Social media and scientists – the communication must go on

A definition of grey literature from The University of Queensland.[2]

The grey (US: gray) literature is that written material which is not part of the “traditional” publishing model – unpublished, privately published or non-commercial writings.[1,2,10] GreyLit can also include blogs and tweets and other such social media (SoMe) output. Blogs, tweets, Facebook posts can all be produced far more rapidly than any peer-reviewed literature. Last year I tweeted about having an accepted manuscript sitting with a publisher for over 19 weeks. That’s pretty slow.

GreyLit can be edited easily and can reach further because it is openly accessible to the public. SoMe is a great way to distribute current events – like details on disease outbreaks for example. But the GreyLit may not be secured by a permanent object identifier or a stable website address, nor is it listed on the US National Library of Medicine’s PubMed literature database. The meaning of GreyLit can easily be edited leaving nary a trace of what came before – these changes are often seen with public health GreyLit.

GreyLit can be short-lived and may be considered risky to cite; it’s volatile.

Scientists cite serious scientists…

Given all that, it’s pretty unsurprising that grey writings are often uncited by the more permanent traditional academic literature (books and journal articles for example) – at least not by those in my research fields. In general, scientists stick with citing the traditional serious academic [13] scientific literature. This is despite GreyLit harbouring more timely and leading-edge discussions and often being more digestible by both the public and those scientists who are sick to death of intentionally and arrogantly dense writing.

It’s pretty clear that we scientists write scientific literature for other scientists-it’s a great place to catalogue full descriptions of methods and expert evaluation.[3]

But even writing serious science does not guarantee a citation by other scientists.[3] It’s difficult to gauge how much it even gets read (download doesn’t mean a full read). “Real” written science can also sit behind a “paywall” – a closed access storage box requiring payment to cover article production costs and to make a profit for the publisher – it is a business, not a charity, after all.

To get a scientific publication into an open-access platform, an author’s grant or institution pays for the privilege. And costs vary (nicely outlined in this piece from 2013;[4]).

Papers keep coming out at an increasing rate…

Biomedical publications listed on PubMed Made by searching on date +/- journal name. Click on image to enlarge.

Biomedical publication numbers are increasing each year according to PubMed numbers (see the graph).

In 1992 there were a third (416,310) as many publications on PubMed as there were in 2015 (1,244,277). In 2004 half as many as in 2015.

Conventional paper-printed (+ online) journals do not seem to have scaled their output to keep pace with this rate of increase – so it may follow that many top-tier papers have to find homes among less luxurious journals. Purely online journals, like PLoSOne in the graphed example, do seem to scale with demand. Being online makes them more nimble and accommodating. A win for them and a plus for science, researchers and the public if that journal has a reliable and trusted brand.

What about the many, many new fee-for-publication “journals” appearing? There is limited evidence that some are trustworthy at all. Some have yet to be around long enough to get listed on PubMed and there is a justifiable sense that in publishing with them, ones work may never get editorial support or be visible to search methods in the future. Another risk – this one to science in general – is that some of these journals have been clearly identified as predatory (in it for the $$$[11,12]).

There is also the preprint. These do tend to get a permanent home (so they aren’t as volatile) but they may never be peer-reviewed. They can also be updated but there is usually a clear path to show previous versions. These are a grey area of a grey area!

Predatory journals: Flushable GreyLit?

Predatory journals may simply be a dumping ground for badly written bad science that is poorly or not reviewed and a wasteland for science that is not visible to standard search methods. And it may be volatile. A new type of GreyLit.

While it may be a great feeling to add papers to the publication list of a curriculum vitae (CV), it will ultimately reflect poorly on scientists who buy into predatory journals because poor science and conclusions will be ignored or be challenged and found wanting. None of this is good for the science brand.

How does talking to the public fit in?

Once we’ve published our serious academic endeavour in the serious academic literature, that’s the end of the communication phase, right?

Wrong. It’s the beginning.

We can talk about what we did, why we did it and how it matters as a member of the public; to our fellow members of the public. Today, we can use the socials to do that. These communication lines have already been heavily tapped by those who peddle anti-science. Those groups have worked out the new world communications order.

My academic friends, it really is time that we got our collective stuff together! No more evidenceless excuses for why not to talk to out wider community. Time to look for the benefits provided by better and wider communication. 

For now, when we unserious academics venture onto SoMe to be unserious, we may often be talking to ourselves. We tend to attract followers who are like-minded and/or have a mindset that already leans towards the quest for new knowledge and better understanding. Such followers seem like people who generally read a lot, they are willing to learn new things and they don’t usually just accept what they read in their timelines to be the absolute truth. I love discussing stuff with them – it can get robust at times – but that just challenges me to learn more and that is a good thing too. But it may be that these followers are only a fraction of our communities.

How can we scientists drop reason into the mix of conflict, rage and ignorance that is seeking to darken the lives of communities everywhere? Perhaps if more of us step up. We all communicate differently, just as we do in the real world. Delivering the same message in different ways may be key to reaching the widest range of people.

Some of my peers remain thoroughly knotted up in self-indulgent arguments around only speaking in public on research topics they are expert in. This parochial and short-term view is at odds with the benefits that years of experience in logical and ordered thinking and problem-solving could provide to the chaotic world our communities live in.

But it’s not easy. Academics adding to the GreyLit are faced with the real need to spend our writing time predominantly on scientific journal articles and grant applications. The GreyLit may still not be seen to add value to a CV that is needed in order to get/keep a job and pay the bills-even if a single good piece may reach tens of thousands of people, instead of ten. Even when grant applications ask the researcher for wider communication strategies, it can often be very clear that this is not on their radar. That means there isn’t much of a care factor among some grant reviewers either.

Today we can seek out the facts we want to read…

The public can now individually collect and curate their own sources of news and information much more easily than we used to; they can feed their existing biases.

Not that long ago we relied more on a limited range of wide-reaching radio, TV news or newspapers to find out what was happening in our local or global communities. We had that material delivered by professional journalists (yes, there were exceptions). But now we each source our own news, rely on increasingly one-sided mass media or listen to like-minded anonymous avatars who gather together news snippets into what they consider a theme. These sources may do no research or have no understanding of the history or science underlying a topic, have no grasp of the subject or of when balance is or is not needed. They may feel no need to present information with accuracy. Kinda like those real journalists used to do. But today’s “journalism” – an apparently shrinking profession anyway – often seems relegated to the production of suitably emotive and inflammatory clickbait. The new news curators run on feelz and likes and their followers are thusly “informed”.

What I’ve described can be repeatedly and easily seen in a range of white, male-dominated ‘western’ nations.

The age of expertise is gone, welcome to the age of extreme emotion… 

Those of us academics who wish to continue being unserious but who wish to help provide factual information in an age of anti-expertise [5,6] and anti-intellectualism [7,8,9] are faced with some real challenges. And some hard decisions that will require changing habits.

How do we make sure all our lab/bench/desk work is not wasted effort and dollars?

How do we help turn around some of the dangerous, illogical and factless sentiments polluting our peace?

How do we join in new discussions we may not be expert in but feel we can contribute to, without getting called out or piled on?

If the reach of science does dwindle and the public is not understanding science and if science is not contributing to the daily discussion and if the loudest most emotive voices are the ones that determine our future, then politicians will not be driven to fund or use science and teachers will not be empowered to teach science and logic, and science will increasingly stop being done.

That outcome is just not acceptable.

So the main question I leave you with is, how do we get more unserious scientists attempting to reach the audiences we need to write for – those who are not simulacra of ourselves, the general public?


    This post from 14AUG2016 was posted over on my old blog platform and has now been moved to here and lightly updated.

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1 thought on “Social media and scientists – the communication must go on”

  1. Hello Ian, I have come through your article and i think it is really informative that how social media affects scientists for their deep research by giving regular updates.

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