Friday, March 28, 2014

Project Proposal: Scientists as Science Writers

As Web 2.0 has emerged, boundaries between media audiences, professionals and sources have blurred. Web 2.0 introduced digital media platforms featuring user-generated content, such as blogs, YouTube, Twitter and podcasts, allowing anyone with Internet access to become a media content provider. These digital platforms have raised questions about how relationships between scientists and the general public may be shifting in response to this new communications landscape. Digital platforms have diminished the role of journalists as gatekeepers, allowing scientists and audiences to communicate directly with one another, and prompting science communications scholars to reorient their focus. As science communications scholar Dominique Brossard insisted in a recent article, “we need to stop talking about the future of science journalism to talk about the present reality of science communication” (Brossard 2013).
This reorientation has prompted communications scholars to ask what this new communications landscape means for how science is practiced and for public understanding of and engagement with science (Kouper 2010; Trench 2012). In the resulting literature, scholars have coined the concept of “mediatization” of science, raised hopes that scientists might open a window into “how science is really done” or turn science into a more collective endeavor engaging both citizens and experts, a sort of “Science 2.0” (Trench 2012; Waldrop 2008).
The idea of mediatization of science proposes that scientists and scientific institutions are becoming increasingly attentive to the media dimensions of their work and increasingly adopting mass media genres and platforms in their communication (Trench 2012). The new digital communications landscape has also spurred the hope that this new digital landscape may be “turning science inside out” (Trench 2008)….(to be continued)…

My plan for this project…
In my preliminary review of the literature on science in the new digital communications landscape, it so far seems to disproportionately focus on audiences. For example, how this new communications landscape does or does not facilitate public understanding of or engagement with science. For this project, I would like to instead focus my attention on the researcher. My plan is to use this project to lay the groundwork for a study that might shed more light on how researchers use digital media platforms to communicate about science and how these activities might in turn influence the way science is practiced. More specifically, I am interested in the following two research questions. First, how does using digital media to communicate about science for general audiences influence scientists’ relationships with collogues, scientific practices and perceptions of science?
Secondly, how do scientists use digital media to communicate about science for general audiences? To what extent, for example, do they use it to provide the public a window to the inner workings of science? To what extent do they use it to drive ideological or critical commentaries about science? And to what extent do they incorporate journalistic practices such as interviewing sources or including multiple points of view?
In my preliminary review of the literature, there also seems to be a dearth of interview-based research tapping scientists themselves as sources of information. Even research attempting to characterize scientists’ blogging activities seems to largely ignore the scientists themselves, focusing instead on content analysis of their blog posts (Kouper 2010; Trench 2012). Consequently, for this project I am conducting pilot interviews, field observations and analyzing a sample of blog posts and academic publications written by the scientists who participate in my pilot interviews.
I have already begun some data collection, for this project. In February I interviewed four scientists at the 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago. All of my pilot interview participants were women who communicate about science for general audiences using blogs. Fortuitously, each of them also provided a perspective on blogging about science from different stages along the academic scientist career path. My interviews included a blogger in her final year of completing a cell and molecular biology PhD at the University of Honolulu, Hawaii, a recent biology PhD graduate from University of Missouri-St. Louis working as a post doc while seeking a tenure-track position and a recently tenured University of Georgia Tech professor and oceanographer. Finally, I interviewed a woman who recently quit her post doc research work in physiology and pharmacology to blog about science full time for Science News.
They also had different levels of experience with and styles of blogging. The woman who recently quit research to blog full time, for example, started blogging as a graduate student in 2007, while the recently tenured Georgia Tech professor did not begin blogging until after she received tenure. And while the recently tenured professor blogs almost exclusively about her lab’s research, the Science News blogger says that as a researcher she deliberately never blogged about her own research. Also, each of them established a distinct voice and identity in the way that they blog, with some engaging with audiences in a very personal way and others avoiding first person or offering opinion. And, with the exception of the Science News blogger, none of them reported interviewing other sources. And the Science News blogger reported that she did not begin interviewing sources for her posts until after she quit research.
My interviews also revealed some differences, but mostly similarities in how these four scientists thought blogging had impacted their research and careers. While the early career scientists I interviewed from University of Hawaii and University of Missouri were more optimistic about how the science communication activities might benefit them as career scientists, they reported that they thought scientists who blog about science were given little credit for their science communications activities. And in some instances, they expressed concerns that blogging could even hurt a scientist’s chances of eventually achieving tenure. That it might, for example, create the appearance that a researcher was trying to bypass approved channels for drawing attention to their work. For this reason, the Georgia Tech professor said she was reluctant to start blogging until after she had achieved tenure and the Science News blogger said she hid her blogging activities for many years.  At the same time they all seemed to agree that this has been slowly changing and predicted it would continue to change. All of my interviewees also reported that blogging about science for general audiences had broadened the scope of their understanding of science, and the Georgia Tech professor reported it had even changed the course of her research.
This is just a preliminary overview of a few of the patterns I am seeing emerge from my field research so far. I am still transcribing my notes from these interviews and plan to conduct additional interviews as this project progresses.
In the next step of my fieldwork, I would like to conduct observations and at least two interviews with a UW-Madison scientist who uses a digital media platform to communicate about science. At the top of my list so far is associate professor of anthropology John Hawks, but I welcome any recommendations you might have.
            Finally, since the body of research relevant to my project focuses almost entirely on traditional blogs, I hope that this project will eventually lead to a study that will which includes scientists that use podcasts, YouTube channels and less traditional blogging formats like Tumblr.

Brossard, D. (2013). Science, its Publics and New Media. Mètode 80: DOI: 10.7203/metode.80.3123

Kouper, I. (2010). Science blogs and public engagement with science: Practices, challenges, and opportunities. Journal of Science Communication, 9(1), 1-10.

Trench, B. (2008). Internet: Turning science communication inside-out. In M. Bucchi and B. Trench (eds.), Handbook of public communication of science and technology, London: Rout-ledge, pp. 185–198.

Trench, B. (2012). Scientists’ blogs: Glimpses behind the scenes. In The Sciences’ Media Connection–Public Communication and Its Repercussions (pp. 273-289). Springer Netherlands.

Waldrop, M. M. (2008). Science 2.0. Scientific American, 298(5), 68-73: doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0508-68

Other literature I predict could be useful:
Peters, Hans Peter. "The science-media interface: interactions of scientists and journalists." Communicating European Research 2005. Springer Netherlands, 2007. 53-58.

Gregory, J. and S. Miller (1998). Science in public: Communication, culture and credibility. New York: Plenum Press.
Gibbons, M. et al. (1994). The new production of knowledge: The dynamics of science and re-search in contemporary societies. London: Sage.
Fenner, M. (2008). Why do we blog and other important questions, answered by 34 science bloggers, posted on
Peter Weingart, "A short history of knowledge formations," in Robert Frodeman, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 3-14.
See discussion on specialized communication and closure of disciplinary communication, science becoming self-referential and distancing itself from practical concerns (p. 6).

Robert E. Kohler, "The Ph.D. Machine: Building on the Collegiate Base," Isis 81 (1990), pp. 638-662.
See discussion on communicative competence and disciplinary training to create audiences that understand what is being said (p 52).

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