At last week’s Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) Annual Meeting, Chris Lintott, an astrophysicist from The University of Oxford and a leader in the “citizen science” movement, gave a keynote that had the 950+ attendees buzzing the entire meeting. During his excellent talk, he spoke tangentially about open access (OA), noting that his experience has been that when it comes to science crossing over into useful information to the general public, access is not the issue. It turns out that the issues related to public accessibility and engagement are much more complicated.
One issues involves a subtle and generally inadvertent intimidation. Lintott noted what museum curators and cultural observers have dubbed “threshold fear,” which occurs when an impressive museum facade, an exalted public perception of a cultural institution, or both, generate an effective barrier to engagement and usage. Potential but novice patrons of an art gallery may see the fancy entrance and find it all too off-putting. Rather than risk embarrassment or belittlement, they walk on.
Yet, these thresholds convey different messages to art lovers, art historians, and art connoisseurs — they reinforce the exclusivity these practiced audiences crave, the highbrow distinctiveness of the rarefied world of art, and the prestige of having gained both physical and mental access to this complex and multi-layered world.
The threshold has a double-edged effect — it legitimizes and confirms the insiders, repels and dissuades outsiders.
In scholarly publishing, we have many thresholds to cross, not the least of which is how our articles look. The ongoing popularity of the PDF suggests that the established aesthetic of academic publishing is important to scholars, confirming that they are encountering a paper written for them.
But aesthetics are not the only — or even the major — barrier to public utility of scientific information. There are at least three other major barriers:
- Jargon and specialized language usage — Having traversed a few scientific disciplines, it’s always interesting how jargon-filled each is, how acronyms and some jargon have completely different meaning between disciplines, and even how regular words in English have different connotations in different fields. Addressing these challenges is difficult. Reading levels for Wikipedia are already too high for the majority of readers, for example. Lintott noted an attempt to generate PDFs with hyperlinks to jargon words and phrases, in order to help the public grapple with this problem. The reaction? Lack of usage, and a general dislike for the approach because it smacked of condescension.
- Context — Mixed into jargon and specialized language usage is the more difficult and subtle issue of context. Context can mean both the field and its relation to other fields, but also the context over time. Fields change. New research shifts the paradigm. Words and concepts take on different shadings. A paper plucked out of a 1970s archive by a member of the general public is difficult to put into the context of 2014 research if you’re not smack dab in the middle of 2014 research trends. Working professionals struggle to maintain their context within their own fields. It’s unrealistic to expect the public to possess any appreciable context for highly specialized research results, even if they know every word.
- Time — Citizens have jobs and lives of their own. They are not full-time scientists or researchers. One great example from Lintott was an older gentleman who used Zooniverse to identify planets, but only “after the gardening was done.” Even in the admirable world of citizen science, the public time-slices a few minutes here and there into their busy lives to do some science, to dabble. In some arguments about public access, it’s as if there is a belief that all the teachers, accountants, managers, drivers, administrators, coaches, lawyers, welders, photographers, restauranteurs, and cashiers of the world are prepared to drop everything to partake of the flood of research to which they suddenly have access. The reality is that a fraction of a fraction of a percent will ever seek this information out in a systematic way, and even then will be far too busy to be efficient about it.
Chris Lintott’s talk occurred while I was reading about other things that seemed related to me — namely, the New York Times’ “Innovation” Report, and the increasingly frequent reports about measles outbreaks.
I agree wholeheartedly with Lintott that access is not the main issue when it comes to providing the public with information about science. It becomes clearer if we listen to what they want — information about science. And the professionals who are good at providing information about science are science journalists.
Vaccination was called into question at a time when science journalism was in full crisis, and it continues because that crisis has resolved into a situation where there is much less authoritative science journalism available. In a recent episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s excellent StarTalk Radio podcast, science journalist Miles O’Brien talked about his long history in science journalism, and how it went from a centerpiece for CNN to a castoff for all the major networks, as business decisions focusing on low-cost and high-churn news took over. Now at PBS, O’Brien can cover science effectively, but he has limited reach to a self-selected audience that excludes much of the general public (PBS creates a threshold fear all its own).
The crisis in science journalism was not just for broadcast or cable television, but went into radio and newspapers, as well. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and others cut back as budgets tightened. Newer players focus on traffic bait pieces, which sometimes involve science, but too often focus on lurid science (which may explain why PLOS ONE catered to this with a paper entitled, “An In-Depth Analysis of a Piece of Shit: Distribution of Schistosoma mansoni and Hookworm Eggs in Human Stool” and why journal headlines in general have leaned more on puns or shock words or acronyms that hint at both).
A conceit of the OA movement is that access solves a public problem. But this is the view from inside the bubble — it is akin to saying that if only the public joined us in the bubble, or we somehow expanded the bubble, they’d enjoy the same lifestyle we do. It is flattering to those in the bubble. In addition, it presumes this is what other citizens want, or that there’s room in the bubble for everyone.
In any event, engagement isn’t about bringing people into your bubble, but going to meet them where they live and adjusting to how they speak, talk, and think. Public engagement takes more than public access, and it’s unclear that access is even on the spectrum of engagement.
The mission of Authors Alliance is to further the public interest in facilitating widespread access to works of authorship by assisting and representing authors who want to disseminate knowledge and products of the imagination broadly.
In other words, Authors Alliance represents those in the bubble, and hopes to increase access to the bubble for those outside of it. This is far from actual engagement.
Engagement is both difficult and expensive. A show like “Cosmos,” currently wrapping up its run on FOX in the US, costs millions to bring to the market. Its effect will be significant, as it has achieved a high level of engagement with audiences young and old. An initiative like the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science takes millions to run properly, and it has achieved great engagement. The FIRST Robotics competition, the Maker Faire, and other initiatives that engage the public in STEM fields are expensive, targeted, carefully crafted, and very effective. But designing them takes much more than access.
The same goes for Chris Lintott’s excellent work with citizen science. Each instance, from astronomy to history to penguins, had to be designed and promulgated carefully, targeted to a specific purpose to achieve engagement. A firehose of articles lacks any similar stab at effectiveness.
More and more journals are realizing that the research paper isn’t sufficient for engagement that translates to wider audiences. Major general science journals like Science and Nature realized this a long time ago, and each has robust news and insights sections. Major medical journals like the New England Journal of Medicine and JAMA have also increased their front sections to draw in more readers and touch more timely topics each issue. JAMA has an excellent “Patient Page” each issue, which describes a medical condition with great illustrations and simple text. These efforts to move outside the bubble, or to at least different sectors of the bubble, can work quite well.
Increasing engagement takes investment, purposeful design, persistence, and outreach. Access is passive. Engagement is active. What are you doing to increase engagement?