Posted by: bluesyemre | February 16, 2022

Preprints + Social Media = Noise

Experts find negative externalities to promoting single point findings on social media

Posting preprints is one thing. Making them discoverable is another decision. Promoting them on social media is another thing entirely. So, when bioRxiv began promoting preprints on Twitter in the Spring of 2020, I wrote about how strange this seemed:

I stopped following bioRxiv on Twitter after I grew weary of seeing unreviewed science promoted on a social media platform. It seemed odd for a preprint platform to be reaching out to the public with claims and headlines, yet without a disclaimer or any caveats as part of their public communications, leaving impressions of various kinds out in the information space. This struck me as another example of their general disregard for careful information purveyance.

At the time, bioRxiv was sending 200-300 tweets per day, a pace that appears to have remained relatively stable.

That’s a tweet every 5-10 minutes. Of the major preprint servers I checked, only bioRxiv and medRxiv seem to have automated preprint promotion. But even without an industrial solution, authors are promoting their preprints often enough.

Now, smarter people than I have weighed in on the damage this is doing via a Perspective in a recent issue of Science.

Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele, experts in life sciences communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, write:

Preprints as a form of anecdotal evidence have exacerbated the problem [of single examples dominating mindshare more than evidence-based overviews. A preprint is] a version of a scientific paper that has often not been peer-reviewed by a scientific journal. Designed to make science more transparent and maximize the corrective potential of science, preprints have emerged as a major driver of episodic, single-study media coverage of science. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, conversations surrounding individual non–peer-reviewed preprints has made it difficult to extract meaningful signals about reliable, cumulative scientific evidence from the noise of sometimes short-lived findings reported in a preprint. At first glance, a hyperlink to a preprint article (typically posted on an online archive) might seem like good-enough evidence to support a scientist’s Tweet calling for people to wear masks, for example. But winning these short-term Twitter battles using questionable “evidence” that itself might turn out to be wrong is likely to do irreparable long-term damage to the public’s perception of science as a reliable way of understanding the world.

Well, well, well.

Or, as John McClane might say:

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The authors also write about another element of the new digital ecosystem I first noted in 2017 (yes, this is a “I saw it before they did” post). This is the way in which even free information isn’t likely to reach its intended audiences because new and untrustworthy intermediaries own the space between producer and consumer and use black box algorithms to determine what goes where. I wrote in 2017:

Now there’s a new wrinkle — the Internet has changed in the intervening years. These changes have introduced diversions and detours that aren’t based on paywalls but which can prevent OA content from reaching an audience. These changes have put non-neutral intermediaries on the discovery path, and these intermediaries divert readers without leaving a trace.

As Brossard and Scheufele write in Science:

Arguably, the greatest challenge that scientists must address as a community stems from a fundamental change in how scientific information gets shared, amplified, and received in online environments. . . . the societal balance of power for scientific information has shifted away from legacy media, government agencies, and the scientific community. Now, social media platforms are the central gatekeeper of information and communication about science. The scientific community has been slow to react.

Recent concerns about misinformation are a good illustration of the scientific community’s outdated thinking in this space. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists misconstrued misinformation as a new problem, in terms of both nature and scope, even though empirical evidence for these assumptions is thin, at best. This has distracted scientists from a much bigger and more urgent problem for science: What evidence reaches which parts of the audience is increasingly up to automated algorithms curated by social media platforms rather than scientists, journalists, or users of the platforms themselves.

Even researchers from top-end institutions miss this aspect, as an infamous study from Science in 2018 showed. In this paper, the spread of lies on Twitter was measured without any appreciation of when Twitter shifted to an algorithmic feed or that shift’s potential and incredmental effects on what was spread and how persistently. (Yes, I covered this blindspot at the time, as well — I’m starting to think I understand this stuff.)

Preprints are themselves affront enough to the role of scholarly and scientific publishers, editors, reviewers, and institutions. Promoting these unreviewed and unvetted draft papers via social media is causing even further harm to society’s understanding of science as a holistic, long-term endeavor and not a set of “Eureka!” papers on Twitter.

Ultimately, via reckless preprinting and preprint promotion, we are undermining our own institutional role while forcing others to endure our endless chatter.

It’s time to move preprints back away from the public interface. They are causing specific and general harms. Promoting them on social media is undermining public perceptions about science and how it works.

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