Monday, 5 October 2009

Communicating scientific knowledge

As Information Managers our main concern is with managing the information in our libraries. But we should also be interested in where that information comes from. The Research Information network has published a report Communicating knowledge: how and why UK researchers publish and disseminate their findings. This starts with the assertion that researchers are driven by a desire to enhance our knowledge and understanding of the world we inhabit, and to communicate their findings to others. However, they are pulled in different directions in their choice of how to publish their findings: through formal publication in books and in learned and professional journals; through conferences and their proceedings; and through a variety of less formal means, now including web-based tools for social networking. The choices they make are underpinned by a number of motives; the desire to disseminate to a target audience; the need to register their claim to the work; the requirements of monitoring and assessment (e.g. RAE); peer esteem; requirements from funders; etc. Publication in scholarly journals or monographs and edited volumes (especially in the humanities) provides status and can be easily measured but it might not be the quickest or most appropriate method for a particular piece of work. Only a relatively few researchers make much use of open access repositories, or of blogs, wikis and other web-based tools to publish and disseminate their work. The report concludes that researchers are receiving unclear messages from funders and policy makers. It recommends that these bodies need to give a stronger and more positive message about how these channels will be valued when it comes to assessing researchers' performance if they wish to encourage researchers to publish their work through these channels.

Of course, a shift to new and more diverse channels of communication for research findings will pose a challenge for information professionals. We are on the whole very good at location and obtaining specific published papers but tracing information published in less formal ways is more difficult.

On a related theme, Ben Goldacre's book Bad Science looks at how journalists are on the whole very bad at understanding, evaluating and reporting scientific research. Most people get their understanding of scientific (particularly medical) developments not from scientific papers but from news stories in the media. Goldacre points out that many journalists do not understand the scientific method and cannot interpret or evaluate a scientific paper. Even worse they fail to distinguish between findings based on published papers and claims made without any evidence. Public Libraries have to provide access to material on homeopathy, herbal remedies and detox but they should balance this by promoting Goldacres's book and web site.

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