Changing the landscape of science communication

Getting your research published in a “peer-reviewed” scientific journal is still the gold standard for acceptance by the broader scientific community — despite its many problems — and I’m guilty of following this model, sorry. There are currently over 28,000 active scientific journals, some are good, and some are predatory. The white noise of millions of papers published per year makes it very hard to find relevant and reliable science. In a sense, it is probably more challenging to get interesting science visible to the broader community now (and finding other people’s work), than it was three-hundred years ago.

The first peer-reviewed paper was in 1665. Back then, it was challenging to get your ideas out there and getting people aware of current science. Manuscripts (and several copies) had to be hand-carried to other scientists in other countries for them to review and make comments, and the process took years. The journal editorial staff would serve as the referee to make sure everything was kept professional and scientifically rigorous. The peer-review process was a great idea at the time. Not only were the researcher’s ideas getting to the people that mattered, but getting the work published was also verification of the science. Fast forward to the year 2020, and the fundamentals of the scientific review process have not changed one bit despite massive leaps in technology and communication. It can still take over a year to get a paper published.

If scientists are not putting their work and knowledge in publicly accessible media, and therefore not indexed by Google, then does the research even exist? Sarcasm aside, there are many popular science blogs and magazines that distill the complicated jargon-filled technical reports into a readable plain English format. Yes, some of the specific details are lost in the grammatical translation, and significance of the work is often over-hyped, but the main ideas are usually maintained. These blogs, wikis, newspapers, magazines, television shows, and others, are the primary ways the majority of people find information about the newest science.

A little less than half of the published research done in the United States is federally funded, so the public should have free access to a very large body of scientific work. However, journals are behind paywalls, or the researcher must pay thousands of dollars to make the published work open access. Some journals have a 12-month embargo before the authors are allowed to freely archive their work on public repositories. Some researchers do archive their own work, and even do it before they are allowed, in open self-archiving repositories like ResearchGate. Still, this practice is fraught with legal issues and the fear that publishing companies will sue you for copyright infringements.

Some people are pushing for complete open access to the peer-reviewed research, and having unrestricted access to the data as well. Access to the data is critical, as it is an important way to verify the analyses and conclusions from a body of work. Having the paper and the data open to all is going to force a different approach to publishing. Online writing and collaboration platforms like Authorea were founded with the idea that academics can publish their findings (including original data) openly for free, and anyone can comment on the presented work (not anonymously!) Many publishers are not fully embracing open access, and in most cases, not allowing the authors to maintain the copyright of their work. Authors are required to sign over copyright for the work to be published, and the authors do not get compensation.

But having the original science in an immediate open-access format is not good enough, because most people can’t understand the intensely complicated language. The paper and data may be downloadable, but the way it is written makes the science almost impossible to understand (and therefore not accessible).

There are things that everyone can do to change the landscape of modern science communication, even if you are not a scientist. It does take a bit of extra work, but if that extra work becomes part of your natural communication process, then it won’t seem so bad. I’ve compiled a list of ways that science is communicated, and list what I see as pros and cons to each. Let me know if there are others I’m missing.

Links in table: ChemRxiv, Medium, Presentation software

I don’t do all these things all the time, and some I don’t even do (how do people find the time to write a book?). I’m still experimenting, but I currently use the strategy to make connections to all the varied content I write. For example:

  • Publish article → write Instagram post about the article → write Medium blog post about the article → write Instagram post about the blog post

and

  • Write a blog post → Instagram that blog post → give a presentation somewhere (using open access presentation software)

I don’t post the content verbatim from one media to the other. I use the strengths of each platform to fit the kind of content that works best for the type of audience that uses it. I do try to make the connections to other kinds of online content by using the same tags, mentions, and physical links, to name a few important ones. For example, I probably won’t publish a color photo of a mineral in journal article because that usually costs me money, but I can quickly post a mineral photo on Instagram with a short blurb about why that mineral was important for the study, which most people find more interesting anyway.

All the while I write small science pieces to keep readers (and myself) engaged and fill in gaps of knowledge. These posts include:

  • conference presentations, but first publish conference paper/abstract to ChemRxiv to get the digital object identifier
  • experiments I’m working on, past experiences, or things about the museum collection
  • writing posts about projects in progress, exhibits, anything about what is happening in the museum that I find interesting and relates to other aspects of my research.

Plus, it is important to engage other people’s content as well. Write small, positive, and thoughtful responses to others who are putting themselves out on the internet. In my experience with journal articles, most people who anonymously comment feel they have the power to be excessively critical, and this makes the whole process much more hostile. This old-school peer-review mentality does not fit the model in modern open science or social media. It’s constructive to have different ideas, but it’s destructive to voice unfounded criticisms.

It doesn’t matter if you are a scientist or an enthusiast, there are tons of rapid pathways to get the science out there.

Aaron Celestian is Curator of Mineral Sciences at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. He researches how minerals interact with their environments and with living things, and how those minerals can be used to solve problems like climate change, pollution, and disease.

#openaccess #communication #sciencewriting

Keeping science accessible. Researching how minerals can be used to solve problems like climate change, pollution, and disease. @ NHMLA, USC, NASA-JPL