A SCIENCE-inclined audience and wide array of communication tools make the internet an excellent opportunity for scientists hoping to share their research with the world.
However, that opportunity is fraught with unintended consequences, according to a pair of University of Wisconsin-Madison life science communication professors.
Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, writing in a "Perspectives" piece for the journal Science, encouraged scientists to join an effort to make sure the public receives full, accurate and unbiased information on science and technology.
"This is an opportunity to promote interest in science -- especially basic research, fundamental science -- but, on the other hand, we could be missing the boat," Brossard said. "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 described the way the internet may be narrowing public discourse, and new work shows that a staple of online news -- the comments section -- and other ubiquitous means to provide endorsement or feedback can color the opinions of readers of even the most neutral scientific stories.
"Today, I can use my mobile phone, tablet or laptop to almost instantly look up more information than ever before," Scheufele said. However, "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 news sites use the popularity of stories or subjects (measured by the numbers of clicks they receive, the rate at which users share that content with others or other metrics) to guide the presentation of material.
The search engine Google offers users suggested search terms as they make requests, offering up "nanotechnology in medicine," for example, to those who begin typing "nanotechnology" in a search box. Users often avail themselves of the list of suggestions, which makes certain searches more popular and, in turn, makes those search terms even more likely to appear as suggestions, the announcement said.
"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 said.
The consequences became more daunting as Brossard and Scheufele uncovered more surprising effects of Web 2.0 -- which includes more interactive, collaborative websites such as social media.
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 said. "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 of the for-profit media world and advocacy organizations are approaching the digital landscape from a marketing perspective, Brossard and Scheufele argued, 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 said. "Can people be certain that those are the sites they will find when they search for information? That is not clear."
Scheufele said, "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."