How we mapped the vast online science communication terrain

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The number of people writing, tweeting, instagramming, blogging, podcasting, vlogging about all things science is unfathomably large. Then there’s the universities, the charities, the businesses and so on who are adding to the mix. It’s no wonder then that the online science communication terrain isn’t mapped. We know it’s out there, yet exactly who is doing what, where and how is something we only have snapshots of information about. Yet mapping this vast terrain is exactly what we’ve been trying to do within the Science Communication Unit as part of our work on the European Commission-funded RETHINK project .

The RETHINK project involves 10 institutions across Europe including VU Amsterdam and Ecsite, the European network of science centres. Together, we’re trying to explore how science is communicated online so we can see what’s working well and understand more about what’s going wrong when it’s not, such as the audiences that aren’t being reached. To start this process, we needed a better view of the online science communication terrain in terms of who is doing the communicating, the platforms they are using and the forms their communication takes.

Given the terrain’s scale, we decided to set some boundaries to our exploration. Firstly, in conjunction with the other RETHINK project partners, we decided to concentrate our mapping efforts on three topic areas – climate change, artificial intelligence and healthy diets. These topics were selected because they are important to all our lives. But they also represent very different online habitats; with different individuals and organisations doing the communicating and very diverse subject matter. It means we get a richer insight into how varied the online science communication landscape is.

Secondly, we limited the number of each type of communicator we would map to 10. So, for example, once we had found 10 universities communicating about climate change, we would stop. Otherwise the mapping would have been an insurmountable task. After all, what we were really aiming to do was to explore the different types of communicator as well as the forms of communication they are involved with. We were mapping the extent of the terrain – how far it reached and what was there – rather than trying to measure the peak of each mountain; the number of specific types of organisation or individual communicating about each topic.

To get an even better view of the terrain, the mapping was carried out by RETHINK team members in seven countries across Europe – Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and Serbia as well as the UK. Each country chose two of the three topics they were going to map. Again, to make the exploration more manageable.

To make sure we could compare the online science communication terrains in different countries, the exploration needed to be carried out in exactly the same way in each country.  So Elena Milani, a Research Fellow within the Science Communication Unit, developed a ‘mapping protocol’ – a set of instructions for researchers in each country to follow when they were exploring.

So what did we find? Well, across the seven countries, 697 different individuals and organisations that communicate climate change, artificial intelligence and healthy diets were identified. Digging into the data in a little more detail provides some interesting insights, including:

  • Climate change has the widest range of individuals and organisations communicating about it online of the three topics. In other words, it has a particularly rich communication environment.
  • The online science communication landscape is complex – there are large differences in the types of communicators, the platforms used and content shared between science-related subjects.
  • With all three topics, many of the sources of information are not traditional experts, such as scientists or health practitioners. Nor are they traditional mediators of information, such as journalists. There are lots of alternative sources of information, such as non-professional communicators and support communities.

But this is just the start. Having a clearer view of the landscape thanks to our mapping will help with the next stages of RETHINK, such as understanding the connections formed by communicators with their audiences.

For the full report on the online science communication mapping carried out by the RETHINK team across Europe, visit: https://zenodo.org/record/3607152#.Xh1zmRdKjOQ.

To learn more about the project overall visit: http://www.rethinkscicomm.eu/acerca-de/

Within UWE Bristol’s Science Communication Unit, the RETHINK team includes Elena Milani, Emma Weitkamp, Clare Wilkinson and Andy Ridgway.

The organisations involved with RETHINK are: Science Communication Unit, UWE Bristol, VU Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Ecsite, Zeppelin University, Germany, SISSA Medialab, Italy, Danish Board of Technology Foundation, ITQB Nova, Portugal, Center for the Promotion of Science, Serbia, Vetenskap and Allmanhet, Sweden.

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