Communicating Climate Science Online

James Hansen, in his 2009 book Storms of my grandchildren, describes his experience trying to convince policy-makers of the seriousness of our climate challenge while at the same time seeking to raise public awareness. Robust scientific research has been at the heart of his work throughout an impressive career with NASA and he has an important track record of scientific publications. And yet this was not enough.

For the past decade he has been using every means available to try to communicate with the public on the need for urgent action on climate change. Now, as an adjunct professor at Columbia University, he maintains a website that includes his scholarly publications, presentations, communications, audio and video. He has embraced the online, digitally connected world.

Science takes place ‘on the fly’ (in an ad lib fashion, to keep up with new data), Hansen argues, and so it is essential that he and his team constantly update their graphs to “help provide understanding of how climate change is developing and how effective or ineffective global actions are in affecting climate forcings and future climate change”. Sharing them via his website means these graphs and all of his articles are instantly available to any interested parties.

Part of a bigger picture

The communication of scientific research in all areas is being transformed as the web and social media gain increasing influence. Universities and researchers are beginning to take advantage of new opportunities afforded by these tools in order to explore how best to increase their research outreach.

It is clear that the landscape of scientific research communication is being transformed as the web alters how we interact and engage with online information. With an estimated two billion people now online and with web penetration reaching as high as 78 percent of the population in North America and nearly 60 percent in Europe, it is the web that is driving our communications and knowledge exchange activities more than any other form of media (overtaking television recently, according to the Digital Life survey by TNS).

As part of this phenomenon, visits to portals such as YouTube have an educational role, as well as entertainment value, with more and more universities publishing videos online.

It is true that for certain topics, especially in very technical scientific fields, researchers will continue to share what they have learned with their colleagues and institutions through peer-reviewed scientific journals. As Ugo Bardi recently argued “for scientists, each paper is a form of credit that can be later redeemed in terms of career advancement, grants, academic positions and the like. It is ‘money’, in short. Scientific publishers have managed to act as ‘banks’ for this scientific currency.”

In relation to pressing global issues like climate change, however, if scientists publish only in peer-reviewed journals and remain disengaged from the places where everybody else is connecting, it may prove difficult to ensure that research outcomes are effectively communicated to broader society. This situation is compounded even further if academic publishers continue to restrict access to scientific knowledge to those with the ability to pay.

While the purpose of restricted-access, peer-reviewed journals is to ensure scientific quality and to communicate more technically oriented research outcomes to peers, the goal of open access, web-based dissemination is to encourage widespread public debate and to increase the speed of research feedback. Both the restricted-access and the open access are valid models and can co-exist effectively. However, one should not be allowed to undermine the other. The point, therefore, is to encourage climate scientists to not limit themselves to journals, but to engage with the public via other channels.

Concerns for a new communication realm

The advantage of the web compared with communications channels like television or the printed news media is that there is no gate-keeping editor deciding what you may or may not find interesting. Moreover, if the principles of open access publishing are followed online, then there is a tremendous opportunity to share the outcomes of scientific research more extensively across society.

We have just begun to see universities sharing their research and expertise via the web in new and engaging ways. A good example is Environment 360, an online magazine from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, supported by an online community on both Facebook and Twitter, and via reader comments on articles.

It is not surprising that universities are ramping up their efforts to take advantage of the internet, including Web 2.0 technologies (Web 2.0 includes a “strong social component” through user-generated content such as comments, tags and ratings).

The move towards web-based publishing and sharing of research and information by universities has to be informed by proven techniques in interface design and knowledge of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). The editors’ experiences at the UN University through publishing the Our World 2.0 web magazine has been that, in order to engage and retain the reader’s attention, design, branding and visual communications (e.g., choosing the right photograph) are arguably as important as the substance of the articles.

A key component of the experimental approach underpinning many online magazines (including Our World 2.0) is the adoption of Creative Commons licenses for articles and videos. Creative Commons is a legally binding system of copyright that allows the creator of the content to decide what restrictions she or he wants to place on the content, rather than the default “All Rights Reserved”. Depending on the specific attribution license a university selects, other websites, blogs and news sites are able to re-publish articles, as long as they comply with the terms of the copyright.

The aim here, of course, is to expose new audiences, often but not always like-minded ones, to a university’s research outputs. The beauty of Creative Commons is that, since other websites can find your quality content themselves, universities do not rely solely on resource intensive online promotion to draw people to their content (although clever promotion strategies do help too).

Practical challenges to overcome

In our experience, a key concern often expressed by researchers is that publishing via Our World 2.0 would not be acknowledged as a work of academic merit within the measurement scales normally used by universities when evaluating performance of faculty or the suitability of candidates for positions. However, publishing a shorter, more accessible article in an online magazine has the potential to increase the readership of the original peer-reviewed paper that can be attached to the web article, as a PDF for example.

A second challenge that is often raised by academics is one of quality. Essentially, submitting to a peer-reviewed journal ensures that the quality of the article receives some kind of formal recognition. While leaving aside the fact that the academic peer review process itself has many detractors, having a strong editorial policy goes some way in ensuring quality, as does having a well informed audience willing to comment on the substance of articles and identify errors (that can be corrected immediately online). Admittedly, this is a less robust mechanism than most journals and inevitably there are challenges, particularly in rather technical fields where specialist knowledge is required.

But in a wake up call for all academics, Jerome Ravetz, in a recent article in Nature, explains that the traditional models of academic authorship and collaboration are being transformed in the digital age. He asserts that the journal is losing its status as the sole gatekeeper — the “simultaneous guarantor of quality, certifier of property, medium of communication and also archive”. He argues that “other means of sharing material, assessing quality and screening out the incompetent are emerging to fill the gap but… the professional monopoly on quality assurance of science will have to be modified.”

Some researchers find a situation where their work is subject to wider online public scrutiny, and sometimes unwarranted aggressive critique, to be rather discomforting and prefer the somewhat cushioned conditions of peer review where greater time is available to review and revise works (i.e., embarrassing lapses can be avoided). Other researchers seem to relish the idea that they can get immediate feedback on their writings and view it as an opportunity to test and sharpen their ideas amongst interested, but non-expert audiences.

Of course there is also the possibility that the number of peer-reviewed journals that adopt the Creative Commons system — such as those produced by the Canadian Center of Science and Education — may well grow rapidly.

A third challenge relates to the use of video or podcasts to communicate research. If your past academic career has focused on journal outputs, it may seem grossly inappropriate and somewhat belittling to turn to video as a means to communicate your work, especially via YouTube where your work has to compete with “cute kitten in a box” for attention. Although videos of a “talking head” or lecture format are not necessarily engaging, exceptional educators such as justice expert Prof. Michael Sandel at Harvard University have proven to be very popular on YouTube with around 2.3 million views for each video.

And it is here that we get to the crux of the matter because the fourth concern that is often raised by academics is how it is really possible to measure impact? Since we are talking about research influencing society — or “the public”, as the UN University’s and other charters often put it — then normally we look to achieve the broadest dissemination possible and that is usually via television, radio and newspapers.

However, with the advent of the digitally connected age, the web is emerging as an intermediate solution and one that is available for all to use. If your research were picked up by the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Times of India or le Monde, for instance, then the automatic assumption would be that this is a positive result. But if your research were watched by two million YouTube viewers, you would be less sure, because you are less able to characterize those who watch YouTube.

We would argue, however, that this perception is changing and further, that the big difference the web offers is the possibility for your community to respond directly to you. There can be, if academic and scientific institutions are so inclined, a conversation around the research, and it can even be held for all to see — in the comments section of the online article. That is not to say that the conversation will always be civil or that it would be easy to manage, but it is a possibility with the right philosophy and community-building strategy.

So, as the web evolves in the future it is likely that the way science is communicated will be gradually transformed and scientists will no longer be able to work in a vacuum. Instead, they may be required to engage with both their peers and the rest of society in a more open and transparent manner.

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This article is an abridged and slightly modified version of a chapter entitled “Communicating scientific research through the web and social media: Experience of the United Nations University with the Our World 2.0 web magazine” to appear in the forthcoming book from Springer Press, Geoscience Research and Education edited by Vincent Tong.

Creative Commons License
Communicating Climate Science Online by Brendan Barrett, Mark Notaras and Carol Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Brendan F.D. Barrett

Osaka University

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a specially appointed professor at Osaka University in the Center for Global Initiatives and an adjunct professor at RMIT University School of Media and Communications. His core areas of expertise include ethical cities, urban transitions, sustainability science, and science/research communication.

Brendan worked with the United Nations in Japan between 1995 and 2015, with the UN Environment Programme and the United Nations University (UNU). He is currently a Visiting Professor at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.

Previously at UNU he was the Head of Online Learning and Head of Communications where he oversaw the development of interactive websites and video documentaries on complex social and environmental concerns. As a result, Brendan has extensive experience in science communications and launched the Our World web magazine in 2008. 

Mark Notaras was a writer/editor of Our World 2.0 for the United Nations University (UNU) Media Centre from 2009–2012. He is a former researcher in Peace and Security for the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP). He holds a Masters in International Affairs (Peace and Conflict Studies) from the Australian National University and the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) and in 2013 completed a Rotary Peace Fellowship at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Currently Mark works in Timor-Leste advising local NGOs on community agriculture and conflict prevention projects.

Carol is a journalist with a green heart who believes that presenting information in a positive and accessible manner is essential to activating more people to join the search for equitable and sustainable solutions to global problems. A native of Montreal, Canada, she joined the UNU communications team in 2008 while living in Tokyo and, after relocating to Vancouver, continued to telecommute to Our World as writer/editor through 2015.