Online science news needs careful study, researchers say

Jan 03, 2013 by Chris Barncard

A science-inclined audience and wide array of communications tools make the Internet an excellent opportunity for scientists hoping to share their research with the world. But that opportunity is fraught with unintended consequences, according to a pair of University of Wisconsin–Madison life sciences communication professors.

Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, writing in a Perspectives piece for the journal Science, encourage scientists to join an effort to make sure the public receives full, accurate and unbiased information on .

"This is an opportunity to promote interest in science—especially basic research, —but, on the other hand, we could be missing the boat," Brossard says. "Even our most well-intended effort could backfire, because we don't understand the ways these same tools can work against us."

Recent research by Brossard and Scheufele has described the way the Internet may be narrowing , and new work shows that a staple of online news presentation—the comments section—and other ubiquitous means to provide endorsement or feedback can color the opinions of readers of even the most neutral science stories.

"Today, I can use my mobile phone, tablet, or laptop to almost instantly look up more information than ever before," Scheufele says. "But the way most people look up information in online settings may significantly restrict what types of information they encounter." Online news sources pare down discussion or limit visibility of some information in several ways, according to Brossard and Scheufele.

Many use the popularity of stories or subjects (measured by the numbers of clicks they receive or the rate at which users share that content with others or other metrics) to guide the presentation of material.

The search engine offers users suggested search terms as they make requests (offering up " in medicine, " for example, to those who begin typing "nanotechnology" in a search box). Users often avail themselves of the list of suggestions, making certain searches more popular, which in turn makes those search terms even more likely to appear as suggestions.

"Our analyses showed a self-reinforcing spiral, which means more people see a shrinking, more similar set of news and opinions on science and technology subjects when they do online searches," Brossard says.

The consequences become more daunting for the researchers as Brossard and Scheufele uncover more surprising effects of Web 2.0.

In their newest study, they show that independent of the content of an article about a new technological development, the tone of comments posted by other readers can make a significant difference in the way new readers feel about the article's subject. The less civil the accompanying comments, the more risk readers attributed to the research described in the news story.

"The day of reading a story and then turning the page to read another is over," Scheufele says. "Now each story is surrounded by numbers of Facebook likes and tweets and comments that color the way readers interpret even truly unbiased information. This will produce more and more unintended effects on readers, and unless we understand what those are and even capitalize on them, they will just cause more and more problems."

If even some the for-profit media world and advocacy organizations are approaching the digital landscape from a marketing perspective, Brossard and Scheufele argue, scientists need to turn to more empirical communications research and engage in active discussions across disciplines of how to most effectively reach large audiences.

"It's not because there is not decent science writing out there. We know all kinds of excellent writers and sources," Brossard says. "But can people be certain that those are the sites they will find when they search for information? That is not clear."

It's not about preparing for the future. It's about catching up to the present. And the present, Scheufele says, includes scientific subjects—think fracking, or synthetic biology—that need debate and input from the public.

"A lot of people are saying we're in an intense period of change, let's see where the dust settles. But we're in a world where the dust is not going to settle for a long time," he says. "What we really do need is a systematic effort between sciences and social sciences to use this new environment to get the science across and public reactions across without biases that the process itself may incorporate."

Explore further: Texas OKs most new history textbooks amid outcry

Related Stories

U.S. faces widening information gap on nanotechnology

Jan 12, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- As the global nanotechnology industry continues to produce cutting-edge consumer products, the scientific community is leaving a key part of the U.S. public behind when sharing knowledge of this new field ...

Malware in BIOS stirs concern at Black Hat meet

Aug 02, 2012

(Phys.org) -- Security researcher Jonathan Brossard has drawn attention to a backdoor espionage problem that is in an ornery class by itself. Presenting his finds at the recent Defcon and Black Hat events, ...

Recommended for you

Study identifies why re-educating torturers may not work

Nov 21, 2014

Many human rights educators assume – incorrectly, as it turns out – that police and military officers in India who support the torture of suspects do so because they are either immoral or ignorant. This ...

Research helps raise awareness of human trafficking

Nov 21, 2014

Human trafficking –– or the control, ownership and sale of another human being for monetary gain –– was a common occurrence centuries ago, but many believe it doesn't exist in this day and age and not in this country.

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Jan 03, 2013
Mass media discounts the narrative fallacy and its Procrustean roots. Narration is the witch doctors tool, fooling its unskeptical audience that has suspended disbelief. Because of the limitations of audience attention and format time limitations, the narration must be limited in time, detail and scope.
finesight
not rated yet Jan 04, 2013
What I do very often when I am researching is to define my terms and to derive new horizons in terms of the details provided by Wikipedia online. That way I will find most of the material I neeed, since encyclopaedias link each section to another connected concept. Relying on your search history sucks. Just be inquisitive.
Dug
not rated yet Jan 04, 2013
Unfortunately, there was a logic failure here - "scientific subjects— think fracking, or synthetic biology—that need debate and input from the public." The public, the media and gov. reps. are generally and very demonstrably too scientifically illiterate to either understand or debate msost scientific topics for any consistent beneficial outcome. Science isn't democracy - unless it's a democracy of equally informed peers. As the article points out marketing influences now totally shape the priority and slant of the online "science" information to favor the most financially strong sources. This creates a loop of misinformation - because the public is too naive and ignorant too understand how they are being manipulated by the digital media often representing themselves as "science." Unless the public can be taught the basics of critical thinking and science - this paradigm isn't going to change. Most unfortunately, our education system has been co-opted just like "science."

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.