My recent take on the sometimes worrying developments of the young field of Science Communication, and the importance of responsible science journalism. Originally published on http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2017/01/04/lets-talk-about-scicomm/
Science communication is a young field with many voices and few guidelines. Let’s find a way to combine our voices in order to protect the integrity of research endeavors.
There are plenty of reasons to become active in the field of science communication, and for many early career researchers (ECRs) still exploring research, it’s a great way to find their niche and voice their opinions.
Yet, like many of its participants, the field of science communication itself is fairly young, and is constantly evolving from its original aim — to translate scientific findings to the public, in order to raise awareness and funding for the grand scientific endeavor. When 3000 new academic papers are published every day, it‘s impossible for any single scientist to keep track of every development.
Science communication is practiced by a range of journalists, editors, freelance writers and free-time writers, yet the aim remains the same: to communicate important findings in quick soundbites that provide enough information for scientists but are still digestible to the general public.
Almost all workers in the field of science communication essentially rely on the number of clicks, likes, and shares of their content to either pay the bills or receive any kind of validation for their efforts. So the temptation to employ “click-bait”-heavy headlines and easy conclusions that can be summed up and spread in 140 characters or less is understandable, and this phenomenon is far from confined to science communication.
Which is why we end up reading claims that scientists have found the single source of depression, or of autism, or have yet again discovered the cure for Alzheimer’s. These aren’t just incredible overstatements — if science communication continues down that path, it will be outright detrimental for maintaining public support for science. By constantly claiming new cures and groundbreaking discoveries that are either unsubstantiated or far less advanced than heralded, we undermine the hard work of so many fantastic scientists who do make progress on a daily basis — albeit in tiny increments.
But where’s the balance between writing for an audience and keeping them informed? How much should science writers be allowed to hype findings before they are just as much to blame for the popular mistrust in science as faulty research itself? As more and more science writers transition from the bench to the keyboard and start drawing attention to particular research findings, perhaps it is time to set some ground rules.
The very basis of the scientific method is rooted in trial and error, and slow, careful progress. It’s just as important for the public to understand that new discoveries don’t happen overnight as it is to understand that not every positive result in a model organism will ultimately translate to humans. In order to keep the respect and the support of the public, science writers of all stripes — whether working on a personal blog or for Nature — should adhere to some basic journalistic principles in order to protect the scientific endeavor. erhaps we should take a page from the journalistic code of ethics:
Accurate, thorough information presented with integrity — that sounds like a great motto for science communication, regardless of prior training!
As science communicators, we should of course promote new research findings, and shine a spotlight on exciting discoveries. But it is also our responsibility to carefully vet information before sharing it, and to stop overhyping every study for the sake of online validation — otherwise soon no one will believe anything anymore.