The way that researchers communicate with each other (inside the scientific arena) also impacts on communication with and access by broader audiences, such as the public and policy makers. It is therefore essential for research communication professionals to have a good grasp of the processes, forces and role players in scholarly (academic) communication. A good understanding of the following concepts and processes is useful for communicators to better understand the processes that motivate research and researchers.
The nature of scientific research
Science (or research) is a process of learning (or path to understanding) as well as a body of knowledge (a set of facts). Researchers ask questions and then design experiments or studies to deliver answers (or evidence). They document and interpret their observations to create new knowledge. As scientific equipment and methods become more sophisticated, observations become more accurate. New knowledge also emerges when scientists challenge and scrutinise the findings of other scientists. Therefore, uncertainty is an inherent part of science and science changes over time. For example, the Western world believed the Earth was the centre of the universe until, in 1610, Galileo turned society and its beliefs upside down. He built a telescope and announced that based on his observations and calculations the Earth in fact revolved around the Sun. This threw society and religion into turmoil.
Scientific consensus refers to the collective opinion of the majority of scientists about a specific issue or question. It means that the weight of scientific opinion rests with a certain position. Therefore it is not a case of “balance” to give one or two dissenting voices the same recognition or exposure as the consensus point of view. A great example of scientific consensus today is climate change. Despite widespread climate change denial in certain quarters, some 97% of climate experts agree that humans are causing global warming by releasing carbon dioxide that heats the atmosphere of the Earth.
Communication within the scientific community
Researchers disseminate their research by writing up their findings and submitting them to scholarly journals for publication. They can submit original research manuscripts, review articles, letters to the editor or case reports. Scientists also communicate with their peers by writing books, or book chapters, and by delivering papers at scientific conferences. These papers may be published as conference proceedings.
A researcher’s reputation depends to a large extent on his/her publication record, citation index (how often other scientists refer to their work) and the prestige (impact factor) of the journals where their work is published. Many countries and research organisations have a direct reward system for scholarly publications, resulting in significant incentives for researchers to publish in certain (accredited) journals or in peer-reviewed conference proceedings and books. The well-known saying ‘publish or perish’ sums up the important place that publication has in the career of a scientist. The number and perceived quality of publications are, rightly or wrongly, often used as a measure of a researcher’s worth.
Peer review – the process whereby other experts review and comment on a researcher’s work before it is published – is a crucial, but much contested, concept in scholarly communication. Peer review is seen as a prerequisite for scientific information to enter the public domain. Peer review is currently subject to a vast amount of debate, chiefly because electronic communication provides a very real alternative to traditional modes of publication. Despite its flaws, peer review is still seen as a hallmark of good science and acts as a gateway to credibility.
A major concern around scholarly communication is that the cost of subscribing to scientific journals has become a barrier which excludes most of the population of the world from current research. With paper journals now serving largely archival purposes with most researchers accessing electronic versions, there is a huge potential for cost savings in distribution. Open access journals make information freely available to readers, but charge the authors of the papers. While some open-access journals are legitimate and highly regarded, there is concern over the credibility of others and the quality of the work published. On the positive side open access has contributed to the development of national capacities in scientific editing and publishing where it was previously lacking, and it makes the science of developing countries visible.
Altmetrics (or alternative metrics) is a tool to measure the impact of research outside the traditional academic environment and is becoming increasingly important. When researchers apply for funding, for example, some funders ask them for their Altmetrics score and/or how they are going to disseminate their research via social media. Find out more at www.altmetric.com and altmetrics.org/manifesto
“It is important to understand the attitudes of researchers and why they may not, in some cases, be willing to communicate about their work. Changing this mind-set requires focusing on how research communication may benefit them.” Heather Ndlovu, lecturer and research uptake manager at the National University of Science and Technology, Zimbabwe
Scholarly (scientific) publishing
Stellenbosch University offers an excellent online resource that provides a detailed overview of the principles and processes involved in scientific publishing, including peer review, types of journals, citation indexes, journal metrics, open access and more
Points to think about
Thinking about your university and country, how does the way researchers communicate with each other (inside science) affect the way they communicate with the public (outside science)?
What, in your experience, are the most important norms driving and shaping the communication behaviour of researchers at your university? (In other words, is public communication recognised, supported and valued, or is the emphasis solely on advancing academic publishing?)
“Researchers (and communicators) should be careful to avoid making black-and-white statements about science. Science is forever advancing and what is ‘impossible’ today, may well be entirely possible in future.” Prof Sunita Fracknath, dean at the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Mauritius, Mauritius