As scientists we have a bit of a problem when it comes to the dissemination of our findings to the public. Yes. I wrote dissemination. It was George Orwell who said of effective writing never to use a long word when a short one will do. I am not an effective writer.
Academics live in a bit of a rarefied atmosphere. We have to justify our existence with the publication of papers, securing funding from research councils and attending conferences to show off our important work. Our interaction with the layman can be very limited, particularly in the pure sciences. Even those of us with a more applied background can struggle to communicate, often berating any perceived misemployment of ‘our’ techniques and science by the average Joe; or worse still someone in the public sector (sorry to my Environment Agency colleagues).
Now, if it didn’t matter, if scientists’ only responsibilities were to conduct science and make the Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment, then that would be OK (I also wouldn’t be ineffectively writing this blog). But it’s just not the case. Scientists must answer to the public, particularly if it’s the public who have afforded them the chance to do their science. Scientists must also be teachers, whether in a lecture theatre or in terms of educating the next generation of researchers. Scientists also need to talk to other scientists; something you’d assume would be easy, but that in fact often results in some of the most convoluted, uncomfortable and hilariously pointless conversations in the history of man.
So what can be done? Well, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Firstly, there are some excellent scientists out there already who are also superb communicators. The kind of people that appear on those TED lectures is what I’m talking about. Secondly, scientists have never had more support than they do now in terms of training for outreach work and education. Thirdly, social media has provided an ideal platform for the convergence of scientific and non-scientific discussion alike.
Put simply, there is no longer an excuse. Whatever the public can’t read in the closed off journals in which the majority of scientists publish, should be available in some other format, whether it be a video presentation, a Twitter update or a blog post. The benefits are intuitive and palpable. Scientists get their egos massaged (which they love) every time their Facebook page is ‘liked’ and have a chance to share their work with a global audience. Non-scientists get to see what it is they’ve paid for with their taxes and have a chance to comment upon, become enthusiastic about and perhaps educate themselves in otherwise inaccessible topics.
And that is the future. Or maybe it’s the present. I’m not sure. I’m fairly confident the landscape of academic publishing, and the means by which scientists get their research out into the big wide world, is changing. Social media might turn out not to be the answer, but given that most people don’t even acknowledge the need to pose the question; it’s got to be a start.
Note: A colleague of mine told me recently that publishing findings on Twitter would mean that big-hitting journals, such as Science and Nature, wouldn’t accept any papers I submitted that contained those same findings. So, that explains it…