Information design matters

How to convey information was an emerging theme of the Council of Science Editors Annual Meeting that I have recently attended. This year about 450 professionals responsible for different aspects of scholarly publishing from around the globe met in Denver to debate diverse issues ranging from managing journals, to scientific misconduct and the future of publishing.

The art of telling a good story

Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, opened the CSE meeting with a keynote address on how to use creative writing to communicate scientific facts. Deborah used examples from her ‘Poisoner’s Handbook‘ to illustrate ‘geometry of storytelling’, or ways of weaving an idea throughout a story.

Be it a circle, diamond or braided narrative, the story needs to engage the audience with its characters, the dialogue and the suspense. Poor presenting may lead to loss of trust not only in journalism, but also in science. Some readers may be “science disaffected” – the challenge is to change their minds.

Any single study or finding needs to be put in the context of other research on the topic, otherwise it is easy to misrepresent or over interpret the results. Another challenge is the culture clash between science and journalism: while science is a process and the advance is usually incremental, journalism aims to showcase a novel event.

How to share your research

The theme of conveying scientific information in the right way was common to many other conference sessions, from data sharing and pre-print servers to discussing ethical issues and how to make retractions more visible.

The topic of pre-prints was hotly debated, and opinions varied on whether material posted on pre-print servers should be considered as already published, and whether the comments and feedback that the authors receive via that route are a form of peer review.

At one end of the scale, journals such as eLife and PLOS support pre-prints with specialized workflows, while at the other extreme are journals that will not consider manuscripts posted on pre-print servers. BioMed Central journals also consider manuscripts that were posted on pre-print servers.

pieces-of-the-puzzle-592785_960_720Data sharing is another widely discussed aspect of communicating scientific findings. Abraham Haileamlak (based at Jimma University) presented the new policy developed by ICMJE to increase transparency of clinical trial data.

ICMJE member journals are going to mandate sharing of anonymized individual patient data used to write an article within six months of publication.

So far ICMJE have received over 300 comments and the policy will be further discussed in November 2016. Personally, I would like to see some specific guidelines on how to anonymize data sufficiently to make it shareable, given that as few as three indirect identifiers might de-anonymize the participants.

Appropriate communication

Conveying information in the right way is also important in handling ethical issues. An ‘Ethics clinic’ session chaired by Jennifer Mahar engaged the participants in creating workflows for handling authorship, permissions and conflicts of interest.

Communication with different parties is a vital part of the process, and we discussed how to do that without breaching trust and confidentiality, and without undermining a future institutional investigation. The bottom line was that all actions by editors should be undertaken with the goal of correcting the scientific record, not the authors’ behavior.

system-927147_960_720 network people communication

Another hot topic was transparency and communication around article retractions. Studies have shown that retracted articles continue to be cited, although it is not clear whether the authors citing the article realize it has been retracted.

Also, history shows that even authors with many retractions may come back to science and be exonerated. Interestingly, most universities don’t have a policy that forbids their faculty from including their retracted papers in their CV, although all agreed that institutions have an important role in investigating alleged misconduct and in educating.

New technologies

Can technological innovations provide solutions to some of the problems? CrossMark is working on creating a map linking retractions to the original publications. This technology could also link other updates to articles (such as corrections, withdrawals, Expressions of Concern) and include information regarding clinical trials, conflicts of interest, or plagiarism. Retracted and corrected articles could also be marked with symbols when they are included in references lists.


The ‘lightning talks’ at the end of the conference showcased several brand new approaches to information design and sharing.

Kolabtree has potential to change how academics and business leaders collaborate, GRID may help to disambiguate institutional data and facilitate finding experts in even the most niche fields, PubRef and Behind the Ink could revolutionize the way researchers write up and share their findings, and Bookmetrix and Sage Recommends could change the way we discover content and measure impact.

It will be interesting to see how these new initiatives develop, the future of communication and information sharing certainly looks set to change.

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