URL of this page: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/podcast/transcript111714.html

NLM Director’s Comments Transcript

Science Communication’s Paradox: 11/17/2014

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Greetings from the National Library of Medicine and MedlinePlus.gov

Regards to all our listeners!

I'm Rob Logan, Ph.D. senior staff U.S. National Library of Medicine for Donald Lindberg, M.D, the Director of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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Some scientists and physicians are busy Twitter contributors and a few seem to channel their writing within social media compared to traditional academic, refereed publications, finds an overview recently published in Science.

Science finds the two scientists who have the most Twitter followers (Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Physicist Brian Cox) have a relatively high ratio of followers divided by overall academic citations (which are a measure of peer reviewed scientific contributions).

While Science reports Dr. deGrasse Tyson holds the current record among scientists and physicians of 2.4 million Twitter followers, there are 151 citations attributed to him across the scientific literature. Science explains this gives Dr. deGrasse Tyson a ratio score, or a K-index, of 11,129.

Science notes the term K-index comes from genome scientist Neil Hall who complied a ‘Kardashian Index,’ amusingly named after reality TV veteran Kim Kardashian, who Science explains hosts 10 times the number of Twitter followers as Dr. deGrasse Tyson.

In contrast, Dr. Hans Rosling, a global health scientist who specializes in visually explaining public health trends over time, has 180,000 followers, which places him ninth on the Twitter scientists-follower listing, and a more balanced K-Index (of followers to citations) of 384.

While Science explains the K-Index is in jest, the findings reopen an implications-filled, enduring debate whether scientists and physicians jeopardize their scientific research careers if they devote time to public communication. The latter is a longstanding, core issue in science communication that was explored comprehensively by the late U.S. sociologist Dorothy Nelkin in the 1970s.

Nelkin explained the topic was important because the negative peer pressure on scientists who communicated with lay persons paradoxically was inconsistent and undermined the stated objectives among scientific and medical societies to boost the public’s understanding of science and medicine.

Indeed, the Science story suggests contemporary public understanding might be enhanced if the actions of scientists, who willingly spend time on Twitter as well as other social and traditional media outlets, were more frequently appreciated by their peers.

In addition, Science notes there are few females among the top 50 scientists with a large population of Twitter followers. The article emphasizes a metric, such as Twitter followers, is unrelated quantitatively and qualitatively with a scientist’s contributions as a researcher. However, the Science article suggests the social and professional desirability of scientists and physicians to participate in relevant public discussions may be discouraged if researchers continue to critique their peers who actively engage in social and legacy mass media.

Meanwhile, there are available websites that help citizens evaluate science and medical information, which has been one of the longstanding goals of communicating science to the public.

For example, MedlinePlus.gov’s evaluating health information health topic page has links to websites that provide insights about the quality of the biomedical information consumers receive from scientists, physicians and other sources as well as the news media. A website from Genetic Alliance explains whether consumers should trust or trash some biomedical information. The website is available within the ‘overviews’ section of MedlinePlus.gov’s evaluating health information health topic page

The National Cancer Institute provides a site to help you evaluate online sources of health information, which also is found in the ‘overviews’ section of MedlinePlus.gov’s evaluating health information health topic page.

For those who mine the Internet to obtain health information, the National Library of Medicine has a guide to healthy web surfing available within the ‘start here’ section of MedlinePlus.gov’s evaluating health information health topic page.

MedlinePlus.gov’s evaluating health information health topic page additionally provides links to the latest pertinent journal research articles, which are available in the ‘journal articles’ section. You can sign up to receive updates about evaluating health information as they become available on MedlinePlus.gov.

To find MedlinePlus.gov’s evaluating health information health topic page type ‘evaluating health information’ in the search box on MedlinePlus.gov’s home page, then, click on ‘Evaluating health information (National Library of Medicine).’ MedlinePlus.gov also has related health topic pages on health literacy and Internet safety.

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Please email Dr. Lindberg anytime at: NLMDirector@nlm.nih.gov

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A disclaimer — the information presented in this program should not replace the medical advice of your physician. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any disease without first consulting with your physician or other health care provider.

It was nice to be with you. I look forward to meeting you here next week.