By Alison Campbell 14/02/2016


A while back, my Twitter feed brought up a post with the intriguing title “Prof, no-one is reading you“. The article kicks off with the following provocative statement: 

Many of the world’s most talented thinkers may be university professors, but sadly most of them are not shaping today’s public debates or influencing policies.

Now, them’s fighting words, but the authors of the article do have some figures at their fingertips:

Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities – 82 per cent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once. No one ever refers to 32 per cent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 per cent in the natural sciences.

And it gets worse:

If a paper is cited, this does not imply it has actually been read. According to one estimate, only 20 per cent of papers cited have actually been read. We estimate that an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely by no more than 10 people. Hence, impacts of most peer-reviewed publications even within the scientific community are minuscule.

Now, I’d be wanting to know how that estimate is derived; it does sound somewhat arbitrary. But even if the figure were 10 times greater, it’s still a bit sad, because there’s some fascinating research out there & yet, if the authors of the article are correct, so much of it goes unread. One could argue that researchers should cultivate better relationships with mainstream media, & get their work out in ‘popular’ form via newspaper stories and radio interviews.

But the article also suggests that researchers make better use of the social media, among them twitter & Facebook, to communicate with a much wider audience. It’s something New Zealand’s Science Media Centre staff advocate during their popular mediaSAVVY workshops for scientists. One reason for becoming active in spaces like the twittersphere, say the authors, is that lay people looking for scientific evidence to support (or argue!) a position would be able to find a researcher’s quick summary more readily than they could access the full article, especially if it’s locked away behind a paywall.

And given the amount of nonsense & pseudoscience that circulates via the net, it’s all the more important that someone looking for a science-based viewpoint is able to find what they’re after. I’d really rather not live in a world where snake-oil salesmen hold sway.