Just like scientific findings themselves, the processes by which scientists communicate within their communities and with others can be nebulous. Historically and today, academic scientists have developed a contentious relationship with public communication of their work (e.g., books, news, social media, etc.), which has been perceived by other scientists as a sign of questionable scientific rigor or a lack of dedication to the field.  Unfortunately for scientists, this popularization can (counter intuitively) lead to rejections for funding and employment.  Nonetheless, we sit at one of those times in history in which science is being forcefully tossed into the general public and political arena for scrutiny.
Accordingly, the scientific community, namely funding agencies and academic institutions, has taken drastic steps to become more transparent and accessible. In this three-part series, I hope to break down some of the means by which scientists disseminate their work within their communities, to intermediates, and to the general public. Moreover, I hope to answer the following questions: Are we doing a good job disseminating science and how can we improve?
To answer this question, we first need to define dissemination. Dissemination is a process we as humans engage in daily: spreading information and knowledge to others. Primarily, dissemination allows scientists to become informed of the work being conducted within their own and related fields, and to confer importance and relevance to their own work, which helps with funding. More broadly, dissemination helps scientists market their products and services to other professionals, and to educate the general public, including consumers and politicians, on scientific findings. In this first installment, we will take a deeper look into one way that scientists talk to other scientists: the peer-reviewed journal.
A peer-reviewed journal is a collection of reports on findings from individual studies, reviews of research, or proposals of theories that are often specific to a field of study. When a researcher submits an article, the manuscript is sent to other scientists for critical review of the methods, analyses used, relevance and importance in the field, and ethical standards of the research itself. Typically, anonymous reviews and suggestions for improvement are then provided to the author and a decision of suitability for publication is conferred.
Dr. Olaf Sporns, a computational neuroscientist and professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, has unique experience with this process. He has published numerous peer-reviewed papers of his own – in fact, we caught him in the midst of writing – and in addition has served as an editor with PLoS and undertaken (and succeeded in) the difficult task of creating his own journal, Network Neuroscience, for which he serves as Editor-in-Chief and which is in its second year of publication. Sporns stated that the process of having research vetted by a group of fellow experts is critical to developing accurate and thoughtful science.
Movements in the field and a growing academic interest in network science drove Sporns to develop Network Neuroscience, which nicely complements his research interests on brain structure and function, specifically how neurons form networks of communication. Since taking a leadership role in this journal, Sporns has faced the importance of appealing to a broad readership and promoting transparency, despite the specialized focus of his journal.
Forming an editorial board is one of the most important aspects of founding a new journal, and Sporns’ goal is to create an “editorial board that is reflective not only of the field, but also balanced in terms of geography – different parts of the world where science perhaps is not well funded – gender, and race.” Additionally, he has given more thought to the process of “open review,” in which reviewers are identified and disclosed, or even appending the reviews to the article once published as a “commentary” on the article. Sporns believes this provides context and a critical review of the article that may make its limitations and impacts more readily identifiable to readers that are not experts in the field.
The drive to publish or perish, that is to publish many peer-reviewed articles or become irrelevant to the scientific community, incentivizes scientific communication within the field. Despite this, Sporns argues, “Those of us practicing science are not trained or experienced to [disseminate to the general public] well.” To improve this predicament, Sporns suggests, “[academic institutions] train students to be more engaged in communicating. Try to talk to people that are not scientists and may not even have interest. A good science writer can be a good conduit to take what you do in your everyday work and say it to people in a way that they can say ‘this is something I understand now’.” Sporns further argues that even writing an academic book can be a mode of dissemination that reaches a broader audience, helping to diffuse research and knowledge beyond the isolated “echo chambers” of our highly specialized fields, which Sporns fears is the fate of academic twitter accounts as well.
Further complicating this problem, Sporns warns that “people in the public domain really do not have the training” to fully understand the data and methods behind most scientific work. Lack of dissemination to the general public is worrying, Sporns laments, “because we take a lot of public funding and are obligated to make clear to society what we are actually doing, but by definition, a lot of what we are doing does not yet have any application.”
In that sense, scientists should be given time to iterate through the scientific process, improving the accuracy of their research and ability for real-world application. Interfacing with their colleagues is one way to achieve this goal. Then, research can be disseminated to the public, in a form that allows findings to be summarized and highlighted, and finally (hopefully) understood. So, how does research get disseminated to non-researchers? In the next post of this series, we will explain how scientists begin to make their work accessible to the general public by providing services or products to intermediate consumers, who then interface with the public.
Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Dr. Olaf Sporns for sharing his experience and expertise regarding dissemination and academic publication.
 Martinez-Conde, S. (2016). Has contemporary academia outgrown the Carl Sagan effect?. Journal of Neuroscience, 36(7), 2077-2082.