Scientists: Twitter is Research Too

A recent Sunday edition of the New York Times featured a word of warning to scientists who aggressively pursue publication in a variety of new venues. The article, “Scientific Articles Accepted (Personal Checks, Too),” outlines a series of practices it describes as predatory, and decries the fate of the unwary scientist who falls into the trap of such unscrupulous publishers.

Laboratory

The laboratory isn’t the only place to conduct research.

Far from exposing the predatory practices of pseudo-scientific journals and conferences, I believe that this article instead highlights the deplorable distance that exists between many academics and the so-called “real world.” When scientists cannot distinguish between reputable journals and their fraudulent counterparts, what hope do laypeople have?

I daily receive email messages from journals inviting me to serve on their review board. The journals have been founded within the last decade. Their editor-in-chief hails from an unaccredited university. So I delete the messages.

I regularly receive invitations to conferences that I am asked to pass along to my colleagues. These conferences are held in remote corners of the world. Their attendance fees are either exorbitant or not explicitly stated. I delete the messages.

And I am often asked to submit papers to Open Journals of [fill in the blank]. Most of these have little or nothing to do with my academic specialties, Postmodern British Literature or Aesthetic Philosophy. When they do, they generally fail the above tests.

In other words, I use my professional judgment to determine whether an opportunity is an appropriate fit. I do not jump on it because someone’s name is being bandied about.

The phenomenon described in the New York Times article is the result of a publish or perish model whereby academics, desperate to lengthen their résumés with conference presentations, article publications, and service as editorial consultants neglect the heart of their work, which is research. Forgive me for being an idealist, but we research to discover truth, wherever it may be found.

One of the three quotes on the wall of my office reads:

Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. ~Huxley

Social Media Network

Social media allows us to engage in intelligent conversation with people all over the world.

In other words, research, while it might be conducted in a laboratory, neither begins nor ends there. Good research is spawned by curiosity which can and should come from anywhere. And great research spreads far and wide by virtue of a scientists’ brilliant communication skills.

Stop laughing! This is what distinguishes a Rachel Carson, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawkings, or Dian Fossey from others doing vital but unsung work – their ability to communicate the significance of their research to a lay audience.

How have we permitted a world in which researchers are so far removed from the object of their study that the only place to investigate it is inside a laboratory, outside the prying eyes of the blogosphere, Twitter, LinkedIn, or email? How have we allowed our researchers so much isolation that they cannot determine a real conference from a fake, a legitimate publication from a fraud?

I would argue that the fault is our own – and by “our” I mean lay people, academics, and researchers alike. Lay people have preferred our science with a heavy dose of sensationalism for too long. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is the mantra that divides respectable scientists from their journalistic counterparts. We need to demonstrate our interest in unbiased, balanced pieces of well-written scientific reporting by reading them, liking them, and sharing them with our social circles.

Academics need to learn how to write more clearly. Shame on us for believing that because we have a big vocabulary we’re required to use it. I enjoy a long, well-balanced sentence as much as the next hyperliterate bookworm. But I don’t have to write that way. (At least, not all the time.)

Finally, researchers need to get out of the laboratory and into the mainstream. Legitimate conversations are taking place on a variety of social media platforms, alongside the illegitimate. And whosoever would bemoan the illegitimate should remember that their own retreat into the ivory tower constitutes one reason such frauds are so easily perpetrated.

At the close of the article, Dr. White states: “I really should have known better,” […] adding that he did not fully realize how the publishing world had changed. “It seems like the Wild West now.”

Dr. White’s final comment should serve as a warning for all researchers. But it is not only the publishing world that has changed; it is the world of research in its entirety. Engage – because communication is key!

 

“Laboratory” courtesy of Photokanok, FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

“Social Media Network” courtesy of Vlado, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Comments

  1. I am afraid I disagree with some of this. To say that Einstein was a brilliant communicator is going a little over the edge, which makes me ask, have you read his work? Take his little book, “The meaning of relativity”. As a toss-off he has a four line derivation of the virial theorem, and this would convince nobody unless they really understood it in the first place. No, the reason Einstein was so important was (a) he had something really important to say, and (b) he said it at a time when the world was not drowned in dross.

    My opinion is that the problem is not so much that scientists cannot write (although many do make a thoroughly turgid job of it) but that in general, most do not really read. They do not really try to understand, and again the problem is there is so much out there, most of it dross. Again, I believe the problem lies in the way academics are paid, and their ego. Pay, prizes, funding, etc are greatly influenced by how many papers they have published, preferably in peer reviewed journals. Simple “supply and demand” arguments lead to the journals you complain of.

    • Dr. Baker says:

      Ian – communication includes a broad spectrum of skills. In addition to writing, Einstein lectured, he taught, and he appeared at conference after conference (sacrificing his own personal safety) to help found the League of Nations. In other words, he engaged.

      Nevertheless, thank you for making an important point – that reading and writing go hand in hand. And reading well is an art. Again, engagement is the answer. When we engage with others over a written piece of work, we’re forced to delve more deeply into its contents to understand what others are saying and to demonstrate our response. And if our interlocutors are worthy, we are directed to other, relevant literature. My online colleagues, particularly those on LinkedIn, have directed me to many resources I never would have known about.

      Finally, I am not particularly concerned about the existence of the journals themselves. Scams come and go. The economic model will endure so long as it remains profitable. I’d like to redirect the conversation where I feel it belongs – to the researchers themselves. We should know better.

Speak Your Mind

*