Beyond Preaching to the Choir

By Grant Jacobs 21/07/2010 2

Thoughts on publishing in journals outside your immediate speciality that might use your work, and on articles reporting developments in related fields.

This brief stream-of-concious* post is inspired by librarian Bonnie J. M. Swoger’s post that takes it’s lead from Stevens’ research article Beyond Preaching to the Choir: Information Literacy, Faculty Outreach, and Disciplinary Journals (DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2006.08.009).

Swoger argues that librarians should make some effort to target their message to the users of their services, and not only publish in what I guess we could call librarianship journals.

In a similar way, I have always liked the notion of publishing some (note all!) bioinformatics or computational research articles that are of direct use to researchers in general biological journals that the users of the methods or knowledge might read them, rather than have them buried in the specialist bioinformatics journals.

You might publish a new method for aligning genomes and it’s ’web server in a genomics journal, rather than a bioinformatics journal, with the aim of reaching the potential users directly.

Maybe it’s just my perception, but too many journals exclude bringing in news from related fields.

You could view this as a general problem within science, the communication between disciplines is typically poor and there are relatively few proactive efforts to overcome it.

It’s accepted that it’s the scientists’ job to search around the literature. I like reading widely myself, but it’s also a luxury few have the time for really; most barely have time to keep up with their own niche.

One difficulty is that each discipline, or even sub-discipline, has it’s own terms and knowledge. Specialist journals tend to assume that readers will be familiar with these, and tend to ring-fence their publications on this basis.

That’s understandable and fine.

It isn’t reasonable to expect that a geneticist be familiar with, say, Bayesian statistics or suffix trees.

On one level scientists are overly bothered by this: there is an understanding that if you want to know something, go and learn it.

Most scientists will say that many advances arise from the cross-fertilisation of ideas from different fields. (This has echoes of Matt Ridley’s thesis in When ideas have sex.)

A concept I like is slightly less formal articles communicating developments in related fields that most readers are unlikely to cover themselves.

This is science communication too, but targeted at scientists.

Here we might have, say, a piece reporting a new development in computational biology, bioinformatics, chemistry, biophysics, or microscopy, etc., in a molecular biological journal.

Do you think that too many journals are closed shops preaching to only their own choir, paying little attention to developments in other fields that might impact on their own?

It is easier to not look more widely. One practical problem would be peer review of journals outside of the specialist knowledge of the editors.

A solution is to take the science communication route; have these pieces stand outside formal peer review, essentially as science writing pieces, specialist journalism if you will.

Some journals or collections of journals do a little of this, albeit sometimes seemingly as much to draw attention to the other journals in their stable as for the science itself. (I’m not arguing for or against promotion here, just that this approach limits what they present, instead of them drawing from a wider range of sources.)

What I’m thinking of are not full-blooded review articles, which are major efforts, but shorter ’News & Views’ styled pieces targeted at a particular scientific readership. Lighter articles that give sufficient insight to the work elsewhere that those that are interested can follow the lead offered.

Some readers might point at Nature, Science, PNAS, but (generalising here) the former two are more ‘about’ chasing newsstand science** than encouraging cross-disciplinary exchanges per se, in my opinion.

Do you see more need to articles targeted at ’users’, bringing the news in from other disciplines?

Or would that just be too much noise?


* I would write about some recent science, but I have just spent most of the afternoon recovering from a hard drive failure and am in no mood for anything too exacting. On the bright side, I have re-familarisied myself with fsck, various types of reboots, mirroring drives and too many other things. Eeagh. (Yes, that’s very scientific and literary description of how I feel.)

** I don’t meant this offensively or to denigrate them in anyway, just they are newsstand in a way few other journals are and consequently lean towards articles that might have wide popular (and some would say, media) appeal.

Other articles on Code for life:

Blogimmuniqué: Tracking the science blogosphere

When ideas have sex

Scientific article download costs

Temperature-induced hearing loss

2 Responses to “Beyond Preaching to the Choir”

  • Yes! I absolutely agree. In fact I have this problem myself. In the course of doing some research in field non-commutative geometry I discovered that I needed a result from Riemannian geometry. This result didn’t exist, so I proved it myself. Since this result is fundamental to the original research I’m left with the following question. Which audience do I publish for?

    I’m personally all for what you are suggesting. Perhaps is could be done, at least in my field, by allowing less technical letters to journal editors?

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