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Dear Scientists, Come Down From Your Ivory Tower.

By Ashley Moses, edited by Andrew S. Cale

Each year, millions of scientific research papers are published. Virtually none of them can be understood by a general audience. And, not many scientists are doing anything about this.

I am a Neurosciences PhD student at Stanford University who has seen firsthand the issues associated with inaccessible academic publishing. Science is the process by which we create and share knowledge for and with the world. We cannot forget the sharing part.

Not only does the inaccessibility of research hinder many people from learning about scientific advancements but it also contributes to the spread of misinformation and distrust between scientists and the public.

It is important, now more than ever, to make science accessible. We have created an ivory tower for ourselves. We are cut off from the rest of the world with a lack of concern with what happens on the ground. Consumed by our own pursuits, do we ever come down? It is time for us to come down.

The Problem

Increased inaccessibility of scientific publications, spread of misinformation, and distrust between science and the public have all contributed to the inaccessibility of scientific knowledge.

Scientific publications are not accessible.

With reading levels higher than most can manage, excessive quantities and lengths many cannot parse through, and financial barriers that limit one’s ability to read, scientific publications are not accessible.

The numbers:

  • The average reading level in the United States is around 7th-8th grade whereas that of a science publication is around 17th-20th grade – that is at a post-collegiate level. And, on top of that, scientific papers are getting harder to read, each with 20+ pages of scientific jargon.
  • Millions of scientific papers are published each year in around 30,000 research journals. To make matters worse, these numbers have continued to grow for the past three centuries and who knows where we will end up in the coming one.
  • Hundreds to millions of dollars in subscription fees make accessing these articles difficult for both individuals and institutions. In example, a subscription to Cell, a prominent scientific journal, is $370 per year. They also charge for just 6 hours of access! It also costs thousands of dollars for a researcher to publish an article open-access, or available for the public to view for no cost. For instance, Nature, a prominent scientific journal, charges researchers over $12,000 to make their research article free to the public.

If we do not educate in an accessible way, letting misinformation run rampant, then what else would we expect? It is critical we fix this before we are presented with another international emergency.

Misinformation spreads rapidly.

Since accurate scientific information cannot be easily accessed or understood, society is left vulnerable to the spread of inaccurate and potentially harmful information. This has been seen especially through the prevalence of social media use.

Billions of people worldwide use social media each day. In the United States alone, over 90% of people report daily social media use. These digital platforms have provided an incredible outlet for people from all over the world to connect and learn. However, this learning can be misguided, as inaccurate information spreads faster and farther than accurate information. False news is more likely to garner attention and interest from viewers and therefore be shared with others. This creates viewership incentives for sensationalization of information. We were able to see the negative societal, political, and health consequences of this spread of misinformation especially during the COVID 19 pandemic.

So many scientists were appalled at the public’s response to the health crisis the pandemic presented. Some felt the vaccine contained a tracking chip from the government. Others fell prey to false promises of certain drug cures. Science became associated with political candidates rather than the overall health of all citizens. It was no longer a scientific matter; it was a political matter – taken over by politics, debate, and hate. But, can we, as scientists, fully blame the public for their response?

If we do not educate in an accessible way, letting misinformation run rampant, then what else would we expect? It is critical we fix this before we are presented with another international emergency.

Trust in scientists continues to decline.

Let’s imagine a scenario where the problem is realized and a scientist takes the time to share accurate information with a general audience. This scientist is met with distrust and hesitancy, and the audience does not have confidence in the information being shared.

This scenario would not be surprising considering the United States continues to experience a decline of trust in scientists. With the great lack of trust between science and the public, this reactionary approach will not solve the issue.

In summary, accurate information cannot be accessed which leads to inaccurate understanding and misinformed views. From there, inaccurate information spreads rapidly. However, when scientists then go to present the accurate information, they are met with distrust.

We have created the perfect storm.

If we prioritize making the accurate information more accessible from the beginning, there is hope this cycle can be resolved.

It is critical that we better develop tools and infrastructure for scientists to share their work with the public and feel supported and valued in doing so.

Proposed Solutions

In order to actually move the needle on this issue, science communication and outreach should be required and incentivized within academia. I propose three ways to do this:

With each academic publication, the author should be required to publish a lay summary of that publication at a level the general public can understand.

I have created an outlet for these summaries called The Civilian. The Civilian is a non-profit organization that works with researchers to make their research more accessible. We publish short research summaries at a 10th-grade reading level, written by an author on the original publication, and featured in multiple languages. This gives as many folks as possible the ability to hear from the researchers themselves at a level they can understand while also enabling researchers to develop their communication skills. So far, we have worked with researchers from 14 different countries and 18 U.S. States to allow readers to hear from a diversity of researchers. We include members of the general public in our editorial process to ensure that what we are doing is understandable to those we are working to serve. Lastly, everything is provided at no cost to researchers or readers so as not to create any financial barriers to sharing or accessing knowledge.

Image credit

Courtesy of Ashley Moses. The Civilian is a nonprofit working to make research more accessible and understandable. Check out for more information.

Image credit

Courtesy of Ashley Moses. The Civilian has worked with researchers from 14 different countries and 18 U.S. states. We have also translated articles to languages such as Spanish, Mandarin, Turkish, Portuguese, and French.

Science communication and outreach should be required to achieve and maintain tenure track positions at universities. There needs to not only be a strong demonstration of this communication when applying for the professorial position, but also a demonstration during the career as a professor.

Each professorial candidate should have a “Science Communication” section on their CV that is highly considered in the application process as well as during tenure review. Tenure review generally evaluates a professor based on research, teaching, and service to the university. The professor has to present things like a CV with extensive publication and teaching experience in addition to a tenure statement and details of service to the university. I propose that this review should also include service to the broader community, specifically through science communication and outreach (e.g. The Civilian’s Research Communication Contest where researchers give talks to local high schoolers and they vote on the best research communicator). An additional proposition would be to require professors to demonstrate science communication or outreach every 2 years to be considered for tenure and to maintain tenure.

Each graduate student should be trained in scientific communication and should have to demonstrate competence in it before graduation.

In the Neurosciences PhD Program at Stanford, we are required to publish a research paper of our own upon graduation. We should also have to provide evidence of our scientific communication skills or service to graduate. During the ~5 years it normally takes to complete a Neurosciences PhD, there’s plenty of time for at least one experience in science communication. This could include publishing your work in a popular media outlet (e.g. The Civilian), go to a high school and talk about your research, discuss on a podcast about your findings, take a course or complete a certificate program, etc.

It is critical that we better develop tools and infrastructure for scientists to share their work with the public and feel supported and valued in doing so.

A Parting Letter

Dear Scientists,

We do science to better the world around us and serve the people in it. Unfortunately, we are failing those people. By not communicating in a way that folks can understand, we are allowing misinformation to spread and distrust to continue. We have a responsibility to share our knowledge with everyone and we need to do better by making research findings understandable from the beginning. We need to make science more accessible for all.

It is time we come down from our ivory tower.


That Pestering Neuroscientist

Ashley Moses is a Neurosciences PhD student at Stanford University and the Founder of a nonprofit organization called The Civilian. The Civilian works to make research publications more accessible for the public and aims to build the conversation between researchers and society. So far, The Civilian has worked with researchers from 14 different countries and 18 different U.S. states and published articles in 6 different languages to bring scientific discovery to folks all around the world. The Civilian has been featured by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, the Science Communication Institute, and Stanford Magazine The Loop, and it has received funding from Stanford University through The McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. Ashley hopes that these efforts allow as many people as possible to learn about and be inspired by the wonders of science.

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