Orthopaedic Popular Science

08 Jan 2021

By Iona Collins
Consultant Orthopaedic Spinal Surgeon

To date, whenever we have had something to say in relation to science, we have duly explored the issues and presented them as either written papers or oral presentations at conferences. The communication has been received by our orthopaedic peers and we’ve influenced each other using these methods.

The process of communicating scientific knowledge isn’t easy, though. In fact, it takes so much time and effort to publish an article, that we need a real incentive to put pen to paper. Usually, we are told that in order to make progress in our careers, we should publish an article to enhance our CVs.

The journal publication industry appears to be a successful business model, in that the overheads are minimal (online publishing, volunteers reviewing articles) and many authors pay large fees to enable open access online to the publications, instead of readers paying approximately $30 pay per view. A publication which is cited by many other articles gives academic credit to the author and open access articles are more likely to be read and cited by others.

So, one may argue that the most cited papers are those which are open access articles, submitted by authors with good financial support. This would suggest that good and useful scientific information may not be granted an audience due to either lack of finances by the publishing author or lack of finances by the reader who cannot afford to pay per view.

This issue was recognised by Eastern European student Alexandra Elbakyan, who felt that science was at a disadvantage in developing countries with less money available to access journal articles. She developed the popular website SciHub, which enables over 64 million journal articles to be viewed for free online. Journal publishers such as Elsevier have duly filed lawsuits against the website due to loss of revenue, so that SciHub website address is constantly changing.

On a more legitimate level, the urgent need to develop as much global knowledge as possible about COVID-19 resulted in most journals providing all COVID-related scientific articles online for free. The warp speed with which the scientific world has addressed this challenge has no doubt been helped by rapid online communication of scientific articles, with the only remaining barrier to good communication being the published language

Running alongside the online peer-reviewed publications in Nature, the Lancet, JAMA, NEJM etc., spreading information in the English language to the massive online audience, runs unfiltered social media. Social media allows instant publication of any information, which is more rapid than the traditional method of research, peer-review and publication model. But social media is seen by many of us as cheap and trashy online communication, which is used and abused, unfiltered and biased by different stakeholders competing for traffic with ‘clickbait’. 

Thanks to social media, there are people who believe that the COVID-19 vaccination is actually a microchipping exercise to keep track of population movement. People also think that the disease itself spreads by 5G. With harmful information being published on social media like this, it is tempting for the academic world turn its collective back on social media, but this doesn’t stop the unscientific public from continuing to read unfounded propaganda on the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Instragram, Snapchat, TikTok, Pinterest etc.

We can’t beat the social media platforms, but maybe we can recognise their popularity and harness it for our own gain. We can influence non-scientific people using ‘popular science’ online.

Popular science is science which is accessible by everyone. It is useful information which is communicated in a way that everyone can understand to a certain extent and it is delivered in a way which is informal yet informative, entertaining yet educational. We are all more likely to read through an article written in plain English, maybe exemplified by a case history to highlight the importance of the article, written with less than a thousand words so that we don’t need to refill our coffee cups before finishing. We can influence more people with effective communication which is open for us all to read, listen to or watch, with a specific objective and the ability to gain feedback, so that we can refine our original message as required. We can use popular science as an introduction to more detail, accessed via scientific journal articles, with links interspersed inside our blog.

A simple message can be communicated rapidly and to a large readership using social media and established platforms can facilitate this, so that literally millions of people click and read or view the content which we create. When automatic and instant language translation is also used online, we have the ability to spread information potentially even more effectively than by means of using the scientific journal article model. We can turn our orthopaedic causes into common knowledge.

The orthopaedic world has the potential to grab social media by the horns and make it work for us by entertaining and informing the public instead of preaching to them from our academic pulpits. We can even treat those who suffer from cyberchondria, whereby people relentlessly trawl the internet in search of medical information, in an increasing state of anxiety when they can’t find the good, solid, reliable and unbiased information, which we can provide online. We can be trailblazers. Let’s create and populate #orthopaedicblogs :)

The Transient Journal