THE BLOG

Science Communication Is Broken. Let's Fix It.

02/09/2015 08:07 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

The first scientific journals appeared in the late 17th century, when exclusive groups of scientists in Britain and France began recording their results for posterity. Only select aristocrats could participate in the endeavor of research, and their social circles were formalized in organizations like the Royal Society. Science was closed to the public.

Since then very little has changed. Societies for science still only accept well-established scientists who pay large membership dues. Journals of science are still only distributed to and read by paying subscribers: research institutions and rich scientists. Science communication is outdated.

The term "peer-reviewed journal" has become imbued with a connotation of thoroughness and prestige that masks its true identity. In reality there are over 10,000 journals worldwide, and scientists compete for spots in the most expensive and prestigious ones. Both scientists and their readers face ridiculous charges: thousands of dollars and $30-plus per article, respectively. Publishers claim these funds are necessary for the almighty sacred cow of research publishing: peer review. In reality, though, the costs for the minor review changes made to initial manuscripts is far lower, and the benefits are negligible. The peer-review process is slow and can actually block innovative ideas. Some scientists have gone so far as to show the holes in the system by publishing nonsensical articles in respected journals.From lab to print, research becomes a muddled mess while publishing industries thrive on ridiculous profits exceeding 30 percent annually.

This system is only able to survive because scientists are forced to "publish or perish" in an era of hyper-competitive grants and limited faculty jobs in the face of an overwhelming surfeit of postdocs. This immense pressure on scientists is destroying innovation. As Sydney Brenner lamented in regard to fellow (two-time) Nobel laureate Fred Sanger, today's research funding system does not support risky, long-term projects due to the pressure of publishing.

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The solution lies in science communication. We live in an era where the public needs to know about science. Research is no longer funded by the private monies of rich aristocrats; grants for science come from the pockets of the layperson via charitable organizations and taxpayer money. Public opinion of science determines where this money goes through policy and funding. A clear example of this today is the relationship between public opinion and funding for climate change research. Yet, as recent studies by the Pew Institute show, there is a significant disparity between public opinion and that of scientists in virtually every field.

Today, science journalism is the primary connection between discoveries in lab and the general public. However, the scope of such communication is limited by the knowledge of the authors, who often oversimplify concepts in an attempt to make the informations accessible. Ultimately, these pieces can fail in ways ranging from exaggerating the results to being completely inaccurate. Accordingly, it is up to researchers themselves to pioneer and revolutionize science communication. Scientists are becoming increasingly aware of this: "Communication of science to the general public is increasingly recognized as a responsibility of scientists (Greenwood, 2001; Leshner, 2003)" (Brownell, 2013). The solution is two-pronged: (a) transform the centuries-old, traditional publishing system, and (b) create new venues for science communication.

The first objective has burgeoned under the banner of open science. The science community has taken a quantum leap toward transparent research communication through several relatively new initiatives:

  • ReadCube: Nature (among other journals) diversified the uses of this article PDF viewer to allow subscribers to share read-only, annotated copies of papers with any reader.
  • Altmetrics: This new metric for article popularity/prestige encourages scientific discussion by measuring articles by their appearance throughout the Internet on websites, blogs, and social media.
  • The Winnower: The philosophy behind this open-access, open-post publication peer-review publisher is transparency from start to finish.
  • PLOS (and others): Many journals are beginning to accept the open-access paradigm for making articles accessible to all people, starting with PLOS.

Meanwhile, alternative means of science communication are growing equally quickly in the blogosphere:

  • ScienceGist: This recently closed service used to offer community-developed lay summaries of research articles. However, other alternatives (described below) are working to fill their shoes.
  • UsefulScience: The idea is deceivingly simple -- creating one-sentence summaries of research articles. In lieu of skimming jargon-filled, incomprehensible titles for articles, reading UsefulScience is a perfect alternative.
  • Draw Science: Science articles are undeniably boring; who enjoys reading large masses of esoteric text? Draw Science turns these long-winding papers into interesting, easy-to-read infographics for the layperson and tbe scientist alike.
  • SciWorthy: This is a more traditional website for readers to consult for science news, as they would consult TechCrunch or Engadget for technology news. SciWorthy also welcomes scientists to submit their own works.
  • Publiscize: Scientists are now tooled to make their own research open to all people via this website, which offers real-time, individual feedback from editors and an extended set of tools to maximize reader impact.
  • AcaWiki: This service is geared more at scientist-to-scientist communication, especially for graduate students, to summarize less-popular academic papers that would otherwise remain untouched.

The success of the aforementioned initiatives -- as well as new grassroots ideas -- is promising for the future of science communication. As we move away from an antiquated system of publishing to a new format of science communication, we must consider its implications for research as a whole. With the greater empowerment of the individual to create meaningful change in research, science is undergoing its own "indie" revolution with rising numbers of independent researchers and institutions. The focus of the science community is now shifting from #openscience to #indiesci, and the largely online movement will continue to redefine how, where, and who does research.