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The Message Reigns Over the Medium

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Metaphor for science communication?

What would happen if scientists took to the internet en masse and wrote about what they are most interested in? Is this effective outreach? Does it interfere with traditional science communication efforts? Will it throw the world into utter and incoherent CHAOS??? Well, we can argue that what we’ve currently been seeing in the last 5-8  years is a sort of communications renaissance as scientists embrace the internet to mingle with the commoners, communicate their research and discuss the finer points of scientific discourse.

Last week, I participated in panel for SONYC (Science Online NYC) with my colleagues Jamie Vernon, Darlene Cavalier and Molly Webster where we discussed “matching medium and messengers to meet the masses”. SONYC is a monthly event organized by Lou Woodley of Nature.com, John Timmer of Ars Technica, Joe Bonner of Rockefeller University and SWINY, and Jeanne Garbarino of Rockefeller University. I’d like to thank the organizers and institutions for supporting the event and the audience for their most excellent involvement and tough questions.

What are scientists’ goals for using the internet?

As I mentioned above, we are in the midst of a migration of scientists from their homes and cubicles towards the internet using blogs and social media. It is hard to characterize the reasons why this is. In a very large part it is due to a generation of academics in their 30s who for part of their adolescence grew up with online media. Their comfort level with having an online presence straddles the barrier of a generation that fears the inherent overexposure of the internet and complain it is a regressive time sink, with a generation who has known nothing other than the internet.

Scientists have a wide variety of goals for being online. Many scientists view online activities as a form of outreach. If this is their reason, then having a large presence with steadily increasing traffic and growth would be a goal. Outreach is concerned with broadly informing an audience so metrics such as page views, number of unique viewers, social media followers, etc. become important. Engagement is also a key component and community building and networking are tools to draw more eyes to your work. Blog posts should be the start of a conversation, which can take place in the comment sections. The more engaged you audience is, the more likely they are to return.

Another reason for scientists’ online activity is to participate in a more communicative and collaborative way with their colleagues and peers. There are many sub-communities of science blogging whose primary goals are to share ideas and data. While they interact with and may derive satisfaction from broader outreach, traffic metrics may be less important. Engagement likely ranks the highest among this group. Number of comments, inbound links, and perhaps tangible products (papers, proposals, collaborative products like software or code, etc.) are measures of success.

But let’s be honest, many scientists enter the online arena for personal gratification. Perhaps traffic didn’t matter at the outset, but a sense of community is what was really being sought after. Engagement matters, but might not be an initial driving factor. Gaining traffic is just icing on the cake. This was common 5-8 years ago when science blogging was really coming into its own niche and is true today with many new additions to the science blogosphere. It didn’t take long before scientists realized the potential of the internet for broad dissemination of science. Thus, there is a natural transition among scientists to move from personal satisfaction to strategizing about outreach.

Finally, Kate Clancy writes about three additional reasons that scientists might engage online: 1) building  networks of peers, 2) test the waters of scholarly ideas, and 3) post-publication peer-review. All three of these reasons straddle the line of outreach, collaboration with peers and personal gratification. As Kate says, “The peer review process is imperfect, and a growing number of blogs are devoting a significant portion of their space to analyzing published papers. This takes private academic conversations public, which is useful for layreaders and fellow academics.”

Everything mentioned above does the service of bringing both interesting science and ideas to the forefront of the public and makes the process of doing science much more visible. While scientific literacy is a noble goal to strive for, I am more than content with an appreciation for scientists and their commitment to the scientific process. I can’t expect everyone to understand, or want to understand, all the intricacies of climate science, but I want to see an improvement in the trust placed in the scientific consensus on issues.

If you build it, will they want to come?

It is absolutely true that if you do not build something, no one can come. But creations do not intrinsically demand audiences. Making an initiative worthwhile takes craft and strategy. There needs to be a satisfactory return for the investment and a constant reevaluation of goals. What that return is depends on the targets set by scientists and will certainly vary widely. While reaching 3 people can, and should, be viewed as a success, it is my opinion that scientists concerned with outreach should see growth.

As I mentioned previously, scientists often fall into digital communication quite naively. Its not hard to do and there is minimal financial overhead. The costs and benefits of digital engagement are less than tangible and vary among individuals. As Steve Hamblin wrote in a very thoughtful post on the economics of blogging,

“The opportunity cost in terms of lost research time or reading time is worth it to me, but it’s still a trade-off that I am consciously making. Academic advancement committees have yet to recognise blogging as a valuable activity, and they are unlikely to reward you for the number of Twitter followers you have… [academics] could possibly be [making] a significant sacrifice in terms of career advancement for uncertain returns in the social media space.”

During my 5-6 year tenure of science blogging and social media outreach, I’ve seen talented writers and communicators drop like flies in the chloroform by the dozens. Many still keep their blogs up and once a month might post about how busy they are and can’t wait to start blogging regularly again… sometimes this can last for several months. This is not a “pull up your bootstraps” issue. There are real obstacles for scientists to maintain an online presence outside of their research and teaching needs.

If you think about it – and this might not be a popular statement – scientists tend to enter into things naively. We like to think we are careful and meticulous, but doing research is different than starting projects. This isn’t a bad quality! Naïveté is just not realistic by definition. Scientists’ naïveté often helps them get projects started from the pub napkin to the lab bench. How many times have we sketched out an experimental design and thought “hmm, I just need to do X, Y and Z then ship off the manuscript!” Ok, maybe that was just me, but very few projects ever go as originally thought up!

It is this naïveté that makes it easy for scientists to start low overhead communications projects. But, like most things it’s just not that easy. But it is worth doing for those that are interested and needs to be done well. There is a responsibility to the profession when you decide to become a public figure. And that is in effect what you are doing once you open a blog or twitter account – you become a public figure, a representation of all scientists. I know, you are not ALL scientists, but humans generalize, so… sorry, yes we scientist communicators are representing all scientists.

Who watches the watchmen?

Sometimes, the pressure to perform and interact can be too much and scientists must choose to to disengage or scale back in order to do their “day job”. Its a very tough challenge in an already demanding arena. When online outreach is undervalued by our colleagues and administration, it is often sacrificed at the altar of status quo. Yet, employees of many public universities and government institutions are mandated by their mission statements to engage with the communities. For instance, my graduate alma mater, Penn State’s mission:

“As Pennsylvania’s land-grant university, we provide unparalleled access and public service to support the citizens of the Commonwealth. We engage in collaborative activities with industrial, educational, and agricultural partners here and abroad to generate, disseminate, integrate, and apply knowledge that is valuable to society.”

Or my undergraduate alma mater, University of California at Davis’ vision of excellence:

“The mission of UC Davis, as a comprehensive research university, is the generation, advancement, dissemination and application of knowledge to advancing the human condition throughout our communities and around the world. [...] applying that knowledge to address the needs of the region, state, nation and globe. UC Davis is committed to the tradition of the land-grant university, the basis of its founding. This tradition — built on the premise that the broad purpose of a university is service to people and society — guides today the campus’s special commitments and emphases.”

Every institution has a mission statement or vision, have you ever read yours? These might seem like hollow words, bureaucratic-speak, but these are guiding principles of institutions and as an employee you are mandated to operate within them. This potentially becomes a powerful tool to exploit to online outreach skeptics. Assuming your research program and teaching are doing well enough, how can your outreach efforts be criticized (in theory anyways) if you are acting within the mission of your employer?

But there is what appears to be a lack of oversight on the administrators. Who is watching the watchmen? The admins have made it clear that a certain bottom line and prestige are the favored metrics, many times at the expense of their own mission. In order for those scientists who want to engage in outreach to succeed, we need to provide an environment for them to succeed in. The tools are in place, the funding agencies request broader impacts, the public stands ready to learn and be entertained. But for the pieces to fall into place, we need to change the culture of science.

At the most basic level, as a first step, the philosophy of what academia is needs to be critically evaluated. There is no doubt that the need to balance financial resources and growth with student opportunities and high-quality research is exceedingly tricky. I admire the job that administrators must accomplish but it cannot come at an expense to public engagement. Teaching is profitable because draws in tuition dollars. Research is profitable because is draws in grant money overhead. But outreach is not profitable, unless those efforts are funded externally and the institution can reap overhead benefits.

Should academic institutions support initiatives that drain resources? If not, then they need to strike out public engagement from their mission statement. Don’t say you are about outreach when you penalize those whose wish it is to uphold this often lauded, yet frequently disregarded or poorly done, principle as a part of their way of doing science. There is a crushing hypocrisy behind a university that purports to be a public resource while not making these actions a priority. But the watchers of the academic watchmen have failed and succumbed to bureaucratic, “profit-driven” style of management. That is, the faculty and staff of academic institutions have failed to keep their institutions on point.

So how do we get administrators to care? There is no easy answer. The problems herein are cultural and ethical. How are you going to define academia? What is the purpose of an academic education and environment? Naturally, this will vary among institutions but there needs to be a movement toward rewarding public engagement. It makes sense: improves the institution’s image and by becoming a strong leader in the community public support can be more easily wrangled in leaner times.

To accomplish this though we need tools to evaluate how well we are performing as outreachers and communicators. Digital science outreach has benefits because one can gather hard user data is relatively easy. We can infer impact through metrics like page views, number of visitors, inbound links, location of the IP addresses and a wide variety of other values. Administrators, as well as other scientists, like numbers and can use these to set benchmarks for performance and reach. Other forms of offline outreach may be less easily quantifiable. One proposal I would like to throw out there is for real goal-oriented, audience-building adaptive outreach strategies.

From many, one

I think one of the most basic goals of science communication is to persuade people to care about science. Personally, I do not care to convince future generations to pursue scientific careers – let’s be honest, we don’t have enough jobs for our current pool of scientists – but, I want people from any walk of life to appreciate what scientists do and how they carry out the scientific method. Whether this communications is accomplished by creating content and pushing it online, engaging the public and grade school students offline, or throwing out a platoon of science cheerleaders in a football field matters little to me. We only need to think more carefully about our audiences and reaching out to those in need of a little more science in their lives.

During last week’s SONYC panel, one unifying concept among the panelists was utilizing a wide variety of communications approaches, what I call pluralism. All too often communicators are satisfied with their approach to communicating and do not think about breaking out of their routine. Writers write, teachers teach, and graphic designers design. Certainly I am guilty of favoring the blog and social media as outlets for my communications efforts. Yet, each medium has specific audiences. My colleagues at Southern Fried Science, Deep Sea News and I have a book chapter in press for an upcoming reference on Environmental Leadership where we write about Digital Environmentalism (pdf file of preprint available for download). In it, I wrote:

Finding out who participates in social media is challenging because different applications appeal to different audiences. In general, social networking appeals to men and women age 35-44, with a wide variation in ages of users who adopted certain services. Social networking services vary spatially, as people tend to adopt specific services by nationality, en masse (Chappell 2011). Such spatial and demographic variation presents problems for using a one-size-fits-all approach to social media and highlights the necessity of taking on a pluralist approach to science and environmental communication to cast a wide net when attracting an audience (Zelnio 2010).

The point being that your audience is defined by the tools they use, not the tools you use. By blogging you are reaching an audience that, by default, reads blogs. Yes, they can find your blog using keywords in search engines. I get a ton of traffic that way. But you are still limiting your reach by restricting your tools. How do the kids using Bebo find you? And what about those who still do not use social media – the elderly, younger children, perhaps the poor? These might be highly valuable outreach audiences – i.e. members of the voting public – that are unwittingly glossed over.

Other connections to our audiences are invaluable in ways we cannot measure. In-person connections still reign supreme for long-lasting impressions. Meeting someone, shaking their hand and carrying out a conversation are extremely important. Social media attempts to supplant that feeling, but so many cues are lost across the wires. Audiences fail to see the presenter’s animation, range of emotion, spontaneity and interactiveness with the audience. Subtle cues play an important role in connecting to your audience and convincing them of your message. It is a trade off between how many you can reach and the quality of the interaction.

Part of the trick is to convince people that they are stakeholders in science, whether or not they realize it. Their tax dollars fund research and some salaries of scientists. The benefits of research have direct consequences on people’s health, economics and environment as well as indirect effects on things like happiness and quality of life. Science is a framework for living yet this is often lost on many people because of poor messaging, ineffective education and misconstrued perceptions of scientists and their lifestyle. Still, though, people are intrigued by science and curious by nature. It is our job as communicators to take that lead and pull them along for the ride. To this end, in particular, citizen science has emerged as an effective program to get people to actively participate in science as stakeholders.

A pluralist approach to science communication is all about targeting your audiences. In my personal view, many science communicators doing online outreach do not think about their audiences very much or get entrapped within a certain portion of the community. The “if you don’t build it, they can’t come” philosophy makes the implicit assumption that what they write is searchable – which may be maximized further using search engine optimization tools, indexing, word of mouth, etc. – and viewers will come if scientists just push out content. Quality content is no doubt a key component to success! But we should strive for growth and breaking into new markets as well. This is the crux of outreach, the reaching out part. It is incumbent upon the scientist to reach out to new audiences and not for audiences to find the content.

Very few science bloggers do the simple act of surveying their readership. It is no secret that most viewers lurk in the shadows, yet many will actually come out in a survey and you can get a rough idea of your passive audience composition. For instance the table below shows selected viewer statistics from Southern Fried Science (SFS) and Deep Sea News (DSN) reader surveys published in our chapter:

We’ve learned a lot from this survey. Our response rate was ~10% of average daily traffic during the period of this survey. It is likely biased towards people who are generally into blogging, but a large portion of the responses came from individuals who are otherwise disengaged with blogs (>54% never comment on blogs). While we strive for more engagement, like commenting, most users utilize blogs passively. Though we were happy to see that our blogs weren’t excluding women and appealed to people from a variety of educational levels, we learned that we are not reaching minorities (13% of DSN respondents), the elderly or people younger than 24 very well. These demographics often have less access to computers or use the internet less for non-specific web browsing. Here is where targeted outreach using novel offline approaches, partnering with online resources that have a much wider appeal (i.e. men’s or women’s magazines, newspaper websites, etc.), or a more niche topic appeal like lifestyle websites or kid’s magazines can make a bigger impact.

The message still reigns

The blogs/social media-only approach is an “easy way out”, which I do not mean in a derogatory sense. You do not have to worry as much about strategy, can write what you want when you want, advertise your content on nearly unlimited social networking services, optimize it for search results, and with no face-to-face interaction can easily and thoughtfully script content and responses. Its a brilliant way to communicate and can be metricized to some extent. Other factors certainly come into play with audience-building such as participation in a blogging network. Finally, there is a lot to be said about how writing style defines the audience – an often overlooked factor. But entrenching yourself in only 1 or 2 platforms is sure fire way to get left behind and not grow to your full potential.

The message will still reign supreme as it will always remain independent of the mediums, which are merely the tools of dissemination. As with any tool, we must chose the right one for the job and we should carry a wide variety of tools in our toolbox so that we are prepared for many problems. There is no doubt that increasing the number of people exposed to, and involved in, online science outreach will only benefit the future of science and science communication. But the world is not yet ready for complete switch from offline to online information and inspiration. Often, those with the ability to access online science content are already predisposed to seeking out this type material. Same goes for those who seek out content on certain platforms. Pluralistic approaches that target the groups needing the information or exposure to science in your community goes a long ways. They key is to keep the message consistent and hammer it in from as many approaches as possible.

Kevin Zelnio About the Author: Kevin has a M.Sc. degree in biology from Penn State, a B.Sc. in Evolution and Ecology from University of California, Davis, and has worked at as a researcher at several major marine science institutions. His broad academic research interests have encompassed population genetics, biodiversity, community ecology, food webs and systematics of invertebrates at deep-sea chemosynthetic environments and elsewhere. Kevin has described several new species of anemones and shrimp. He is now a freelance writer, independent scientist and science communications consultant living near the Baltic coast of Sweden in a small, idyllic village.

Kevin is also the assistant editor and webmaster for Deep Sea News, where he contributes articles on marine science. His award-winning writing has been appeared in Seed Magazine, The Open Lab: Best Writing on Science Blogs (2007, 2009, 2010), Discovery Channel, ScienceBlogs, and Environmental Law Review among others. He spends most of his time enjoying the company of his wife and two kids, hiking, supporting local breweries, raising awareness for open access, playing guitar and songwriting. You can read up more about Kevin and listen to his music at his homepage, where you can also view his CV and Résumé, and follow him twitter and Google +.

ResearchBlogging.org Editor's Selection Posts on EvoEcoLab!

Follow on Twitter @kzelnio.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 5 Comments

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  1. 1. Jerzy New 10:24 am 12/20/2011

    I hope universities will start rewarding scientists or students for educational work.

    For example, extra stipend or small grant for education.

    I don’t think it is right or succesful to persuade young scientists to educate for free. If its important for society, it is only right for a worker to receive his pay.

    Link to this
  2. 2. JeanneGarb 3:46 pm 12/20/2011

    Kevin this is an awesome post. Thanks for sharing these thoughts and for traveling up to us to be on our panel!

    Link to this
  3. 3. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 10:45 am 12/21/2011

    Jerzy, I think there needs to be an acceptance that is inherently of value and part of the job of being a scientist first, then a reward structure in place. The reward doesn’t need to financial, but just recognizing that you get credit for it in your job/tenure dossier is a fantastic start.

    Jeanne, Thanks for hosting me!

    Link to this
  4. 4. emhart 12:49 pm 12/21/2011

    I think another part of the problem with science blogs is that the odds of success are very low. I have a science blog (http://currentecology.blogspot.com), but I might get 60-100 readers per post if I’m lucky. I haven’t really seen much of a change in those numbers. Now I’m fine with that, I have accepted that my blog (like my research) will probably never have a large audience and its best to find intrinsic reasons for doing things. But I’d imagine many scientists aren’t, and would like a return for their efforts. After all the public outreach component of those mission statements existed before blogs, and people felt they met people’s needs fine. It’s great for you to write about all the virtues you do, but I think the truth is that the average day to day scientist will never have the reach that someone who blogs at SciAm or at Nature will. Those publications have a massive built in audiences, even Jeremy Fox gets a large audience because he blogs under the auspices of Oikos (he’s also a prolific and thoughtful blogger). I think until its institutionally rewarded, its hard to imagine scientists blogging in droves. But the individual scientists blogging under their own heading will rarely find an audience that’s large enough to reward their efforts if external validation is what they seek.

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  5. 5. Kevin Zelnio in reply to Kevin Zelnio 11:58 pm 12/23/2011

    emhart, I totally agree! And discuss this a little more in my post on the naivete of scientists who wish to communicate. Like you have done for yourself, everyone needs to evaluate what they view as a success. I would like to think successful outreach is some that is actually done. But sadly, like most anything, anything done poorly may do more harm.

    Great point about outreach existing prior to blogs. Surely is the case! I was doing it before I ever got into online stuff! Probably paved the way for my interest in promoting such efforts. But this was also what I was getting at with my idea of pluralism and tailoring efforts to audiences you aren’t reaching by blogging. Still holds a very important place for face to face interactions and experientially learning. But I agree with you that the key factor holding science outreach and communication potential back is the administration and reward structure. But also, we can’t expect every scientist will want to do these things too and it be unfair to do so. Everyone is motivated by different reasons for making the contributions to society they wish to make.

    Thanks for the great thoughtful comments!

    Link to this

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