Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Voice of Science

If you’ve been following along, you know that I’ve been talking about how scientists are slow to recognize the new media environment and the need for us to step up and participate in the communication of science to policy makers and the general public. In recent years, there has been a huge change in modes of communication: blogging, YouTube, WiKis, Twittering as well as new ways of presenting technical information (see the Article of the Future). Although some organizations are promoting the idea of better science communication, their efforts do not always involve scientists directly in the planning or delivery of this information.

The government agency I work for has traditionally employed “science writers” who are basically journalists with a little science background. Although most of them mean well, it can be extremely frustrating for a scientist to work with them at times. What typically happens is that the science writer wants to write about a particular topic (e.g., my area of research). They gather some materials and put together a piece about that topic. Then they would ask a scientist (e.g., me) to read it over to see if it is accurate. Sometimes it’s fine, but more often the information is slightly “off”. Not exactly wrong, but not right either. I remember one piece that I tried to “fix”, but finally threw up my hands and said that it would be easier for me to just rewrite it from scratch rather than try to figure out how to correct all the statements. That did not go over well.

After a few more frustrating interactions like the one described above, I began thinking about science communication and why it was not being done by scientists. After complaining (OK, whining) to close colleagues about this for a while, I decided to do something about it. Or at least make a step in that direction. I wrote a proposal to the governing board of a science society to initiate a non-technical publication, one that would summarize in lay terms technical papers published in the society’s journal and would be free to download as pdfs from the society website. The key aspect, however, was that these would be created by the scientist/author of the technical paper. After some initial resistance, the idea was approved. I created an electronic template that was easy to use whereby the author could insert text, graphics and photos. These articles would go through a modified review process and once accepted would be posted.

The next hurdle was convincing authors that this was a worthwhile thing for them to do. I pointed out that since these articles would be freely available (and searchable) on the internet, that they should boost the citation rate of the technical paper. A number of people agreed to write these, although expressing some initial reluctance (they later admitted that they “enjoyed” preparing these articles). Several of these non-technical articles have now been published and are amazingly popular. We put counters on each one, and some have been downloaded hundreds of time in the few months they’ve been online. Some of the authors have told me that these have become very useful to them--to give out to policy-makers, land managers, students, and others who would not likely want to read the technical paper.

My hope is that this experience will demonstrate how easy it is for scientists to communicate their science to broader audiences and encourage more scientists to participate.


Aurora said...

This is very good. Now I wish someone would do it in my field.

cachestarhouse said...

I would like to know where to find that site with the lay articles you mentioned.