Over the past year, two researchers from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University (SU) have generated a "world map of science communication research", based on the broadest bibliographical analysis of global science communication research outputs to date, shedding new light on current trends in the field. They have also provided very valuable recommendations for increasing diversity and representation of developing countries, which – unfortunately – are still considerably under-represented.
Their work has been published in the Journal of Science Communication (JCOM), an open access journal on science communication published by Sissa Medialab in Italy.
This milestone contribution to the field comes from two researchers linked to the South African Research Chair in Science Communication, hosted at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST). The study was carried out by Dr Lars Guenther, a postdoctoral fellow and Marina Joubert, a science communication researcher.
"Our aim was to determine patterns and trends concerning the authors, institutions and countries that are actively contributing to scholarship in this emerging field of research, in order to highlight areas in need of attention", say Guenther and Joubert.
Research in the field of science communication started emerging about 50 years ago and has since then matured as a field of academic enquiry. According to the researchers, early findings about research-active authors and countries reveal that scholarly activity in the field has traditionally been dominated by male authors from English-speaking countries in the West. Their study encompasses a systematic, bibliographic analysis of a full sample of research papers that were published in the three most prominent journals in the field from 1979 to 2016.
"Our findings reveal that early inequities remain prevalent, but also that there are indications that recent increases in research outputs and trends in authorship patterns — for example the growth in female authorship — are beginning to correct some of these imbalances," the researchers say.
"Furthermore, the current study verifies earlier indications that science communication research is becoming increasingly institutionalised and internationalised, as demonstrated by an upward trend in papers reflecting cross-institutional collaboration and the diversity of countries where authors are based."
Yet, even with these positive findings, the researchers concur, diversity in the field is still lacking with a striking majority of research contributions made to the three main journals in the field – Science Communication, Public Understanding of Science and JCOM – originating from the USA, UK and Australia, and continents like Asia, Africa and South America still considerably under-represented.
Although publications in general have increased over time in all three journals, suggesting that "science communication is maturing as a field of scholarly activity", it is interesting to notice that out of a total of 2 680 unique authors who contributed to published research in the study, the vast majority of them (82.3%) published only once in the main journals of the field. Furthermore, "the fact that only 28 researchers published six or more articles (over the entire period since 1979 and in all three journals combined) is perhaps an indication that there are still relatively few research leaders in the field". Most of the articles (74%) were written by only one or two authors, and it is rare to find research teams presenting joint research papers (only 5% of all research outputs were authored by five or more authors).
An extremely useful suggestion raised by the authors to address the issue of some countries overshadowing the contributions of others is that, "(…) instead of calling for research papers from developing country authors, a more effective way of stimulating diversity in research authorship would be to encourage collaborative research that would include researchers in developing countries from the outset of multi-country research projects".
The South African Research Chair in Science Communication is supported by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF).
Photo: Dr Lars Guenther and Ms Marina Joubert have managed to map science communication research over more than three decades