Helping science succeed
Helping science succeed

Kristof’s good start

Kudos to Nicholas Kristof for highlighting an important issue in science much more effectively (or at least visibly) than we’ve been able to do so far. Kristof’s February 15th piece in the New York Times (“Professors, We Need You!”) opined about how academia has increasingly insulated itself from the rest of the world by virtue of (in at least some cases) obtuse research written in turgid prose hidden in obscure journals.

Kristof’s criticisms are largely accurate, despite the howls of protest his piece has kicked up in social media circles. Academia is caught on the journal publishing treadmill, and this treadmill—while an important part of the science communication infrastructure—is also causing a great deal of harm to the ability of science to communicate with the general public. nSCI hosted a conference last fall to discuss this very issue (click here to review the proceedings).

But Kristof’s analysis falls short in two important respects. First, the harm being done isn’t limited to public policy debate. This failure to communicate is affecting science itself. It is reducing the ability of science to collaborate, share findings, uncover interdisciplinary applications, and accelerate discovery. And on the public stage, failing to successfully engage the public means less public support for science research funding, less enthusiasm for science education, greater skepticism among policymakers, and much more. So the failure of science to communicate hasn’t just resulted in less engagement of scientists on the public stage. It has also resulted in the slow and steady destruction of the effectiveness and the potential of science.

The second area where Kristof’s essay misses the mark is that he seems to lay the blame for this communications mess at the feet of professors. This may not have been his intent, but “professors” and “academia” are not interchangeable nouns. The former constitute one of society’s hardest working, and most underpaid, under-appreciated, and idealistic group of citizens. They have devoted their lives to the search for truth and the opportunity to pass along knowledge to the next generation—teachers on steroids who have sacrificed much to follow their dreams. “Academia” on the other hand is an institution with as much bloat and inertia as any other of such size and influence. Traditions in academia are difficult to change.

The communication tradition in academia holds that communication is an afterthought. Do research first, and then put something in writing afterward to satisfy grant requirements or university policies. And make sure to write this in a way that peers understand and expect (which means that readability is relative). Anything more aggressive is either impractical, or not allowed.

It’s not practical because there’s rarely any budget for this kind of work—-which in fact takes us even a step farther back in our criticisms, since almost all science funding in America comes from federal sources like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Defense.  The NSF and NIH have not traditionally valued communication modules or programs, although this attitude is slowly changing.

Academic and other research institutions can’t support research communication work themselves because their communications offices rarely have the time, resources or expertise to reach down to the research level. Most of their work is focused on higher level communication issues—university press and public relations—which is why you most often see a press release announcing study results but not a website, a paper written for public consumption, or a network built to connect other researchers in this space.

On the “not allowed” score, the work that researchers are most often compelled to publish (for tenure points, grant requirements and so forth) comes with strings attached. Unless this work is published in an “open access” journal—and the overwhelming majority of science research is not—-then the subscription access journal holds some amount of copyright over this work. These publishers can—and sometimes do—demand that institutions take down materials from their websites that professors have dared to post (thinking that it was okay to do so). Note the recent take-down demands issued across the country by Elsevier, the world’s largest journal publisher. What’s left is federally-funded research, locked up behind pay walls that universities need to pay (again) to access, with the billions of dollars in profits accruing to private publishers. It’s a wacky system, and one that is only very slowly changing but that probably won’t change substantially any time soon without a major market shock of some kind—maybe new open access rules imposed by the federal government (which is happening, but only at the margins).

So to recap: Do professors need to speak out more? Yes. Can they? Not really—not in the current environment. Traditions in academia need to change, the tenure system needs to change, journal publishing needs to change, our federal research funding systems need to change, and new systems need to evolve to replace these displaced systems.

All of this will happen—it needs to happen—but it won’t be as simple as issuing a call to arms. “Professors, We Need You!” is really just skimming the surface of this issue. But it is a good start.