“Science communication is more important than ever”, says one of the participants of an international series of webinars on doing science during the pandemic

Rodrigo Costas researches science information and bibliometrics at CWTS/Leiden University since 2009 (Personal Archive)

In times of social distancing, curfews, and quarantines, scientists are busier than ever. Be it in collaborative efforts to provide a vaccine in a record-breaking speed or with attempts to understand the many different impacts (mental, social, economic, political) of Covid-19 in our society, there is little doubt that science is at the centre stage when it comes to the subject of our daily (mostly virtual) interactions and hopes for a post-pandemic future. But still, little has been written or told about the effects of Covid-19 on scientific research per se. What if science and scientists are the topics of our research during the crazy times we are living in?

That has been the job of Rodrigo Costas, one of InSysPo’s (Innovation, Systems, Strategies and Policy) co-principal investigators and a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS), at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, and some of his colleagues such as Giovanni Colavizza, Ludo Waltmann, Zohreh Zahedi, and Grischa Fraumann over the last few months. The centre is one of the world-leading institutions in scientometric, science policy, and research evaluation, also known for providing an annual global university ranking solely based on research metrics. Intending to provide a platform for ongoing contributions on science research during the pandemic, Costas and his fellows started the webinar series “Doing science in times of crisis: Science studies perspectives on COVID-19” with a first edition in May expanded to a second meeting in September, with plans of further discussions. These webinars gathered an average of 200 people between fellow academics, early career researchers, and the general public.

In the following interview, Costas shares a few insights on the topic, coming from his research and personal knowledge from the field, as well as revealing details from the webinars and what we can expect from future editions:

InSysPo: First of all, what do you research at CWTS? What is your research background?

My area of expertise is mostly scientometrics, so I work in quantitative studies of science. I investigate mostly two main topics, although you can say that they are maybe pretty broad themselves. On one hand, I’m studying scientometrically research questions about individual researchers, analysing teams of researchers or collaboration groups. Recently we have developed some work on mobility studies, tracking how researchers change their affiliations as we capture them in scientific publications. That is a very interesting new research line.

And the other type of research is the altmetrics research, that I call more and more social media metrics or social media studies of science, because essentially what we want to research are the interactions that can be captured and traced in social media platforms between science and scientists, and the general public.

“what we want to research are the interactions that can be captured and traced in social media platforms between science and scientists, and the general public”

InSysPo: Is there a particular social media in view such as, for example, Twitter or Facebook, or social media in general?

From a conceptual point of view, what we mean as social media is as an environment where academic and non-academic can interact in multiple ways, something that didn’t happen before. The more traditional bibliometric research didn’t have such a strong interaction component, so now with altmetrics we have an opportunity to study this new space of science-society interaction. Of course, although we analyse social media in general, in the end you can only study the sources that allow some data analytical tools, like APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), this is why Twitter is one of our main sources.

I don’t know if you are familiar with the platform altmetric.com. It is probably the most famous company tracking social media mentions. They track Twitter, Facebook – not all the Facebook interactions but the public posts – newsmedia, blog posts, Wikipedia citations, policy documents and so on. The other, Plum analytics, that belongs to Elsevier, is also quite good. Finally, there is the open-source version, Crossref Event Data, which is still good but has more restrictions in their data collection. So, this is basically what we can do in terms of data, so then we look at how many tweets a publication has received. We have already studied the correlation [of those tweets] with citations, we know that they are very low, and we are actually moving right now towards conceptualizing social media metrics to study science communication.

So, considering that space of interaction [social media], one can study the moment where a scientist sends a message to the world, saying: “Okay, there’s this paper”. How can that paper be successful? How is that message supposed to reach people and inform the communities in the best way? So, this is the type of indicators that we are starting to conceptualize.

InSysPo: By the way, you just mentioned science communication, that is a topic that moved to the forefront during the pandemic, especially with the huge amount of information, some not reliable at all, circulating in social media. What do you think are the impacts of the pandemic in Science Communication? Do you feel that it offered a chance for bridging the gap between scientists and society, or that gap got larger?

That is a complex question, it does not have a simple answer. There has been some research showing an increase in the number of experts interacting in social media, something showcased by my colleague Giovanni Colavizza. In our work we have seen, as I presented in the webinar, a huge increase in the attention received by scientific publications related to the pandemic, I mean really impressive data compared to what we typically see in our altmetric research. Just for you to picture the numbers, usually when you look at a scientific topic you will see something around 30%-40% of the papers in that subject receiving some attention or mentions on Twitter. This year we saw up to 60% of attention. That is very high. So more than half of all the papers about Covid-19 receive some mention on Twitter, at least with the data we have from the end of June.

“more than half of all the papers about Covid-19 receive some mention on Twitter”

From what I saw, what I can answer is: there has been an increase in the attention given to scientific research in social media, at least on Twitter.

InSysPo: Moving to the webinar, how did you and your colleagues at CWTS come up with the idea of organizing such events? What was your goal at the beginning? Do you feel they were achieved?

When the pandemic started some of us started to reflect: “Okay, we have a chance to do some research on the social media reception of scientific research”. That was one of the most immediate reactions we had. New research themes flourished during Covid-19 and doing scientometric research on those topics is something that takes some time. The social media reaction, on the other hand, was something more immediate. Then we started to think about how to collect data, how to start the first analysis, the first dashboard and so on. In that context, we brought that discussion to other colleagues here at CWTS and then we set up this program. We tried to coordinate it so that people who were researching funders, peer-review, and other topics could have a space to interact and share their impressions. From there, everything started to have some sort of cohesion.

Initially, we had those discussions every 15 days to follow up on the research we were doing about the pandemic, until this thought came in one of those meetings: “well, why not have a webinar?”

In the first webinar, there were no CWTS contributions, since we tried to reach out to other groups to check what they were doing and how they were seeing the situation from a scientometric research policy perspective. The first edition was pretty successful. I think we had more than 170 participants. The second one, from what I’ve heard, was also quite successful, reaching a larger audience. I feel that there is a strong interest in this type of webinar, in these discussions, and that leaves us with a sense of success concerning what we proposed back then. We got attention and also wonderful contributions. I really enjoyed the last webinar. I think we had a great mix of topics.

InSysPo: Well, it’s such a recent topic and it’s moving a lot of people, they identify themselves with this kind of research to a very personal level as well, and I guess you and your colleagues built the perfect environment to connect all these different people.

True. One of the presentations in the webinar was about this expansion of the epistemic understanding of what is Covid-19 research. And I guess this is a great example. We are social scientists, data scientists, and basically, we are wondering: “what can we do? How can we contribute from our side?” Of course, we are not developing the vaccine, but at least we can create tools, monitors, that can help us make sense of the situation: what are the researches? What are the topics being discussed?

““what can we do? How can we contribute from our side?” Of course, we are not developing the vaccine, but at least we can create tools, monitors, that can help us make sense of the situation”

Take for instance the dashboard that I’ve presented in the webinar. When we developed it we were thinking of reaching journalists and content producers. “What are topics that are being tweeted and no journalist is talking about?” or “What are the topics that are highly tweeted but not cited, pointing to a distortion between social media reception and academic reception?”. That is something that can help people. You may not answer all the questions but can help to answer specific questions or at least take the first step in that direction.

InSysPo: Another question is regarding international collaborations. We heard presentations about changes made by publishers and journals to accelerate the publication process of Covid-19 related research. We also saw seminars showcasing mixed-methods research on the impact of Covid-19 on scientific productivity. But there were no talks on the effects of Covid-19 on international research partnerships and international multidisciplinary research groups, such as InSysPo. So, from a scientometric point of view, how do you see the impact of Covid-19 on the outcome from international research cohorts?

Well, there is the general question, that I can answer with my opinion, and the research question. On the second one, as I said before, we may have more data in perhaps a few months to see how research teams have collaborated. A research question is: “do international research groups keep producing at the same pace during the pandemic? Has there been a drop? Or maybe an increase because we travel less so we can work more?” It is something that seems interesting to explore in the future, to see how global crisis have different effects on the scientific system since collaboration and interdisciplinarity are key topics.

If I answer more like a researcher, from my personal experience, I would say that the lack of physical contact is going to affect me, because although you keep doing work, at least in my case I work a little bit more on my own, setbacks are coming from the lack of physical interaction. I had contacts like this [this interview happened virtually] in the past, I have collaborated with people from South Africa, Brazil, China etc. When you travel and you have the physical space, you enter into dynamics where you focus more on the topics of your collaboration. Even if the production keeps flowing, I believe that if we don’t take something from that, it may have some effect to the point where teams may keep collaborating but work more in an individual setting. So, the collaboration may be diluted a bit. I believe that the physical space, the in-person relation with your colleagues, has some positive effect on scientific work.

InSysPo: Something you think online events or online workshops can’t actually fulfil, right?

I mean, from a different point of view, I could say: “well, these things can really work online”. There is a huge amount of work that we can channel online, perhaps not with that many conferences, but there is still something missing. I miss the people I know! Typically, this time of the year you have a conference where you meet with your colleagues and over the years, they become sort of your friends, so that part is irreplaceable. Same thing with family. I talk a lot to my family now, maybe even more than before since I’m in the Netherlands and they’re from Galicia [Spain], but there is nothing that could replace staying with or visiting them. I feel that the same happens in scientific work. Putting it in a future research question: would that [the lack of physical interaction] also reflect in the outcome of publications? 

Putting it in a future research question: would that [the lack of physical interaction] also reflect in the outcome of publications?

InSysPo: And what about the new dynamics of research in times of Covid-19? What is it like doing “online research”?

Well, we were already doing online research. It is not that we have moved to something completely new. What we don’t do now is in-person research. So, I would say it is much more of doing more of something that we have already been doing and doing less of something that we have already done. In a way, we keep doing the same things we have been doing online, maybe with more online meetings, which I remember to also have a lot in the past. I think we are just realizing that many of the physical meetings can be done online, which saves time. We are finally recognizing that we can work from anywhere. That has an implication for example to our mobility research. Using myself as an example again, I was in Spain and then I came to the Netherlands, so there was a physical movement. I live here, I had to adapt. But now you see that it is perfectly possible for me to work from Spain, while still affiliated to the department here, and keep 80% of my activities basically at the same pace.

That is a powerful thought. Science really became global; you can work for anyone from everywhere. But as I said, I feel that the physical part is an important component that we should not overlook. We keep doing what we already did online, perhaps we do more, using more interactive platforms where we share files, documents, have calls, chats. But, from a personal side, what I miss is the other part, the physical contact.

InSysPo: We are talking about doing science in the times of Covid-19, but these times will hopefully come to an end, at least that is our hope. What changes do you think came to stay? What impacts from Covid-19 on research activity do you see staying for longer?

I can tell you what I’d really like to stay and that is that notion of decentralization, the good things of decentralization, being able to travel more and have physical interactions but still doing your activities, your original work, remotely. So, let’s say I head to Brazil for a month, I would also keep finishing my activities here from my department. So, the delocalization is a great consequence that I hope will stay.

I would also like to see more consciousness in our meetings, the ones where we move physically to a location. There are so many things we can still do online, so we can keep the physical meetings but save them for more important research. I’m not saying that we didn’t do it before, but I believe we’ll have more consciousness about it, maybe thinking: “okay, this is important, so let’s extract more value from it”. So, either we go back to normal or we learn how to handle them better, to also create other spaces to work or think. That is basically what we are supposed to do.

InSysPo: And we finally understood that many of our meetings are actually pointless and (re)discovered the art of getting to the point.

Well, as a person who used to have a lot of meetings, either online or physical, the only thing I can say is: if you are having pointless physical meetings, for which you have to pay transportation or whatever, at least now you’ll save that money.

InSysPo: A much-needed money now.

Of course. What brings me to acknowledge a specific impact of Covid-19 that I hope is temporary, which is all the cuts that are happening. Something I noticed is an increase in the competition for funding. So, it seems like there are more calls for funding, but the competition got even higher and funders were not even aware of this.

InSysPo: Regarding your research field, research metrics, what was the impact of the pandemic on the fields’ praxis? Were there any changes in the metrics per se?

I don’t believe there was a change in the metrics per se, but more in the items that we want to measure. In that sense, one of the points in my webinar was that if our metrics until now were very interesting because we wanted to see different types of impact, they are moving now to capture interactions, which is something more important. We are doing research to solve a problem that is immediate, and people are anxious about it, that is why there is so much traffic around the publications. Having new metrics to monitor if the interactions are happening in the best way is, in my opinion, much more important than before. Science communication has always played a crucial role, but now you feel its increased relevance because you want people to understand why they have to wear/ masks or wash their hands. So, this type of research metric became more relevant.

“We are doing research to solve a problem that is immediate, and people are anxious about it, that is why there is so much traffic around the publications. Having new metrics to monitor if the interactions are happening in the best way is, in my opinion, much more important than before. Science communication has always played a crucial role, but now you feel its increased relevance”

On the more traditional type of metrics, I think some of the recent studies, for example, the gender analysis showing how fewer women are participating in scientific efforts, something that indicates another type of problems, are also important. Policymakers must be aware of such situations after all. All the metrics on the time of publication, how we can ease that process and achieve better results in a shorter time, will also gain importance compared to before. That includes numbers on the roles of preprints because the question was: “okay, can we trust this research? It has not been peer-reviewed”. So, there are other ways now to accelerate that peer-review process.

Another topic is how we delineate the theme: “what is Covid-19?”. The way Covid-19 relates to research is not only circumscribed to the virus, but also to the social, economic, and political consequences. Even the questions you are asking me [in this interview] are Covid-19 related without being strictly about the virus. So, numbers about these questions became more relevant than ever.

InSysPo: Finally, I know you and your colleagues haven’t stopped at the second edition, so what can we expect from future webinars?

Well, I still haven’t talked to my colleagues about the last webinar and the next edition. In essence, we wanted to have more people from the community interested in keeping these webinars. At first, we had only CWTS, now we have other institutions related to CWTS, but ideally, we would have more people engaged in developing them. We also want to expand the topics.

So, we plan to continue the meetings. I still have to talk to my colleagues, but the idea is to keep them, expand the topics, and also have more people running the webinars. We still don’t have a fixed schedule for the next events.