Why Publishing the Paper is Only Half the Scientist’s Job

The scientific paper is a wonderful thing. So how is it holding science back?

I’ve got a guest post over at the Guardian science  blog network pondering just that. In particular I look at how making the scientific paper the effective currency of science — instead of just one of several ways to share the real goods, which is data and ideas — can discourage researchers from explaining science and its importance to the public.

Here’s the essential fact: science has no importance or value until it enters the outside world. That’s where it takes on meaning and value. And that’s where its meaning and value must be explained.

Scientists implicitly recognise this at a limited scale: They want their colleagues to understand their work, so they go to conferences and explain it. But that’s not enough. They need to go explain it at the Big Conference — the one outside of academe. They need to offer the larger world not just a paper meaningful only to peers, but a friendly account of the work’s relevance and connections to the rest of life. That means getting lucid with letters columns or op-ed pages or science writers or science cafes or schoolchildren or blog readers. Those who can’t hack that – stage fright, can’t write, or just doesn’t feel right – can support their peers who do engage the rabble. Write some code for them, maintain their web pages, give them rides, or grant them time off from inside the lab to take the lab’s work outside. But do something. Because if you “just do the work,” you’re not finishing the work. You haven’t got it out there.

Some are already swinging into action. Many of the scientists at the SOLO event argued their community must do more to engage the public and make the case for research funding – unless, of course, they want to see massive budget cuts and a world where social and political discussion are shaped less by evidence than authority. Some of them, crying “No more Doctor Nice Guy!” are now organising British scientists to take to the streets.

Getting your research out there and taking time out from the lab is a pain, no doubt. But if you’re a scientist, surely you don’t expect the rest of us to just assume your work is important. No. If you want the world to believe that your work is important and that modern life and a free society depend on a rigorous, evidence-based approach to things, you wouldn’t ask us to take it on faith. You’d want to show us the evidence.

Get the whole thing over at the Guardian. And while you’re there, check out yet the other guest posts at Guardian science blogs, which is yet another of the several science-blog networks that have popped up in the last couple of months.


Image: Carl Sagan with the Viking lander, courtesy Nasa.gov

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