National Geographic

Scientists On the Loose! My AAAS Talk

On Thursday I participated in an interesting day of talks at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. The theme was “Communicating Science.” I was on a panel in the morning made up of four journalists, who shared our experiences with the changes roiling the field. You can watch it here. I speak from 10:55 to 18:00. After 48:33, the panel and the audience had a long conversation that I thought was pretty interesting.

I thought I’d put my prepared remarks here, with links, in case anyone wanted to chase down the things I was talking about…

–Good morning. We are going to collectively spare you the hassle of Powerpoint. And so, instead of looking at a slide, I’d like to start this morning’s discussion by having you look at a mental picture. The picture is of Stephen Hawking. You can picture the physicist thanks to us–the media—thanks to the magazine covers, newspaper portraits, web site photos, TV documentaries, episodes of the Simpsons, and dust jackets where he has appeared. For over twenty years, Hawking has been at the media’s frontier, helping to define how scientists present themselves to the public and are represented by others. And just three weeks ago, at age 72, Hawking once again did something new. He posted a two-page document online.

This is actually a much bigger deal than it may sound at first. Hawking recently gave a talk about a new idea he has about black holes. This is interesting, since Hawking has been so important in our current understanding of these strange things. Some recent developments in cosmology and quantum physics have caused him to rethink black holes in a serious way. Hawking once thought that when things fell into black holes, there was no way for us to get any information about them ever again. But now he is suggesting that when things get pulled into a black hole, some information can leak out, in a jumbled form. Black holes are not black holes as we knew them, in other words.

Hawking did what scientists usually do: he wrote up this idea in a paper. But he didn’t proceed to keep it secret until it appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. Instead, on January 22, he uploaded the paper, “Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes” to the physics pre-print site known as arXiv. Two days later, Nature had a detailed article about Hawking paper. New Scientist published an explainer piece the same day. These stories swiftly got a lot of attention on sites like Digg and Facebook, driving hordes of readers their way.

Today, three weeks later, the paper is still only available on arXiv, where anyone can download it for free. The arXiv page conveniently links to some of the blog posts that people have written about the paper—including posts by his fellow scientists. I highly recommend this new piece on Slate by Matthew Francis. Reasonably web savvy teenagers can gather all this information in a few minutes, to digest later at their leisure.

To me this episode epitomizes the huge changes in our field. I’m not saying the individual elements of this story are new. Physicists have given talks for centuries. Arxiv has been around for 23 years. By the early 2000s, people were blogging regularly about science. On February 4 this month, we marked the tenth anniversary of the day a Harvard computer science major launched a site called thefacebook.com.

But recently these elements have crossed two thresholds–of scale and connection. And the result is a drastically new way for scientists to reach the public.

If Hawking had this idea ten years ago, things would have worked differently. To get a wide audience for his new idea, Hawking might have submitted his paper to a prominent journal. The journal would then send it to anonymous reviewers. If the reviewers judged it good science, it would go into press. But it would only be available to people with thousands of dollars to spend on a subscription to the journal.

The journal might promote the paper with press releases. They’d let us journalists look at a preprint—but only if we respected an embargo and stayed quiet till then. Or maybe journalists would get wind of the paper through a press release from Cambridge University.

At this point, the outside world would have known nothing about the paper. Only when the major print outlets unveiled their stories would they find out. Only in the comments the reporters offered from other scientists would people get a hint of what the scientific community thought. And ten or twenty years ago, this process made a few scientists into celebrities—like Steven Hawking.

Every step of this process has changed—or, rather, there is now a set of parallel steps. Arxiv has become a required stop on the road to publication for physicists. Biologists are following their lead now, too. Some of the most provocative biology papers I know of—on topics like exactly when Neanderthals and modern humans interbred—were first posted online on preprint servers like bioRxiv. The curtain-raising ritual at high-impact journals is losing a bit of its magic. It becomes not an unveiling, so much as a stage of maturation in the life of a research project.

I have no idea when or where Hawking will ultimately publish his new paper. It’s possible that the journal he chooses will offer the final paper as freely as arXiv did. Open access publishing is steadily growing. Just yesterday afternoon, AAAS, the host of this meeting, announced they were launching their first open-access online journal, called Science Advances.

Peer review is also becoming more open. Scientists are increasingly reviewing papers in public, after they are published or even when they are on a preprint server–as happens on Haldane’s Sieve. If you visited the early post-peer review forums at places like the Public Library of Science, you heard crickets. Now that’s changing. There are more comments on papers, and more forums. Even the prime portal to biomedical research, Pubmed, is now starting to post comments on papers, which appear right below your search results.

It’s common for scientists to debate new research as soon as it’s published, on blogs, Twitter, or Facebook. New companies are launching in order to measure this response, and to create an alternative to the traditional ways of measuring the impact of a paper. Instead of looking at the number of times it shows up in the footnotes of other papers, maybe the number of Tweets matters, too.

What do these changes mean for people like the four of us on the panel–the journalists? A lot. It makes science journalism more fun. You don’t have to sit dutifully by your computer, waiting for some journal to deign to let you know about a new paper. You can go hunting. You can turn up a new paper that’s just sitting quietly in a preprint archive, and share it with the world.

And you can get a more realistic understanding of how scientists toss around ideas. If research simply appears in an august scientific journal, it can be hard to figure out how it actually fits into the current scientific debates. The last thing a journalist wants to do is present research as if it’s the discovery of extraterrestrial life, when, in fact, it’s arsenic life.

The new ways that scientists share their ideas and opinions helps us. We can take the pulse on Twitter. We can follow comment threads. We can throw questions into these debates in real time if we so wish.

But it also presents new risks that we journalists should be mindful of. The scientist who tweets the most may not be the wisest expert on a particular topic. If you come across a preprint, you have to ask, “Does its mere existence constitute news?” Or is that preprint just a flakey idea that will never make it into a serious journal? Should journalists wait for the journals to give these papers their seal of approval? Is that what journals are for now—to designate important science? Or are they simply seizing that role for themselves from the scientific community as a whole?

I honestly don’t have answers to those questions. But Stephen Hawking has made it clear to me that I need to find some.

There are 4 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Andy Revkin
    February 21, 2014

    Excellent look at the big shifts under way. For more on this, readers might explore “Filling the Science Communication Gap” http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/filling-the-science-communication-gap/

  2. Marjorie Spencer
    February 21, 2014

    Yes, this is very cool and the links most welcome. Thanks for that from a big fan, although it’s not precisely news to anyone who publishes science and makes a practice of looking around corners. But ouch! Why the editorial slaps at scientific publishing. We never “deigned” to release articles only upon embargo – those were the rules of the game as played at the time, meant to protect IP (not yet a dirty term). And those thousands of dollars that had to line pockets before access to papers could be had….? You know that’s the subscription price to libraries; to scientists and students access was free or, if you were neither, $29. Ten years ago, yes.

  3. Joshua Nicholson
    February 23, 2014

    This is a great piece on how scientific publishing is changing and has already changed. There is still much of the old culture present but I think you quite accurately describe what scientific publishing will look like in the future.

    -Josh Nicholson, founder of The Winnower (thewinnower.com)

  4. Don L. Johnson
    March 4, 2014

    Neat read. But I was unable to discern how, if at all, this trend will impact my favorite read here in Nat Geo. This is where I go to update myself on some fascinating bit of scientific trivia that I can use at my AA meeting to prove to everyone present that I am, in fact, the smartest drunk in the room.
    Does this mean I might be even further ahead of the curve?

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