(Note: this is the first in what will be a series of occasional posts about why science communication is important.)
One reason that science communication, outside the peer-reviewed literature, is becoming more important is because of…the peer-reviewed literature.
In my opinion, this is particularly true for researchers. If you’re a researcher, you want people to see your papers. You also want to stay abreast of new findings that are relevant to your work. For a number of reasons, both of those things are becoming more difficult – which makes promoting your work and utilizing social media more important.
How many journals are there?
One reason that it’s tougher for people to find your papers, and for you to keep up with publications in your field, is that there is a lot more competition for your attention. While this may not be true for every field, broadly speaking there are a LOT more journals out there now – and they’re all cranking out papers.
I looked for estimates of the number of active, peer-reviewed academic and scholarly journals being published, and came across these numbers (all based on Ulrich’s definition of the term): in summer 2001, there were approximately 14,694 journals; in early 2004, approximately 21,000; in 2006, approximately 23,750; in 2011, approximately 26,746; in August 2012, approximately 28,100. And, as of Nov. 6, Ulrich’s estimate of current, active, peer-reviewed academic and scholarly journals is reportedly 28,714 (according to a publishing consultant who requested the info from Ulrich’s and shared their response with me).
If those estimates are even close, the number of journals being published has almost doubled over the past 11 years. And, while the vast majority of those new journals have nothing to do with your research, odds are pretty good that some of them do – giving you, and all of your peers, more to keep track of.
Interdisciplinarity can muddy the waters
You know what else makes it tough? Interdisciplinary research. When interdisciplinary groups of researchers work together on projects, the resulting papers are published in journals that tend to focus on a specific study area – which, by definition, means it is outside the study area of at least some of the researchers on an interdisciplinary project.
For example, I’m guessing that most meteorologists don’t read the computer science journal Data Mining and Knowledge Discovery, which focuses on “big data” problems. But that journal published a paper on forecasting hurricane activity that was of significant interest to some weather researchers. Want another example? Here’s a paper that may be of interest to archaeologists, Greek history scholars and astronomy historians – published in the Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry.
I asked 10 scientist acquaintances of mine – in different fields, at different institutions and at different stages in their careers – a couple questions about this. When I asked them to estimate the number of journals that would publish papers relevant to their work, the responses ranged from 10 (a materials scientist) to 200 (a biologist). They also estimated that they read 30 percent, at most, of the papers they felt they “should” be reading.
What’s more, eight of the 10 researchers thought they were missing articles relevant to their work because so many papers are being published in journals that focus on other disciplines. It’s an anecdotal sample, but it makes me think my reasoning isn’t too far off the mark.
How science communication comes into play
What all of this tells us is that science communication is more important than ever for researchers: because anything researchers can do to raise the profile of their articles will improve their citation rates, for the simple reason that more people in the research community will be aware of them. The well-known Kiernan study (2003) showed this to a certain extent, highlighting a correlation between newspaper coverage of a journal article and the number of citations it received. (Update: Since first posting this piece, I came across another relevant study, and wrote about it here.)
But I think the results are, in some ways, becoming more pronounced (I’d love there to be a follow up study on this). In part because there are more journals now than there were in 2003 (in toto, not necessarily for each discipline). That means there’s more competition for eyeballs. Also, social media makes it easier to share data within a given community – so if one person sees it, all of their friends have the opportunity to see it (including, for example, all their buddies from grad school). That could – could – amplify the relationship hinted at in the Kiernan study.
So, quick summary: If a researcher promotes his or her publications through news media or social media, more people are likely to see the papers – and the number of citations will likely go up. Similarly, if researchers make an effort to become part of a social media community, by engaging with peers on Twitter for example, they are more likely to become aware of emerging research in their field that may be of interest.
It’s worth thinking about.
Note: I link to several papers that may not be open access. Citations below.
“Discovery of extreme events-related communities in contrasting groups of physical system networks,” Data Mining and Knowledge Discovery, Chen, et al., DOI: 10.1007/s10618-012-0289-3
“Archaeoastronomical orientation errors:The case of the two Hellenic pyramidals,” Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry, I. Liritzis, DOI: 10.1023/A:1010644307967
“Diffusion of News About Research,” Science Communication, Vincent Kiernan, DOI: 10.1177/1075547003255297