The public has always had considerable interest both in the validity of research findings and the process by which funding is allocated. Consequently, there has been a recent push for scientists to encourage interaction with the public in research. These endeavors include open-access journals and public events such as CIHR’s Café Scientifique. However, since internet access has drastically changed the way that the public satisfy their scientific curiosities, these efforts may not be sufficient to reach a large audience. Indeed, Nature.com has web traffic of just over 6 million unique viewers per month, whereas mainstream media such as Yahoo! News and CNN have 15-30 times this number. Since the general public is much more likely to tune in to mainstream media that often provide sensational accounts of ‘science journalism’, it is imperative for scientists to devise new ways to have unbiased, scientific discussions with a lay audience.
One of the emerging outlets that can serve this purpose is reddit, an open-sourced community where users submit content that is either original or sourced from elsewhere. ‘Redditors’ can vote and comment on all submitted content; the most highly rated content can be seen by many of reddit’s 175 million unique viewers per month. For the sake of simplicity, reddit is further organized into subreddits that include topics such as /r/fitness or /r/science. These subreddits allow for the organization of similar content and provide new updates for interested subscribers. Furthermore, moderators or ‘mods’ who are selected by senior mods help filter hateful or inappropriate comments. To become a mod, some subreddit topics require specific qualifications, but most judge the impact of redditors in the community based on posting history.
Given the enormous popularity of /r/science, which boasts over 7 million subscribers (7th highest on reddit) and 100,000-300,000 unique visitors every day, it comes as no surprise that this community was lauded as “The World’s Largest 2-Way Dialogue between Scientists and the Public” by Simon Owens for Scientific American. In the article, Dr. Nathan Allen was interviewed for his involvement in the Science AMA (Ask Me Anything) series in which scientists answer questions from the community regarding recent scientific discoveries or events (e.g. the Ebola scare in the US during fall of 2014). As an active subscriber, I became interested in this series and contacted Dr. Allen to answer some questions regarding /r/science. Dr. Allen completed his PhD in organic chemistry from the University of California, Irvine in 2001, and now works as a Senior Research Chemist at the Dow Chemical Company. He not only acts as an official moderator and the organizer of the Science AMA series, but also recruits scientists that are interested in communicating scientific findings with a lay audience. While a big part of /r/science is the AMA series, only certain topics garner broad interest, such as those about GMO foods and Ebola. When asked about the possibility of generating interest in basic science at AMAs, Dr. Allen responded, “We host AMAs of broad interest, and ones with very focused interests in order to appeal to our broad demographics. Certainly issues that capture the popular interest gain the most traction, but we don’t solely evaluate the success of an AMA in terms of sheer viewership. An AMA that caters to the interests of a small subset of our population but allows for deeper discussion of a topic is equally successful.” A step-by-step submission guide is also provided online whereby scientists that are interested in participating can submit a short paragraph describing their AMA.
When asked about the value of /r/science, Dr. Allen states that /r/science “allow(s) for a unique communication vehicle between scientific experts and the general public…. having observed a separation between the public perception of scientists and the actual realities of scientists (or their studies)”. In fact, he believes that the long-term goal of this subreddit is to welcome scientists and lay audiences to openly discuss scientific ideas in a civilized and educational manner. One of the biggest challenges of AMAs that Dr. Allen has observed through using /r/science is that communication involves “readers from 13 to 75 years old” that include “high school dropouts to university professors, and almost every time zone on the planet”. In fact, the only assumption Dr. Allen and colleagues can reasonably make is that the viewers “can read English”.
Although each submission is required to be a “summary of a recent, peer-reviewed science” to encourage productive discussions of the validity of the aforementioned study, any commenter is able to give medical advice or present pseudoscience theories in this open forum. To circumvent these issues, /r/science has offered ‘flair’ to individuals who can provide proof of adequate education for a specific topic by submitting screenshots of a diploma or transcript. The flair is then placed next to a username anytime he or she posts in /r/science, and states their qualifications such as “Grad Student|Immunology-Microbiology”. This helps lend credibility to some individuals over others in matters of their expertise. Another way to ensure a positive and educational environment is through the help of almost 600 moderators. Their job is to comb through the submissions by deleting inappropriate content, medical advice, and disrespectful comments. Although not as stringent as the peer-review process, these two methods have allowed for public discussion of scientific research in a generally positive environment.
It is no secret that research funding has become increasingly difficult to secure from the government research funding agencies. As the public become more aware of the tax dollars and private donations that go into funding scientific research, it is essential for research to be more accessible to the general public. For instance, Nature Publishing Group now provides read-only access of all academic articles to the public with ways to track the progression of their scientific interests. /r/science has attempted to do more than the traditional one-way knowledge dissemination: it actively encourages interactive discussions amongst scientists and non-scientists in an open online forum, which is also moderated by experts to ensure positive experiences. Without a doubt, /r/science is at the forefront of massively public scientific education and discussion.
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