Researchers face technology trolls in a post-pandemic world

Science and technology researchers have been thrust into the global spotlight following the Covid-19 pandemic, but social media trolls are abusing them

An overwhelming majority of researchers do not feel confident communicating their findings on social media, according to a new survey, and almost a third of respondents had experienced abuse after posting research online or knew a close colleague who had received the same negative response.

The survey results are included in The Confidence in Research: Researchers in the Spotlight report, which also found 63 per cent of scientific researchers surveyed feel the global reaction to Covid-19 has increased public attention on research. But only 38 per cent think that a better public understanding of research will be a legacy of the pandemic.

Conducted by Economist Impact and supported by science and information analytics publisher Elsevier, the report combines the findings from a global survey of over 3,000 scientists, scholars and researchers on how the pandemic has affected the practice of undertaking and communicating research in the face of increased public scrutiny. The full report includes recommendations for potential solutions from a Global Expert Panel of researchers, academic leaders, science organisations and policymakers.

The study also reveals that more than half of researchers (52 per cent) feel the pandemic increased the importance of publishing research early, before peer review, and many – particularly women, early career researchers and those in Global South countries – feel the pandemic has widened inequalities in, and access to, funding in their fields.

More than half of respondents expressed concern about the challenges of over-simplification (52 per cent) and the politicisation of research (56 per cent) because of increased public attention and social media focus on research and the research process. As a result, many say they now lack confidence in communicating their findings to the public in this new environment. 

Online abuse and misinformation a global concern for research

Fewer than one in five researchers (18 per cent) participating in the study feel highly confident in communicating their findings on social media. This is against a background of nearly a third (32 per cent) of respondents having experienced, or knowing a close colleague who has experienced abuse after posting research online.

Half of all researchers surveyed (51 per cent) say they feel a responsibility to engage in debate online and over two-thirds (69 per cent) believe the pandemic has increased the importance of separating quality research from misinformation. In fact, misinformation has become such a concern globally in recent years that nearly a quarter of academics (23 per cent) now see publicly countering it as one of their primary roles in society, compared to just 16 per cent who said this was the case before the pandemic.

Alongside supporting the landmark survey by Economist Impact, Elsevier partnered with leading science and research organisations to bring together experts, academic leaders and early career researchers to identify potential action areas to help the research community and enhance confidence in research.

Economist Impact has combined the findings from the global survey with the insights from the extensive stakeholder dialogue to develop recommendations, which are set out in the Confidence in Research: Researchers in The Spotlight report, including:

  • Providing formal communications training to give researchers the tools and guidance to communicate ethically, effectively and with confidence, while incentivising strong communication skills as part of career development
  • Providing support for researchers in the face of online abuse by drafting clear codes of conduct and guidance on how to manage online interaction
  • Embedding the right incentive and reward structures to ensure researchers’ contribution to furthering confidence in science receives appropriate recognition
  • Promoting collaboration and impact by providing financial incentives for researchers to collaborate in larger teams and facilitate quality trials and studies over quantity
  • Prioritising equity and diversity by directing research funding to countries and research communities that need it most
  • Adopting more digestible summaries and user-friendly formats to make it easier for policymakers, journalists or the general public to understand better and identify quality research
  • Prioritising consistency in R&D spending to ensure that researchers can properly plan their research, staffing and infrastructure needs.

“The pandemic showed just how important quality research is for addressing global challenges and accelerating progress for society,” says Laura Hassink, Managing Director of Scientific, Technical and Medical Journals at Elsevier. “Science is advancing at an extraordinary pace, but that has brought new pressures on researchers such as tackling damaging misinformation, handling public scrutiny, and communicating their work with confidence.”

Post-pandemic tech researchers have a crisis of confidence

Tracey Brown, Director, Sense about Science, and chair of a Global Expert Panel that discussed the findings says people who use research evidence need to know what weight they can put on it, and the pandemic significantly increased the number of people who use research evidence. 

“Researchers had to bring decision-makers, the public and reporters in on all those questions about how reliable a study is, and how convincing its findings are,” explains Brown. “And they did this – they did it incredibly well the world over, with innovation and determination, but at some price. This research is a step to figuring out how to take the benefits forward, and address the challenges that make it unnecessarily difficult to talk about what we know and how.”

Jonathan Birdwell, Regional Head of Policy Research & Insights for EMEA, Economist Impact says: “The pandemic demonstrated the research community’s ability to come together and solve global problems. It increased public attention on that community like never before, presenting opportunities for open science and policy influence, but also challenges around higher volume, speed and demand for simple stories. But do researchers have confidence to embrace a more public-facing role? And are their support structures and incentives fit-for-purpose amidst this new landscape? 

“Our research finds that many researchers want to solve societal problems, influence policy and boost public understanding of research,” says Birdwell. “But to do so confidently, they need more time to devote to communication, support in the face of online abuse and recognition of their public-facing contributions.”

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