Health With a Capital H

Science Communication: 17th Century Processes in the Digital Age

November 1, 2011

By Sarah Byrnes, Health Communications Associate II

Science Communication in the Digital Age

Early this year, Science magazine published a study about the world’s ability to store, communicate, and compute information. Researchers reported that the average person in 2007 transmitted the informational equivalent of six newspapers of data per day, and received 174 newspapers of data. While many of those exchanges can be explained by a surge in photos and videos, information sharing is still growing at an overwhelming rate. 

Digital inclusion and increased access to an ever-expanding stream of information via the Internet has its benefits, including improved educational attainment, increased efficiency and productivity, increased civic participation, and improved economic conditions. However, science communication is having trouble finding its footing in the information explosion

Information Supply versus Demand

With more than 255 million Web sites, it would appear there is no lack of information on the Web. However, the timetable for research and peer-reviewed science literature is struggling to sustain the public’s demand.  It can take several months, even years, for submitted research papers to be published – and that doesn’t take into account the time it takes to complete the research in the first place (e.g., Science publishing a study in 2011 exploring Internet storage data from 2007)!

This traditional model of publishing science information after a lengthy peer-review process dates back to the mid 17th century. Nearly 350 years later, the four functions of a journal—registration of original ideas, peer review of research, dissemination, and archival record—continue to serve as the model for science-based communications. Even the advent of the Internet and online publication hasn’t significantly impacted that model. In their article Nutrition Communications in the New Age (Revisited), Sylvia Rowe and Nick Alexander sum it succinctly:

“If you have been trying to keep pace with the cyber revolution, you will know that it is proceeding so rapidly that the public push for scientific information now exceeds the pull of the scientific community—its ability to upload the answers being sought.”

When it comes to queries for science information, the public will find the answers they are looking for either in reliable science-based sources, or, unfortunately, via less credible sources. This can include corporate information sources, which are thinly-veiled direct-to-consumer advertisements, or well-meaning, yet misinformed blogger posts. Or, worse yet, through intentional misinformers

Reaching the Audience

Once research completes the peer-review cycle and is ready for promotion and distribution, science communication runs into another challenge: reaching the audience. As Bubela, Nisbet, Borchelt, et al., point out in their commentary Science Communication Reconsidered, “the availability of science information from credible sources online does not mean the public will use it.” Several obstacles exist to reaching and engaging the audience, including the vast amount of misinformation on the Web, the decline in science journalism, and an increased disinterest in science and science information. 

Combating misinformation and the decline of science journalism can be addressed by efforts to increase information literacy—the skills to acquire, collate, and evaluate information. An initiative, supported by President Obama, to increase information literacy will help the public search for and distinguish credible information sources for science information—and show why it is important to evaluate information sources. Another obstacle, increasing interest science and science information, can be addressed by audience research and framing science information to increase personal significance. Exploring alternative story lines and anecdotal examples within the context of audience research will help better communicate the nature and relevance of a science topic.

Open the Laboratory’s Doors

In addition to increasing information literacy and reframing science communication, another way to reach more audiences is to break down the wall between researchers and the public. Open-Notebook Science (ONS) is the practice whereby researchers post their entire laboratory notebooks—to include all raw data, even the results of failed experiments—online for public inspection and scrutiny. ONS has the potential to increase the pace of science research because it exposes projects to outside researchers and knowledgeable laypersons with varying backgrounds and expertise. This level of feedback can help resolve issues and foster productive collaborations. It also engages the public in a two-way conversation that science research and communication never had before, and, it begins to move science communication towards a more contemporary, Web 2.0 model. 

ONS isn’t new. The first open notebook science project is UsefulChem, a project in chemistry led by the Bradley lab at Drexel University that began in 2005. But ONS is not yet the norm. That may change sooner than we think. In June 2011, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, and the Wellcome Trust announced a joint venture to establish a “top-tier, open-access journal for biomedical and life sciences.” The yet-to-be-named journal will employ highly-regarded, active scientists to make “swift and transparent editorial decisions,” then quickly publish the research online. In the press release, Dr. Robert Tjian, President of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said: “The message from the research community was clear: We are fortunate to have many excellent journals, but there is need for a different, more appropriate, and efficient publishing model.”

Upside of the Digital Age

The digital age has challenged science communication, but it’s not all bad. The Internet has helped strengthen and expand science reporting on the Web by allowing Web sites to link directly to source data.  Being unrestrained by physical space limits, online science articles can also feature more charts, graphs, sidebars, and infographics (like this one from the United Nations Environmental Program) that better explain the “who, what, where, why, and how” of research. In addition, science blogs, maintained by accredited scientists and science journalists, help create a dialogue with the public and can serve as a check and balance to false reporting in the media. 

What challenges have you faced in communicating science information? Are there any innovations you’ve found that you think will help science communication find a better footing in the digital age?