Sarah: One of the inherent things about the term ‘science communicator’ is its implication that scientists are pretty poor at talking about what they do. Tradition has it that most scientists work in relative seclusion, confined by necessity to the laboratories and institutions housing the equipment and peers in their chosen fields. That’s not to say that scientists don’t play sport, or join book clubs, or do cooking classes. It’s just that the details of their work and the implications of it are generally not aired for public discussion in these ‘non-scientific’ environments. When scientists communicate with each other, they discuss the minutiae of experimental procedures with staff and students over the laboratory bench, they present seminars on ”work in progress’ to peers in their departments, and they join journal clubs to informally discuss newly published work from other laboratories. One-two times a year they head to scientific meetings to inform the broader specialist scientific community of their latest findings, and to hear the ‘big-wigs’ present their life’s work.
At least that’s what the grown-up scientists do.
I heard Janet Stemwedel and Helene Andrews-Polymenis use this term this morning as I listened to their presentation from Science Online 2011 (see here for conference website, and here for my previous post summarising this conference). The term was used to describe the cohort of well-established, traditionalist scientists who are reluctant to change how they communicate, and in particular shy away from web 2.0 (blogs, facebook, twitter, chat forums) as a platform for talking about science. Janet provided this quote from an un-named senior scientist as an illustration of the reluctance of this group to embrace new methods for communication:
“why is it that your generation feels compelled to do in public what the rest of us know to do in private?”
The quote provided a nice launch-pad for the rest of Janet and Helene’s presentation, entitled ‘Web 2.0, Public and Private Spaces in the Scientific Community, and Generational Divides in the Practice of Science’ (video link here).
It’s a really interesting presentation, not only because it presents compelling reasons for scientists to embrace web 2.0, but also because it calls into question the whole process of science, and how scientists are rewarded and supported in their efforts to communicate with each other and the broader public. I encourage you to watch the presentation, including the questions towards the end (which show that even participants in an online science conference express reservations about changing the ‘old ways’ of doing science!).
In addition to making me think about science processes and communication, the presentation introduced me to a site called The Third Reviewer, set up by Martha Bagnall with Helene and a 3rd colleague Corrie Detweiler. In Helene’s words (see here for more),
“The Third Reviewer is an online site where recently published articles from multiple journals to a given field are aggregated and where open,honest, anonymous discussion of this literature is fostered.”
So it’s kind of like an online journal club, where participants can contribute to debate and discussion around published scientific literature in an anonymous way and not feel restricted by their current (perhaps junior) position in the science hierarchy or relative inexperience in a given field. It seems to be that such resources can only improve scientists communication skills. I’m all for it!
But what do you think? Should we be encouraging our young scientists to be blogging, twittering, online reviewing? Or would their time be better spent heads down, churning out publication after publication for their specialist audiences? Love to see your comments below.