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What is the future of primary science communication?

May 1, 2011

It’s that time of year again.  If you’re a scientist, or indeed any form of academic from a PhD student onward, you will no doubt be trawling through the variety of professional conference websites or flyers relevant to your field of research.  You may have submitted an abstract already, in which case you know exactly which conference(s) you’ll be going to.  That abstract will vary in form from a few hundred words written into a box not much larger than a post-it note, in which none of your abbreviations work, to a 3-4 page treatise if the meeting is particularly small and specialist.  We all know what is supposed to happen next: you travel to the conference, attend every session with maximum interest and enthusiasm, present your work to an appreciative audience who nevertheless ask an array of challenging questions that provide you with valuable feedback for the work to be formally written up and submitted to an academic journal.  We also know what does happen next: your travel to the conference was awful, the hotel you are staying in is several miles from the venue, and the parallel session format means that you will be lucky to see 20% of the stuff you’re interested in, and 50% of that will be disappointing.  Your talk usually does go well, but the reaction from the audience is underwhelming – you can usually count the number of questions from the audience on the fingers of one hand, and two of those aren’t relevant…

Conferences: too 20th century?

I am probably being far too negative in the above, but the point I’d like to make is that the communication of new scientific findings has not really changed a great deal since 1970.  Back then (indeed up to about 1997-98), conferences were useful because findings communicated there were unlikely to appear in a journal article for 2-3 years, given the delays associated with reviewing, copy-editing and hard-copy distribution.  Today, however, new findings can appear within a few months of their initial submission.  I’ll give one example: a paper we submitted in April of 2008 went through two reviews, was accepted before April was finished and was published in full in the September issue of the journal.  I thought this exceptional at the time but it is becoming more common.  Indeed, the “in press” time is a key measure authors will use to select a journal for submission – you simply cannot afford to have your data tied up for 12 months as the reviewers and editors drag their feet.  The journals I review for typically require reviews to be completed within 2-3 weeks of receipt for that reason.  All of this means that, for the purpose of the rapid communication of new science, conferences are next to useless as they are now considerably slower than journal turn-around times, especially as most journals now publish “articles in press”.

There are other reasons to doubt the future of conferences and meetings in their current form.  There is no doubt that conferences are very useful as a means of networking with other scientists or other groups, but in reality the internet provides more opportunities to network than a conference ever could, as there is no limit on attendance!  Moreover, there is a moral angle to conference attendance.  I’ve attended the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual meeting on five occasions, the last time being to Seattle in 2009.  Was it worth the expense when it doesn’t accumulate professional CPD credit and my symposium presentation lasted 25 minutes?  Was it worth the 3-4 tonnes of carbon dioxide my travel accounted for?  Could I have achieved the same outcome with a few eletters, some input to a few email lists, Facebook or Twitter and a session on Skype?  We published the symposium in paper form a year later, so what was the point?  If scientists are really serious about the threats posed by climate change (and we are), should we not be leading by example and attempting zero-carbon science communication?

Journals: half-heartedly Web 2.0

Science communication throughout history has been at the forefront of new communications technology – scientific journals burgeoned with advent of the printing press.  Similarly, publishers quickly organised journal websites and archived content as the internet expanded, but there were limits.  Online submission processes have been instrumental in accelerating the review and decisions made of submitted manuscripts, but from there on the same delays and frustrations remain, as well as some new ones.  With regard to the new frustrations, has anybody had problems with getting figures accepted by journals as part of the submission process?  Or have the published figures looked, well, crap?  There’s a reason for that: back in the day you had to submit “camera ready artwork” to a journal.  With online submission the first workers publishers laid off were those taking those photos.  As a result, scientists themselves had to get their figures “journal ready”.  Given the range of graphing packages available, and the industry standards for digital artwork that the industry knew about but most scientists didn’t, all hell broke loose.  This has, thankfully, died down a bit, but to get an insight into the depth of feeling, read this from the American Physiological Society’s info for authors: http://tiny.cc/mx0tr.

The delay between acceptance and publication for most journals remains unacceptably large in my view.  This unacceptable situation is due entirely to publisher’s insistence on maintaining hard-copy publications.  This is true analogue thinking in a digital world.  There is simply no need to produce hard copies of journals anymore.  It is slow and inefficient, and publishers still have the nerve in many cases to charge libraries for both print and online access, whilst also charging the authors page charges (of between $50 and $200 per page).  By way of thanks, US journals put a note at the bottom of your paper explaining that because you have paid part of the cost of the paper what you have produced is technically an advert.  Page charges wouldn’t be necessary if there were no pages!

And then there is peer review.  This I am a bit more positive about.  Not only has the process itself been accelerated, but journals are becoming increasingly open to eletter responses to individual papers.  These eletters, like letters to the editor have a light-touch peer review before immediate publication.  This has and will allow peer review to become an ongoing process which is visible to all interested parties.  I favour this approach rather than a comments section because the editors at least retain some control over what is deemed relevant and appropriate comment on a scientific journal site.

And finally…

Some journals are now experimenting with podcasts from the scientists involved in selected papers, which could be an extremely significant step in subsequent PR.  This is where my experience in science communication falls aways because I have not had any newsworthy papers published!  That said, I think we are all familiar with the problems associated with communicating our findings to the mainstream media.  But that’s for another day.  On this issue I will simply comment that science communication should as far as possible avoid going down the press release route, because the amount of churnalism and quote mining that takes place means the probability that inaccurate memes enter the public consciousness is too great.

All I’ll say in closing is that I don’t really have any answers, but my experience of publication and communication of science stretches from 1995 onwards, exactly the period in which it all changed forever.  Some elements remain rooted in the 20th century, whilst there are significant opportunities to develop new ways of doing this old thing we call science.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. JDM permalink
    May 2, 2011 5:19 pm

    I agree with most of your points, the exception being peer review. The quality – and honesty! – of peer review has declined considerably over the last 10 years or so. At least in my neck of the woods.

    • May 2, 2011 5:43 pm

      Thanks for the comment. Good point about quality of peer review, I hadn’t considered that! Although I have no measure of change over time (I only started reviewing regularly 6-7 years ago, and for decent journals 3-4 years ago). That said, in that time some reviews I’ve seen have been jaw-droppingly poor (e.g., “I do not have the mathematical background to review the equations but the discussion was excellent…” – that represents about half the words in the review, and the paper was a bad modelling study!). Reviewing/rating peer reviewers might be overkill, but I think that ultimately the associate editors need to uphold standards of both the manuscript and the review process.

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