Open Science must not become a mere rulebook

Hans-Bernd Brosius talks about science communication and Open Science

Photo of Professor Hans-Bernd Brosius

Three key learnings:

  • Media don’t choose topics or their relevance but their saleability. who don’t really need to do that look to the ratings.
  • If you want to do good science communication you need consider what use society can make of the research findings.
  • Researchers who want to communicate their scientific results to non-scientific recipients need to ask themselves: who wants to know something from me and why? Quite often, research findings must be presented in very different ways, depending on the target group.

You have been holding the chair for communication science at LMU Munich for many years and studied numerous communication phenomena. How do you as a communication scientist see the developments around Open Science?

HBB: Reproducibility is one of the most important criteria for good science. Reproducibility is the essential spirit of science. Ultimately this is what we want from Open Science, that data are available, that information about studies is complete, that there is no p-hacking, etc. What I see critically is that we set incentives for scientists with our qualification system which then require us to correct resulting aberrations through Open Science. Open Science must not become a rulebook which further complicates an already difficult publishing process, especially for researchers in the early career stages. If Open Science is merely a rulebook within an otherwise unchanged science system, scientists will find creative ways to work around these “obstacles”. My assumption is that Open Science as a rulebook will at some point start to delegitimise the Open Science movement in its pure core. Therefore we must change the conditions of publishing, the conditions in which people gain qualifications, so that the truly good people have a chance. I believe you can only achieve this if we change these conditions.

When you say that the entire science system must be turned inside out, where do you see the leading drivers?

HBB: First of all it is a duty for people like me. I try to act accordingly in my own little cosmos. People who make the decisions about who is put on an appointments list or who fills  a vacancy etc., such people are in a much better position to promote Open Science. We take the easy way out if we simply rank by h-index in appointment commissions. This is partly because economics and social sciences departments have been expanded over the last years and there are many good applicants doing exciting work. But this work is transformed into a quantitative tables system which levels all the positive aspects.

You served for 20 years as dean of the Social Sciences Faculty at LMU Munich, one of Germany’s excellence universities. What would be a good way to intensify the Open Science idea, in your opinion?

HBB: I don’t have an ideal solution, or I would have communicated this more prominently. But I think we must flank criteria such as quality, originality, and innovativeness with Open Science criteria such as reproducibility, replicability etc. But they should not be regarded as parallel tracks, they must be enmeshed. Just because someone publishes a lot, he or she is not necessarily an innovative scientist.

Since 2020, science communication has been very prominent in the public awareness and is intensively discussed among communicators. Where do you see the future of science communication from your viewpoint as a communication scientist?

HBB: Science is often represented as an adventure park. Something hisses and fizzes and we concentrate on the “Oh, look!” effect. It’s nice, but not necessarily science communication. I think this is not the core of science communication, instead it should be the usefulness of scientific knowledge for humans. They are all different, and therefore we have many different target groups. It’s my impression that scientists see science communication mostly from the product angle, describing only what they found out – describing it in the same way for all target groups. We should address this in a much more target group-oriented way and also ask ourselves “What do people want to do with it?” In my view, good science communication must differentiate the target groups and then adapt the messages to their different needs. Science communication should also listen to people and what they want to know from us as scientists. The central issue is: science is needed where there are no substantiated facts, no substantiated results. In our search for substantiated results we get preliminary results, sometimes contradictory results. From outside it looks like perfect chaos. The Covid pandemic has been exemplary for demonstrating that different disciplines put different things in focus. I think the fragility of scientific knowledge is very hard to understand, and that is often the essential problem.

How should I present my research findings?

HBB: Scholarly publications usually provide a placement in the research context. That’s also a part of science communication, publishing your results and making them accessible to a scholarly or interested audience. But that’s not the problem. The problem are the many other different target groups, who should know about the dangers associated with sugar in baby food, for instance. These different groups must be addressed differently, depending on whether a topic is highly involving or not, and depending on whether or not somebody is directly affected. You need to define clearly: where are the target groups? Where do we need to offer a dialogue and how must it be designed? Do we need to develop didactic offers, or formats for exchange or rather adult education offers? And where do we simply need to listen to people?

In non-scholarly circles little is known about how the science system works, which actors are active in the publishing market or what the business models in scientific publishing are. Does society need to know bout this? Or is it sufficient if it is reflected within the science system?

HBB: In principle I would say it makes sense for people to know how science works, so they can assess what kind of results we produce and why these results are produced. And you mustn’t forget that we scientists also get much of our information from classical media. Especially the research findings of other disciplines, we learn about those from media who of course have their own mechanisms. The problem which we are insufficiently aware of is that media don’t choose their topics randomly, and not for their relevance either, but according to their saleability. Even media who don’t really need to do that look to the ratings. Most of the topics that we scientists address are not attractive enough for the media. There’s no violence, no celebrities, and the news value is often minimal. None of this makes science awfully interesting for journalists. There’s a scientist with recent research results, the results are picked up by specialised journalists and universities’ press offices and disseminated. They make the information comprehensible, and at the end you have an entertainment journalist or someone who reports politics or whatever and who transforms it according to his selection criteria. And in the end a version is produced that wasn’t cleared in this form by the originators.

How can more researchers be convinced of Open Science?

HBB: I would distinguish two groups: one the one hand you have scientists like me who are closer to the end of their career than the beginning. On the other you have young people who have just finished their PhD and who are looking to promote their careers. Of course there is also intrinsic motivation for doing Open Science, but this intrinsic motivation comes into conflict with career plannings. We should pay more attention to decoupling this. Which brings us back to the question of how can you ensure that people act altruistically, not egotistically, if they depend on gaining a professorship in five years at the latest. You need to look at improving the situation a little more nuancedly: if you take pre-registration as an example, that is something that lightens the burden for young researchers. You submit the theoretical part of your research, and if the theoretical part is accepted, it doesn’t matter what the final results are. You don’t have to compute lots of significance tests just to make sure that something can be published. That is surely a measure that would raise the intrinsic motivation for Open Science. It is surely sensible to look what you can implement with comparatively little effort and where you have to work harder.

Thank you!

The questions were asked by Dr Doreen Siegfried.

The interview was conducted on February 10, 2022.

About Professor Hans-Bernd Brosius

Professor Hans-Bernd Brosius has been professor at the Department of Media and Communication of LMU Munich since 1996. From 1998 until 2002 he chaired the German Communication Association (DGPuK). In addition, he also headed the Medien Institut in Ludwigshafen from 1995 until 2004. From 2001 until 2021, he served as dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at LMU Munich. His teaching and research are focused on media use, media impact, and methods. Professor Hans-Bernd Brosius is a member of the LMU Open Science Center team.




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