The Risks Of Echo Chambers In Academic Research
The basis of science is evidence, carefully gathered, and presented through an open, transparent process. If such evidence produces an unexpected conclusion, scientists should be willing to modify their positions. Scientists are human, however, and changing beliefs is hard. As a result, across scientific fields, there is a bias against the citation of studies that contradict established hypotheses, and with the advent of the internet and social media, scientists can skip the peer review process entirely and go straight to the public with their findings. This allows the easy and rapid spread of both valid information and misinformation. Advocates can also weigh in with their spin on a topic, perhaps further distorting public perception.
Trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs target “unowned” cat populations with the goal of reducing the number of unwanted and homeless cats. In TNR programs, free-roaming cats are trapped, desexed and returned to colonies. The number of academic papers on this subject has grown significantly in recent years. As such, this collection forms the basis of a case study in which the authors demonstrate how knowledge, understanding, and authority develop in a field. They examine how an area of academic literature expands, how certain papers become influential, and how citation networks become established. This nucleus of papers then influences the directions of future research. It can also shape public opinion and knowledge of the issues.
To illuminate this process, the researchers reviewed 145 TNR studies published between 2002 and 2019. Subjects included population control, wildlife impacts, and disease transmission. They categorized papers based on whether they displayed a positive, neutral, or negative stance towards TNR. Citation networks were developed and used to identify the most influential articles. Journals, authors, affiliations, and locations were cataloged. Finally, the authors gathered metrics about online usage, mentions, and social media presence.
Almost all the papers were cited at least once in another paper. Of the 25 most influential papers, 68% (17) were positive towards TNR. To be influential, these studies either had high citations overall, high average citations per year, or frequent mentions in social media. But social media presence largely depended on where a study was published. Research available through open access (OA) sources gained more social media traction than those that appeared in traditional subscription journals, even though they constituted just one quarter (26%) of all the articles. These studies were also the most likely to favor TNR.
The articles covered five main topics: (1) disease and health; (2) free-roaming cats; (3) feral and domestic cat management; (4) population control; and (5) wildlife and predation. Veterinarians are most interested in topics 1 and 4, animal welfare advocates in topics 2 and 3, and conservationists in topics 4 and 5. Citation networks indicate that the primary concerns around TNR include: (1) the human dimensions of people’s interactions with cats; (2) evaluation of TNR programs and related critiques; (3) disease transmission in both cats and humans; and (4) reviews of control options.
The results analyzing the citation networks also suggest something troublingL they highlighted the potential for developing self-reinforcing groups of authors. This risks creating an echo chamber and limiting the variety of viewpoints. Also of concern was how different groups seemed to distinguish between domestic cats, free-roaming cats, and feral cats. This may affect communication in the field if researchers use one or two of these terms, but not all of them, to find other relevant studies, and that may affect the management of these cats themselves.
Even though few advocates are likely to delve into the intricacies of such academic debates, this study still serves an important purpose. It exposes how bias can form in a field and how that may influence the trajectory of research. As advocates, we need reliable data to inform our efforts. Knowing that an echo chamber may exist on a particular topic, we can deliberately seek out contrarian views. This practice ensures we have the broadest possible view of an issue. It should also help us avoid missteps and lead to the most effective advocacy possible.