Hey maybe scientists should do more than just wait for their journal to issue a press release on their new fabu article

ResearchBlogging.orgThe authors thesis is that the only mandatory communication of results is in peer reviewed journal articles. Scientists aren't required to do other communicating and often leave communication to the public to the media. They ask if is this is adequate given the very low percentage of scientific articles that ever make it into the press, particularly in areas outside of health and medicine, and also given the fact that for everyone out of formal education, the media is their primary source of science education.

Recent studies do show that scientists often don't mind talking to reporters and do so more frequently that one might think [1-2]. They do get kind of frustrated that their work is misrepresented - even if that misrepresentation is failing to include qualifying statements.  Newspapers in general covered a lot more science over time (as studied in the time period 1951-1971, I know). Fancy journals that issue press releases for papers find that those papers are more likely to be reported in the news media. The authors cite another study that some 84% of the newspaper stories originated from press releases.

This study was just about how much makes it to the media and is that percentage staying steady as the number of papers increases. When they actually did the work, they only looked at parts of 2 years, 1990 and 2001, and two media outlets, Time and NBC News. They didn't use the WaPo or NYT because better educated people read them (???). Plus, they found that only 25-50% of news pieces actually mention the article's author and venue, so they probably missed a ton.

So this is quite disappointing, really. The study narrowed the coverage of the search so much, that I don't think it's really representative of anything. Of course only a few articles get discussed in the media, but if you want numbers, this paper won't help. These articles also need to start discussing things like Nova and National Geographic and Discovery Channel. We watch that stuff all the time and so do a lot of people we know (of course I'm pretty well educated, I guess).

They mention journal press releases, but for big science there are also lab press releases and media officers. There are also scientists talking directly to the public on blogs.

One thing you can probably take away, if you work outside of biomed and/or are not publishing in Science or Nature and have a really cool result, don't wait for the press to come a knockin' - get it out there another way.

Here's the citation:

Suleski, J., & Ibaraki, M. (2010). Scientists are talking, but mostly to each other: a quantitative analysis of research represented in mass media Public Understanding of Science, 19 (1), 115-125 DOI: 10.1177/0963662508096776

[1] Peters, H. P., Brossard, D., de Cheveigne, S., Dunwoody, S., Kallfass, M., Miller, S., & Tsuchida, S. (2008). Science-Media Interface: It's Time to Reconsider. Science Communication, 30(2), 266-276. doi:10.1177/1075547008324809

[2] Dunwoody, S., Brossard, D., & Dudo, A. (2009). Socialization or rewards? Predicting U.S. scientist-media interactions. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 86(2), 299-314. Retrieved from http://aejmc.org/topics/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/3-Dunwoody-et-al.pdf

5 responses so far

  • mediajackal says:

    Excellent suggestion, although I'm sure some are going to respond with, "ick talk to a reporter? I'd rather (insert repulsive action of choice here)."

  • Estraven says:

    Do you have suggestions on how to explain new research in mathematics to a public whose school education in the subject stops at the level of 150 years ago?
    If you say DNA, or photon, or bit, or superconductor, (...) people will nod even if they have only a vague idea what you're talking about.
    If I say vector space, or Hilbert space, or Noetherian ring (all equally basic, established concepts) I'll draw blank stares. It's hard to communicate when you have no words.

  • Christina Pikas says:

    Good point. I know there are a lot of things on teaching math, but communicating math to non-mathematicians? That seems hard. If I run across something I'll share. Maybe someone else will have some suggestions?

  • Estraven says:

    Thank you for letting me whine (or maybe rant?).
    Another problem is the lack of pictures - physicists make a big fuss about working in 4 (or sometimes 10) dimensions, and extensively quote Flatland. With us the dimension can be n (i.e. any number), infinity, a fraction, or negative. Hard to draw any of those.
    Hence most people don't even understand there's research going on in mathematics. See for instance the Sb topics list above :-).

  • Peggy says:

    I've noticed that bio/med related press releases from University and corporate PR departments can bear little resemblance to the actual publication.

    Instead of focusing on the primary result in the published paper, they write about how it relates to people - often seemingly broad speculation as to the research's significance to human health or well-being that's only found in the paper's discussion section. I find that kind of science "reporting" annoying when I want to know what the research was actually about, but it does seem to make news outlets more likely to pick up the story.

    I assume similar kind of framing can be applied to research publications in mathematics - leave out the technical jargon and explain why non-mathematicians should care.