Is it cheating that I chose to bring a blog and a podcast to the journal club table? Well no! These formats are popular ways of putting your work and experiences out there, and I would think that they are more likely to reach a greater and more varied audience than published papers would do alone. Regularly listening to podcasts or following a few blogs are enjoyable ways of keeping up-to-date with new research methods and following the stories of peers as they experience the elations of setting out on new projects and the frustrations that go with data collection. We discussed the use of these formats in bringing science to the public.
The podcast, produced by NERC’s Planet Earth Online [http://planetearth.nerc.ac.uk/multimedia/story.aspx?id=1330], featured a piece on the value of citizen science describing its use in current projects, including a project set out by Dr Helen Roy of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the UK Ladybird Survey.
Citizen science is a fantastic way of engaging the public in science. Often scientific findings only reach the public as scientific advice stating that ‘scientists say that you should….to live five years longer’ often out of context, hence people beg the question WHY bother spending time and money researching that? But by opening up our world to the public through outreach schemes and citizen science projects we can explain how we collect data that allows us to make the objective and reliable conclusions that bring about policies, and can allow the public to appreciate the complexities of their environment to see WHY we do this!
We also benefit from the alliance; the projects allow us to collect large amounts of data on vast scales, to use the expertise of enthusiasts and to increase awareness and understanding. Our discussion did bring forward a few concerns though: how reliable is the data? Is there a greater potential for error and lack repeatability for analysis? A well designed project should avoid these problems!
Regularly listening to podcasts is a great way to explore areas you may never get the time to read about, and are fantastic time fillers for entertainment during hours of monotonous lab work! As well as the well-known larger scale podcasts such as NERC and BBC Radio 4 NatHistory, the smaller student led podcasts are great, they bring new ideas to the table, are often light and chatty and provide useful advice for students at different stages in their careers, such as the ‘Naturally Speaking Podcasts’ produced by bio postgraduates at the University of Glasgow.
But how much should we share?
We questioned whether the reaction to a controversial meme on twitter #overlyhonestmethods indicated that we actually share very little with the public. This trending tag encouraged researchers to post ‘confessions’ of the decisions they make during data collection due to the practicalities of research. In our discussion we found many of the anecdotes fantastically amusing, we saw the sarcasm in their words and like them have had to alter methods due to constraints. However, this is where it becomes tricky with the public. Good researchers will maintain professionalism to obtain objective and accurate results, but is it right to hide the practicalities of research from the public?
In saying this, there were some more shocking confessions told, that although they may have been exaggerations of the truth, if real, these misjudgements should have been picked up on through review processes and have prevented the work from being published.
The consensus of our discussion was that the jokey comments were just that and that through our review processes we should have confidence in published results. However, even though posting thoughts online view podcasts and blogs is a great way of reaching the public, with it comes the risk that opinions will come across as more than that. One point that was brought up was how we would interpret a list of ‘anecdotes’ made by those in a profession of equal responsibility, would we see light-hearted comments as jokes if they were made by the police or nurses from whom we expect a level of professionalism? Posting anecdotes on twitter puts things out of context and they become exaggerated for effect, so if we are to use the internet to informally explain our work we must be careful to retain a level of professionalism.
This is where blogs come in! If you want to read about current projects, the enthusiasm that scientists have for their work then read their personal pages, here they will post detailed descriptions without exaggeration, though I can’t say they won’t put some nerdy jokes in there somewhere! And so with that I encourage you to continue to read this blog as we will no doubt come out with plenty!