Communication, communication, communication

Alice Bell wrote a provocative piece in Times Higher Education, ‘Wider open spaces’, where she calls for science communication to be MORE open, rather than just opening access to specialist journals. The open access ‘movement’ (for lack of a better term) has recently catapulted its call for scientific journals to be accessible to all to the UK national spotlight on the front page of The Guardian.

Alice wants more. More openness, more communication, in her own words:

I want more than a journal boycott. Academics must take time to translate their work and seek and build relationships with people other than their immediate colleagues. They should demand that their supervisors and funders take the time they spend on this seriously.

Bold stuff.

I tweeted this article today saying:

Hmm a bit harsh on scientists, but @alicebell makes some good points : for @timeshighered on open access hype:

Alice replied:

@girlinterruptin with repect, if you think that I think you’re being over defensive, but apologies if my clumsy prose prompted that reaction.

Alice’s prose is not clumsy, she writes very well.

So am I being overly defensive? Perhaps, but what I would I be being overly defensive of?

I think Open Access is a good idea (as does Alice) but unlike Alice, I don’t think its PR puff, I think its a step in the right direction. It may just be the tip of the iceberg but its a tip. A tip is better than an iceberg under the water about to rip your boat in half. It’s also one of the few times I have seen such a mass of academic scientists unite on an issue. Scientists are people and like all groups of diverse people getting them to agree on anything is well nigh impossible.

I also think its a good idea to widen that discussion.

Do I need to communicate better? Undoubtably
Do I need to learn to write better? Unquestionably
Do I need to engage more? Of course
Do I ask people for help with these very things? Yes all of the time

If I am defensive of anything it is only that I am attempting to do these things. And I am not alone in this, I know a lot of scientists that are attempting to do these things. This is pretty evident from the large number of science blogs around (like here at Occam’s Typewriter).

Many of my colleagues, especially those like me in their early careers as a PI, care an awful lot about communication but often feel they don’t have the time to do this. After all you do have to produce science in order to communicate about it.

I did feel quite defensive when I read this:

I will get really excited only when science finally deals with the issues of social, cultural and economic exclusion rather than revelling in its elite status.

I don’t feel like I have any kind of ‘elite’ status and am much less revelling in it. I am trying to engage – as most people who are likely to read the THE or this blog or Alice’s blog probably are. I think the revellers are down at the pub and could care less about this whole debate.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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27 Responses to Communication, communication, communication

  1. James Moffatt says:

    I’m afraid that when I got to this comment:

    “I will get really excited only when science finally deals with the issues of social, cultural and economic exclusion rather than revelling in its elite status.”

    I gave up on the author having any credibility and wondered about her motives. Nice, cuddly socialist diatribe… but utter bullshit.

    It’s the most absurb thing I’ve ever read about science and scientists. It shows an ignorance of the cuture of modern science that disturbs me profoundly, and an arrogance that is better ignored.

    • I must admit I also thought that line in Alice’s article was a standard piece of lazy ‘boilerplate’ rhetoric, straight out of the science studies handbook. Glib and very disappointing.

      There are a whole range of problems with access to scientific information. Getting it out from behind the paywalls is one. Getting it interpreted ‘comprehensibly’ for those that require interpretation is another. The wider problems stemming from the fact that science is mostly done in wealthy countries and therefore tends to address their priorities (see the CF vs malaria research debate) is another.

      However, as Sylvia says, opening up access to scientific papers in their current form is a good and important step. As old Prof Tolkien might say, “do the deed at hand’.

      It is also worth pointing out that, although scientists argue for open access to journal content, a lot of us doing the arguing have this access already. The people who want access and don’t have it, and therefore who might stand to benefit most from OA, are interested people outside the academy, and also scientists in countries (notably including in the developing world) that can’t afford the access charges. It strikes me thinking about it that both of these are groups beyond the first world academic ivory tower.

      • Good point well made Austin, wish I had thought of it … I also have access to most journals I need – and I can get others I don’t have through my library anyway – as can most academics. It is the mixing of two ideas in a way. Open access isn’t the same thing as better communication and we can actually discuss both at once. …

      • alice says:

        “I must admit I also thought that line in Alice’s article was a standard piece of lazy ‘boilerplate’ rhetoric, straight out of the science studies handbook. Glib and very disappointing.”

        Whereas statements like that…? What book is that from?

        Seriously Austin, I’m happy to engage with people (as much as I can right now, I’m at a conference and busy…) but polite please.

      • alice says:

        More to the point Austin, have you ever read the Handbook of Science & Technology Studies* (any edition)?

        If not, you might learn something.

        It’s bloody expensive, and more, to the point, very badly written in places – “access” to it (in many forms) is one of the things that annoys me about STS – but there’s a lot of good in there as well a some stuff to roll your eyes at, if you are open to it. Your uni will have a copy I suspect, and there are experts in sci policy and history of sci that I’m sure would talk you through it in exchange for a pint. As I say below, we are lucky to have such networks of access.

        Very much with you on the point about ivory towers in different countries by the way (though I also think that’s a complex and often misunderstood issue I don’t think I know enough about myself). As I said in the piece, I’m all for open access.

        * though the Hilgartner line wasn’t from an STS handbook, the ref for that is (1990) ‘The Dominant View of Popularization: Conceptual Problems, Political Uses, Social Studies of Science, vol. 20(3): 519-539.

        I personally wouldn’t bother with it I were you, it’s very dense reading and rather out of date. Something that contextualises and synthesises ideas like that, such as one of the following is probably a good idea (my personal pref is for Gregory & Miller but talk to someone local to you, like David Kirby, who’ll be able to advise).
        Broks, Peter (2006) Understanding Popular Science (Maidenhead: Open University Press), chapters 5-7, pp.96-155.
        Bucchi, Massimiano (2002) Science in Society (London & New York: Routledge), chapter 7.
        Gregory, Jane & Steve Miller (1998) Science In Public (New York: Plenum).
        Sismondo, Sergio (2004) An Introduction to Science & Technology Studies (Oxford: Blackwell) chapter 16, pp.62-72.

        Reading this sort of stuff can be hard for professional scientists, I understand if you’d rather avoid it, or simply can’t be bothered. But don’t rubbish it’s use for those who do want to understand these issues. Birds might not have use for birdwatching, but personally I think it’s great that zoology exists within the broad range of expertise humanity has produced, even if I don’t have time to read zoology papers often myself.

  2. alice says:

    Ah, Open Access isn’t PR Puff. The Guardian piece about Wellcome on the other hand…

    On the defensive thing and elite… you are elite. You are. Really. I am too. I’d include myself in scientific community broadly and as an academic in another field than natural sciences. We need to recognise this privilege. I feel that very strongly.

    Would it help if you thought of it more as a call to arms from within the academic community, not finger poking from outside?

    I appreciate that people like you do engage. I know the sci community as a whole is better than it was. But, it’s not my job to celebrate the few who are good, that piece was a provocation to the majority (and political structures) of science to be better. I mean, if you want, I can bring a gold star sticker next time I see you, but I feel that’d be patronising. You don’t need me to pat you on the back. You know you are good. It’s the other people we both need to bug, and people higher up in science to make it easier for you to do stuff like this, and have it recognised as part of your job.

    • Alice, I disagree with you, but this doesn’t mean I am a- elite or b- in need of a gold star sticker. I also think you are mixing two points open access and the need for better communication. I also think the manner in which your article is written rather alienates people that are on your side. I don’t want personal praise, I am using that as a vehicle for making the point that your article is, I believe, negative towards those who are trying to help. Also on a slightly personal note whilst my job may seem ‘elite’ now, you have no idea about the path I took to get here and that may well be true of others. There is a difference between having an ‘elite’ job and revelling in ‘elitism’. Most people who work in science are trying really hard to make it not so ‘elitist’ in the revelling sense.

      I also should say I realize it’s a call to arms for changes in the structure of science, but I also think that is happening albeit slowly. Maybe I am defensive about this, I am not saying I am not, but this idea of ‘being elite’ and ‘scientists should communicate’ doesn’t really help people want to do that. It reads like ‘just go out there and cure cancer’ or ‘go communicate better’ – ok and how? You have a lot of ideas about this so how do you think the structure should be changed, explicitly? This might get a lot more people on your side….

    • Funnily enough, one of the reason for the disconnect here might be that “elite” as Alice uses it appears to be a technical term.

      A productive follow-on question would be: What support can we provide to academics who are strapped for time? If Open Access is the first step at hand, what is the next?

      • I think you are right Maria – ‘elite’ which I take to mean ‘elitism’ with all of its bad connotations – is likely separate from what Alice means ? But even with it being a technical term why do we consider scientists ‘elite’ – this seems a bit of a throw back to the past – sort of ‘gentleman scientists’ where you didn’t have to work so hard (in theory) and made lots of money doing ‘what you love’ but I am not so sure this is not a myth. Still as you rightly point out I might just be having a disconnect with Alice about what she means about ‘elite’ –

        • alice says:

          It’s not a throw back to gentleman scientists, but it’s interesting that you think that!

          I wouldn’t say I’m being technical either. It’s more straightforward than that. Scientists are respected, you need to have a lot of education to be one, you are paid reasonably well (you are, really). We badly need to recognise that privilege and the barriers between us and some other people in the rest of society, so we can share science more broadly. Think, for example, about CaSE’s notes about “school type” and GCSE results

          And v much with people on how disempowered junior scientists are and ways in which science has a hard time politically often too. But it’s a privileged job in many ways. It’s hard to generalise about scientists as a whole, stupid even, so I try to avoid doing it, but academic scientists as a whole do tend to have a fair bit of autonomy, decent pay, and respect compared to other professions. I say that as someone who was made redundant from my lectureship at Imperial not long ago, has chosen not to move city for their career, etc etc etc…

          • Sure of course, but this is different than ‘elitism’ – I do realize that a professional academic job is elite in that sense – we make more than the national average and I certainly get paid more than I ever did not in this profession. I am not arguing that I don’t have it lucky in that sense.

            But I think that rather misses the point – its like telling little kids ‘ be sure and eat your food because people in China are starving’ – its so out of context to so many people its hard to redress the balance. Or telling everyone in the Develpoed world that we have it better off than most with running water, that is a given.

            I think we need real suggestions for how you for instance (as you have probably thought about this more than most people) need to engage and redress these balances. This is completely unclear in any venue.

            What do you think – what are your suggestions for this?

  3. Jonathan Knowles says:

    Its interesting talking to the publishers about who actually accesses OA data. It turns out that the public access it very little.

    I also think that one of the things that is forgotten in the OA argument is that OA is not free, it costs to publish an article and quite a lot. Most acadecmis dont have this sort of money.

    And finally virtually all journals offer a “gold” OA option and is easily available but it is not used very often due to the above, i.e. cost.

  4. Andrew Pontzen says:

    I was really glad to read your response, Sylvia.

    I think Alice Bell’s original article quietly overlooks the power relationship between the vast majority of researchers, their supervisors, and their funders. There is a serious problem: researchers would like to be more open, but have to spend time doing what will get them their next job – which is writing obscure papers. Jobs panels might want to appoint someone with a background in engaging the public, but people with papers take priority: papers dictate the ability to secure grants, which is what universities really care about. In turn, grant providers have a primary remit to fund internationally visible research. That is in severe tension with allowing a significant fraction of time to be spent on meaningful outreach. (Incidentally I do not believe REF will change this.) The change needs to start at the top, but the top is the most resistant to change.

    Above and beyond the practical difficulties of implementing Bell’s vision, I am also left unclear as to what its end-goal really is. There is a balance to be struck here. For example mathematics-heavy topics inevitably seem ‘elite’, and a meaningful engagement with the public on some areas may be nigh-on impossible. We should not interpret those areas as worthless. How we actually assign value to them is, yet again, a very hard practical problem. I’d love to see more debate around these critical issues in place of ‘must do better’ generalisms. At least we’d be talking the same language.

    • alice says:

      It doesn’t over look that – its something I’ve spent much of the last 2 years working on and am v aware of. Happy to admit that for the sake of word space it’s only nodded to at the end, but it is there if you look…

      • Andrew Pontzen says:

        I tried reading again but still can’t see this in your THE piece. Maybe I missed something, but all I can find is the sentence “they [academics] should demand that their supervisors and funders take the time they spend on this [opening up science] seriously”. My first point above is that most of us are not in any position to make such demands, nor are most supervisors in a strong position to accept the demands even if they wanted to.

        Anyway, it’s great that you have worked on this — I’d love to read about potential solutions to both this hierarchy problem, and the value-assignment problem. Could you give some references/links to your work in this area?

        • alice says:

          I meant I’ve been working on a practical and teaching level on this – working with postdocs largely – not that I’ve done research on it.

          • alice says:

            p.s. on position to make demands… no one’s going to be there soon, but we could get a bit more organised. I’m in this position as a junior academic too.

          • alice says:


            I remembered Sarah Davies might have looked at this in some research she did for Vitea last year. She’s at Arizona U if you want to google her.

            Cynic in me says the research councils don’t want to invest into research on the disempowerment of postdocs…

  5. Stephen says:

    I am a bit conflicted here since I contributed to the Guardian’s coverage — I was interviewed by Alok Jha for one of his pieces and wrote my own commentary.

    I was frustrated by Alice’s piece yesterday though struggled to put my finger on the reason why. However, this blogpost and comments by Ian Sample and Chris Chambers under the original article have been very helpful.

    As Alice makes clear, she is a big fan of open access and her aim, I think, is to see that in the context of a bigger and more complex picture. All of that we can agree with — in fact I thought I had already said as much in articulating the view that one of the likely benefits of OA was that it would stimulate a healthy public-side demand for better communication service from the scientific community. This is not a view that I hold alone — I have heard it expressed by many advocates of OA. So what I think was bugging me was the lack of acknowledgement of the positive contributions and the wide vision already adopted by many in the scientific community. Not all, for sure — no-one is claiming we have already reached nirvana. But the cynical speculation that “open access is simply a new way to rub scientists’ cleverness in people’s faces” (even if it was partially neutralised in the following paragraph) struck me as off key.

    And why roll your eyes at the Guardian giving this issue prominent attention when that is precisely one of the ways to stir up this issue among the public? We can disagree on the glibness of the term ‘academic spring’ (though see this comment from an Egyptian scientist who was comfortable with the coinage) but, if we’re all on the same side, let’s keep it positive.

    • Thanks Stephen, you said what I was trying to say in one line eg
      ‘we are all on the same side, lets keep it positive’

      I am just a bit too wordy….

    • alice says:

      Firstly, I want to apologise for the eye rolling line. The original draft had a joke after that which, I think, softened and contextualised it more. I edited it out for word limit and in retrospect, should have taken the eye rolling too. It’s a spiky opinion piece start, but that’s not always the best approach…

      Also, it was directed quite specifically at the stress on Wellcome journal, not open access or even really the “academic spring” which I do think is interesting and important. At no point was it aimed at anything you said or wrote about this. Again, my bad though, my clumsy articulation. Sorry.

      And I’m sorry if you felt I didn’t take enough time to celebrate people who do good work here. Again, I’m not about giving gold stars, but more to the point, I (like a lot of other people) would have liked to see more about the long history of OA in the Gdn coverage, including how much work Wellcome have done. I appreciate the need to try to make it sound new-sy, but it’s not.

      Still, I do think it’s odd that it made the *front page* when it’s still largely a scientific issue, not a public one (though the cynic in me knows how friendly the head of coms at Wellcome is with the Gdn sci team…). That doesn’t mean it’s not important, just that I’d love to see the day when a journal launch is a big public event. As I said in my conclusion.

      I sort of apologised about the rubbing faces in it line in response to Ian in comments in THE piece already. I can sort of apologise again, although that was a deliberately provocative line and stand by my right to be so.

      It was an opinion piece deliberately designed to provoke and, more over to ask people to be better. Yay, you’ve done good work. Gold stars. But lo-ong way to go.

      • Stephen says:

        I imagine on any other day (it was Easter Tuesday after all), the piece could easily have been bumped off the front page by another story. The interview that I did with Channel 4 News never saw the light of day, more’s the pity. (I was scintillating, obv.) But I give the Guardian credit for raising — and sticking with — this issue. It may not be an obvious story for their readership but I think it’s worth having a go.

        And, to give you your due Alice, one of the ‘let’s rub their noses in it brigade’ did turn up in the THE comment thread: look for William Smith-Kline. Classic (though a dying breed I hope).

        • Telling us we all ‘get gold stars’ for trying doesn’t really help – I don’t need to be praised for trying – I think what I feel a strong need for is people batting around real suggestions about what you can actually do. I think we all know we need improvement but just saying ‘ communicate better’ is too vague and doesn’t help.

          so what would your top ten suggestions be to actually do what you suggest for instance?

          • or put maybe a slightly better way (on my part) – I think you are talking to an audience that really wants to communicate better and push the way we write and ultimately wants the same things you do. So how do you think we should do this – in your opinion?

  6. James Moffatt says:

    All this long thread tells me – as a fairly lowly scientist and academic with no particular interest in the unrelated field of science communication – is what I’ve often suspected:

    People in the academic field of studying science communication need to learn to communicate with scientists, rather than “challenging” them.

    I’ve taken the time to read this, and even leave a brief comment or two. If you want to see some serious eye-rolling, show the original piece in THE to 90+% of my colleagues.

    I’m guessing that they aren’t the intended audience though, which is why they are thoroughly repelled by dialogue like this, and why no one in sci comms appears concerned by their lacking of willingness to “engage”.

    Who’s the elitist, I wonder?

  7. I will give Alice the benefit of the doubt that she personally knows lots of scientists who ‘revel in their elite status’, but I have to admit that in my 20+ years in the profession in a number of different countries, that’s not a description I’d use to describe the majority of my colleagues’ behaviors.

    Maybe we hang out at different parties.

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