Outreach sections for research papers?

By Grant Jacobs 17/09/2012 6

Chris Gunter and Anne Osterrieder in writing A modest proposal for an outreach section in scientific publications (in Genome Biology) suggested:

We propose that scientific publications include a short section, akin to the acknowledgments at the end, which lists several outreach activities related to the paper. These could be new resources that the authors have created, or existing resources that are related to the paper’s subject(s) – the goal is to reach out across that gap and help non-expert readers understand the work.

This could provide a space to tie the formal publication and the out-reach efforts together, which might both aid readers from outside the research environment and perhaps help tie outreach efforts into academic credit more readily. (As the authors noted, it would provide a means to verify the outreach was done.)

Several of the top-end journals do outreach of various kinds, using their in-house science communication professionals. Less wealthy[1] journals might instead offer such as a space for those scientists who wish to provide better ‘reach’ for their work themselves.

The authors cite the example of the media and outreach efforts of ‘space science’ (their words) as something the biological science might aspire to. I can’t help think it needs to be borne in mind that NASA and their ilk have substantial professional outreach teams, something smaller universities and research institutes in particular would struggle to match.

It’s also worth noting that a recent paper I covered found that the number of media presentations correlated with the prestige of the university, which the authors suspected was due to the better press offices being found in those institutes.

The recent ENOCDE project[2] is one recent example in the biological sciences with a larger media ‘push’ (although some have criticised aspects of it).

What do readers think of Gunter and Osterrieder’s suggestion?


A modest proposal for an outreach section in scientific publications

Chris Gunter and Anne Osterrieder

Genome Biology 2012, 13:168 doi:10.1186/gb-2012-13-8-168 (DOI not found at time of writing.)

Journal website page: http://genomebiology.com/2012/13/8/168


1. I’m not quite sure if this is quite the right adjective, but let it stand.

2. I still haven’t gotten around to starting to get my ENCODE thoughts out. Sigh.

Other articles on Code for life:

Teaching students to write scientific papers

Coiling bacterial DNA

Aww, crap.

Professors, lost souls with great oratory power?

6 Responses to “Outreach sections for research papers?”

  • 2. I still haven’t gotten around to starting to get my ENCODE thoughts out. Sigh.

    I suspect there’s a number of people in this camp. I certainly am. I want to write about it, but am finding the thought … daunting.

  • I always wonder at formal arrangements like this. They often start off as good ideas and end up becoming irksome bureaucratic requirements of little value.

    I remember at one stage in my career our director introduced the requirement that each scientific paper submitted was accompanied by a paragraph (written in popular style – possibly for dissemination through media. We all knew it was because he didn’t understand what his scientists were researching and this gave him a useful summary. The media still interviewed scientists personally and I doubt that any of the summaries were used for the declared purpose.

    I think it would be good for scientific papers to include links to a scientist’s outreach work (blogs, popular articles, projects, etc.) – perhaps as part of the personal information. After all, specific papers in many areas (especially biochemistry) rarely would have specific outreach projects associated with them. (Or, rather, one or two outreach projects may be associated with practically all the scientific papers from a scientist or group).

    It could be that the requirement for scientists to attempt more outreach could be motivated more by pressure during professional development, performance reviews, etc. This would require a genuine interest in ourtreach from managers and insitutions which I think is just not there in most cases.

  • Ben – I’ve got rough drafts of a couple in the pipeline, but feel I owe it to give my non-specialist readers a suitable context before diving into more specific things.

  • Ken,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Good point that some areas would rarely have specific outreach projects – you’d wind up with the section being empty! (Obliquely, the reminds me of a post I wrote about blogging when your science doesn’t easily relate to the public. Most of the bioinformatics ‘outreach’ I’ve seen is mainly aimed at other bioinformaticians or biologists, which won’t be the target audience these are after.)

    I guess a related issue is that these things for many (most) would be after-thoughts, much like the impression you get of the ‘for the public’ summaries that papers in the PLoS journals offer. Outreach is a minority activity and as you say it probably needs encouragement from elsewhere.

  • Hi Grant — thanks for blogging our paper! We didn’t explicitly state that this would scientists themselves better understand how to present their work to the public, but that was certainly part of our goal. I personally don’t think this will be an onerous requirement, but I understand that when you are near the finish line of submitting a paper, everything seems onerous. That said, it took me about 15 minutes each to find the resources we suggested for the three Genome Biology papers.

    And…I’m one of the authors on the ENCODE paper, and I certainly haven’t yet read all of the 30+ associated papers to try an attempt a summary either.

  • While it’s easy to write something or do some outreach, doing it well involves getting your head around it and practice – that can take time. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, just pointing at practicalities that suggest it won’t be for everyone.

    Writing summaries of ENCODE… still haven’t got there! I might just have to start at the second for third post, as it were, and circle back to a summary later…! It is a lot to take in.

    As for ENOCDE itself, I had wanted to join – I have an appropriate background & the core organisation seemed happy to at least consider an application from me, but from memory they wanted local university support – that has a few catch-22’s that are difficult to unravel with me being an independent consultant (or at least that’s my impression) and I eventually let it go, perhaps wrongly! I’d still like involvement in the chromatin (epigenetics, if you will) / genome structure areas, if I find an opportunity, especially as these have strong links to structural bioinformatics which is my original background.

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