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RL #19: Why Communication is a Crucial Part of any Science Endeavour

At Oikoplus we offer science communication. But why actually? What was the purpose of communicating research results to a broad audience again? Isn’t there a specialised audience for research? Isn’t it enough for those who know about it to read and talk about research? Well. There are valid reasons for a broad approach to scientific outreach. In this Reading List, you will find some of them.

In German, there is the expression “coming down to earth”. The metaphor is used to call for a discussion to be calibrated back to the shared factual basis when it has gotten out of hand and untruths or lies have crept in. Knowledge of facts and facts are the result of research and science. So it is precisely the ground from the metaphor that is at stake. And it is not only experts who walk on this ground, but all of us – even if we all leave it occasionally. Some more rarely, some more often, whether consciously or unconsciously.

For a more inclusive science

In 2015, Mónica Feliú-Mójer summarised for Scientific American’s blog why effective communication makes for better science. When scientists are able to communicate effectively beyond their peers to a broader, non-scientific audience, it strengthens support for science, promotes understanding of its broader importance to society, and encourages more informed decision-making. Communication can also make science accessible to audiences traditionally excluded from the scientific process. It can help science become more diverse and inclusive.

Science for the common good

In texts on science communication, one reads time and again that researchers should not lose contact with society. Of course not. Why should research stand outside society? Ideally, research should serve society. However, this relationship between science and civil society is by no means self-evident. In an article for The conversation, Toss Gascoigne and Joan Leach, both professors at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University, argue that the 20th century can be read as a long plea for sience communication in the interest of the common good.

Not even researchers read research papers only

Dmitry Dorofeev takes a short excursion into the history of science communication. In an article on the importance of science communication in layman’s terms, he starts from the 19th century. According to Dorofeev, in 1895 an editor of the Viennese daily newspaper Neue Freie Presse learned by chance about the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen, but recognised the significance and placed an article on the front page of his newspaper. The London Chronicle, the New York Sun, and by the New York Times did later pick up this article. The rapid dissemination of this imaging method in mass media, certainly contributed to the fact that X-ray technology was mentioned in 1000+ scientific articles the following year, says Dorofeev. After all – and this is still true today – researchers do not only inform themselves in specialised publications.

Promotion or PR?

Communicating research and science in a way that as many people as possible can participate is a noble reason. It allows society to benefit and researchers to inform themselves about the work of their colleagues. In addition, science communication increasingly serves as advertising and PR for individual research institutions and science locations. Empirically, Peter Weingart and Marina Joubert at Stellenbosch University in South Africa looked at the motivations to engage in science communication. Based on their findings on the ever-increasing actively pursued science communication, the authors conclude that a distinction between educational and promotional forms of science communication maintains the credibility of science.

There are a number of good reasons for communicating science and the results of research in a way they are understandable and interesting. The most important of all reasons remains that the ground of facts cited at the beginning must be ordered. Because curiosity, knowledge and innovation grow on it. 
 
 In our ArcheoDanube project, we are therefore trying to make archaeology accessible to tourists in a sustainable way and to make the results of research on the history of the Danube region accessible to as many people as possible. Indeed, the coordinators just published the fourth newsletter of the Interreg project.  
 
 

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RL #017: Ethics in Science Communication

In this rather short reading list, we address the question of whether there are ethical standards that science communication should adhere to. A simple answer is: yes, of course. On closer examination, however, the question is not so trivial. For debates about ethical issues are omnipresent in science as well as in the communication industry. The laws of the communications industry do not apply to science. Scientific standards do not apply to the communications industry. In practice, this not-so-small difference became clear at the beginning of the Corona pandemic, when the government of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia commissioned a study and this was then exploited to the maximum by a professional PR agency, possibly also leaving the interpretation of the scientific results to the PR agency. The case is summarised in a (German) article by KOM- Magazin für Kommunikation.

The Good Scientific Practice

The high standards it sets for itself in the production of knowledge make research become science. These standards of scientific work include transparency and the reproducibility of its methods as well as aspects such as honesty, accountability and reliability. In sum, adherence to scientific standards leads to Good Scientific Practice. Scientific standards are the answer to the question of how research must be conducted in order to be recognised as science. They ensure that scientific knowledge is distinguishable from empirical knowledge, anecdotal knowledge, mere tradition or religious knowledge. They ensure scientific integrity. A comprehensive definition of these standards can be found in the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity.

Constant Self-Assessment

However, Good Scientific Practice alone is not necessarily sufficient to also meet ethical standards. Good scientific practice answers the question of how research is to be conducted in order to have integrity. Ethical standards also touch on the question of what should or should not be done in research. This involves the role of human and animal test subjects in research, the handling of personal data, from photos to the individual human genome. When it comes to the question of ethics in science, many research institutions rely on the constant self-assessment of researchers. The European Commission provides guidelines for the implementation of such self-assessments in EU-funded projects.

The Good Science-PR

All this concerns science. But what about ethics in science communication? Are there also standards and criteria for good science PR and dissemination, or even for the ethically correct SciComm? To put it in a nutshell: Yes, there are such standards, e.g. set up in 2016 by Wissenschaft im Dialog and the German Federal Association of University Communication (Bundesverband Hochschulkommunikation). They can be found here.

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Reading List EN

RL #015: Citizen Science: Choose your Communication Wisely

This 15th issue of the Oikoplus Reading List is about Citizen Science in theory and practice. Read on to discover 10 principles for Citizen Science projects, practical tips, and theoretical reflection on the concept of Citizen Science.

Citizen Science is one of those terms that seems new and innovative, although it actually refers to an ancient concept. Namely: people who are not scientists doing research. This has been happening all the time. And there are prominent historical examples. When, for example, Wilhelm Herschel discovered Uranus in 1781, he was the director of an orchestra. Astronomy was his hobby.

When we use the term Citizen Science or one of its many neighboring terms (community science, crowd science, crowd-sourced science, civic science, volunteer science, or volunteers monitoring), we often refer to a comprehensive introduction on Citizen Science formulated by Alan Irving from 1995. A more current overview of the citizen science concept and the potentials of citizen science is provided by Rick Bonney et.al. (2009). Even more recent is the comprehensive introduction ,Citizen Science – Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy’ by Susanne Hecker et.al. (2018). Included amongst other: 10 Principles of Citizen Science.

Don’t ask what you can do for science. Ask what science does for you.

With the growing number of Citizen Science projects, questions of philosophy of science and epistemology naturally arise. In the 1970s, Paul Feyerabend explored ways to open science to society. His paper “Science in a Free Society” is a worthwhile introduction to Feyerabend’s work. Find a comment on it, here.

Feyerabend’s Citizen Science understanding is the subject of a text by Sarah M. Roe. She argues, that “Feyerabend teaches us that while the current citizen science movement focuses primarily on what citizens can do for science […] the movement should also focus on what science can do for citizens and what science can learn from citizens.”

Mobile apps and OS to support Citizen Science

But if you’re reading this, you probably don’t just want to deal with Citizen Science theoretically. Perhaps you want to implement your own project. If you want to collect specific scientific samples or artifacts, you might want to use a mobile app. Take Sapelli, for example. The app results from a British research project and grew into an open-source project enabling the collective collection of artifacts. Quite simply on a smartphone.

Not only has the software for collecting scientific samples become easier to use and more connected. Hardware has also become more affordable. An article on conversavation.com describes how mobile phone cameras document insect species. Also on conversation.com, Australian ornithologist Hugh Possingham describes why he would like to see as many people as possible become involved as amateur scientists. His argument: “If citizens immerse themselves in gathering knowledge and asking questions, they gain power – and are far more likely to engage in participatory democracy.”

Back to the theory…and the communication of Citizen Science

Swedish linguist and knowledge theorist Dick Kasperowski takes a somewhat more critical view, in a 2016 interview. He states“[...] citizens are only invited to do certain defined tasks like classifying or collecting data. You are not involved in all stages of the research process, even though that might be an ideal or rhetoric put forward. Citizens do very seldom formulate hypotheses or theories, for instance. No one is forced to take part in citizen science, but it has been criticised as a way of getting labour for free. I wonder what Marx would have said about it.” But now it becomes quite theoretical again. Sorry for that.

At the end, I would like to refer to a very practical publication. ‘Communication in Citizen Science’ by Carina Veeckman and Sarah Talboom (2019) offers a useful guide to developing a successful communication strategy in citizen science projects. After all, communication is the central key to successful citizen participation in research projects.