SciComm Matters Because…It’s Tough to Keep Up with Journals

12 November 2012 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo: msi/stock.xchng

(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.

Photo: kaeska/stock.xchng

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


12 Responses to “SciComm Matters Because…It’s Tough to Keep Up with Journals”

  1. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    A reader emailed me with this question/statement: "Is it causation or correlation that articles covered by the new media are more highly cited? It seems that good/novel science gets covered more often by the press. Good science is also more highly cited. I'm not sure press coverage is what drives citations."

    Good points! Here's my take: For the most part, I agree (that's why I use the term "correlation" in the post). But I don't think the issue is cut and dried. There are a lot of papers out there that are based on good science, most of which never get any media attention. I can think of several dozen, off the top of my head, that are good papers and got good media coverage -- but wouldn't have gotten any press coverage if I hadn't told reporters that these papers existed. There are so many journals, reporters can't even begin to track all of the solid research they're publishing.

    It would take an in-depth study to determine whether there is any meaningful "causation" between exposure and citations, as opposed to correlation. (And I'd love to see that study!) But, ultimately, I think science communication efforts create significant *potential* for meaningful benefits (e.g., citations) and relatively low risk of adverse consequences.

  2. David Colquhoun Reply | Permalink

    What we need is not more communicators, but fewer papers, and fewer journals.

    Science is being corrupted by the publish or perish mentality of senior academics, and that tendency is seriously out of hand, The integrity of universities, and of science itself is threatened by dimwitted metrics, forced on us by short-sighted senior academics and administrators.

    See, for example, http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/sep/05/publish-perish-peer-review-science?INTCMP=SRCH

  3. Neuroskeptic Reply | Permalink

    I agree with David in general - but I think science blogs can be really helpful here. Until we arrive in the Promised Land of no more publish-or-perish, blogs can filter out the really interesting papers and make sure they're recognized.

  4. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    I agree with David's second part but not the first part in which he says that we need fewer papers and journals. I think this is just not going to happen so there's no point disputing this. There are now more researchers who are actively doing research and their outlet is papers and journals. Of course, more papers and journals create more confusion and a mayhem really for anyone who wants to keep up with what's happening and I agree with Matt that scicomm then has a great role to play.

    Which brings me to my second point. Most scicomm look like they have an audience of non-scientists in mind. Backing my line of thought is (for example) the narrative push that many science writers/communicators are actively postulating. Yes narrative is important, but not so much for a scientist who is in the field. That scientist probably is more interested in the actual science rather than an insight into a scientist's life. It is very important to delineate between a scientist and non-scientist audience and cater for both. Right now, I think too many science writers who are focusing on a non-scientist audience are preaching to the scientists.

    This was very apparent earlier this year when Adam Ruben wrote a caricaturisation of popular science writing and got an extremely angry response from writers of popular science. I wrote about the divide and this issue more here: http://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/labcoat-life/keep_cool_science_journalists

  5. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    My response depends on what David means when he says we don't need more "communicators." If he means we don't need more PIOs (like me), he's probably right (though I do wish more scientists would take advantage of institutional resources such as PIOs). If he means that we don't need more scientists trying to communicate their efforts, I disagree. As Khalil notes, science communication efforts do not have to target the non-expert community. There are some scientists that do a great job of highlighting important/interesting work in their respective fields, and who are writing primarily for an audience of their peers. I've certainly noticed this in the fields of entomology and marine science, and it may be true of other fields as well.

    Regardless of whether one wishes there were fewer journals, the fact is that those journals do exist now. And, in my opinion, the efforts of experts to highlight important work in their fields has value for those research communities.

  6. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    While the jury is certainly out on specific platforms/communication tools, I think the broader picture for increased communication efforts as a whole is somewhat more clear. More work needs to be done (doesn't it always!), but there is little evidence of a negative impact and significant evidence of positive impacts from outreach efforts.

    To be clear, I'm defining science communication efforts broadly here, to include: conventional news media, the ever-changing suite of social media (including blogs), educational outreach, community outreach, etc.

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