September 28, 2018, by Brigitte Nerlich

How has Science Communication Research Developed? Results from a Citation Analysis

This is a guest post by Mike S. Schäfer (University of Zürich) & Adrian Rauchfleisch (National Taiwan University). The article summarised in this post first appeared in the Journal of Science Communication. This post contributes to the ‘science communication‘ strand of this blog. It can be read together with an older (2012) post which reports on how Rick Borchelt tried to review the state of the ‘field’.


Since the early 1990s, there has been a considerable increase in the number of scientific studies on science communication, and this increase has been accompanied by a diversification of the research field. Our new study focuses on one aspect of this development: It analyses how co-citation network structures within the field have developed. This allowed us to identify specific communities within the field of science communication, categorize their respective major topics and summarize how the importance and interconnection of each community have developed.

The path to an independent academic field

Let’s start off with a flashback. Along with the rising importance of science communication itself, the scientific community has started to analyze the characteristics, antecedents and effects of science communication. Research interest emerged in the 1990s from rather disparate disciplinary fields like sociology (e.g., Bucchi, 1998; Peters, 1994; Weingart, 1998), media and communication science (e.g., Dunwoody, 1980; Goodell, 1977; Ruhrmann, 1992), or political science (e.g., Miller, 1991, 1998), as well as from interdisciplinary fields like “science and technology studies” (e.g., Callon, 1995; Lewenstein, 1995), among others. Since then, there has been a considerable increase in the number of scientific studies on science communication (Guenther & Joubert, 2017; Schäfer, 2012).

Along with this quantitative growth and diversification, a stronger institutionalization of the field and an increasing emancipation from mother disciplines and neighboring interdisciplinary fields have been diagnosed by some scholars (for a differing position see Trench & Bucchi, 2010). They have argued that research on science communication has become “an independent academic field, different from both science and technology studies and communication and media theory” (Gascoigne et al., 2010, p. 1; cf. Bauer, 2009; Delfanti, 2008). It has even been cautiously debated in the Journal of Science Communication whether the field “has achieved the status of a discipline” (Gascoigne et al., 2010, p. 5).

Our study focuses on one aspect of this development. It analyses how citation network structures within the research field have developed. Using a co-citation analysis of scholarly publications on science communication (n=1050) published between 1996 and 2015, we assessed three major research objectives: Firstly, we analyzed which co-citation-based subcommunities exist within the field, and how they can be characterized. Secondly, we described their development over time in order to assess whether developments towards an increasingly emancipated field are visible. Thirdly, we assessed the interconnections between the different subcommunities.

Answering these questions allows us to assess whether science communication research has indeed institutionalized itself, at least regarding the formal communication of scholars in this field, and if so, when and how it has differentiated itself from other fields or disciplines.

Identifying co-citation communities and major topics

Using co-citation analysis based on 1238 unique references and 1051 of our original documents, we found eleven co-citation communities in the scholarly literature on science communication. Subsequently, we assigned individual publications to these communities, and by employing latent dirichlet allocation (LDA) on these publications’ abstracts, we could identify the major topics which are used in the respective communities. Figure 1 shows the relevance of the different topics in the co-citation-based communities.

Figure 1. Relevance of different topics in the co-citation-based communities. Figure shows normalized probabilities, i.e. sum to 1 over all topics.

How have the subcommunities developed over time?

Over time, science communication research has grown considerably. Within this growing field, however, the eleven communities identified in the first step developed differently. This is clearly visible in our data, which shows that the cited literature has shifted away from the previously dominant ‘Sociology of Science’ community (see Figure 2). But, as Figure 2 reveals, there has been a gradual increase in citations from other communities, most notably from those focusing specifically on media communication and communication beyond? the scientific community. Overall the breadth of scholarship increased (cf. Schäfer, 2012), with communities like ‘Scientists as Communicators’, ‘Media Effects on the Broader Public’, ‘From PUS to PEST’ or ‘Science Debates and the Role of Journalism’ emerging and gaining in importance. As of now, there is a relative dominance of communities that have (mediated) communication at their core: ‘Media Dissemination of Science’, ‘From PUS to PEST’, and ‘Science Debates and the Role of Journalism’.

Figure 2. Relative importance of different communities over time (figure shows percentage of all citations by community).

How are these communities interconnected?

The third analytical step was to assess the proximity and interconnections between the communities. In order to do so, we checked how often literature from each community was cited together, i.e. in the same scientific publication, with literature from the same or other communities. This allowed us to measure the relative distance between the communities, and to visualize the results using multidimensional scaling (MDS) (Cox and Cox, 2000).

The MDS visualization shows a close proximity between the three communities which are, currently, quoted most often (see Figure 3). ‘Science Debates and the Role of Journalism’, ‘From PUS to PEST’, and ‘Media Dissemination of Science’ are all connected to mediated science communication, and are often quoted together in studies of science communication. ‘Applied Science Communication’, ‘Science Education’, ‘Scientists as Communicators’, and ‘Media Effects on the Broader Public’ are another group of communities that are proximate and, accordingly, often cited together. The other four communities are more distanced from these two groups. Interestingly, the ‘Sociology of Science’ community does not belong to one of the groups, but has a central position in the research on science communication. This indicates that this literature is not systematically quoted together with literature from specific other communities, but still of importance for all other communities.

Figure 3. Relative importance of different communities over time (figure shows percentage from the different communities).

What conclusions can be drawn?

Regarding the development of science communication research, our analysis of citation networks shows that the research field has differentiated itself over the years. Not only did the communication- and media-centric communities emerge and rise in importance, educational and practitioner-oriented literature became more important as well. Still, however, our findings suggest that the communication centric communities have become the core of the field, accounting for over 50% of all citations in 2014. This figure could rise even further, as the literature from these communities is more recent than that from other communities. It has mostly been published in the last decade, and the future has to show if it will reach a half-life period similar to the ‘Sociology of Science’ literature that has been mostly published before the 1990s.

It will be interesting to see whether these communities will move even closer together in the future which would be a clear sign of a maturing, and increasingly emancipated, field. Our analysis has shown that the communities have already come closer, and cover a wide range of methods and topics. Science communication research has become a well-developed research field, at least regarding the indicator we have used here: scholarly citation networks. The future development of the other two axes of disciplinary development, i.e. of institutional and epistemological characteristics, will have to show if the field can further its institutionalization and, maybe, move towards a distinct discipline.

Currently, it is too early for a final assessment.


Image: Photo by Felix Wegerer on Unsplash

Posted in Science Communication