Trust in science: key to build a knowledge society

At QS India Summit in Goa, Michiel Kolman, PhD, Senior Vice President, Information Industry Relations; Academic Ambassador, Elsevier and Presidential Envoy Diversity & Inclusion, International Publishers Association (IPA), shares his views on Promoting a Culture of Research while Ensuring Excellence in Teaching: Building a Knowledge Society.

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A View of QS India Summit in Goa

The core reason for scientific endeavor is to create knowledge. It is about testing our assumptions about our world, and our own society, and establishing what is fact and what is fiction.

Scientists have been building knowledge for centuries. They created a formal way of testing their assumptions, explaining their experiments and reasonings and communicating this to their colleagues. Scientists adhere to these established methods to ensure transparency, inspire critical evaluation and increase reproducibility. Once published, their research forms the scholarly version of record. It becomes fact. It becomes knowledge.

Trust in information is dwindling…

Today, we live in a period of history, where we have access to an unparalleled amount of information. The problem is, we no longer have the ability to understand the authenticity of this information. Articles reported as news, can be complete fiction. And scientific studies which are factual are ignored or worse dismissed. This is a worrying trend.

In a recent panel discussion held in Italy last month, it was stated that fake news, even if it is recalled, stays alive for more than a month as real news. This is because of the rapid rise of powerful social media platforms that are transforming the way information is disseminated. It used to be easy to trust the news because you read it in a newspaper that you trusted had good journalistic standards, or for research it is easy to trust certain findings if has been published in a journal that you know has a rigorous peer review system.

If we look at Europe, the general trust in science has declined from 78% to 66% since 2005. There are now significant differences between scientists and the public’s general opinion on key issues such as climate change, genetically modified foods and in the safety of vaccinations. It is getting better in some parts of the world; in the US, the public trust scientists more than the military (which is pretty remarkable).

Building trust…

Trust in science is the key to build a knowledge society. How do we increase the trust? There are three aspects to address:

Firstly, we need to get everyone understanding what science is, and what it is not. The Wellcome Global Monitor reported in 2018, that overall 72% of people globally trust scientists, yet under half of the world’s population doesn’t think they know much – if anything – about science.

Scientists go to great lengths to address possible bias and issues of transparency in their research but do a poor job of broadcasting this to the general public.

To promote a culture of research, we must start with making sure we educate everyone about science. Here in India 59% said they learnt about science at secondary school. This means there is around 40% of the population who is never exposed to science. This is an opportunity for us to get the next generation more involved in science at school. To inspire a love of scientific thinking and understanding.

Secondly, to build trust, we need to get better at sharing open data and independent reviews. Elsevier and Sense about Science released a survey back in August this year, that reported scientists mistrust a large amount of published research with 37% considering only up to half of all research outputs to be trustworthy. In particular, 41% of respondents said increasingly availability of low-quality research was a major issue.

This is where publishers can play a role. Scientific publishers disseminate research to the broader scientific community. They provide both the infrastructure and outlets to maintain, certify and improve the scientific processes of publishing knowledge.

Publishers also play a role at encouraging researchers to share their research data. Publishers now link datasets to articles and ask researchers to publicly post these on open websites. They are also asking for more transparency in the methods and data collections to increase reproducibility.

Additionally, publishers understand that scientists, like the rest of us are inundated with information. We too, need to ensure that scientists can easily discover relevant information and trust the findings and scientific rigor of the articles they read. We are increasingly employing powerful artificial intelligence to fingerprint articles enabling users to easily discover relevant articles and cut down the time they need to spend on search and discovery.

Thirdly and finally, to build a knowledge society, we all need to be advocates of science. The power of social media is built on the fact that it is human nature to trust information from your own network,compared to information you get from a stranger.

Let’s teach our students, family and friends about critical thinking. Let’s challenge them to qualify their opinions. Let’s teach them about where to find facts beyond Wikipedia. Let’s inspire them to check the source before they share online.

Keys to building a knowledge society

To summarize, the three key aspects to building a knowledge society is about

  1. Inspiring a love and understanding of science with the public.
  2. Making it easier for scientists to be transparent and to increase research integrity.
  3. Become advocates for science.

To finish, in the words of the Indian writer Shakuntala Devi, “Education is not just about going to school and getting a degree. It is about widening your knowledge and absorbing the truth about life.”

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