Monday, February 18, 2013

Research Papers and Their Audience
— how to share our results

We have a new paper published on Wednesday morning, and anybody will be able to download it or read it online. I'll put up a post about the research itself once it goes live, but before I do that I thought I'd say a bit about papers in general.

Our paper is Open Access, which means anybody can read it for free. This is a good thing; you and I have all paid for the research through our taxes so we should all get to read results. That doesn't mean that we all can. Research papers are not written for a general audience. In fact, they're not even written for researchers in general1. We really write our papers for other people working in the same, narrow subfield, and if you don't already know most of the background and jargon it will often be impossible to follow.

Why do we do this? We're not trying to make it difficult for the public to read, but making it very easy for other specialists to do so. The structure and the language of a paper is tightly controlled. If you are familiar with this structure you can decide if a paper is relevant to you in a matter of seconds, and find the essential points in just a few more moments.

I usually have from 30 to 100 new papers waiting for me each morning. I normally go through them in less than half an hour, and that includes reading the relevant ones in more detail. If I couldn't sort out the important ones quickly and accurately, I would spend all morning doing nothing else. The research paper — odd structure, stilted language, impenetrable jargon and all — is invaluable for this.

So how do we share results widely then? It used to be through science journalists that translated research results for the public. Some journalists and some media do truly excellent work; others, not so much. A lot of research is covered badly or superficially, and most research never get any public coverage at all. Far too often, a single ambiguous result gets oversimplified and blown up into a three-word headline ("Gerbils Cause Cancer!"), with no background, no nuance and no warning that it's nothing definite. When more data comes in showing that gerbils in fact don't cause cancer, the same journalists and newspapers will be completely silent.

But today we have the net. Anyone that is interested can look at the original research papers (if they're Open Access), read science-oriented blogs — Ed Youngs Not Exactly Rocket Science and Carl Zimmer's The Loom are two great places to start — and even ask the researchers directly.

Of course, there's a lot of crappy coverage out there — pseudo-science, religious nonsense, lots of people pushing an economic or ideological agenda — but then, most traditional coverage can be just as biased and just as awful. Just search for, say, homeopathy and despair at the amount of gullible, fawning coverage in established media and amateur blogs alike.

We can combat this, in a way that was never possible before the net. The internet is a cesspool, but unlike newspapers or TV it's a mostly transparent one. The good coverage is out there along with all the bad, and we can sort it out with a bit of work and thought on our own part. One way we specialists can help is by making our papers Open Access. Research papers are the primary sources after all. If a newspaper claims that "X causes cancer!" you can go look at the paper itself — or go read the blog of somebody like Ed Young who did — and see if the breathless coverage really is accurate; true but overblown; or a useless pile of link-bait making stuff up out of thin air.

We can also help by being more visible online. The research paper is our primary way to share our results — but it doesn't have to be the only one. Many researchers don't have the time nor the inclination to run a blog or spend time on social sites. Many of those that do, use blogs and social media to relax from work, not add to it. But when we can, we should post about our research directly as well. We, as a group, really need to be more visible, and not give up the stage completely to the kooks, the religious zealots, the political ideologues and the con artists that all have emotional or economic reasons to oppose good science.

So come Wednesday I'll do my bit with a post about our new paper, explain what we've done and try to give you some of the background that the paper itself doesn't have. Don't miss it; there will be robots!

#1 I read a short paper on paleoceanography — estimating the age of ice cores and that sort of thing — just the other day. The method parts I was asked to comment on were fine, but the hardcore palaeoclimatology discussion could have been written in Sanskrit as far as I was concerned. I have plenty of general science background, but I just don't have all the specialist knowledge to make sense of the details.

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