a new tweet every five seconds, but that then creates a space for citizens to float things they believe are important back up to the surface, hence the #InCaseYouMissedIt phenomenon”
Kristen also highlighted the problems around diluting or sensationalising scientific messages in order to make it more palatable or newsworthy. Since researchers don’t usually get to go on book tours or press tours to talk about their message, there is often a real danger of their work getting irrevocably misinterpreted along the way.
“The main issue here is that scientific research is so specialized that there will be very few people in the world, apart from the original researcher, who are qualified to interpret and critically analyse that output, and to translate it to a broader audience.”
There is, however, hope in the fact that we’re increasingly seeing the Internet acting as a platform for expert translators of this content.
“You now have things like Altmetrics aggregating all the chatter around scientific research. When I first started talking about this a few years ago, there was really no way for the average citizen to look at a piece of research and figure out what gravitas it had, and what its real importance was.”
However, she believes that altmetrics should not merely focus solely on counting mentions and other social interactions, but should prioritise aggregated content, curating expert opinions in such as way as to make research clearer and more accessible to the average person. At the moment, Altmetrics is something that is on the radar of the scientific community, but not exactly common knowledge to the general public. And that, says Marhaver, is something that really needs to change.
“Every paper should come with a lay summary. This kind of tool is something that everybody should know about, and should be on every search search bar: Tell me more about this research in a language that makes sense to me”
That is actually something that chimes with some recent initiative by Mendeley and Elsevier, like the recently launched STM Digest , which aims to provide lay translations of scientific papers produced by experts with in-depth knowledge of the subject.
“It’s hard for conservationists to pick their battles wisely, but sometimes you have to let small things go to win the bigger fights.”
Kristen draws parallels here with the Open Access debate, saying there are papers that people simply need to have access to, and that some content needs OA more urgently than others. This is something that scientists have actually started to address by self-sorting based on OA importance, publishing papers with broader societal impact into Open Access journals and more specialized content in others. She recognises that Elsevier initiatives such as Atlas are a good start, but wants them to go further
“My dream is that all the big publishing houses took a small percentage of the most important papers in areas such as food security and conservation, things that they recognised that the public really needed to know about, and just opened those up?”
Talking to Ourselves
“We used to be in the proverbial scientific Ivory Tower talking to ourselves and it was considered shameful and even corrupting for scientists to mingle with the common folk”
We like to think that things have moved on since then because these conversations now happens on the Internet, but the danger is they don’t actually manage to reach the general public.
“You can’t simply rely on creating social networks around scientific content because content is too rare, if your content is PDFs, you don’t have new ones to add very often, unlike Twitter and Facebook. We also need to ask ourselves whether we’re creating great things with our knowledge, or are we just making more click bait?”
Before going on to answer questions from the Mendeley team, Kristen finished on a positive note:
“Science Communication is booming, and baby corals are growing.”
And that just has to be a good thing.