The scientific voice is part of a rapidly morphing social communication landscape. Scientists are active participants in Twitter debates, blogs and podcasts, appear on TV, are interviewed for newspapers and the radio, give TED talks, have their own YouTube channels… science has infiltrated a plethora of arenas. Because of how many people this engagement can educate and influence, this kind of outreach matters.

But no one really knows how much it matters.

“Impact” is of growing interest to the scientific establishment, but universities and granting agencies invariably fail to adequately define what it means. More often than not, impact means publishing in a prestigious journal like Science or Nature. While high-fives from academic brethren are nice, a comprehensive understanding of impact this is not.

Why Aren’t You Doing Real Science?

Because of this limited definition of impact, public platform engagements are often meaningless and sometimes even detrimental for an academic career. They can be seen as a waste of time, something that gets in the way of doing real science.

Nevertheless, some scientists persist as social justice warriors who promote access to information for all. Science for everyone, not just science for scientists.

This does not come naturally to academics. Scientists are not taught to communicate simply. On top of this, science heralds itself as a space for intellectual expression, for inquiry and debate. But science in practice is often formulaic and critical. Scientists are taught to look for problems in arguments, not to praise them. 

Reviewer 3 Syndrome

For example, the important scientific process of peer-review often turns into peer attack. The dreaded anonymous “reviewer 3” is widely mocked for being difficult, and attacking the person, not just the content. While enveloped in scientific jargon, a review can degrade to schoolyard-style bullying; your methods are dumb so you are dumb.

This has contributed to calls for an open peer-review process, where the reviewers are named. Open reviews also give credit to the scientists who often spend hours of unpaid work helping to shape a paper, but such transparency also helps keep scientists civil.

A culture that normalizes hypercritical peers is a problem for scientists who want to reach beyond academe. What scientists write in academic publications is generally intended for a scientific community, full of nuance and precise language. Instead, what scientists say and write in public forums is intended for lay audiences, almost invariably losing nuance but gaining impact and social relevance. This makes statements made in public forums particularly ripe for attack.

Scientists As Science Police

We find ourselves in a complicated space. On the one hand scientists are professionals, and want to keep the profession reputable. We want to make sure that ideas conveyed by scientists are accurate. On the other hand, if we censor the simplified or creative speech of scientists in public arenas, we have the potential to stifle important communication and debate.

Academic articles often take years to craft into something that colleagues and editors agree is worthy of being published. An interview for the media can take minutes, and is often an improvised attempt to convey a very complex issue on the spot.

If you put these two types of communications next to each other, “real” science is likely to slaughter popular science. It’s like taking a pen to a gunfight. And, it can be difficult for scientists who read each other’s comments in popular outlets to remember that an informal discussion of science should not, and cannot, stand on the same ground as a formal one.

Scientists must be careful to not police other scientists in a way that makes critical discussion impossible, and that dissuades dissemination.

Only then can we ensure that we can have real impact and continue to make science accessible.