Caryn Shechtman: A Blogger Success Story (an interview with Yours Truly)

You may have noticed a couple of days ago that Caryn Shechtman posted an interview with me on the New York blog on Nature Network. Then, Caryn and Erin and I thought it might be a good idea to have the entire interview reposted here, for those who missed it. So, proceed under the fold:


1. What is your professional background?
Even as a little kid I always loved animals and thought that whatever I do when I grow up would have something to do with animals: perhaps work at a zoo or in a circus!. When I was in 6th grade or so, I read the entire series of books by James Herriot and decided to become a veterinarian. I went to vet school at the University of Belgrade, but did it pretty slowly, taking two years to finish each year of school (it is a HARD program there!). At the same time I was heavily involved in the horse world and equestrian sports, working at a racecourse, training horses (including my own) for jumping, teaching kids to ride and taking care of all the horses’ health in a small region (a couple of small towns and surrounding villages) just north of Belgrade.
Then the specter of war enveloped Yugoslavia and I decided to leave, with the vet school unfinished. Once I settled in the USA I realized that in this country the situation is different: there is a glut of equine veterinarians, but on the other hand one can do basic biology – my old love – as there are great schools and funding for such stuff. So I started grad school in the Department of Zoology (now Biology) at NC State University where I got a Masters (but not a PhD – all but defense) studying circadian rhythms and photoperiodism in Japanese quail. My vet-school background prepared me well for the physiology research (my MS work), and my interest in evolution prompted me to expand to a more integrative approach (my PhD work) later on. I also took the opportunity, being at a big research university, to take extra classes in un-related fields – from ecology and palaeontology, through avian biotechnology, to history and philosophy of science, thus expanding my views. I was never someone who could just focus on a very narrow line of thinking and read only the papers directly relevant to my research.
2. What made you decide to become a science blogger?
I started out as a political blogger first. Frankly, I started blogging because I was depressed. After 10 years in grad school, I had a writer’s block with the dissertation (and not doing any experiments any more – we did not get our grant funded and decided not to re-submit at that point – not to mention an increasingly suppressive and unhelpful IACUC hellbent on stopping or at least maximally reducing animal research on campus), I was suddenly tired of research, departmental politics, science… I did not like the postdoc place I was going to go to – one of those super-slave-driving big cancer labs where everyone is pale like Eloi for never seeing the Sun. Three important and very close relatives died one after another within a 6-month period. We were living in a big but cold and drafty house in a depressing neighborhood in Cary, NC, in winter (when I get hit by SAD anyway). I was depressed about the way we as a country were inevitably hurling towards starting a war in Iraq. I wanted to scream.
So I screamed online. I tried to psychoanalyze Bush-voters in order to explain them to myself. I found a community on the campaign blogs, and am still in touch with some of them to this day. Through links, I discovered DailyKos, Pandagon, Shakesville, Majikthise and many more blogs, started linking and getting incoming links. I got completely embroiled in the progressive blogosphere to the detriment of everything else in life. That was my therapy. I spent the first year and a half trying to get a Democrat elected, blogging on campaign blogs at first, then starting my own blog (Science And Politics) in August 2004.
Then Kerry lost the election. I got sick of politics. I discovered other science bloggers, starting with Chris Mooney on the original Intersection and then went through his blogroll. I decided to try blogging about my own field of science in the hope that would lift my writer’s block and help me finish the Dissertation. That goal did not work (I am mainly mad at myself for disappointing my PI whom I admire and adore), but my science blogging instantly got much more recognition than Bush-bashing – my very first science post on Circadiana got an instant avalanche of traffic from BoingBoing, Andrew Sullivan and others. Oh – so there is an interest for this kind of thing?! People seek authoritative voices from people with actual expertise in the topic they are writing about! I can do that!
When Scienceblogs.com started in January 2006, after looking at it for about 10 seconds I realized that was the place to be. I asked some of the original 14 SciBlings what the way to get on was, applied, and a couple of months later got the invitation from Christopher Mims who was the Overlord at the time. A Blog Around A Clock – the fusion of my three old blogs (Science And Politics, Circadiana and The Magic School Bus) – went live in June 2006.
My blogging style instantly changed: much less politics, much more science. Much more enjoying the community (now that my depression was over). Much greater care put into each post, making sure I do not spout nonsense – I was at too visible a spot now for such carelessness!
Then I got the job with PLoS (yes, in the comments of a blog post on my blog. That changed my blogging again. More community building, less substantive posts about science. More about the publishing business, especially Open Access. Almost no politics (except for a couple of months just prior the 2008 election). More recently I have been paying a lot of attention to the way the entire media business is changing – the “death of newspapers”, the causes of such sweeping changes, and the potential future systems for journalism.
So, my blogging goals changed several times, as did my blogging style. As I write about cool science so rarely these days (1-2 posts per month at best) I cannot really seriously say any more that I blog (except by spreading link-love to others) in order to spread the science to the lay audience, to explain my field to people, to counter pseudoscience, or to break the stereotypes about scientists – the things I used to blog for. I am not sure, exactly, what my goals are right now, but it appears I cannot stop. I have been thinking lately: what my “next phase” in blogging will be? I invite suggestions.
3. How has science blogging influenced the development of your career?
When I started blogging on scienceblogs.com I also started enjoying the perks: free books, invitations to panels, interviews, etc. Organizing the 3 conferences and seeing 3 anthologies into print widened the circle even more. More perks came my way after I got the job with PLoS – travel to conferences in US and Europe, media interviews, press passes to big events, etc….
The term for this is “amplified serendipity” – if you are active online, seen as a trusted and useful member of an online community, something good is bound to happen to you, eventually. You can’t predict exactly what and when, but it will happen. You may even get to meet and befriend Henry Gee! And the community will support you when you are down, as much as they cheer when you are up.
Interestingly, while my career went in the direction away from research into areas of the publishing business, my blogging is also prompting some people to try and get me back into research. For example, I posted a hypothesis a few years back on my blog and recently was contacted about setting out to test that hypothesis in a collaborative effort. The first manuscript coming from this effort, covering preliminary data, has already been submitted and more is still to come. I also intend to prepare manuscripts covering my unpublished and undefended PhD work and submit them as well.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring?!
4. How did blogging prepare you for your current position at PLoS One?
Apart from being a participant in the online world, I have also, all along, been a student and observer of the Web and the people’s behavior online. I have been reading stuff – ranging from peer-reviewed papers to blogs – about these topics for quite a while now. I have been observing online communities like Facebook, Twitter and FriendFeed, as well as the blogosphere, for quite a while now. Thus I think I have developed a decent understanding of the online world as well as decent instincts about the best ways to behave online. This definitely helps.
The other aspect of blogging for a while was the ability to build a large community of readers and online friends. That is a community that moved with me to PLoS – they are interested in what I am doing there, what PLoS does, the Open Access movement, the works. In other words, I did not have to build a PLoS community from scratch. In a way, my community became a part of the PLoS community and is constantly helping me in doing my job in various ways: tipping me off if “someone on the Internet is wrong” about PLoS, spreading the word if I ask them to, etc. A win-win situation for everyone: PLoS, me and everyone in that community.
5. Please describe the duties of an online community manager at PLoS One.
I thought this was top sikrit! If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you! LOL.
I have a number of “jobs”, really. Building the community, increasing awareness of what PLoS stands for and does, correcting the myths and errors that sometimes pop up about PLoS (and Open Access) online, watching how the online world talks about us, promoting Open Access both online and offline, trying to get people to comment on our articles (and studying why they don’t if they don’t and why they do if they do), monitoring media/blog coverage of our papers, encouraging bloggers to write about our articles, promoting some of our most interesting articles every week, blogging on everyONE blog, and in general working with our Communications team in making sure our message gets spread online.
I am also trying, whenever I am in a position to do so, to persuade online and offline friends to submit manuscripts to us and, especially lately, to help us build new Collections on PLoS ONE – let me know if you are interested in this!
6. Do you have any advice for a blogger interested in a career in science publishing?
This is a tough question – you made me think about this for a long time and I am not sure my answer will be totally satisfactory, but let me try:
Both the publishing world and the blogging world are rapidly changing and nobody has a crystal ball to know the answers to the ‘life’s peristent questions': how are those going to look like in the near and far future (though I tried to speculate here).
A career in science publishing means having a job with a scientific publisher. But there are many different kinds of jobs there: editorial side, production side, marketing side, etc. Each has different requirements and a different “culture”.
For the editorial side, offline reputation is still the most important. You need to be known as a good scientist in a couple of different meanings of the word “good”. As an author, you should have a reputation for sound experimental design, good data analysis, logical conclusions from the data and clear writing. People who edited or reviewed your manuscrupts in the past should remember you for these traits: manuscripts that are eady to deal with because they are pretty good to begin with. The word about this spreads through the offline, secretive channels, is a well-known fact about you, and will get to the ears of people who are doing the hiring.
As a reviewer, you will also be a known quantity – are you a careful reader of the manuscript, are your suggestions fair and constructive? If you have built a good reputation as an author and a reviewer in the science circles, that is much more important for getting an editorial job than anything you may do online. Of course, this may change in the future, but not yet. Thus, at this point in history, your mad online skeelz are not really relevant for getting this kind of job. Of course, a good understanding of how people read and use scientific literature online is a definite plus, so study it!
On the production side of the business, tomorrow is even harder to predict. While printing articles on paper will be done by journals for some time in the future, until it becomes completely financially impossible to do, more and more scientific publishing is moving to the Web. This poses its own unique problems. Publishing a scientific paper online is not as easy as copying and pasting some text and images online, as if on a blog. While the need for skills with preparation of manuscripts for ink-on-paper printing may vanish in the near future, the skills for shaping the papers to be both person-readable and machine-readable are becoming necessary – get your computer skills polished.
Again, your online presence and behavior may not be important for getting you the job, but your understanding and experience of how people read stuff on the Web will be useful. After all, as long as journals publish papers both online and on paper, the two versions have to be identical. Once the papers are published only online, they can be optimized entirely for online use, perhaps producing something that looks very different from what a traditional paper looks today. This is similar to the problem facing newspapers – putting articles designed for print online does not make them optimally adapted for the online ecosystem: from formatting, to the lack of links, the copy+paste of print articles online results in an unsatisfactory product. Online articles have to be thought, built and produced with the Web in mind from the beginning.
It is on the marketing/communications side that online experience is most important. The traditional PR language is counterproductive. In this age of radical transparency, the PR language reeks of dishonesty – people start wondering what you are trying to sell or what you are trying to hide. It is also a one-to-many mode of communication which people these days actively dislike.
The rapidly changing world of online communication brings forth the importance of language. The traditional language of science is very formal. The new language of online communication is very informal. When the two meet, online, the result if often a clash of cultures. In a communications job with a science publisher, one needs to be able to nimbly navigate both cultures and use the appropriate style for appropriate audiences. The job is to promote and defend a brand – it is essential to know how to be firm but polite, completely transparent and timely, and to be able to make many, many one-to-one relationships with the users of the brand, thus building trust.
Essentially, you need to know how to listen, not just talk. You need to engage with the members of the community on a daily basis. You need to take the suggestions from the community seriously and, when possible, incorporate them into the way your brand works. This increases the feeling of ownership in (and thus loyalty to) the brand by the community.
This is not a job for the faint of heart – you are constantly balancing on the edge of a potential PR disaster. You are supposed to act like a human, but getting into online fights is one of the very human traits – one to be avoided as much as possible. So, pick your fights carefully. And rarely. And when you do, keep your composure (and, for yourself only, keep your own sense of humor and perspective). This is the time when one is most tempted to use informal and snarky language but, if you are representing your employer, this is exactly the time to switch to a polite, formal use of language and let your “opponent” destroy himself in the plain view of your community. Don’t try to do the destroying yourself, as tempting as that may be. Let the community do the job for you. Bite your tongue, sleep overnight, and then proceed cautiously. So, if you are a blogger, your blog should demonstrate that you are capable of doing the above: tempering your emotions when it is really important. Bloggers are always fighting – show that you can fight with style. Or being capable of avoiding fights altogether. This will be especially attractive for hiring agents who are themselves not Web-savvy and belong entirely to the formal/polite world (and are thus horrified at the usual and normal tone of the blogosphere).
This brings me to the way the blogosphere itself is changing. The original blogs, ten or so years ago, were essentialy places for links (with perhaps a few words attached). This function of the blogs has now mainly moved to other services, e.g., Twitter. The blogs remain now the places for longer, more detailed, thoughtful pieces. This new “workflow” of modern communication, termed ‘mindcasting’ by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has been described here and here.
I have described the way we at PLoS are adapting to this new flow of communication, i.e., how we use Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and blogs for two-way communication between PLoS staff and the community. Getting experience in the use of all these services (and others, e.g., Flickr, YouTube, Stumbleupon, Tumblr, Digg, Redditt, etc.) is a useful toolset to have before applying for a communications job with a scientific publisher.
As for your own blogging, it can help and hinder, depending on how you use it. Getting in needless fights and insulting someone every day (even if the person you are insulting is a truly despicable public figure) may not work so well for you. On the other hand, having a nice feel for the community in your comment sections, and at least occasionally writing nice posts about science that are worth aggregating on ResearchBlogging.org is surely a plus for getting that job.

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3 responses to “Caryn Shechtman: A Blogger Success Story (an interview with Yours Truly)

  1. Hi Bora – sorry we didn’t really get to talk at IASP – the day we met up I was sick as a dog and the next day they took us on a tour of a bunch of biotech companies so I wasn’t even around to meet up.
    Anyway this showed up on my ego google alert, and now I’m excited to read it, ’cause I feel like it’s full of things I missed out on. When SB was starting I was so busy making the logistics work that I really hadn’t a clue what was going on with the content and internal dynamics. In other words, the success of SB as a compelling destination is 100% due to the cumulative beehive-like efforts of the bloggers.
    (I always said that the way SB was different from a regular media play, like a magazine, in that Seed didn’t just have to serve the readers — it also had to serve the bloggers. That’s the crazy world of new media for you… upending all the old rules, especially the ones about how content should flow from a rigid and quasi-feudal editorial hierarchy where the editor at the top dictates all.)
    Anyway, hopefully we’ll get to meet up another time.

  2. Sorry to miss sitting down for a longer chat, but at least we got to see each other briefly. I’m sure there will be other opportunities – are you still in NYC?

  3. Pingback: Origins of Science Writers…but am I one? « A Blog Around The Clock