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Micropublications and Snackademia: The Attention Span Crisis in Scholarly Research

By Alice Fusai, Frankie Harnett, Natalie Klinkenberg and Chloë Marshall

 

The well-documented growth of bitesize digital content that has taken social media platforms and advertising by storm has hit the scientific community. The result is the increasingly popular micropublication. These shorter publications act as mini research articles, focusing on dissecting a singular claim rather than an overarching theory or series of hypotheses. Nate Jacobs, CEO of flashpub (a research tech startup that focuses on helping to publish high-impact research papers), has compared a journal article to a micropublication in the same way as a house can be compared to a brick, weighing their impact as one of many mini reports, unlike a traditional research article that stands alone.

 

While the success of these snack-sized research papers is likely part of the changing way millennials consume information, researchers say it’s about more than just that. Micropublications grew exponentially during COVID-19, mainly as the emphasis was put more heavily on sharing information and getting research out there as quickly as possible. The trend has continued since then, with journals like eLife, F1000Research and Implementation Science publishing shorter reports frequently. There is also an increasing use of visual aids, such as video summaries, documentaries and colourful infographics to present data. 

 

One paper studying the increase of micropublications before and after the pandemic points to this form of publishing as producing a “cumulative science,” allowing a fast, flexible publication style. Some would suggest that the rise of micropublication and so-called “snackable research” is, therefore, symptomatic of what many perceive to be the “attention-span crisis” of the digital age, whereby some studies claim that our attention span has decreased by almost four seconds in the last fifteen years. Shorter-form content appeals to and produces an attention span that habitually copes with multiple digital platforms and the overconsumption of online content. It sometimes even poses as an antidote to itself: think Instagram ads for “microlearning” as an alternative to doom-scrolling.

 

We’re concerned about this for several reasons: content overconsumption typically involves addictive behaviour, increases anxiety levels and reduces our ability to concentrate in other areas of life. While these issues are linked explicitly to an overuse of social media, could this indicate a broader trend bleeding into other content domains, such as the publication (and therein, the practice) of scientific research? 

 

What makes us pay attention to something has long been a question for the social sciences, and we have yet to understand what pulls our attention this way and that fully. The projected increase in popularity of micropublications in 2024 could be due to our shorter attention spans or the overwhelming quantity of research published online, or it could be a new, efficient way of navigating the global forum of online academic publishing. Perhaps we need a quick article about this to snack on and interrupt the doom-scrolling!

 

Micropublishing appears to be affecting scholarly research's social sciences and STEM sectors. The internet has allowed rapid access to various media, including biomedical literature and research from social and behavioural sciences. However, it’s difficult to comb through heavy research journals and reports effectively, especially for those who may only need to concentrate on one aspect, like the methods or results. Micropublishing opens the door for both researchers and those who use their research to understand the evidence of the original/long-form publication in a digestible way made available quickly.

 

According to an article by Yuki Yamada, micropublishing allows for flexible short reports and reviews and “opens the possibilities for publishing trivial or null results,” thereby lessening the chance of publication biases. However, this shouldn’t result in restructuring how academic research is carried out. Micropublications shouldn’t be replacing full papers and reports, as full papers can dive into the research and the theory behind experiments and case studies to provide evidence that can be used to suggest new policies in the paper’s respective field.

 

It appears that the attention span crisis has potentially impacted the trade publishing industry, too. Print sales in traditionally published books and graphic novels have decreased in the past year, potentially due to an increase in short-form media and digital reading devices. Graphic novels, although still the third highest-selling subcategory, dropped 22.4% in sales in 2023. Overall, total print unit sales only dropped 2.6% in 2023, going from 787,648 units in 2022 to 767,356 units in 2023.

 

It is then reasonable to assume that our attention span will have a say in the future of academic papers and, in general, all publishing outputs. Possible new trends might involve a mixed-media approach, including pictures, videos and hyperlinks, resulting in a radical reshaping of what we think of as publications and the reader’s involvement. With brevity becoming an evermore essential feature, other issues arise: how will the complexities of important matters involving all the sciences be addressed if readers refuse to devote their thorough attention to the papers? Will brevity also affect how new questions in sciences are formulated? If inclusion and exclusion become a matter of essentiality, who decides what is to be considered essential?

 

These questions highlight how the new challenges in academic publishing are more political than ever. The output of scientific research is, at present, greatly dependent on major publishers deciding what type of research is worth publishing. In the future, the brevity requirement might become a criterion to exclude so-called controversial topics from public debate. As readers, we then have an important responsibility: reject the reduction to over-simplification and embrace the complexities of our reality.

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