1 July 2020

This CREST research project is featured in the latest edition of ‘Research at Stellenbosch University: Showcasing research excellence’. 

The days when people could read news about science only in their (printed) morning newspaper are gone forever. Today, scientists use online platforms and social media to make their work visible and to engage diverse audiences. As science communication experts, researchers at SU’s Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) are interested in interactions between scientists and society. These interactions include trends in the communication of science via traditional and online media.

The Conversation is an example of an open-access, online media outlet that provides a novel platform for scientists to write about their research and provide expert opinion on current issues.

With scientific rigour with journalistic flair as its strapline, articles and opinion pieces that appear on The Conversation are written by academics and edited by journalists. Other media outlets are invited to republish content freely, with credit to the source. As such, The Conversation presents an interesting new science communication space, situated at the intersection between scientific and journalistic communication.

Academics begin to fulfil the agenda-setting roles formerly played by journalists. The old-style gatekeeping function of science journalists and editors fade or disappear. Therefore, it is important to understand how this new platform is changing the reporting of science in the mass media, and whether it is replacing or augmenting independent science reporting.

First launched in Australia in 2011, The Conversation has spread to countries around the world, including the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Spain, Indonesia and the United States. Launched in May 2015, The Conversation Africa has since established editorial offices in Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi and Accra, and shares an office in Dakar with the French edition. The platform is funded by donors and research organisations, including SU.

As a starting point for research about The Conversation Africa, Dr Marina Joubert and Dr Lars Guenther, analysed the articles and authors featured on The Conversation Africa in its first four years, 7 May 2015 to 6 May 2019. Dr Marina Joubert is a senior science communication researcher at CREST, while Dr Lars Guenther is an extraordinary senior lecturer (currently based at Hamburg University).

During the first four years of The Conversation Africa, 4 276 articles, written by 2 823 authors, were published. Most of these articles (83.1%) were written by one author, with between two and nine co-authors for the rest.

Twelve lead authors each wrote 20 or more articles. The most active author published 54 articles. Nearly three quarters of the articles were written by researchers at South African institutions (73.8%). The number of articles per month was steady over the study period, with an average of 89 articles published every month.

Looking at the institutional affiliations of the authors, most were from the University of the Witwatersrand (16.5%), followed by the University of Cape Town (13.1%) and the University of Pretoria (7.7%). Academics at SU published 310 articles (7.2%). With 56 articles written by academics at the University of Nairobi, this is the only African university outside of South Africa on the list of top 20 contributing institutions.

On average, each article published on The Conversation Africa during the first four years since its launch was read 3 273 times; and republished by other media outlets 12 times. The average number of Facebook and Twitter shares were 286 and 40, respectively.

As an indication of how traditional media and public audiences respond to the articles published on The Conversation Africa, the researchers compared the uptake (or republishing) of content via mainstream (or journalistic) media and social media. They found that journalistic media were mainly interested in ‘hard’ news topics, such as politics, finances and economics. In contrast, the ‘softer’ news topics that are closer to our everyday lives, such as education, environment and health, were shared more often via social media.

The next step in this research project will involve exploring the most important topics that academics wrote about on The Conversation Africa during the first four years of its existence, by studying the full text of all articles and using a process called ‘content topic modelling’. Next, the research team will interview authors, editors and journalists to learn about their rationales, motivations and practices when writing for this novel platform.

Dr Marina Joubert (marinajoubert@sun.ac.za)
Dr Lars Guenther (lars.guenther@uni-hamburg.de)