What the Heck is the ‘Scicomm Community’ Anyway?

22 November 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

If you’re at all interested in science communication (“scicomm”), you’ve probably seen references to the “scicomm community.” And if you also spend any time on social media sites, you’ve probably seen the term a lot recently.

Some people talk about building a better scicomm community (I’ve done that). Some people talk about its failings. Some people talk about leaving it, or even breaking up with it. But what is it?

I guess there are two ways to think about it. (Or at least these are the two ways that I think about it.)

On the one hand, a lot of people engage in science communication. Any scientist who publishes a journal article or presents research findings at a conference is engaging in science communication. Any reporter who covers science is also engaging in scicomm. So are science teachers, public information officers, bloggers, artists, musicians, or anyone else who is trying to convey information about science to other people.

They Might Be Giants recorded an album about science (ostensibly geared toward kids, though grownups are also allowed to dig it). Does that count as science communication? I think so.

So, if the scicomm community is everyone who engages in science communication, it’s a really big tent.

On the other hand, many (most?) of those people don’t think of themselves as being part of the scicomm community. They’re not science communicators, they’re scientists. And publishing papers is what scientists do. They’re not science communicators, they’re a rock band that records catchy songs. They’re not science communicators, they’re teachers. You get the idea.

But some people spend a lot of time thinking about science communication. They want to get better at it. They want other people to get better at it. They want other people to be involved. They want to find ways to get people excited about science.

These people do think of themselves as science communicators.

Now, they may also think of themselves as scientists, teachers, musicians, doctors, journalists, artists, etc., but they definitely think of themselves as science communicators. Those roles don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

I think this second group of folks, the self-identifying science communicators, make up a smaller “scicomm community.” Because of shared or overlapping interests, members of this community run into each other pretty often. Often online, sometimes in person. We can (and do) learn a lot from each other. Sometimes we disappoint and/or anger each other. And, perhaps because of those shared interests, the disappointments can be that much more disappointing. (There is more on some such disappointments and dealing with them in this post from Jacquelyn Gill.)

But I don’t think it’s a community that you formally join or leave, like a country club or a motorcycle gang. There are no dues to be paid or rites of initiation. You’re either really interested in talking about science (outside of the lab or classroom) or you’re not.

If you are, then I guess you’re part of the community, regardless of whether you choose to actively engage with others. But I kind of hope you do decide to take at least a somewhat active role in the community. Everyone has something to teach, I think. And not to be a goody-goody or anything, but I’d hate to miss out on learning whatever you have to offer.

This is, perhaps, a bit of a rambling, imprecise post. But it’s a rambling, somewhat imprecise sort of subject.


5 Responses to “What the Heck is the ‘Scicomm Community’ Anyway?”

  1. Mark W. Laszlo Reply | Permalink

    As all issues of public concern should be discussed
    in a free society, science issues should be discussed
    because science is revolutionizing our world continually.

    What society does with new discoveries should be
    influenced by informed, understanding public consensus,
    to protect and advance public interest. Whatever roles
    corporations, NGOs and governments have to play,
    the more learning and discussion of all interested people,
    the more likely science is used for general benefit and not
    harm.

    Some ageless afflictions of the human condition are now
    prone to defeat via emergent technologies. What human
    beings can do tomorrow, in a year or decade, will radically
    transform the human condition. People need to keep up,
    foresee and prepare. The general public, at large; our best
    chance for a favorable historic outcome of each issue is
    widespread, correct understanding.

    Respecting the bona fide scientists and Scientific Method,
    sorting sense from nonsense and conceits, lay enthusiasts
    can have a valid role in science, by finding informed
    consenses and informed sentiments, so risks and benefits
    of scientific discoveries may be in public control.

    Lay people come up with good ideas sometimes, to
    support the work of professionals, if we educate ourselves
    enough and are intellectually honest. It's a thrill to succeed
    at this, but insisting on disagreeing without really knowing
    causes self humiliation. We have to be careful not to make
    fools of ourselves (with a little help from site administrators),
    but "The most foolish question is the one that was never
    asked".

  2. David Wescott Reply | Permalink

    As someone who makes a living floating in and out of various online "communities," this one has always confused me. One of the things I despise most - honestly, it makes my skin crawl - is nomenclature. I absolutely hate the constant focus on what's in and what's out.

    Am I part of this community? I don't do science, and I rarely do science communication in the traditional sense. But I like science, and I like talking about it, and I know it's important to increase general science literacy so people can make more informed decisions.

    I honestly don't care if someone considers me "in" or "out." I just do what I do, and I'll work with anyone who shares a goal with me - even if I don't agree with them on most other things.

    "This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."

    Or so I've heard.

  3. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    I don't think it's something that's planned or induced. Lou Woodley dropped me a note saying "The simplest definition I've seen is that community = people + shared interests." I think that's true. Community essentially "happens" or it doesn't. Community is, I think, a dynamic thing. A fluid thing. Also, how you define something affects what you see or think of when you refer to that something. So different people likely imagine different things when they think of a "community." This post was essentially an overview of what *I* think of in that regard.

    Like you, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about who's in or out. I haven't spent much time thinking about it at all, until I realized I didn't and decided to write this post. But I would say that you, David, are part of the "scicomm community," at least as I think of it. Because you offer insight into how and why people communicate with each other, often in the context of scientific topics. You may not do it on a daily basis, but when you do chime in, it's in a smart, thoughtful way. I think that's valuable.

  4. Glendon Mellow (@FlyingTrilobite) Reply | Permalink

    As someone who has been part of a blog network for two years and blogging independently for 7, complaints about ScienceOnline cliques and "cool kids" are complaints I have struggled to understand.
    Which clique? The published authors? The ocean bloggers? The faces from tv?

    I suffered from imposter syndrome for a long time too. I have a fine arts degree and paint trilobites with wings on them. And while there may be a significant number of artists and illustrators attending ScienceOnline *now* (and engaging journos and researchers on Twitter), that wasn't always the case. So I understand the the feeling of not always being part of the group. In many cases I found though, it was my hang-up, not one shared by people I spoke to.

    The best advice I find is to be the change you want to see.

    Communities are diverse raucous things much of the time. I'm over here in this corner; scratching with pigment and dust, making symbols and looking for meaning. I just try to poke my head up and look around once in a while.

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