‘There is a huge price to pay when scientists remain in a cocoon’

January 01, 2017 12:39 pm | Updated 12:39 pm IST

  Making it accessible  Dr Somak Raychaudhury, Director of IUCAA briefing journalists about LIGO's detection of gravitational waves

Making it accessible Dr Somak Raychaudhury, Director of IUCAA briefing journalists about LIGO's detection of gravitational waves

Altmetric, a non-traditional alternative to impact-factor, measures the attention that research papers published in journals get from mainstream news outlets and social media. In 2016, Altmetric tracked over 17 million “mentions” in different platforms of 2.7 million different research outputs. Among the 100 “most-discussed” papers, three papers had 43 authors from India. This is much more than China and many European countries.

A February 11 paper on gravitational waves in the journal Physical Review Letters, with 41 authors from a few Indian institutions, has an Altmetric score of 4,694. The paper was covered by 92 news outlets (133 stories). A May 2 paper on Earth-sized planets transiting an ultracool dwarf star in the journal Nature had one Indian author. It has an Altmetric score of 2,064 and the paper was covered by 222 news outlets (260 stories). And the third paper on safety of injectable combination hormonal contraceptive in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism has an Altmetric score of 2,258. The paper was covered by 234 news outlets (307 news stories).

The paper on gravitational waves was covered by most leading newspapers in India without hype or distortion, while the other two papers hardly got any mention here. The work on gravitational waves is surely not pop-science nor is the one on contraceptive an abstract piece of work. When co-authors of the last two papers outside India had interacted with journalists in their respective countries, what is holding back our scientists from interacting with the media?

Indian context

Journalists in India who regularly write on science know the reasons for this: The Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) had alerted the media about the paper on gravitational waves in advance and also held a press conference to disseminate the news. Many senior scientists from the LIGO-India collaboration patiently explained the significance of the paper to journalists over phone. But there was no attempt by the authors of the other two papers or their institutions to communicate their work with the media.

Most reputed universities abroad have dos and don’ts for researchers on interacting with journalists when their papers are published. But many Indian scientists whose research and/or salaries are paid for with taxpayers’ money do not consider it their responsibility to communicate the results of their work either directly or through the media. This trend is slowly changing, at least among the younger lot, particularly, as funding is becoming an issue.

Surely, not all types of research are amenable or suitable for newspaper stories. But even when they are, scientists in India rarely get in touch with journalists who regularly write on science. Many still have a notion that “scientists serve a society best by simply carrying out high-quality research” and publishing them in reputed journals, “leaving others to judge how it should be used”.

Except for a tiny fraction, the vast majority of newspaper readers are lay people. The task before a science journalist is, therefore, to make the essence of the work accessible to lay readers. To scientists, newspapers articles, at best, serve to alert them and they would rely on original papers for detailed information. Many scientists in India fail to realise this.

While good science journalists are adept at conveying even complex topics in an accessible manner without compromising on scientific accuracy, in the hands of non-specialists, the information many times gets obscured or is even conveyed patently wrong. It is for the researchers to separate the wheat from the chaff and not shy away from the media completely.

It must be remembered that the media alone is not responsible for hyping up science. A paper published recently in PLOS ONE found that “many exaggerations were already present in university press releases, which scientists approve. Surprisingly, these exaggerations were not associated with more news coverage”.

Social media does play an important role in disseminating information without distortion as scientists have full control over content. But it can at best supplement mainstream media and cannot substitute it. One hundred and forty characters are too little to convey any meaningful message. And scientists are no Amitabh Bachchans with a huge following so their reach is hugely limited.

But even when willing, the worst part is the bureaucratic hurdles many researchers have to face. It may come as a surprise to many that it is mandatory for researchers in many institutions to first seek the permission of their directors before discussing their work with journalists, even when their paper has already been published! Such stone-age policies set in stone are in place not just in many CSIR, ICMR and ICAR institutions but also a few IITs and IISERs.

There is huge price to pay when scientists remain in a cocoon. The most dramatic example of the negative fallout of scientists shirking their responsibility of communicating with the public is the misconceived notions among people about the safety of genetically modified organisms. And climate change best exemplifies the “negative consequences of poor communication between scientists and the public”. It is to prevent nanotechnology from going the GM way that a few years back the Royal Society successfully engaged scientists to explain the basics, the advantages and disadvantages of nanotechnology with the public early on.

In Bob Dylan’s words, “the times they are a-changin’”. It is encouraging to see younger scientists and research scholars from premier institutions open to discussing their work. The ability of many PhD scholars to explain complex details of their work in an accessible way surprises me. What they at times lack is the ability to see the big picture.

Only a couple of newspapers in India have a dedicated weekly page on science. In China, every newspaper has a daily page exclusively on science; there is a science newspaper as well. Indian scientists, science journalists and media organisations have much to do to improve and increase science coverage.

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