Science Communication and Web 2.0: Can I play with you?

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.


  1. Will Robertson says:

    We should absolutely be using new ways of long-distance communication to open up how scientific research is performed.

    Is a lengthy review process really increasing the quality of papers significantly enough to be worth the delays it incurs? Why inflict sometimes hostile anonymous reviews on people when open and public communication would be far more civil?

    Just cite and link to the work you like and ignore that which you do not. Publish your work today rather than six months later with only incremental improvements suggested by the reviewers. Journals can still disseminate ‘new research’, but by acting more as curators than as publishers.

    Disclaimer: I haven’t watched the video yet but knew if I didn’t reply now I’d forget.

  2. sarahkeenihan says:

    Hi Will,
    Thanks for the comment – if you get a chance you should watch the video (in particular the questions towards the end) as it raises many issues that you touch on here. The presenters seemed convinced that the impact of web 2.0 on the way we communicate in combination with the increasing ‘squeezing’ of the money assigned to research (in the USA) will change the way science research is ‘done’. They were also strong advocates of providing students with earlier opportunities to review and critique science publications, and thus hone their skills in picking ‘good’ science over ‘bad’ without fear of consequences (like reprimands from the ‘grown ups’ for speaking out of place).
    Lots of interesting issues to think about.
    Bye for now,

  3. David Bicknell says:

    Wow that was long video! The key points though boil down to realsing the benefits from new forms of communication, collaboration and sharing, and managing the perceived risks.

    In my mind there is no argument – the benefits far outway the potential problems, and most of the problems are manageable. and the medium is not just a generational gap – I am not as young as I once was!

    The use of web 2.0 in science communication fits the world wide movement in western governments to make data available to the community for value adding, and to allow direct interaction of web users with the ‘owners’ of the data. At the development end this is crowd-sourcing, and at the other end it is a very broad ranging review process. Politics is ahead of most science groups in this area.

    Another point that was mentioned was the gap between what we say science should be doing and the way it actually operates. This is the incongruency that Chris Argyris and Donald Schon highlighted many years ago (see and more recent work on how organisations can use better communication to remove some of these blocks (

  4. sarahkeenihan says:

    Hi David,

    OK, so now I have lots more interesting reading!

    Yes, it’s true that embracing social media is not strictly age-dependent. For example, and delving out of science for a minute, I find it really interesting even to keep an eye on which of our local radio personalities have embraced twitter – a few ‘oldies’ have taken it on board and use it very effectively. I guess they’re just good all round communicators.

    And, as you have mentioned in previous comments on this blog, time management is a big issue. The web opens up so many opportunities that it can spread you too thin at times trying to be on top of it all. I’m making sure now that I blog on all the interesting ‘stuff’ I experience so that it becomes part of my work sphere. And I can have interesting conversations (like this one).

    Thanks again,


  1. […] that social media was akin to projectile vomiting information onto the web. Well, he is a grown-up after […]

  2. […] for several years now, and have written a few whimsical blog posts about it in the past (Can I play with you? and […]

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