Improving the visibility of academic research: normative expectations and strategic interests under review, Martina Franzen and Arlena Jung

Martina Franzen

Bielefeld University/ WZB Berlin Social research center

Arlena Jung

WZB Berlin Social Research Center

Opening the black box of academic research is used to serve two different, in part contradictory goals: to enhance the quality of public participation and to realize the strategic and particular interests of research organisations, research fields and individual scientists. While the first goal is oriented to the normative ideal of a democratization of science, the second is based on a more pragmatic interest in the competitive advantage visibility is assumed to have for research funding. For a long time the public communication of science was set in a rather simple, straight-forward narrative. Safely nested in the deficit model there was assumed to be a clear-cut distinction between experts and lay people. The role of science communication was to educate the public and policy makers and thereby both rationalize and democratize the policy process. By educating the public on science, scholars would increase the credibility of science, turn the public into well informed citizens and thereby rationalize the policy process. Thus, there seemed to be a neat symbiosis between the strategic interests of scientists and their normative obligations to society: Increasing the visibility of science was seen as being both in the interest of scientists and in the interest of the public.

As the myth of a clean bright line separating science from society began to crumble, this narrative slowly disintegrated. Vividly illustrating the role of pragmatic considerations and strategic interests in the scientific knowledge production process, science and technology studies debunked the image of science as a source of objective and certain truth. At the same time, in a context of raising fiscal pressures, increased competition over funding and repeated, highly medialized peer review scandals, public trust in science further decreased. With this partial depletion of the epistemological authority of science the democratic legitimacy of the role of scientists as rationalisers and educators was seriously shaken. Thus, the deficit model was gradually replaced by a difference model, in which scientific expertise appears as only one type of a number of specialised knowledge forms pertinent to solving practical problems (Fischer 2009) and Policy programmes shifted from Public Understanding of Science to Public Engagement with Science and Technology.

As a result of these developments the academic questions pertinent to science communication studies have changed. Rather than investigating the degree of scientific literacy, scholarship has turned to understanding the social construction of science that is both the boundary work scientists invest in creating the sacred stories of science, and the factors influencing the public perception of science (Gieryn 1983). Seeing science communication as a two way process has opened the doors to questions concerning the effects of public visibility on the credibility and rationality of science. The institutional demands of making science public confront scientists and their organisations with criteria that seem in some respects incompatible with fundamental scientific norms and institutional settings. With the rise of mass media as a communication form following its own rationality, these contradictions seem to become more pronounced. Given journalists proclivity to the dramatic and the negative, more science in the news often seems to mean more bad science in the news. In considering the role of the media in shaping the science-public interface a developing research area conceptualizes the changing relationship between science and the mass media as the medialization of science (Weingart 2012). The central empirical observation of the medialization concept is that increased media attention to science is answered by an increased orientation of science towards the media. The central empirical question is how this co-orientation affects the credibility of science on the one hand, and the scientific knowledge production process on the other.

The central theoretical assumption is that this question can only be adequately answered if we not only consider the strategic interests but also the different rationalities involved in the co-orientation of science and the media. Based on three empirical studies, we show how the medialization concept can contribute to explaining the increasing interest in public visibility in the context of changing normative, cognitive and social parameters from different perspectives.

In a media study the coverage of stem cell research and epidemiology in German newspapers was reconstructed in detailed qualitative analysis (Jung 2012). The research question was, what image of science is created in the media in these two fields. Looking at the implications of the coverage of bad science on the credibility of science one can distinguish between three possible effects: (1) a loss in credibility, meaning that science is no longer seen as being able to produce objective truth, but rather as being just as tainted with subjective perceptions and particular interests as any other social form of constructing reality, (2) the stabilization of a tension between normative and cognitive expectations, that is of expectations concerning how science should actually function and how it does function and (3) a re-stabilization of credibility, where for example uncertainty comes to be seen as an acceptable, normal and necessary part of science. What the study showed was that reporting on bad science either implied a stabilization of the tension between normative and cognitive expectations or a re-stabilization of credibility. A loss in credibility, as defined above, did not occur. While a re-stabilization of credibility could be interpreted as resulting from the successful boundary work of scientists, the prevalence of the stabilization of a tension between normative and cognitive expectations needs further explanation. This, it was argued, can be attributed to the rationality of journalism. A loss in credibility as defined above did not occur. This, it was argued can be attributed to the rationality of journalism. While a re-stabilization of credibility could be interpreted as resulting from the successful boundary work of scientists, a loss in credibility would imply a fundamental break with deeply rooted cultural patterns. The prevalence of the stabilization of a tension between normative and cognitive expectations needs a further explanation: Co-ordinating the mutual expectations of different social spheres (Kohring 2005) or put in normative terms binding science to the expectations of its social environment is the democratic function of journalism in modern Western societies.

Although there is a general trend towards more science PR in the higher education sector (Marcinkowski et al. 2013; Peters 2012; Jung/Ruddigkeit forthcoming), there are considerable differences between scientific disciplines in the degree and forms of both media attention and media orientation of science (Franzen/Rödder 2013 in print). The most proliferated press relations activities can be found in biomedicine (Kallfass 2009), having to do with the general interest in health issues that is also reflected by the highest percentage of media coverage compared to other fields (e.g. Suleski, J./Ibaraki, M. 2010; Elmer et al. 2008).

In molecular biology, according to a recent study, new findings are publicized by journals, research institutes, funders, publishers and companies. In studying research papers covered by the media, it was found that up to 8 press releases are issued per paper. The individual and organisational interests in media visibility are above all the legitimation of funding decisions and the achievement of competitive advantages. Scientists, journal editors and press officers, however, all disclaim any media orientation of their own, while alleging other actors with the active pursuit of publicity. They agree that the driving force behind increased media orientation is the funding bodies in the new governance of science. (Franzen/Rödder 2013 in print).

What, however, are the implications of medialization on scientific knowledge production? A case study on stem cell research indicates that serving the medias demand for astonishing results, scientists themselves tend to overstate the societal implications” and even the scientific value of their findings (Franzen 2012). Hence, the credibility of science is jeopardized by findings published in high-impact journals that turn out to be wrong or even fraudulent. Drawing from the results of an in-depth analysis of publication events in stem cell science, it was argued that,  exaggerated claims can be interpreted as one form of reaction of scientists to public interests, i.e., as an undesirable side-effect of the medialization of science (ibid., p. 347). From a comparative perspective, such medialization effects occur in those scientific fields in which the production side of knowledge remains structurally intangible (e.g. lab sciences) and reviewers are, thus, not able to verify the claims made in scientific publications without backstage passes. Rather, they must trust the authors representations of the knowledge production procedures and their findings.

This is part of the ongoing project :The production and representation of knowledge under the conditions of medialization, funded by German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in the program New Governance of Science (grant number 01UZ0909)

Based on these in part complementary, in part contradictory empirical findings one can, we believe, see that more research is needed considering both the rationality of the media and of science, and viewing the science-media-public interface from a comparative perspective. Only then can a coherent picture be drawn, allowing for a better understanding of the causes and the implications of the current push for more public visibility.


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A version of this paper was presented to the Science in Public conference, Nottingham, 2013.