Microblogging Science: Reviewing the Literature

2.1 Scientists and Communication

As stated in the previous chapter, the prevailing theory in the mid-twentieth century was that the public’s fear and distrust of science was largely caused by a lack of knowledge. By providing the relevant information to the public, or decreasing their “knowledge-deficit” then this fear would disappear. This view is largely focused on the shortcomings of the non-scientific public, while putting the onus on scientists to fix it. In Davies’ (2008) paper Constructing Communication: Talking to Scientists about talking to the public she looks at how scientists view communication with the public. Using purely qualitative research involving group discussions and interviews with scientists about the topic, she concludes that science communication and outreach are done on an ad hoc basis by individuals, with a focus being in big science ideas rather than intricate data. Many of the scientists interviewed had a goal of inspiring others to join the field, rather than purely to communicate the science they were involved with. It appears that there is little interest in dialogue and mutual learning.

It seems important to note an overarching framework that encompasses all the ideas I have discussed. This is that in all the talk I have described – whether it is the need for relevance or recruitment as a desired effect – communication is constructed as a one-way transfer of information. (Davies 2008, p. 420)

This is not necessarily indicative of science as a whole - she used a small pool of researchers (no more than 70) and many worked within the same lab. In addition Davies noted that the group with a closer connection to patients or charities had a more positive view towards communication. This is a useful piece of research as it looks at how and why scientists interact with the public in the first place.

Besley and Nisbet (2011) looked at the same subject from a slightly different angle in their 2011 paper How Scientists view the public, the media and the political process.  This was a meta-analysis of prior studies and surveys pertaining to the views of scientists regarding the public and the media.  In it they conclude that scientists view the public as generally scientifically uninformed and to a large extent, blame the media for stoking this ignorance.  

Several studies find that scientists view the public as non-rational an unsystematic in their thinking such that they rely on anecdotes and then overreact to minor risks. Others have found that scientists see the public as emotional, fear prone, overly focused on the sensational, self-interested and stubborn in the face of new evidence. (Besley and Nisbet 2011, p. 647)               

This supports Davies’ (2008) paper, in part, as it serves as an analysis on understanding how scientists see the public. They acknowledge that scientists understand the role they play in engaging in public debate, but it is more with an emphasis on ensuring policy makers make decisions in line with the scientists’ own preference.

Besley and Nisbet’s (2011) analysis of past studies was extensive and covered a number of important issues related to science communication. Data from two studies, “People, Science & Policy 2005” and “Pew Research Centre for People and the Press, in collaboration with AAAS 2009”, were used.  The authors proposed further study involving more qualitative research as they believe that the quantitative data is not picking up nuances in the opinions of scientists (Besley and Nisbet 2011).

Returning to the publics’ understanding of science, Martin Bauer (2009) looks at its evolution in his paper, The Evolution of Public Understanding of Science – Discourse and comparative evidence (Bauer 2009).  He concludes that the public may not necessarily understand science any more now than they did 30 years ago.  He argues that the methodology of evaluating the public’s understanding may have obscured the reality. Using data collected from multiple barometer studies he found that as societies increase in scientific knowledge there is a corresponding rise in scepticism about the field.

The survey evidence shows that the public understanding of science might be significantly different in an industrial-developing context and a knowledge-intensive developed context. In the latter, more knowledge does not bring more support for science. Rather, it brings in utilitarian scrutiny, and an end to widespread beliefs in ideology and myths of what science might be. (Bauer 2009, p. 236)

It should be noted that barometer studies can be inexact with methodologies varying from country to country. Even so, this paper poses two interesting questions: Do they want it and do they need it?  In an increasingly technological world, the argument is made, that regardless of whether they want to engage, the public needs to understand science in order to fully participate in society. However, this is not necessarily what is happening. The following paragraphs will address the issues surrounding the public’s apparent disinterest in science.

2.2 Science Communication and the Public

Quaranta (2007) notes, in Knowledge, responsibility and culture: food for thought on science communication that “…the most paradoxical feature of this process [of rapid scientific and technological development] is the growing divide between the increased importance science has acquired in economic and social life and a society persistently showing spreading signs of contempt, mistrust, and most of all, disinterest in research.”(Quaranta 2007, p. 1)

This disconnect, between the lay-public and scientists, has been of growing concern for many years. The House of Lords published a report in 2000 on the relationship between science and society. In it they note that “Public Confidence in scientific advice to government has been rocked by BSE; and many people are uneasy about the rapid advance of areas such as biotechnology and information technology.”(House of Lords: Science and Society Committee 2000)

In his comment piece, Quaranta (2007) argues that this disconnect comes from the prevailing view that there are experts and non-experts, rather than acknowledging that there are stakeholders, with different needs and ideas about science and technology. He proposes the idea that science communication should not be seen as the act of dispensing knowledge to a supine audience, but more that it should be an “…Inter-subjectification of science as a human enterprise in general, of which knowledge is only a facet”. (Quaranta 2007, p. 3) He states that the point of science communication is not necessarily to ensure people know who Galileo was, but that they know how research works here and now, in their own lives.

Dickson (2000), in his piece, Science and its Public: The need for a “Third Way” points out that the public’s issues with science are not necessarily unreasonable or unfounded. He argues that the public is not so much anti-science, but wary of the ways science and technology is applied outside the lab. He proposes that rather than engaging in one-way communication, there should be a genuine dialogue.

All this points to the need for a new type of dialogue, one that acknowledges the true nature of such disputes, and allows space for creative criticism and politically-based challenges, rather than dismissing all such criticism and challenges as a manifestation of a lack of public ‘awareness’ – or even a malaise (Dickson 2000, p920).

According to Maeseele (2007), in his paper Science and technology in a mediatized and democratized society, with the traditional method of science communication “…the public and the media are problematized, and not science: the public for being ignorant, and the sensationalist media for distorting a clear picture of science.”(Maeseele 2007, p. 3) This finding agrees with a number of the papers previously discussed. Maeseele notes that with an increasingly democratised society, official science communication has to compete with “rival framings, rival PR efforts and rival issues”. The scientific community is, according to Maeseele, struggling to deal with loss of control.

This competition of ideas is only going to increase as social media platforms become more dominant in public life and public communications.

2.3 Science and Web 2.0

With a focus on Public Engagement with Science and the rise of a user-generated, community based, social web there is an opportunity to reframe science communication. In her paper, Social Media and the production of knowledge: A return to little science? Lievrouw (2010) discusses the impact of Web 2.0 on science:

Wikis, blogs, social network sites and computer-linked research collaboratories, tagging and bookmarking, forums, gateways, and real-time conferencing and chat are being employed in ways that may have important consequences for scientific and scholarly communication, transforming it from a relatively straightforward process of gatekeeping, publishing, and targeted search and retrieval, in to a multi-layered, thoroughly socialised arena of commentary amendment, collaboration, critique, argumentation, recombination, and recommendation. In a very real sense, social media are helping to change people’s expectations about the sources, availability and uses of information in all its forms, both in society at large and in the practice of science (Lievrow 2010, pp. 220-221).     

Lievrow (2010) notes that with this relaxation of boundaries, there are opportunities to create spaces for science communication to “combine relational qualities of immediacy, trust and creditability, argumentation and debate” (Lievrow 2010, p. 221). However she raises the point that the science community has to first acknowledge what they mean by science communication: Is it with the public, or with fellow researchers.

Puschmann (2014), in his article (Micro)blogging Science? Notes on the potentials and constraints of new forms of scholarly communication, found that while “…technologies make it easier, cheaper, and quicker for scientists to exchange information with peers around the globe; they also have the potential to blur the line between internal communication among researchers and communication with the wider public.”(Puschmann 2014, p. 91) This can have wider implications as with the increasing use of social media the scientists private life will become more publicly intertwined with their science. This potential side effect of the social web was of concern to Besley and Nesbit (2011) as they felt it may lead to scientists censoring themselves, particularly if they held political, policy or public engagement views that were contrary to the norm.

In addition to the above, Puschmann (2014) also discusses the reality that researchers are often not that concerned with getting their own research to the widest possible audience, instead focusing on others in their field. High impact journals still have a significant influence on those who work within the scientific community. Peer review is the dominant way of proving one’s work to the community and this governs the perception of social media – both advantages and disadvantages – for many scientists (Puschmann 2014). If the institution or company that a researcher or scientist works for, or aspires to, frowns upon social media, then the researcher is unlikely to use it. However, the ability to network via social media can positively affect the career of a scientist.

Micro-Blogging, as mentioned above by Puschmann (2014), is blogging in short form. According to Kaplan and Haenlein (2011) micro-blogs are “halfway between traditional blogs and social networking sites. They are characterised by a high degree of self-presentation/self-disclosure.” (Kaplan and Haenlein 2011) One of the main differences between micro-blogging and long-form blogging is the social space they inhabit. A micro-blog usually (with some exceptions[1]) exists in a more public, networked environment (Ji et al. 2013).

Micro-blogging sites are rapidly increasing, but only a few dominate the market: Twitter is the best known platform outside of China. As it is banned in China, the Chinese platform Wiebo has market control. According to Twitter’s own about page, its aim is to “help you create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers” (Twitter 2014).

This ability to share ideas rapidly across multiple contents creates an opportunity to communicate science that is at once intimate, one-to-one, and at the same time, public and open for all to see. According to Honeycutt and Herring in their paper Beyond Microblogging: Conversation and Collaboration via Twitter, it has the “potential to be used for sharing ideas and co-ordinating activities, similar to instant messaging, yet more dynamic.” (Honeycutt and Herring 2009, p. 1)

2.4 Science, Communication, and the Online Community

In 2009, researchers at the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI)[2] undertook a study of how Twitter was used to spread scientific messages at three separate conferences. In addition to the study, they used a comprehensive survey to gather information from scientists on how they use the web to interact with others. (Letierce et al. 2010)

This study shares the same limitations as the research conducted by Davies (2008). The sample size for the survey was small, with only 61 completed answers. The respondents were drawn from a limited group: Researchers active on five mailing lists or interacting with the institute’s blog, Facebook or Twitter account. In addition, the data captured at the three conferences related only to the official conference hashtags[3]. Conversations without the official hashtag were not captured. The study also focused on Twitter, rather than other social networking sites, such as Facebook.

The authors concluded that scientists with authority at an event have the greatest impact online. They acknowledge this representation is restricted as there may have been speakers at the events who were not active on Twitter. They also found that most scientists considered only their own personal circle when communicating online. The possibility of other people seeing the interactions were not considered. This is an interesting conclusion as it implies that scientists do not see the social web as a means of communicating with publics, but rather as a way of talking within their own community. (Letierce et al. 2010)

In addition to the above, they found that while researchers active on micro-blogging sites tended to share more information than before, they updated their personal blog less. They raised the possibility of further research in this area: Has Web 2.0 changed the way scientific information is transmitted and consumed?

In their paper I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience Marwick and boyd[4] (2011) study how content producers deal with the intersection between imagined and real audiences.

We present ourselves differently based on who we are talking to and where the conversation takes place – social contexts like a job interview, trivia night at a bar, or a dinner with a partner differ in their norms and expectations. The same goes for socialising online. (Marwick and boyd 2011, p. 1)

Using both interviews and open-ended surveys, Marwick and boyd investigated how twitterers[5] assess their impact and audience. They note “as with blogs, nearly all tweets are read by relatively few people – but most Twitterers don’t know which few people. Without knowing the audience, participants imagine it.” (Marwick and boyd 2011, p. 4)

Their research showed that people assumed their audiences were by turn themselves, their IRL[6] friends, or situational – depending on the topic being covered. People were uncomfortable labelling followers as an audience, or as the authors put it, “consciously speaking to an audience is perceived as inauthentic.” (Marwick and boyd 2011, p. 6)

Marwick and boyd (2011) conclude that while users may not name them, they are aware of audiences, and that the way they present themselves depends on the size of the audience. The larger the number of followers, the more conservatively they tweeted. Users invoked elements of self-censorship, particularly if their brand was considered important enough not to risk.

This conclusion is vital in understanding how scientists might communicate across the social web. If there is fear of loss-of-face or of potentially losing out on work, scientists may be reluctant to share.

Stafford (2010), in his Science Masterclass for Nature Science in the Digital Age, traces the history of science from handwriting to Twitter. This development in communication technology has simultaneously allowed for science to progress at a faster pace. Researchers no longer need to wait for a letter to be delivered or to attend a conference in order to collaborate with colleagues at other institutions. Stafford states that this new immediacy may lead to an element of ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ within science, increasing the pressure to be seen to be doing well (Stafford 2010). He does point out that, even though the ways of communicating within science are multiplying exponentially, there is still a need for in-person contact. Quoting Jane Maienschien, “People are connected through quick-fix email. But this does not lend itself to thoughtful or deeply reflective exchanges.”(Stafford 2010, p. 20)

This is somewhat supported by André, Bernstein and Luther (2012) in their evaluation of microblog content: Who gives a tweet? They created a site that allowed users to gain anonymous feedback from both strangers and their own followers on the content of their tweets. The sample pool was limited to whoever discovered the site (via push traffic from other sources). From the data collected, the authors confirmed that tweets that were boring or repeating old news were the least valued.

Because Twitter emphasizes real-time information, tweeting old information lead to Boring responses like ‘Yes I saw that first thing this morning’ or ‘I’ve read this same tweet so many times’. (André, Bernstein and Luther 2012, p. 3)

In addition, they noted that users found tweets with little context, such as links with no explanation, to be irritating. However, contrasting with Maienschein’s quote above, André, Bernstein and Luther (2012) discovered that the most liked category of tweets were Questions to Followers, Information Sharing and Self-Promotion, suggesting that the “…Twitter ecosystem values learning about new content.” (André, Bernstein and Luther 2012, p. 3) 

It’s clear from the research that there are conflicting opinions on communicating science via the social web. This thesis attempts to engage with the various opinions and through looking at how scientists are using the curated Twitter account, address how they communicate with the public. The research also looks at what the primary public is for these curators and whether their time in control of the account had any effects, positive or negative.

[1] Exceptions are generally user selected within a platform’s privacy setting.

[2] A web science research institute which looks to interlink technologies, information and people. http://www.deri.ie/

[3] Hashtag: a way of indexing tweets with a common theme.

[4] danah boyd is always referenced in lower case.

[5] Twitterer:  A user of the microblogging site Twitter.

[6] IRL: In Real Life.