This blog post at SkepticalScalpel really struck a chord. Entitled “Should social media accomplishments be recognised by academia”, it compares the number of citations the author’s received for published papers with the number of hits on a blog post reviewing original research. And finds there’s no contest:
Three years ago, I wrote “Statistical vs. Clinical Significance: They Are Not the Same,” which reviewed a paper on sleep apnea …
That post has received over 13,400 page views, certainly far exceeding the number of people who have read my 97 peer-reviewed papers, case reports, review articles, book chapters, editorials, and letters to journal editors.
The SkepticalScalpel author also notes that this sort of on-line peer-review and discussion of data can have rapid, effective results:
Last year, some Australians, blogging at the Intensive Care Network, found that the number needed to treat stated in a New England Journal paper on targeted vs. universal decolonization to prevent ICU infection was wrong. They blogged about it and contacted the lead author who acknowledged the error within 11 days. It took the journal 5 months to make the correction online.
PZ Myers has also advocated for such on-line, social-media-mediated, peer review, pointing to microbiologist Rosie Redfield as a great example of how this works. (The discussion at that last link shows ‘open’ peer-review in operation – and posts like that will have attracted a far wider audience than the original paper.)
But wait, there’s more! At Scientific American, Simon Owens writes about Kathleen Mandt: a scientist who’s become part of probably the biggest two-way stream of communication between scientists and the general public in the world, via Reddit.
R/science is a default subreddit, meaning it’s visible to people visiting Reddit.com even if they aren’t logged in. According to internal metrics, r/science draws between 30,000 and 100,000 unique visitors a day. It’s arguably the largest community-run science forum on the Internet. And starting in January r/science officially launched its own Science AMA series, and very quickly scientists who are producing interesting, groundbreaking research but not widely known to others outside their fields began answering questions on the front page of a site that is visited by 114 million people a month (this includes registered and casual visitors.).
Most scientific research is published in expensive journals, some of which are not available in smaller libraries. And the vast majority of findings never receive media coverage. “Really, the only way people get to find out about new research is if they have journal access or if they read the short-form news story that can be skewed by whatever journalist is covering it,” says Chris Dawson, another r/science mod. “If you had questions about the study then there wasn’t a good way to get them answered, and now you can.” Virtually overnight, Reddit had created the world’s largest two-way dialogue between scientists and the general public.
Of course there are limitations to this mode of communication. Questions may be off the point, ie not directly related to the research under discussion. This is hardly surprising, but it’s something that a good science journalist can avoid. (However, good science journalism, in the mainstream media, is a fairly rare beast.) And the r/science moderators do have to make some careful decisions around which researchers to invite into the forum.
But overall, in terms of getting information out there with the potential for meaningful, rapid interaction with one’s audience, and a much bigger audience at that, science blogs and venues like Reddit’s r/science probably win hands-down over more conventional modes of publication. As Owens says,
This year’s Science AMAs overall reveal that r/science fulfills a public need that’s unforeseen, unknown, unaddressed or not fully embraced by the scientific community. In a world where the general public often finds it frustratingly difficult to access scholarly journals, demand remains for a way to connect scientists and their work with nonscientists. With the rise of MOOCs and other digital tools such as Reddit, science communication has expanded well beyond its traditional confines in the ivory tower.
So is it time, as Skeptical Scalpel says, for measures of scholarly output to be broadened when it comes time for promotion?