Charging at the Loading Dock

The “loading dock” is a metaphor in the science policy wonk world for a process by which scientists just sorta drop off information for folks, hoping that they somehow find it useful. Mitchell Berger, a New Jersey public health planner had an letter in Science April 6 placing an interesting twist on the issue:

It is disappointing that, at a time when many political and governmental officials are emphasizing the importance of collaboration, information sharing, and community involvement in pandemic flu planning and preparedness, interested professionals and members of the public are compelled to pay high fees or wait for weeks for an interlibrary loan request to be filled when articles from medical and scientific journals are readily available online and could be easily shared with a broad audience.

Not only must a poor schlub wait at the loading dock for the scientists to dump off something potentially useful, but once they do, the poor schlub must pay. (And not just for the research paper. The poor schlub must pay to read Berger’s letter.)


  1. I wonder how much it would cost to make back issues of most journals available free to everyone with an internet connection? (I.e. us members of the public) Of course many would not be computerised, but it would I think be a boost to those interested in things to actually be able to look at the papers, even if they had to wait a year or two before they could.

  2. Amen. I will say that some government agencies are trying much harder to be helpful, notably NCAR (the National Center on Atmospheric Research). And scientists themselves often post their papers on their own sites, thankfully, so that us poor schlubs can find them and read them. But the journals seem almost always seem oriented towards scientific libraries, not the public.

  3. I expect that in real life there would be an increase in, for example, people waving out of date journal papers at their GP (Their doctor for you USA’ians) and demanding some treatment, but at least that way you can persuade them otherwise using newer evidence.
    Other than that, I can’t see any particular problems with it.

  4. “people waving out of date journal papers at their GP (Their doctor for you USA’ians) and demanding some treatment”

    A more recent article by Ben Goldacre talks about patients waving newspaper articles at their GPs and demanding treatment. I think research papers would be an improvement. 😉

  5. So the science priests should let the lay people read the scientific papers themselves? Wouldn’t that just be a more extreme form of “data dumping” than we already have?

    Seriously, I think the “data dumping” and “loading dock” metaphors are very unhelpful.

  6. Data dumping? I suppose that depends on how well you think lay people are capable of absorbing scientific papers. To be honest, I don’t expect that many people to be that interested enough to go back to the original papers. Nevetheless, especially when it came to politically charged issues, those of us who have experience of papers or are sufficiently interested to learn the science, would find it incredibly useful to be able to reference the original research.

    Mark, what would you rather happen? That the high priests interprete the papers to the lay people, or else that they ban translations and hold onto the knowledge for themselves?

  7. Mark –

    Berger, the author of the original piece, is a public health planner in New Jersey, not a member of the lay public. The Cash et al. paper, “Countering the Loading-Dock Approach to Linking Science and Decision Making,” involves an analysis of the most effective methods of providing scientific information to people such as Berger, not the lay public.

  8. I was being flippant. I would like all these papers should be available freely. I often get irritated by references to papers in Science and Nature, because my institution has paper, but not on-line subscriptions. Papers is so 90s!

    But I am seriously pissed off by casual references to “data dumping”. Who dumps data? Was Jim Hansen’s article in New York Times Book Review a year or two ago data dumping? What about Gavin’s latest article in RealClimate (Ocean Cooling Not)? Maybe John Flecks 10 April 2007 snippet on Land Use Change in the Amazon? The IPCC 4AR? Books? A newspaper article? A book?

    A lot of science communication with the public is via the isolated press release, leading to short newspaper articles rather lacking in context. “Study shows North Atlantic overturning Circulation has slowed 25%”, “Antioxidants cure Cancer”, “Antioxidants don’t cure Cancer”, “Ocean has Cooled”, “Ocean hasn’t Cooled”, that short of thing. Most of these stories are remarkable for their lack of context. Is this what you mean by a “loading dock”?

    I’m afraid the rambling nature of this post reflects the confused nature of my thoughts, but I’ll plow on. In response to guthrie, “Mark, what would you rather happen? That the high priests interpret the papers to the lay people, or else that they ban translations and hold onto the knowledge for themselves?” Well, not the latter, but if they try the former (see RealClimate) they’ll get accused of data dumping and hewing to the linear model of information transfer. And RPJr (sorry to mention him yet again, but it seems relevant here) will back this criticism up with some vague words and a citation dump.

  9. Mark –

    Sorry, I haven’t been clear enough in explaining this and have just assumed readers understood my jargon. Bad journalist! Sadly, per the topic of this post, Cash’s loading dock paper is not freely available. But the case studies it documents have nothing to do with public science communication. It’s about the relationship between scientists and the policy community that must use scientific information. The paper deals specifically with the ENSO forecasting community and the government agencies in the South Pacific (case study 1) and sub-Saharan Africa (case study 2). The authors found that the scientific information was more useful if the stakeholders were at the table as the research program was laid out at the beginning, able to tell the ENSO researchers and forecasters what was needed (the South Pacific example) rather than merely driving up to the loading dock and taking the information the forecasters handed out (the African model).

    In this case, Berger is precisely such a stakeholder, working at a public health agency, and is not a member of the general public. There is some overlap with the public communication issue, but it’s a fundamentally different problem.

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