Where are we heading? The Future of Communication Science

A position paper by the NeFCA (Netherlands-Flanders Communication Association) Young Scholars Network.

Given recent technological, societal, and political developments (e.g., virtual reality, Trump election, Brexit), the NeFCA Young Scholars Network organized a brainstorming session to discuss the future of communication science. In the beginning of February 2017, PhDs and young scholars in communication science from the Netherlands and Belgium met during the Etmaal van de Communicatiewetenschap at Tilburg, the Netherlands. The aim of this brainstorming session was to think together about future directions for our field of research.

To kick off the meeting, Prof. Dr. Jochen Peter, scientific director of the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), shared his view on four crucial developments in communication science, based on insights from a previous meeting with Dutch senior scholars. According to him, communication scholars should focus more on changes in media consumption caused by increased mobility and digitization (mobility). We ought to be aware that media have not only become more and more personalized, but that consumers themselves have become creators of media content (personalization). In this respect, Jochen Peter pointed out that the medium increasingly becomes the communication partner, with technology progressively becoming part of us, partly due to the ‘more natural’ interfaces (naturalization). He called attention to the fact that we are approaching an era where digital reality and common reality begin to strongly overlap or even merge (e.g., augmented reality, internet of the things) (integration).

So what do these developments mean for communication science in general, and for young scholars in particular?

Moderated by Jochen Peter, the NeFCA young scholars discussed various topics in an open and critical environment. In the following, we would like to give a short summary of the most relevant points raised during the brainstorming session.

1. Following Trends or Shaping Developments?

The NeFCA young scholars concurred that we need to strive for maturity as a discipline instead of only following trends. Theories developed in our field emerged from a time in which the media environment looked very different. These theories have originated from other disciplines, such as psychology or sociology. Hence, we should not only critically reflect upon them, but we should also question their value and consider their applicability to supposedly new and “hot” developments. At the same time, caution should be exercised that new gadgets do not exclusively guide our research agendas. The young scholars shared their views: Instead of reinventing the wheel, re-integrating or adjusting existing theories might be a more meaningful approach.

2. Open Science: Opportunities and Pitfalls

Furthermore, it became clear during the discussion: Open science provides opportunities for ethical data management and ways to communicate with non-scientists. However, despite its benefits of reproducibility and transparency, the question remains to what extent the non-academic community can make use of open science? Furthermore, the young scholars agreed that open science might not be realizable for all types of data and research methods (e.g., sensitive data, qualitative analysis). In this regard, another question was raised: If we consider “open science” as the new golden standard, are we currently practicing “closed science”? After all, by agreeing to publish our scientific work in journals, we typically also comply to make our data available upon request. Despite this criticism, the young scholars agreed that open science is a relevant and important development in our field to combat fraud and to promote more ethical scientific research.

3. At the Crossroads: Valorization of Our Work

For young scholars, valorization does not only mean communicating findings and providing implications for practice, but also sharing insights on methods, analyses, and data wrangling. Two viewpoints on the exertion of valorization emerged during the discussion: On the one hand, young scholars called for more collaboration between academia and practice in order to investigate relevant “real-world” issues. On the other hand, valorization should not come at the expense of scientific integrity (e.g., conflict of interests due to third-party funding). Furthermore, there was consensus among the discussants that scholars should distance themselves from evaluating their research in terms of economic value. Instead, we should acknowledge our unique position as an independent and knowledge-creating control authority.

4. It’s the Divisions, Stupid!

At the end of the discussion, it became clear: Communications science misses to seize its full opportunities due to artificial divisions within and beyond its discipline. For instance, topics such as voting behavior based on media exposure are studied in both political communication science and political science. In case of such overlapping topics, departments are barely collaborating with each other, thereby passing up valuable knowledge exchanges. Therefore, the young scholars came to the conclusion that research endeavors should more often be based on topics (e.g., personalization, privacy) rather than on research divisions (e.g., health communication). In that way, scholars from different backgrounds and fields of expertise could come together and use their full potential to study phenomena from various angles, providing more valuable insights for both academia and practice.

We thank all the participants of this discussion. The brainstorming session of the NeFCA Young Scholars network was well received and calls for more debate on these topics in the future.

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