No, Of Course Social Media Won’t Replace Science Journalism. Or Science Journals. Or Science Communication.

Invisible College Royal Society

Darren Naish of Tetrapod Zoology made the mistake of commenting on something that might be of interest to science journalists – cryptozoology – and ended up getting written up by the Telegraph for claiming that the Loch Ness monster is “more fact than fiction.” It was a particularly egregious case of sloppy journalism because Naish has long insisted that there are no large unknown creatures hiding in Loch Ness. But the problems with the sensational extrapolation of scientific results are more fundamental than just replacing “sea monsters sightings” – to which Naish did give credence – with “Loch Ness monster sightings.”

Those problems emerge – among other reasons – because science communication is hodge-podge of journalists chasing pop science out of necessity, editors muddling technical distinctions for simplicity and space, and press releases from resource-starved research teams targeting both. Articles about cosmology are the easy examples, but a Neuroskeptic article from last March suggests that these are irresolvable structural issues linked to the requirements of the newsroom:

Journalists and scientists have completely different agendas. So “good science journalism”, in the sense of stuff that scientists and journalists will be equally happy with, is a contradiction in terms. Except maybe in the rare cases of sudden breakthroughs that genuinely involve hot topics, like say the discovery of a cute new species. This is not the fault of individual journalists; it’s a structural problem… Newspaper journalism is in crisis as we all know… under enormous time pressures, journalists have no choice but to rely heavily on press releases. This can’t go for ever – something has to give.

That post suggested science blogging and social media as avenues for cutting through the science journal publication cycle, and for mediating between raw science and journalism. That might be an interesting Third Culture-ish argument but I’m not sure that solves the news cycle issue. Science bloggers rarely post soon enough to beat journalists’ filing deadlines, in contrast to political bloggers who sometimes find themselves outright plagiarized. For political bloggers time is of the essence because it’s the only dimension in which they can compete with credentialed journalists who have access and resources. But science bloggers distinguish themselves from science journalists in depth and expertise, so the time pressures simply aren’t there.

Not that it matters apparently. According to BJM’s Richard Smith, building on an article about print journalism from the Economist, social media will replace not journalism but science journals, with scientists interacting online instead. This de facto peer review system will return the production of knowledge to the its Enlightenment roots:

A compelling piece in the Economist argues that social media are returning news to the “more vibrant, freewheeling, and discursive ways of the pre-industrial era” and that newspapers will prove to have been a historical aberration. The same, I think, will be true of scientific journals… Scientific journals began in the 17th century with the French Journal des Savants and the British Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Before that and even afterwards scientists went to meetings and presented their studies. The assembled scientists would then discuss and critique the studies… his was the original peer review: immediate and open… [But] journals came to dominate scientific communication… But, the Economist says of newspapers, “the internet has disrupted this model and allowed the social aspect of media to reassert itself… blogs, Facebook, and Twitter may seem entirely new but they echo the way in which people used to collect, share, exchange information in the past.”

The analogy between newspapers and journals, though superficially attractive, is misleading. Print journalism is an artifact of market forces affecting mass communication. Ink and printers are really expensive, and the issue is one of achieving sufficient economies of scale to deliver ads profitably. The continuing impetus for academic publication has little to do with market forces as such – at least not exclusively – and in any case journals were never meant to meet the needs of mass communication (a distinction implying a difference, since the question at hand is whether science journals will be disrupted by the socialization of mass communication).

Publicly vetting research wasn’t problems at the birth of the Enlightenment because individual scientists could secure posts in various European courts. In an age of huge research teams funded by public institutions, in contrast, it’s arguably the central problem. Academic journals allow institutions to allocate resources based on seemingly objective criteria for evaluation, something institutions need because they’re – not to put too fine a point on it – institutions.

Researchers can and do read through blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, separating the wheat from the chaff based on personal knowledge and sociological constraints – just like they did in the 17th century. But institutions can’t just take them at their word. Of course academic journals will go online and become more open. Nonetheless scientists will still need those journals – or something like them – to build ethos with non-scientific communities and public institutions.

None of which is to say that the production of scientific knowledge won’t reflect the give-and-take of the Royal Society. In some very important ways, from conferences to emails to bulletin boards to letter writing to even the diffusion of students across disciplines, science never moved very far away from that model at all. The difference now is that the rest of us get to see those pre-publication discussions reflected on the scientific blogosphere. Still, scientific journals exist for reasons other than the economies-of-scale tricks that kept newspapers alive, and they’re not going away now that scientists are discussing live controversies with other scientists online instead of offline.

* Dear Telegraph: no, I did not say that about the Loch Ness monster [Tetrapod Zoology]
* Really: photos of the Loch Ness monster [Tetrapod Zoology]
* Science/Journalism [Neuroskeptic]
* Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution [John Brockman]
* Richard Smith: Scientific communication is returning to its roots [BJM Blogs]

Related Icon Index Symbol Categories:
* Rhetoric of Science
* Science and Technology
* Social Media

Related Icon Index Symbol Posts: