Science is experiencing ongoing technological development that not only influences the way hypotheses can be tested with techniques but also affects the way scientists disseminate and consume scientific research. As science trainees, we are especially impacted by these changes in communication strategies, and mass media technology is becoming integral in accessing and sharing current research. Specifically, global and public access to the internet has vastly changed the landscape of scientific communication. Although delivery subscriptions to journals are still common practice at most institutions, as trainees we preferentially rely on electronic resources to gather information. Search engines and professional development websites are commonly used to search for and share scientific literature. Moreover, social media networks have revolutionized the way that scientific findings are circulated to the scientific community as well as the lay audience. In this editorial, we will discuss how we, as trainees, search for and share literature as well as how to evaluate the quality of published work.
PubMed and Google likely remain the most commonly used search engines for scientific literature, additionally offering notification features that alert users to new publications, given selected keywords. Although PubMed removes non-reputable sources, access to full-text articles is restricted to an institution's subscriptions. Google, on the other hand, provides extensive filtering capabilities and includes non-journal sources, although many results come from non-peer-reviewed websites and often link to websites that require a paid subscription. However, Google offers an array of resources that overcome some of these problems, including Google Scholar and Google Images. Google Scholar narrows search results to scientific publications, including conference abstracts and published dissertations, whereas Google Images may be useful when looking for specific figures, such as signaling pathways or immunofluorescence of a particular protein. However, the source of the image must be examined to ensure that it is reputable. Although both PubMed and Google produce unique results from one another when identical searches are performed (2), results from Google often link to PubMed articles, although Google's search engine may be more user friendly. For individuals who do not have institutional access to journals, open access articles may be found using the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). A disadvantage of search engines, if used in isolation, is that they limit researchers to their own field and may preclude advancements promoted by cross-disciplinary knowledge. Therefore, it is important to consume research through additional means to expand a trainee's overall scientific understanding.
Professional networking websites have evolved to become a platform through which scientific research can be accessed and shared. Perhaps the most notable among these is ResearchGate, a network specifically catered to scientists and trainees, currently boasting a user base of over 11 million researchers since launching in 2008. After creating their profiles, users can post information about ongoing research projects, while ResearchGate recognizes users' publications and automatically updates their page once a manuscript is published online. If the journal allows open access, researchers may upload their publication to ResearchGate for download by other users. Moreover, by directly contacting authors, articles that are not open access may be more readily accessible, since the author may send publications upon request. Users can even follow papers of interest to receive information about when they are cited and follow other researchers to be notified once they publish new work. ResearchGate also provides a discussion board, allowing users to ask other researchers for their expertise, such as assistance with optimizing a technique. As its user base continues to grow, the ability to use ResearchGate for networking and accessing articles has become greatly enhanced.
It is undeniable that social media websites and apps have become widespread, integrating into every aspect of daily life. Thus it is not surprising that researchers have taken advantage of this surge, and as a result scientific communication has increased. Twitter and Facebook in particular are widely used by scientists, with a recent study showing that 88% of scientists surveyed have a Facebook account and 93% have used Twitter (1). Researchers use these platforms to follow scientific pages, interact with fellow scientists, or distribute research findings to the public. Increasingly so, research organizations, researchers, or journals have created social media accounts, which may be followed to receive alerts when new articles are published. More broadly, research of public interest is often shared across online communities. Science-specific pages such as IFLS, with over 25 million likes on Facebook, report new findings and make research readily available and understandable for the lay public. Similarly, reddit, currently the 25th most viewed website in the world, has nearly 15 million subscribers to the /r/science subforum. Although these are not comprehensive scientific databases, they provide high visibility for current research on pages that can be filtered by discipline.
As the avenues to access scientific literature continue to build, the former lack of accessibility has been replaced by a new problem of excess unfiltered information. Now more than ever, it is critical that trainees are able to judiciously select what to read and assess its quality. Although electronic platforms have changed the way that science can be consumed and shared, the methods for determining the quality of peer-reviewed scientific research remain much the same. These include weighing the reputation of the journal and, more importantly, the methodologies used in a study and whether the interpretations of a study match the data provided. Moreover, further research into the experience and the expertise of the publishing authors may be performed. However, the ability to gain scientific knowledge through direct interactions with scientists, such as when participating in a discussion board on ResearchGate, has placed more emphasis on critical thinking when evaluating information that has not been subjected to the scrutiny of peer review. The ability to assess information from non-peer-reviewed sources improves as a trainee develops and is facilitated through frequent scientific discussions, which may now take place on social media platforms.
Given the rapid evolution of technology and social media over the past decade, it is perhaps not surprising that how research is searched, filtered, shared, and discussed has changed as a consequence. By combining the specificity of search engines, the direct scientific interactions of ResearchGate, and the wide audience of social media, trainees interface with research information at a remarkable rate. In a sense, technology and social media are not merely facilitating scientific development but are becoming essential for the researcher. Now, just as it is imperative to keep up with novel techniques, future success in research for trainees will also depend on awareness of technological advances that influence the accessibility and distribution of scientific literature.
No conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise, are declared by the author(s).
- ©2017 Int. Union Physiol. Sci./Am. Physiol. Soc.