Sunday, 14 August 2016

Social media scientists - we're probably still talking mostly to ourselves...

The following is an opinion piece so it has words like "seem" and many feels. Please take it as such.

A definition of grey literature from
 The University of Queensland.[2]
The grey (US: gray) literature is that written material which is not part of the "traditional" publishing model - unpublished, privately published or non-commercial writings.[1,2,10] GreyLit can also includes blogs and tweets and other such social media (SoMe) output.

Blogs, tweets, facebook posts can all be produced far more rapidly than any peer-reviewed literature - I tweeted yesterday about having an accepted manuscript sitting with a publisher for over 19 weeks and counting. 

GreyLit can be edited easily and can reach further because it is openly accessible to the public. SoMe is a great way to distribute current events - like detail on disease outbreaks for example. But the GreyLit may not be secured by a permanent object identifier, or a stable website address, nor is it listed on the US National Library of Medicine's PubMed literature database, and its meaning can be changed when edited leaving nary a trace of what came before - these changes are often seen with public health GreyLit. GreyLit can be short-lived and may be considered risky to cite; it's volatile.

Scientists cite serious scientists...

Given all that, it's pretty unsurprising that grey writings are often uncited by the more permanent traditional academic literature (books and journal articles for example) - at least not by those in my research fields. In general, scientists stick with citing the traditional serious academic [13] scientific literature. This is despite GreyLit harbouring more timely and leading-edge discussions and often being more digestible by both the public and those scientists who are sick to death of intentionally and arrogantly dense writing.

It's pretty clear that we scientists write scientific literature for other scientists-it's a great place to catalogue full descriptions of methods and expert evaluation.[3] 

Of course, even serious science does not always get cited by other scientists.[3] It's difficult to gauge how much it even gets read. It can also sit behind a "paywall" - a closed access approach requiring payment to cover article production costs and to make a profit for the publisher - it is a business not a charity. To get a scientific publication into an open access platform, an author's grant or institution pays for the privilege. Costs vary (nicely outlined in this piece from 2013;[4]).

Papers keep coming out at an increasing rate...


Biomedical publications listed on PubMed
Made by searching on date +/-
journal name.
Click on image to enlarge.
Biomedical publication numbers are increasing each year according to PubMed numbers (see the graph).

In 1992 there were a third (416,310) as many publications on PubMed as there were in 2015 (1,244,277). In 2004 half as many as in 2015. Conventional paper printed (+ online) journals do not seem to have scaled their output to keep pace with this rate of increase - so it may follow that many top tier papers have to find homes among less luxurious journals. Purely online journals, like PLoSOne in the graphed example, do seem to scale with demand-being online makes them more nimble and accommodating. A win for them and a plus for science, researchers and the public if that journal has a reliable and trusted brand. 

What about the many, many new fee-for-publication "journals" appearing? There is no evidence that many of them are trustworthy at all. Some have yet to be around long enough to get listed on PubMed and there is a justifiable sense that in publishing with them, ones work may never get editorial support or be visible to search in the future. Another risk - this one to science in general - is that some of these journals have been clearly identified as predatory (in it for the $$$[11,12]). 

Predatory journals may simply be a dumping ground for badly written bad science that is poorly or not reviewed and a wasteland for science that is not visible to standard search methods. And it may be volatile. A new type of GreyLit. 

While it may be a great feeling to add papers to the publication list of a curriculum vitae (CV), it will ultimately reflect poorly on scientists because poor science and conclusions will be ignored or be challenged and found wanting. None of this is good for the science brand.

But what about academics talking to the public directly?


When we unserious academics venture onto SoMe to be unserious, we may still be talking to ourselves. We tend to attract followers who are like-minded and/or have a mindset that already leans towards the search for knowledge and understanding. Such followers seem like people who generally read a lot, they are willing to learn new things and they don't usually just accept what they read in their timelines to be the absolute truth. I love discussing stuff with them - it can get robust at times -but that just challenges us all and that is a good thing. I just don't think these followers necessarily represent the majority of our communities. 

How can we scientists drop reason into the mix of conflict, rage and ignorance that is seeking to darken the lives of communities everywhere? 

Perhaps by more of us stepping up. 

Some of my peers are thoroughly knotted up in self-indulgent arguments around only speaking in public on research topics they are expert in. This parochial and short-term view is at odds with the likely benefit that years of experience in logical and ordered thinking and problem solving could provide to the chaotic world our communities are increasingly faced with. 

But academics adding to the GreyLit are faced by the real need to spend our writing time predominantly on scientific journal articles and grant applications. The GreyLit may still not be seen to add value to a CV that is needed in order to get/keep a job and pay the bills-even if a single good piece may reach tens of thousands of people, instead of ten.

Today we can seek out the facts we want to read...

The public can now individually collect and curate their own sources of news and information much more easily than we used to; they can feed their existing biases.

Not that long ago we relied more on a limited range of radio, TV news or newspapers to find out what was happening in our local or global communities. We had that material delivered by professional journalists (yes, there were exceptions). But now we can source our news ourselves or from like-minded anonymous avatars who gather together news snippets into what they consider a theme, may do no research or have any understanding of the history underlying a topic, have no grasp of the subject or of when balance is or is not needed and feel no need to present information with accuracy. Kinda like those real journalists used to do. But today's "journalism" - a seemingly shrinking profession anyway - often seems relegated to the production of suitably emotive and inflammatory clickbait. The new news curators run on feels and likes and their followers are thus "informed". 

You have to look no further than recent events in the UK and US to see examples of how this can have real world outcomes.

The age of expertise is gone, welcome to the age of extreme emotion... 

Those of us academics who wish to continue being unserious but who wish to help provide factual information in an age of anti-expertise [5,6] and anti-intellectualism [7,8,9] are faced with some real challenges. 

How do we make sure all our lab/bench/desk work is not wasted effort and dollars? 

How do we help turn around some of the dangerous, illogical and factless sentiments polluting our peace? 

How do we join in new discussions we may not be expert in but feel we can contribute to, without getting called out or piled on?

If few are reading science and the public are not understanding science and if science is not contributing to the daily discussion and if the loudest most emotive voices are the ones that determine our future, then politicians will not be driven to fund science and teachers will not be empowered to teach science and logic, and science will increasingly stop being done. 

That outcome is just not acceptable. 

So the main question I leave you with is, how do we unserious scientists reach the audiences we'd like to write for - those who are not simulacra of ourselves? 

References...
  1. https://www.une.edu.au/library/support/eskills-plus/research-skills/grey-literature
  2. http://guides.library.uq.edu.au/how-to-find/grey-literature
  3. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/04/23/academic-papers-citation-rates-remler/
  4. http://www.nature.com/news/open-access-the-true-cost-of-science-publishing-1.12676
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/jul/02/professor-brian-cox-interview-forces-of-nature
  6. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/2016/jun/08/experts-eu-referendum-michael-gove
  7. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-e-white/america-dumb-and-dumber_b_5670293.html
  8. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201407/anti-intellectualism-and-the-dumbing-down-america
  9. http://www.smh.com.au/small-business/managing/work-in-progress/we-love-being-dumb-and-dumber-20150108-3nraf.html
  10. http://www.greylit.org/
  11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Predatory_open_access_publishing
  12. https://scholarlyoa.com/2015/01/02/bealls-list-of-predatory-publishers-2015/
  13. https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2016/aug/05/im-a-serious-academic-not-a-professional-instagrammer

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