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RL #019: 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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Reading List EN

RL #018: Writing with fluency: reducing energy in the reading process

In academia, we read all the time. We read long texts, short texts, monographs, anthologies, and abstracts. In the natural sciences, papers are usually shorter and follow a tightly organised structure. As for the social sciences, by contrast, the texts are longer and more fluid in structure. In both, we find figures of speech, examples and comparisons. They provide a framework for the results and add meaning. Across all disciplines, however, readers devote energy depending on the quality of the text. Reading energy is what this Reading List is all about.

Et= Esyn+Esem

In 2014, alarm bells were ringing all across the US scholarly community: for the first time in 35 years, scholars were reading fewer! Soon it turned out that the analysis was wrong and the title of the article confusing: scientists read 264 articles per year or 22 per month and have never been reading more. In an article published in Nature, Richard Van Noorden provides insight into the details of scientists’ reading habits.

For every new article, colleagues engage with previously unfamiliar narratives and writing styles. Without knowing the content, they invest energy in it. The total energy required to process a sentence (Et) is made up of two components: syntactic energy (Esyn) and semantic energy (Esem). At least, this is how Jean-Luc Lebrun argues in the book “Scientific Writing” published in 2007.

The best way to understand the energy required is … well … to read. How difficult is it for you to decode long, complex sentences and – more importantly – were you able to grasp the contents alongside their structure? To clarify the complexity of self-written sentences, it helps to underline all the main statements (the compound of noun and verb). The greater the gaps between the underlined passages, the more cumbersome the formulations. We have arrived at Lebruns’ core.

Foto von D0N MIL04K von Pexels

Break sentence structures

There are a number of strategies to help readers save energy when decoding sentence structures and instead spend it on understanding the content. In 2013, Tomi Kinnunen et al. from the University of Eastern Finland published SWAN – Scientific Writing Assistant. Outlined in a paper, SWAN built on the premises established by Lebrun and looked for particularly challenging sentence structures in texts: nested sentences, nominal structures, and long-windedness. Today, digital solutions such as Grammarly take over this function. But beware and continue breaking grammatical structures if beneficial to the readability. Also in academic essays.

Punctuation marks are particularly important when breaking up sentence structures: Commas, semi-colons, colons and dashes. In a blog post by the Writing Cooperative, Karen deGroot Karter shows how punctuation supports readability. Stephen Wilbers is more detailed. He devotes Week 21 of Mastering the Craft of Writing to the use of punctuation marks. His thesis is that while all punctuation separates, they offer different stylistic possibilities. Commas can be played around with.

Concluding remarks

Readability can be measured. For this text, a WordPress plugin did the job. The Flesch Reading Ease of this Reading List is 49,5. The text is considered difficult to read. The reason for the low score are sentences that are too long and too few transition words. However, it would be wrong to be put off by this. There are certainly readers and authors who would describe the text as easily readable and – overall – understandable. Assuming there are 22 articles a month and 264 articles read by every scientist per year, this likely applies to many scholarly publications. Nevertheless, examining one’s own writing from an energy perspective is certainly helpful. It’s a crucial step in making individual thinking and ideas approachable to others.

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Reading List EN

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.