If you follow twitter #scicomm tag on twitter you will be exposed to a lot of angst about “should I or shouldn’t I.” Apparently scientific communication (let’s just call it scicomm for brevity) efforts are ridiculed by more “serious” peers and thought of as tangential or irrelevant to achieving success in science. I would consider anyone in the ridicule camp to likely be sunsetting their career early.
Several years ago, life imposed a science sabbatical on me, I was uncertain what the outcome would be. I remain in this state, but am coming to appreciate the perspective my current change of venue has provided me. One perspective I’ve gained is the change in the world of publishing, where publishing houses once reigned supreme and contracts spelled the difference between success and failure. Today, “publishers” do little more than help with the process of printing and distribution. The success, – the marketing, the making of viral connections, the fans that will buy multiple copies for friends and family- this is now set on the lap of the author in large part. Bring your audience with you or we don’t have a deal is really how modern publishing works.
Why does this have relevance to the world of science? First off, I think it is the right thing to do. The “Ivory Tower” still exists despite growing cracks and the circle of peers that will understand the arcane lingo of your selected discipline will continue to exist. This is part of the culture of science that the average “muggle” is not privy to and likely does not want to delve into. However, while the shortcut of your profession’s arcane language provides shortcuts to conversation with your peers, the reason we do science is to share our findings with the world. The affectations we indulge in when engaged in the “language of science” all too often reminds me of someone trying to echo a Shakespearean sonnet, just because they can. So if we cut the crap and write as “normal” people would, we can reach a larger audience – and not just our peers.
Cool, so we now have a larger audience, why does this matter? Scientific thought is rational thought, and we scientists have turned science into an us and them – the “Ivory Tower” and the “Unwashed masses.” The end result is a decreased understanding and support for science in general and a true dumbing down of our populous. Climate change denial, anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, and the like are the outcome. By making the tools of rational thought seemingly belonging to the arcane arts, we’ve marketed ourselves out of an audience. It is time to get the audience back, educate them that science is not scary, not high brow, not unattainable. Rather science is logical, it is simple, it is easy and anyone that is willing can apply it to problem and use it to find rational solutions.
So we’ve come back to audience. Why does this matter? We currently submit our findings to “top shelf” journals like Science or Nature (or slot in the prestigious journal in your field) because it will result in positive press, greater dissemination among news outlets, higher “impact factor” and reflect positively on our career. However, I expect the monopolistic journals and their publishers to wield less power in the future. I expect to see new metrics related to actual readership (and some level of citation) that will be less about the power of the publisher and more about the power of the author(s). Building your fan base now is a wise thing to do. It gives you those ‘value added’ or ‘broader impact’ points that are already being tallied by some granting organizations. More importantly, I see this as the future of scientific distribution of knowledge. It will be more peer to peer, with our peers not just including those in our field, but also those in the public that appreciate and specifically support the work you do.