New media and science journalism

The are several features in last week’s Nature on science journalism to coincide with the World Conference of Science Journalists held in London this week. It is a supreme irony, given the content of several of the pieces, that a subscription is required to view much of this material. If you are interested in science communication and journalism then it is well working tracking down a library with a hard copy of the journal.

For me, two items stood out especially.

The first is an article [subscription required] by Geoff Brumfiel on the use of blogging and social networking services, like Twitter, to report in real time from scientific conferences. This phenomenon, which allows those not at the meeting to follow what is going on, is apparently meeting with mixed reactions. Some conference organisers are considering banning the activity or requiring people to seek permission from conference participants before disseminating information more widely. It seems to me that parts of the scientific establishment need to catch up with the changing world. Scientific meetings are public events, and in our networked connected world this means open to anyone. Surely this represents a real opportunity for researchers to communicate directly with the world, expert and interested non-expert alike.

The second article [subscription required] that caught my attention is a shorter piece by Toby Murcott on the relationship between science journalists and scientists. He argues that journalists need to move away from being conduits of information from science to the public and should become engaged in more critical analysis, in the way that journalists in other areas do. Central to this, he says, is reporting not just the findings of research but also on the process of research itself. I wholeheartedly agree with his analysis – we need much more dialogue around how research works in the real world. It is all too easy for research findings to be presented as the ‘answer’ when the reality is that a published paper has a history, a context and is just one component of a continuing story. Murcott suggests that journalists would be helped in telling this story if referees comments were published alongside papers. I think this is a really good suggestion which online publication should make easy. It could even include descriptions of how the final version of the paper evolved from the submitted version in response to the referee’s comments.

Researchers can also help by engaging directly through new media to communicate the realities of research. For example, Tora Smulders-Srinivasan publishes regular updates on Twitter (with the username toraks) presenting some real insight into the research process: the physical and mental challenge of long and complex experiments, the excitement of new findings, the importance of thorough analysis, the process of defining future experiments, and how this all fits into a real life in the real world. More of this type of engagement can only help break down the barriers between the public and research. Lets just hope researchers will be allowed to continue to communicate in this way, even when they go to conferences!