By Padideh Kamali-Zare, PhD
Science communication is generally known as presenting science-related topics and scientific discoveries to non-experts (public). This is based on the assumption that people outside the scientific world, in order to grasp the major scientific advances and get informed about groundbreaking discoveries in science, require a different way of transferring knowledge to them than regular scientific publications. This is very true of course and there have been a number of successful efforts in this regard including popular science magazines and TV shows, science outreach activities and science exhibitions.
But a more pertinent question maybe how science communication works not from inside to outside the scientific community, but within the scientific community itself? How do scientists, especially in the fields of experimental sciences, communicate with each other these days? Given that a variety of different and sophisticated techniques have to be used in order to generate the data required for a top scientific journal publication, and that each author is specialized in some of the techniques but not all? How do people with different scientific backgrounds who have come together to solve an in interdisciplinary problem, communicate along the way and reach a meaningful conclusion in the end? Even by not going that far, how do people with an exact scientific background but with a different way of analyzing the data and drawing conclusions, communicate with each other? Do all authors on a publication agree on the results and final conclusions? If not, does that mean that even the authors of a certain paper may not agree on the right conclusion? Really?! What is happening to science and its universality then? And who is in a position of authority to decide what is right or wrong? These are some important questions to think about and figure out what is missing in human-human interactions in science.
The results of the following simple experiment, which is based on a random interview with about 40 scientists within the New York scientific community, may surprise you! The question I asked was: if I give you a random paper published in a top-tier scientific journal e.g. Nature, Cell or Science, can you understand what it is talking about? By understand I mean, after reading it, can you explain in simple words what the major hypothesis of the paper is, why it is important, what experiments the authors did to test the hypothesis and what the final result and conclusion was? The majority (~80%) answered “no” (!), unless it is in their particular field and only if they “study” the paper in detail and not only “read” it. The common concern was first about the complexity of figures and that they capture the results of so many years of experiments, and in the end the figures stress on too many points at the same time. A second concern was on the complexity of the methods.
The next question I asked was can you keep up with your own field and evaluate the major findings that come out from different labs? About half of the scientists answered “no”(!). And the major concern was that too little time is left for an experimental scientist to go through the literature in everyday life, and the literature has become too complex, so it makes it difficult to learn about advances by only screening and not going through the details.
The last question I asked was, how much do you believe in the results and conclusions of your own papers and do you think they are reproducible everywhere and that they contribute to a better understanding of the subject of your interest? Is it any wonder everyone says “well, …”???