Social Media Is Changing the Shape of Scientific Debate

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by: Matt Rhodes

An article in this week’s Economist looks at how science and scientific debate is being changed by the rise of social media tools. In the days before the Internet, a peer-reviewed scientific journal was the best (and maybe only) way to get your opinions and ideas heard by a large number of people. The process of reviewing and publishing articles was long, meaning that the time from idea to publication can be quite significant. As the Economist puts it:

With luck a paper will be published several months after being submitted; many languish for over a year because of bans on multiple submissions. This hampers scientific progress, especially in nascent fields where new discoveries abound. When a paper does get published, the easiest way to debate it is to submit another paper, with all the tedium that entails.

Even today, this is still the process followed by most scientific journals, although as the Economist article points out change is afoot.

The drawback of the journal process is that it doesn’t allow a space for public and open debate and discussion of ideas in a convenient and quick way. This isn’t necessarily their fault, that’s not what they are designed for. But there is a space in the scientific community for this kind of reviewing, commenting and evaluation of ideas, allowing groups of scientists to work together to refine and improve ideas. It sounds like the perfect place for social media – scientist blogs where their ideas can be revealed as they emerge, online communities where people can discuss and work on a shared interest or goal, wikis where multiple parties can contribute towards knowledge. The opportunities are vast and, of course, alongside the traditional peer-reviewed journals there are a plethora of such social media initiatives out their in the scientific community.

One such example, cited by the Economist, is Seed Media’s Research Blogging, a site designed to act as a hub for peer-reviewed science. The aim is to bring together in one place all of the many discussions that are happening all over the web, to allow more people to get involved in the discussions and to organise them in a way that makes it easy to search. This seems like a really effective way of integrating the benefits of social media and online community tools with the existing, peer-reviewed science.

I spoke earlier this year at a conference about how to combine editorial and user-generated content in publishing, and this approach does seem to follow some of the best practice ideas we discussed then. Allowing the expert (in this case the peer-reviewed) content to sit separately from the discussions and debates but to encourage and facilitate the latter. This is the first stage many take to fully integrating crowd-reviewing into their expert content and allowing experts and readers to interact fully in the original content.

Of course getting to this point takes time. For it to be a real success it requires a significant proportion of the target audience to be able to join in and contribute. At the moment only 35% of scientists blog, and there are sometimes perverse incentives to not join these debates. The Economist cites Jennifer Rohn, a biologist at University College London, who says that:

There is a risk that rivals will see how your work unfolds and pip you to the post in being first to publish. Blogging is all well and good for tenured staff but lower down in the academic hierarchy it is still publish or perish

So change like this may be sometime coming, but developments to maximise the use of social media and community discussions are allowing scientists to debate issues more quickly and more conveniently. Ideas can be disseminated and debated more rapidly, and that has to be a good thing.

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