Twitter journal club

Last Monday night, I went along to a book club meeting. Only, instead of having to engage in small talk (awkward silences) with strangers in a community centre (cold classroom), I sat comfortably in my own living room with a cup of tea (glass of wine).

This was a Twitter book club.

The subject of @GraphicScience’s grey literature club (#SciCommLit) this month was the Wellcome Trust Monitor. This is the Trust’s survey of the public’s attitude towards science, and takes place every three years. The session followed a successful January discussion of the Bodmer report – the Royal Society’s 1985 review of public understanding of science.

The Wellcome Trust was established by pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome in his will. He wrote that his company should pass into the hands of trustees, who should use the profits to fund biomedical research and work on the history of science. By now, the trust has divested most of its stake in the pharmaceutical business (which is now part of GlaxoSmithKline), and instead holds a multi-billion pound investment portfolio. In the process, it has become the UK’s largest grant-giving charity, spending hundreds of millions of pounds each year on scientific research and on projects that encourage public engagement with science.

The Monitor’s second wave report was published last year, following a large survey by Ipsos Mori. Their interviewers asked samples of adults and young people (aged 14 to 18) questions on their understanding of science and the ways in which they interact with scientific and medical research.

After a slow start and some confusion over the number of Ms in the hashtag, the conversation began with how science communicators were using the Monitor in their work. Giving public engagement training to scientists and helping science communicators when applying for funding were two of the examples given.

The next point of discussion was the way the Wellcome Trust summarised the wave 2 findings: using a series of infographics, such as this one.

As a bit of a design fanatic myself, I felt the infographics were a good way of visualising a report that not everyone would have time to read. Not everyone agreed, though, especially because they replaced a concise key findings report included with wave 1.

One concern was over who got to choose which results to display graphically, and what their criteria were.

Should we trust such infographics without looking further into the information they represent? After all, no matter how beautiful they look, infographics can sometimes be useless and misleading.

Overall, I think the infographics are a good way to introduce the Monitor to people who are interested in science’s role in people’s lives, but aren’t all that familiar with the world of science communication. And don’t have time to read a long report to find the facts that interest them.

Something that I found interesting was one of the questions the respondents were asked about their trust in science. The question asked how much trust people had in various people and organisations involved in science and medicine, whether directly or indirectly.

The question distinguished between “scientists working in universities” and “scientists working for the government”. As someone at a research institute that is funded by one of the government’s research councils and is not part of a university, I would think of myself as one of the latter.

Sadly, this makes me less trustworthy in the survey respondents’ eyes than someone working across the road at the University of East Anglia.

Trust in scientists

Some of the others at the discussion questioned what “working for the government” means – and what it means to the public.

Did people think it meant the advisers and civil servants in the Government Office for Science?

But shouldn’t these come under the separate category “government departments and ministers”?

Ben Johnson questioned whether the term existed at all outside surveys like the Monitor.

I’d like to know what readers of this blog think. Whether you work or study at one of the institutes, or you just follow our research, would you class the scientists at the John Innes Centre as government or university scientists?


I thought #SciCommLit was a good example of the Twitter discussions that we now see happening more and more, even if it was a little quiet compared to some other discussions (think #ASEChat for science educators or #AgriChatUK for farmers, plant breeders and crop scientists). It would be nice to see more discussions of literature happening on Twitter – maybe even a monthly plant science journal club like the successful medical one at #TwitJC?


by Mabon Elis – a first year PhD student in the lab of Enrico Coen


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