The microcosm of scientific knowledge: scientists are talking, but mostly to each other

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The Ohio State University

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Communication of results has long been recognized as the final step in the scientific process. Publication in scientific journals has been the accepted method of communication. In the years 1990-1991 there were over 5,300 accredited scientific journals in print indexed by ISI. However, far less than 1 % of the papers published in those journals were subsequently reported on in the top mainstream printed news media. Well over 99% of the scientific papers published failed to be noticed by mainstream publications and mainstream audiences. This begs the question, that as scientists, is it sufficient to publish results in highly technical formats with only scientists as the intended audience? Or, has this trend caused a great disparity between the knowledgeable elite and the general public? This paper examines the highest circulated news magazines and newspapers during the period of 1990-1991. Every paper reported on, and the general topic of every scientific news article, as well as the scientists referenced, were compiled. Those results were compared to the top papers that were published in scientific journals during that same time period. The goal was to determine if there was any correlation between the two based on popularity of topics or likelihood of being cited and reported on. The results show that overwhelmingly, nearly every paper reported on appeared only in either the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, Science or Nature. Further, this study shows that there was some correlation among popularity of topics covered in mainstream publications and journals, but in the key fields of the environment and science education, 11 there was a sizable disparity. Most striking was the extremely low number of papers that ever made it to the general public. At a time when disciplines are scratching their heads and wondering "what next?" for their fields, once hot topics such as evolution and global warming are fighting to keep a foothold in popular scientific understanding. This paper highlights the major chasm that exists between academia and the mainstream. It points to a clear need for scientists to make new efforts to communicate not just to a captive audience of fellow researchers, but to the mainstream decision-makers of the world. Since the majority of the public looks to mass media for scientific news, it is essential that the scientific community open channels of communication with media and learn alternate forms of communication. As Albert Einstein astutely pointed out in 1954, "It is just as important to make knowledge live and to keep it alive as to solve specific problems."