Why study online science communication?
As researchers, our work makes a difference in the world (or at least, it should!). No matter what type of research you're doing, there's probably a specific audience (or audiences) that could make use of it, whether that's designers, lawyers, educators, physicians, policymakers, journalists, activists, other researchers, or even much broader swaths of the "general public." When I talk about "science communication" in this post, I'm talking about using various media to engage with overlapping publics to increase their awareness, enjoyment, interest, opinion, and understanding of science.
Given how important participatory platforms like Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube have become for researchers to engage with academic and non-academic audiences alike, we felt that HCI as a discipline would be well-positioned to join the conversation about how to most effectively design, use, and understand these platforms as a tool for science communication. Currently, there's a lack of large-scale longitudinal studies on online science communication, a lack of focus given to the needs of specific communities (with most research looking at only a vaguely-defined "general public"), and a need for more systems-focused analyses , all of which I'd argue HCI as a field is well-equipped to help address.
In this project, we set out to develop an HCI research agenda for online science communication. By interviewing current HCI researchers (n = 24) on their experiences with public engagement online, mapping out their motivations and challenges and how they relate to the affordances of different platforms, we synthesize those insights with gaps from prior literature to lay out a research agenda:
|Provide information about invisible online audiences.
|Reduce the burden on researchers who want to reach out to the public.
|Provide feedback on researchers' outreach efforts.
|Elucidate the impact of science communication on both researchers and various publics.
|Role of Researchers
|Explore how researchers can navigate evolving digital landscapes.
|Determine unique considerations different fields have for science communication.
|Cross-cultural research to assess science communication on a global scale.
Over the rest of this post, I'll dig into why we decided to make each suggestion, and what they mean.
One issue our participants identified was that it was difficult to keep track of who their audience is on platforms like Twitter. If you tweet out a paper or blog post, is it reaching the communities you want to speak to? It can be hard to tell, which can make it hard to a) appropriately frame your work, and b) determine whether your engagement efforts are successful, if you don't know who's reading your work. To provide better insights, there is a need for deeper insights into one's audience online. This could include both quantitative insights (what communities are exposed to your posts? how many are engaging?) and qualitative (how is your work being recieved by a given community? what impact does it have?).
Another challenge our participants identified was a discomfort with public outreach, which manifested in a few key ways: 1) some were concerned that posting about their work would make them come off as too much of a self-promoter, 2) some were worried that discussing controversial or emotionally-charged research online could invite harassment, and 3) some were unsure whether their work was important enough to broadcast. In some cases, researchers felt that recieving endoresements from others felt more comfortable than promoting their own work, so one potential solution would be to provide automated dissemination tools, perhaps aggregating all work in a given conference/venue/space so individual researchers don't have to face the discomfort of feeling like they're promoting their own work over others'.
Importantly though, I don't think researchers should be required to engage in public scholarship, and any new incentives need to be balanced with potential harms. The risk of harassment on platforms like Twitter is unfortunately real, and may dispraportionately harm scholars from under-represented identities, or those who lack institutional power. Tools or policies that normalize public outreach may have a net positive effect, but may serve to uplift those who are already better positioned to engage in this work. To that end, the more we can help researchers make informed decisions about the potential risks and benefits of online science communication, the more we can help scholars navigate their roles in this space (I'll talk more about this below).
Our participants also mentioned that it's often unclear whether or not their science communication efforts are succesful. Is their work actually making an impact among their intended audience? There is a need to provide deeper feedback about this success, either through deeper quantitative insights about who their work is reaching and how it is being discussed, or by promoting more productive "upstream" commentary and engagement, and sparking conversations with the publics they're trying to reach.
More work needs to be done to understand exactly what the positive effects of online science communication are. For example, some of our participants thought succesful public engagement would improve their funding opportunities, while others were sure there was no such effect. Although our participants' motivations ranged from self-promotion, to connecting with potential students, to educating the public, to improving the reputation of science as an institution, it wasn't always clear whether and how engagement through (e.g.) Twitter helped reach those goals.
By conducting research to better understand how science communication through participatory platforms positively impacts both researchers and other publics, scholars can make more informed decisions about whether to engage in this work at all. For example, how can one expect a given tweet to disseminate through different communities? What effect does this online scholarship have on public discourse or policy decisions? Who is missing from online conversations, and how can they be engaged? How should researchers balance potential benefits with personal risks?
Moreover, by understanding the benefits of science communication for different groups, there may be a case to value this work more at an institutional level. For example, perhaps online science communication should be considered for things like tenure promotion. However, as I mentioned above, there's a danger that this type of incentive structure could dispraportionately harm those who face greater risks from online science communication, so such benefits need to be balanced with 1) support and guidance for those who face those risks, and 2) an understanding that not everyone needs to do this work if they feel the costs outweigh the benefits.
Role of Researchers
The researchers we talked to were often confused about how to navigate overlapping roles in online spaces. For some of their followers, they were scholars. For others, they were friends or family. For others, they may have connected through shared hobbies, interests, or some other communities. Lately, scientists on social media have entered a "post-normal" era, where instead of acting as disinterested observers, now engage directly with the public as participants and activists . However, there is still some question as to how best to interact with the public as a researcher. For example, on one hand, using language with strong sentiment is predictive of tweet success on Twitter . However, on the other hand, this type of valenced language could depart from how the public expects a researcher to act, causing them to trust that researcher less .
So, it's not immediately clear what different publics expect of researchers online, and how one should navigate this evolving digital spaces. Further research should explore these questions, and help guide researchers through their overlapping roles on participatory online platforms.
Our work identified a number of challenges specific to HCI, including the wide mix of relevant stakeholders (e.g. designers, educators, engineers, physicians, policymakers, etc.), personally-relevant-but-emotionally-charged topics, and so on. Each of these topics and stakeholder groups likely have their own considerations, needs, and challenges for science communication, and as mentioned above, there is currently not enough focus on particular sub-communities and how they interact with science . So, more work should be done to dig into these specific issues. Who are the important audiences for science communication across different fields? Where do they exist online? What are their needs? What pitfalls exist across different spaces? Rather than thinking of the "general public" as a group, it's important to understand the specific nuances of different science communication contexts.
Finally, there is also a need for more cross-cultural research. As some of our participants described, there are specific political and emotional considerations when discussing work across different cultures. As a result, science communication strategies that work in one cultural context may not generalize to others, especially when work that may seem benign in one context is considered scandelous in another. This likely goes without saying, but science communication research that focuses on WEIRD samples will be sorely lacking for scholars trying to engage with any other groups, so more work needs to be done to understand how science communication research does or does not generalize across different contexts, and when it doesn't, how to best navigate those differences.
Overall, I hope this overview is a useful provocation for HCI researchers who may be interested in exploring science communication topics. The role of researchers in the digital age has evolved considerably in the past decades, and I think it's important we understand how to navigate those shifts, in order to make the broadest positive impact with our work. As one of our participants put it: "Very few people are going to read your CHI paper, but you probably have something to say that’s relevant to the wider world. Otherwise, why are we even doing this work, right?"
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 Alexander Gerber. 2020. Science Communication Research: An Empirical Field Analysis. Edition Innovare.
 Michael Brüggemann, Ines Lörcher, and Stefanie Walter. 2020. Post-normal science communication: exploring the blurring boundaries of science and journalism. Journal of Science Communication 19, 3 (2020), A02.
 Clayton J Hutto, Sarita Yardi, and Eric Gilbert. 2013. A longitudinal study of follow predictors on twitter. In Proceedings of the sigchi conference on human factors in computing systems. 821–830.
 Shupei Yuan, Wenjuan Ma, and John C Besley. 2019. Should scientists talk about GMOs nicely? Exploring the effects of communication styles, source expertise, and preexisting attitude. Science Communication 41, 3 (2019), 267–290