Transcript: The Varied Voices of Science

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Interview with Prof. Cassidy Sugimoto

For podcast release Monday, November 21, 2016

KENNEALLY: Picture in your mind a research laboratory. If you’re like me, you see an antiseptic, high-tech environment, perhaps even impersonal. But look again.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. The researchers working in that sterile lab may wear the same white coats, and their faces may be obscured behind safety glasses and gauze masks, but they are, of course, individual human beings – newly minted PhDs and much-respected Nobel laureates, men and women who speak with distinct voices and who hold a wide variety of views and aspirations.

Cassidy Sugimoto is a researcher of those researchers who hears their voices and asks, who has a voice in science, and why does it matter who is speaking? She joins me now from her office at Indiana University-Bloomington. Welcome back to Beyond the Book, Professor Sugimoto.

SUGIMOTO: Hi, Chris. It’s great to be back.

KENNEALLY: We’re looking forward to speaking with you, because just last month, in October, you delivered the Lucile Kelling Henderson Lecture at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science.

Briefly we’ll tell people about your background. Professor Cassidy Sugimoto researches within the domain of scholarly communication and scientometrics, the study of measuring and analyzing science, technology, and information, as well as informatics, the study of quantitative aspects of information, all of which ranges from production, dissemination, and the uses of all forms of information. She has co-edited two volumes and has published 50 journal articles on this topic, and her work has important implications for science policy and issues related to computing, culture, and society.

The lecture at UNC that caught our eye was subtitled Disparity and Disruption in Scholarly Communication. Cassidy, we are often hearing about disruption in all aspects of our lives, particularly in the business world. But are you telling me that these are disruptive times in the world of research and academia, as well?

SUGIMOTO: Absolutely, Chris. I think this presidential election has made us all acutely aware that it always matters who is speaking – that is, the characteristics of the speaker frame notions of credibility and authority, frame who we trust and how much we trust what they’re saying. In science, this is also the case. Certain voices are heard and valued above others. However, the voices heard in different disciplines also affect the knowledge that is produced.

For example, in the area of health, there is demonstrated preference for research on Western diseases. We have seen across time that different bodies, be they male or female, black or white, receive different treatment in research based on who are the scientists at the time. Even in the area of agriculture, we see that crops in the Western world are more studied and the results more disseminated than those in the Global South. So simply put, who is doing science affects what science is done.

KENNEALLY: Right. There are so many moving parts here, and your lecture really was wide-ranging and touched on a variety of aspects. We won’t get to everything. But I want to help people understand what are the things to be watching for, and to the degree that they can, to be skeptical of what they hear regarding changes and advances in the evolution of scholarly communication with the singular focus on who has a voice. I suppose really this gets down to a basic question – what is an author, and what do we mean by authorship? Briefly review for us why that very basic question is so critical.

SUGIMOTO: Yeah, authorship is a very interesting concept, particularly in the sciences. It serves a dual purpose in academe. When your name is attached to a piece of scholarship, you are given credit for that work, but you’re also asked to take responsibility for the content. This worked fairly well in a small-sized science era, when single individuals or small groups worked together on research. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there weren’t disparities. There’s a long history of invisible technicians and students who labored but were not rewarded with authorship.

We’ve since reduced that amount of ghost authorship – that is, ignoring people who contributed to the work – but we’ve also diluted authorship in a way. It no longer meets its etymology. People can be an author when they didn’t author a single word. When a scientific work becomes more complex, other tasks become part of authorship, and we start to credit those tasks, something that is unique from penning the work.

KENNEALLY: Has your research given any cause to believe that the roles in science research could be gendered or in some other way divided up that we wouldn’t see or wouldn’t obviously notice?

SUGIMOTO: Yes. Our research has focused primarily on gender differences in sciences, though there are many more disparities which could be examined. And our studies have reconfirmed that men’s voices matter more in science. They’re more likely to be in leading authorship roles, they produce more, and their work is more highly cited. Furthermore, when we investigate the labor roles that they play in science, we find that men are more likely to be granted authorship for conceptual tasks, like designing or writing the study, whereas women are granted authorship for technical tasks, such as experimentation. In short, women are the hands of science, but men are choosing which questions to ask.

KENNEALLY: This really does have implications in all kinds of ways, and as you said at the opening of our podcast right now, it’s about where we study, where we look. And I guess again, this all seems fairly obvious once you raise the point, but scholarly research and publication has tended to overlook all of this. By calling attention to it, are you hoping to see some changes?

SUGIMOTO: I am. I think because we have heralded the author as the most important concept in the scientific reward system, we’ve obscured some of these disparities in the labor roles. As soon as a woman is an author on the paper, we assume that the laboring is equal and the reward will be equal. But we know that’s not the case. So many authors and publishers are starting to advocate for contributorship models instead of authorship models.

The ICMJE guidelines which were created by medical journal editors tried to deal with this by creating criteria for authorship, saying what it meant to be an author, saying you had to contribute to writing, to analysis, etc. But this still obscured the actual labor roles. So journals such as PLOS and others are beginning to look at taxonomies for contributorship and identifying not only who is an author on the work, but what work they did. And I think in moving towards those, we make manifest these disparities. We see how people are placed in different roles in science, how different people get to choose the questions that are asked in science. And my hope is that by moving to this contributorship model, we can make transparent some of these disparities that we’ve studied.

KENNEALLY: What’s interesting, too, is the impact of the public’s view of science on science itself. By the public, I mean not only just the general public, but also public policy makers and many other concerned parties who are looking to see what they call broader impact for science. This would mean anything from the impact on the economy and business to health, of course, and the environment. So how does the push for broader impact tie up with this desire to see contributors highlighted in ways they haven’t been before?

SUGIMOTO: I think when we’re talking about marginalization in science and talking about who has a voice in science, we have to reconsider the relationship between the academic voice and the public voice, between the political voice and the social voice. All of these voices need to be heard in science. One of the ways we’ve done this is to look at who gets to make science, who gets to participate in science, who’s rewarded in science. But we have to also ask, to whom are they speaking? Are they speaking to each other, or are they speaking to a wider general public?

Recently there’s been a lot of work towards understanding the breakdown in that communication cycle. We have many metrics that look at the impact of science on science, and citations serve as a reasonable measurement of that. But we don’t have good metrics for the impact of science on society and for measuring society’s response to science.

Some people have argued that altmetrics may be a good indicator of this impact, and we’ve begun to look at that. But there are mixed results in this regard. On the negative side, altmetric indicators to date have primarily focused on the impact of journal articles, thus not widening modes of production of scholarship. Now, they are beginning to expand. Companies like are starting to include books and datasets. But this expansion is fairly slow. They have, however, broadened the array of sources for dissemination of that scholarship. That’s where I think we start to get that interplay between the public and the academic voice. So they’ve looked for receipt in things other than journal articles, looking at social media platforms, in the news, on syllabi, in policy documents.

As might be expected, the web does not alleviate, but in many ways exacerbates these preexisting disparities. The conversations on social media platforms like Twitter tend to be a largely Western conversation, and platforms like Mendeley and other social media platform tend to cater overwhelmingly to the highly educated, thus questioning the notion of broader impact. So I think we still have a ways to go in thinking about ways we can measure the public impact. How can we ensure that the voice of scientists is breeding a greater public conversation?

KENNEALLY: And what’s interesting, too, is that these new opportunities for scientists to communicate about their work, to communicate not only among themselves and their communities, but with the broader community, really means that scientists are presenting themselves in ways that they hadn’t before. Can you tell us about the self-presentation piece of this? It’s really fascinating.

SUGIMOTO: Yeah, I think that there’s a lot of interesting work that can go on self-presentation. On the positive side, we are reinvigorating a commitment for academics to be in dialogue with the public, and I think that that’s a great move. I think we need to encourage science communication efforts. But the dark side of that is that in doing that, we begin to engage in many self-promotion activities. We become marketers for our own material. And I’m concerned that we have goal displacement activities where scholars start to do scholarship and talk about scholarship in ways that will enhance their public visibility at potentially the expense of their science.

So I think we need to find a way to balance that science communication aspect and self-promotional piece so that the tweet doesn’t become the end in itself, so that we still continue to do scholarship and communicate within the scientific community and engage in organized skepticism within the scientific community and not turn our intention entirely towards public dissemination.

KENNEALLY: Right. So the point that you make, and it’s a wonderful thought, which is that you want to distinguish attention from impact. Science really is about impact. Getting attention usually results after you’ve had the impact. Now in this global networked world, people are thinking of attention as kind of the end, which of course it is not.

I wonder if you can tell us, Cassidy Sugimoto, about the reaction to your research. You gave this lecture at UNC. I wonder how researchers themselves feel when this is called to their attention. Do they respond in ways that are positive, or do they resist these characterizations? What’s the response?

SUGIMOTO: I think as we change any reward system, there is an expectation that those who were doing well and performing well on the old metrics have more resistance than those who were not. So people who are highly cited, people who flourished in a system where you were promoted by your production of journal articles and the citation of those, resist this. They see it as trivialities, and they see it as a time waste for academics to engage in these kinds of activities. They are doing well, and they are rewarded for their scholarship.

Other people who have been marginalized, whose voices have been marginalized, see this as an opportunity to engage in a wider conversation and to obtain visibility for their work. So people whose work doesn’t fit neatly into our current academic reward system see this as a potential, and some of our results reinforce that. We found that the work of women, for example, receives wider dissemination on social media than would be expected given their production and citation rates in journal indices. Therefore altmetric indicators may reward scholarship more equitably along some lines – for example, in gender. So you see different levels of receipt.

Of course, almost all scholars, regardless of whether they’re well rewarded under the current system or not, are a little skeptical and worried about the validity of these indicators. They change daily. There’s a dynamicity to them that makes them cumbersome to create standards and to create parameters for measurement on these things. There is a large degree of variability across social media platforms, and there are certain disparities that we’ve already uncovered. So I think people are coming at this cautiously, but understanding that it may open up some ways of producing new value statements around scholarship.

KENNEALLY: Caution is a good way to approach these kinds of things. Skepticism, you said before, is another. But you don’t want to be dismissive. And I think finally, the point that you’re making is that the notion we hold of scholarly communication in the past was of a singular form, the article. And what you and other researchers in this field seem to be trying to open our minds to is that there is a variety of scholarly communication possible.

SUGIMOTO: Absolutely, and I want to embrace that heterogeneity. I think there are many ways we can communicate science. There are many ways science can be both produced, communicated, and rewarded. And I think that we should engage in that larger sphere without losing sight of some of the criteria for scientific validity and replicability that we already have. So I think that there are things to be retained from the old system, but I’m excited about the possibilities of a new system of reward.

KENNEALLY: Cassidy Sugimoto, a researcher of research and professor of informatics at Indiana University-Bloomington, thank you so much for joining us on Beyond the Book.

SUGIMOTO: Thank you, Chris.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center. With its subsidiaries RightsDirect in the Netherlands and Ixxus in the United Kingdom, CCC is a global leader in content workflow, document delivery, text and data mining, and rights-licensing technology. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. I’m Christopher Kenneally. Join us again soon on Beyond the Book.

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