Category Archives: Science Reporting

Welcome the Popular Science blog network

 

This morning, the science blogging ecosystem just got bigger and better. More the merrier!

Our friends at Popular Science just launched a brand new blog network.

They are starting with 13 wonderful bloggers, some veterans, some new, and there will be something for everyone:

Zero Moment: Erik Sofge on our robot future
Techtiles: Emma Barker on the science behind the clothes and gadgets we wear
Biohackers: Daniel Grushkin and others on bathtub genomicists and tissue tweakers
Ignition!: Peter Madsen on the world of amateur space exploration
Our Modern Plagues: Brooke Borel on the latest contagions and infestations, and the science of fighting them
LadyBits: Arikia Millikan and others on gender and feminism in science and technology
Boxplot: Maki Naro on science through the medium of graphic narrative
Rotorhead: Chelsea Sexton on the green rebirth of the automobile and other forms of transportation
Vintage Space: Amy Shira Teitel on the history of space exploration
Under the Microscope: Jason Tetro on microbiology and the germs that define us
Unpopular Science: Rebecca Watson on the area just beyond the fringe of science
KinderLab: Kate Gammon on the science of childhood development
Eek Squad: Rebecca Boyle on creepy animals

As you may be aware, Popular Science received some pushback a couple of weeks ago for their decision to shut down comment threads on (most of) their news articles. Bloggers, on the other hand, will open up their comments and will actively moderate their commenting threads to ensure high level of discourse on their blogs. Thus, go ahead and visit them all, subscribe to their feeds, and start posting smart comments!

How to break into science writing using your blog and social media (#sci4hels)

Yesterday I skyped into Czerne Reid’s science journalism class at University of Florida to talk about breaking into science writing as a profession, and especially the use of blogs and social media as tools for accomplishing that goal.

Just a few days before that, as a part of our regular Question Time in preparation for our panel at WCSJ2013 in Helsinki, we tackled the same question:

What does a new science journalist do to get noticed? How do you get people to read your work, give you assignments, follow you on Twitter, and generally just know who you are?

Rose Eveleth collected and organized the responses we received on Twitter (using hashtag #sci4hels), but here I’d like to provide, all in one place, a bunch of links to resources, other people’s thoughts about it, and a few brief thoughts of my own.

Ways of becoming a science writer

There are two basic trajectories: one more traditional, which I like to call “vertical”, and the other one I call “horizontal” which, though it happened with individual writers for a long time, seems to be a much more frequent, if not dominant trajectory these days.

The vertical trajectory is the one taken by people who, perhaps from a very early age, knew they wanted to become writers or journalists, perhaps specifically science journalists. They major in journalism in college (perhaps double-major in a science as well), work on their school paper, start internships early in their local papers (or radio or TV stations), then go to a Master’s program in science journalism. By the time they graduate from that, they already have lots of experience, several internships, many clips, perhaps some local awards, and are ready to start making a living as staff writers or freelancers.

The horizontal trajectory describes people who start out in science, with every intention of making a career in research. But, as tenure track is now an alternative career in science, most science students need to find other options. Some of them – those who always liked to write, wrote diaries as kids, etc. – will explore the option of becoming science writers. The most direct horizontal trajectory involves starting a science blog while still doing research, becoming known for good writing there, then start pitching stories for online (and later print) magazines, and gradually leaving the lab bench and starting to make a living by writing alone. Brian Switek, John Timmer and Ed Yong are probably the best known examples of people who took this path. Heck, I am one of those examples, too. Many more are somewhere along that trajectory right now.

Of course, those are extremes, too neatly cut apart. Many people will do something in the middle, combining the two approaches in some way. For example, they may pursue a career in research while also taking summer internships at science magazines, or editing the science section of the college newspaper. Some may major in science, then go to j-school for Masters. Also, not all of the new entries into science writing are young. Sure, some make the switch after college or Masters in science, but others make the switch later, after getting a PhD, or finishing a postdoc, or after years of teaching as adjunct faculty with no hope of ever getting a tenure track position, or even after many years as full faculty, once grant money dries out and there are no more resources to keep running the lab.

Either way, there comes a time when one becomes a professional science writer/journalist and has to make a living that way. What does one need to do to succeed?

Understanding the new media ecosystem

It is important to be aware that 20th century media ecosystem is a very unusual aberration in the way people communicated throughout history. Means of production were expensive. Very few people could afford to own printing presses, radio and TV studios, etc. Running all that complicated equipment required technical expertise and professional training. Thus media became locked up in silos, hierarchical, broadcast-only with little-to-none (and then again centrally controlled) means for feedback. There was a wealthy, vocal minority that determined what was news, and how to frame it, and the vast majority was consuming the news in silence.

Today, all one needs is some source of electricity (e.g., a small battery in your smartphone) and some means of accessing the Internet. The act of publishing is reduced to clicking on the “Publish” button. Yes, this still leaves some people out of the media, especially in the developing countries, but compared to just twenty years ago, vastly larger numbers of people now have access to the means of production of news. The obstacles to access – money, technical skills for running the machinery – are now much, much lower, almost free.

This turns everything on its head! Silos are breaking down, economics of media are severely disrupted, former gatekeepers are squealing in distress, old hierarchies are broken down (and replaced by new hierarchies), and now everyone has to learn new “media hygiene” practices: who to trust, how to filter the information, how to organize it for one’s self. The new ecosystem now contains both the traditional outlets and the individuals, “people formerly known as the audience“, as equal players.

There is only so much time and energy anyone can invest into consumption of the media. In the flood of information coming out every second, how does one get science to the audience? Specialized science media outlets cannot see each other as competition any more – they are now collaborators, helping each other toward the same goal: trying to, at least occasionally, displace trivia, Hollywood gossip, and dangerous pseudoscience with good science news. Individual science writers, as equal participants in the media ecosystem, should do the same: replace the notion of competition with the idea of cooperation.

How does a new science writer succeed in this new ecosystem? In the 20th century, one would try to ingratiate oneself with the gatekeepers, the editors. As they are still part of the ecosystem and probably will be for some time in the future, this strategy is still valuable, but it is only one of many. More important, if anything, is to build support networks with your colleagues, peers and buddies. The concepts of ‘Friends in Low Places’ and ‘Horizontal Loyalty’ are not just theoretical – put them to practice.

You may think of two potential career routes: getting hired as a staff writer somewhere (getting harder with each passing year), or to freelance. But there is a third way now: start and build your own media empire.

Huffington Post, DailyKos, Talking Points Memo, BoingBoing started out as unknown person’s personal blogs – after turning into group blogs, then adding functionalities that let readers contribute, today they are media organizations that make money, hire and pay editors, and more. Perhaps your own blog can turn into something like this. But teaming up with your own Friends In Low Places may make such a start-up more successful.

First you have to write

People who want to become professional writers are, I assume, people who always liked to write. Childhood diaries. LiveJournals filled with teenage angst. Long Facebook updates. It’s time to take this seriously and do your writing in a more serious, organized, professional manner. Start a blog. This is your writing laboratory. Start blogging about science. Nobody will know about your blog until you start promoting it, so don’t worry that your early posts are clumsy (you can even delete the first few embarrassing posts later, once you are happy with your blog and start promoting it).

Practice the usual journalistic forms – the feature, the interview, the brief news story with inverted pyramid. You will need to demonstrate that you are capable of writing in such forms and styles. But don’t limit yourself to traditional forms. Experiment with new forms. Explain animal behavior by letting animals have a dialogue. Explain science in the form of a fairy tale, Science Fiction or a poem. Try your hand at photography. Draw or paint or graph your own art, illustrations, infographics, cartoons and comic strips. Put some effort into making a video or animation every now and then. Record a podcast sometimes. Give data journalism a try. Try your hand at learning to code (but see). See what works for you.

Try to figure out your beat (or obsession) – what is it that excites you the most? Write about that. Try to find your own niche. Become a “go to” person on a particular topic, become an expert (or at least a temporary expert) on that topic.

Ignore the “professional” advice about having to blog daily. It was a necessity a decade ago, not any more. In the days of RSS feeds and social media, it does not matter for your readers any more – they will find your posts no matter how infrequently you post. It only matters for you and your own writing habit that you blog with some regularity.

Also ignore the “professional” advice about writing relatively short blog posts. Leave that for brief news articles. Blog posts are longform, at least most of the time. And longform works online much better than short articles – the traffic keeps on giving for years, as people rediscover long posts, see them as resources, and share with their friends.

Also important to remember: You’re A Human, So Write Like One. How do I write? First I read and study the topic. Then, I compose text in my head (usually during dog walks, often over a number of days, sometimes even months), imagining I am explaining something to a good non-scientist friend. Then I sit down and quickly transcribe that. Quick proofread. Click “Publish”.

Like every other skill, writing needs practice. Write every day, something, anything. That’s what makes the blog useful – you have a platform for your words every day. You’ll get better. When you write something for publication, watch carefully what the editor changed in your manuscript and learn from it. Read a lot of good writing, paying attention to how other writers accomplish their goals.

The hard-line “never write for free” slogan is a hold-over from some old, outdated times. Early on in your career, you will write for free quite a lot, especially on your blog. Your blog becomes your portfolio, your PR material. As you become a professional, you will learn how to reject offers to write for free, and will mostly write for pay. But even then, there will be times when you will want to write for free – on your own blog (or your Mom’s neighborhood newsletter). You will want to experiment with a new form, or a new topic. Or you will want to write something that would be hard to sell. Or you wrote something on commission, got rejected, got paid your kill-fee, and now want to see your work out there, meeting the readers.

Or, if you are a natural born writer, every now and then there will be a story inside of you, fighting to burst out of your chest and get expressed in words or visuals, and you won’t care if it’s paid or not, you want it out, and your blog will be there waiting for just such pieces.

Getting started with your blog

It’s easy. Go to WordPress.com (or some other platform, but WordPress has recently become a standard and is probably your best bet) and start one. Pick a name (and a URL) that is catchy, memorable yet informative about the main topic of the blog. Make at least some minimal effort to make it look pretty. Fill out the ‘About Me’ page, put buttons for your various social media accounts on the sidebar, and provide a method for readers to contact you. Start posting.

Get in a rhythm – decide you will post something on your blog every day or every week and stick to it. Sometimes, it will just be a few links or a YouTube video. Other times, you will write something more substantial. Start with book reviews – those are relatively easy. Do Q&As with scientists. Cover new papers in “ResearchBlogging” fashion. One day a seriously good post will come out of all your daily thinking in the shower and during dog walks.

Learn about science blogging, its theory and history. Learn about best blogging practices. Learn about the ethics of online writing and blogging, including the ethic of the link and the ethic of the quote.

If you make a statement, link to the source or to additional information. If you quote somebody, provide the link to the original context (including audio file or transcript if you yourself did the interview). A quote with a link increases your trust with the readers. A quote without a link decreases your trust with the readers – it’s a red flag that you are trying to manipulate them. And always try to link to the scientific papers you write about, even if they are behind paywalls.

Decide if you want to have commenting on your blog or not, and what kind of (technological and human) comment moderation you need. Come up with your moderation policy. Be prepared to be present in your own commenting threads in order to keep them constructive.

Another option is to join a group blog. Double X Science, Last Word On Nothing, Deep Sea News, Southern Fried Science, Science-Based Medicine, Real Climate, Biofortified and Panda’s Thumb are a few examples of excellent group blogs with high visibility, which authors can use as springboards for their writing careers. This reduces the pressure on any individual blogger to post with high frequency, as collectively they will produce plenty of new material on the homepage every day.

It is also OK to just write guest posts on other people’s blogs. A number of science blogging networks have designated guest blogs for just such occasions. We here have two such blogs – Guest Blog and MIND Guest Blog – but other bloggers on the network may also sometimes accept a guest post.

Even if you run your own blog, it is not a bad idea to occasionally write a really good one for a Guest Blog on a media-owned network. A post on our Guest Blog counts as a clip in your portfolio, is highly visible, will show up high on Google searches for your name, and thus will serve you well as your promotional material when you start pitching or applying for jobs.

You can find a number of good links about getting started, and about running your blog, on this wiki page.

Get some professional training

If you are further along in your career (e.g., research career) you may feel too old to waste another year or two of your life by going back to school. But if you are younger, e.g., just out of college, you may want to consider getting a Master’s at one of the specialized Science, Health and Environmental Reporting/Writing programs. There are several excellent programs to choose from, e.g., NYU, UCSC, MIT, UGA, UNC, USC, City University (London), UW-Madison and several others.

If that is too long (or expensive) for you, spend a summer at a science writing workshop, e.g., Banff or Santa Fe.

Or, if you are still in school, take some writing or journalism classes despite not needing them officially for your major.

Try to get an internship, perhaps in one of the popular science magazines. Nothing prepares you better than learning on the job.

Attend meetings with professional writing and journalism workshops, talks, panels and discussions, e.g,. ScienceWriters (NASW/CASW), ScienceOnline (either the annual flagship meeting in Raleigh, or one of the growing number of satellite events), AAAS annual meeting, SpotOn, or WCSJ. Use the opportunity to get to know (and get known by) editors and others whose careers are well in advance of yours, but also to meet your own peers and start forming your own posse of ‘Friends In Low Places’. Many of those events also have “Pitch sessions” where you can pitch your story ideas directly to editors.

Start reading, regularly and closely, sites that discuss journalism (especially science, environmental and health journalism), provide writing tips, provide media criticism, or provide information about unreliable scientific papers. These should probably include KSJ Tracker, CJR Observatory, NASW, Nieman Journalism Lab, The Open Notebook, The Science Writers’ Handbook, Embargo Watch, Retraction Watch, HealthNewsReview, SpotOn Blog, Communication Breakdown, and right here – The SA Incubator (I’d have listed the NYT Green Blog here, but sadly, it is now dead).

Read good science blogging by setting up ScienceSeeker as your homepage. Find out which blogs you like, subscribe to them, post comments, perhaps start out your own blogging by emulating their style until you develop your own.

Shameless Self-Promotion

If a blog post is published in a forest,….?

OK, you’ve been blogging for a while and now you are happy with your posts. You are ready for readers and their feedback. How do you get the readers to your blog? Good readers, with relevant interests and backgrounds, those who can provide valuable feedback?

First things first. Make your blog an official science blog by applying to have it aggregated at ScienceSeeker. ScienceSeeker is a portal for science writing and blogging, a result of fusion and then further development of Scienceblogging.org and Researchblogging.org (COI: I am one of the founders of ScienceSeeker, which is a ScienceOnline project). It keeps getting developed and adding new features.

Neither Google Blogsearch nor Technorati are good at filtering science blogs. They pull in spam blogs, blogs with a science tag that have no science content whatsoever, as well as blogs that push pseudoscience, anti-science, medical quakery and other silly or dangerous nonsense. As only approved science blogs can be found at ScienceSeeker, it has unofficially become a ‘stamp of approval’, a way to filter out the noise and focus on the quality content that one can filter in various ways, from topical filters, to only posts covering papers, to ‘Editors’ Picks’. A number of journal publishers and media organizations are now using ScienceSeeker to get metrics on how much their articles were blogged about. In its effort to preserve science blogs for posterity, Library Of Congress is using Science Seeker as the filtering mechanism guiding their decisions what to preserve. So get your blog on there. It will bring you reputation, traffic, and just the right kinds of readers to provide you with feedback.

Nominate your posts for various awards and collections, e.g., Open Laboratory, 3QD science prize, ScienceSeeker Awards, Science Studio (podcasts and videos) and others. This will give them visibility as people check out all the nominations.

Register and become a respected user on sites like Reddit, Digg, Slashdot, Stumbleupon and/or Fark. Be sure you know their policies well (e.g., Reddit will let only a small proportion of your links be to your own work). Don’t waste too much time on those sites, but you can use them to find interesting links to share, to share other people’s work, and to occasionally share links to your own posts and articles. If one of your posts catches fire on one of those sites, make sure your server can take it, and be present – you will be busy for a few hours moderating comments, deleting especially obnoxious, snarky, nasty or idiotic ones. But some comments will be good, and a small proportion out of those tens of thousands of visitors will bookmark you, keep coming back and will become your regular readers.

Have a nice-looking homepage (you can make it with WordPress, or use a specialized platform like About.Me, or pay a designer friend to make you one). Your homepage should have a short, easy to remember URL so you can shout it out on the street and people will be able to spell it, remember it, and find it later when they go online that night. This is your single most important URL that you will place everywhere – on your business cards, and on profile pages on all the social media and other sites that let you have a profile. Everywhere you are online should link back to your homepage. And your homepage should link to everywhere else you are online.

Your blog can serve as your homepage, or be a prominent and central part of your homepage. If not, make sure your homepage prominently links to your external blog. Make sure your homepage has a well written and accurate About/Bio page, contact information, link to your CV, and your Portfolio with links to all of your published work (perhaps your photography or videos or art on separate tabs). And of course, provide links to all the social media where you have accounts.

If you are lucky, you will be invited to join a blogging network, which makes your blog even more visible. If you are VERY lucky, you will be invited to move your blog to a media site as a blogger/columnist, like Ezra Klein at Washington Post, Nate Silver at NYTimes, or the Phenomena quartet at National Geographic.

If you are just embarking on the professional career in science writing, we can help right here at The SA Incubator. Khalil and I post our weekly “Picks” – if you have written something you are proud of, don’t be shy to send the link to us. If we like it, we’ll link to it. Then we may ask you to do one of the “Introducing” Q&As, a great opportunity to present your past career, skills, links and goals that will turn out very high on Google searches once potential employers start googling you.

The necessity of social media

There are many social networks out there, some general some specialized, as well as platforms which include some social media elements. Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, WordPress, Tumblr, Flickr, Picassa, YouTube, Vimeo, DeviantArt, Instagram, Pinterest, FriendFeed, Branch, Quora, Goodreads, MySpace, LiveJournal, Orkut, Diaspora, SoundCloud, Slideshare, Storify, Academia.edu, ResearchGate, Mendeley, FigShare, CiteULike, and many more. Which ones to use? I suggest you use one or two that fit you best, but also take a few minutes to set up profiles on many other networks. That way, people who find you on those sites can click on the link and find themselves on your homepage, where they can see where you are really active.

This wiki has a lot of great resources for starting out and using a number of those sites professionally, as a scientist or a science writer. Pay special attention to the pages about Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus, as those are the three biggies you should probably pay most attention to.

Let’s focus on Twitter now. It is essential for a journalist. Not having – and using – a Twitter account today is like not having an email address ten years ago (and yes, some cutting-edge people are completely abandoning email and doing all of their communications over social media).

Big companies have suffered losses because their old-timey PR teams were unaware of the backlash on social media, and then incapable of responding correctly on social media. Businesses can lose money if they are missing key information that appears only on social media. Academia is especially horribly insulated and way behind the times. But nowhere is use of social media as important as in journalism. Don’t be this guy who was completely oblivious that his newspaper was in the center of national maelstrom of harsh criticism, because “I only deal with what’s on paper”.

When an airplane skidded off the runway in Denver, I knew it, along with 100,000s of other people, 12 minutes before everyone else. A passenger tweeted about it, and it spread like wildfire, including his updates, blurry photos, etc. CNN had a brief piece 12 minutes later. The accidental “citizen journalist” scooped them. Sometimes, for some news, these 12 minutes may be crucial for you.

Twitter and Facebook were key methods of communication not just between participants, but also to the outside world, during the Mumbai attacks and the Arab Spring.

People got jobs and gigs on Twitter that started their careers.

Journalists on deadline quickly find expert sources for their stories.

Journalists who observed the massive, instant, intense and scathing reactions of experts to #arseniclife or #Encode did not make the mistake of filing their positive stories and then having to backpedal later.

If all you see on Twitter is garbage, you are following the wrong people. You have to carefully choose who to follow, and then learn how to filter. Unfollowing is easy, and polite. You are not dissing your Mom, as if you would if you unfriended her on Facebook.

Don’s use Twitter.com. Use an app. There is a lot of outcry right now (by myself as well) about the imminent demise of some Tweetdeck apps (version 0.38.2 is by far the best, if you can have it and keep it indefinitely – other apps are OK on smartphones, e.g., HootSuite or Twitterific). It is important to me not to have Twitter/Tweetdeck as yet another tab in my browser, a place where I have to go and spend time. Twitter is not a site to go to and spend time on. Twitter should be a part of the workflow, silently running in the back, behind my open browser.

Tweets show up in the corner and 99% of the time I do not even notice them. I am busy with something else, and I mentally block them out. But I have a “search image” (a term from ethology – a bird does not systematically scan every inch of tree bark, instead it has a search image for the shape and color of its prey insect and automatically homes in on it). If a tweet shows up with my name in it, or a specific word in it, or by a specific person, I will notice and take a glance. If there is nothing important, I only lost 1/10th of a second and can go back to what I was doing. If it seems important, I will Favorite the tweet (if unsure of the quality of content) or Retweet it (if it comes from a trusted source), so I can have it saved to read later. If it seems important and urgent, I will click through and investigate. Perhaps this is information that is more important to me than whatever else I happen to be doing at the time. And even then, I will probably spend only a few minutes on it before returning to whatever I was doing before.

In Tweetdeck (or any similar app), one should have a number of columns – move them around: the default position may not the the best one for you (I move “All Friends” far away to the right so I don’t have to see it almost ever). Mentions and Direct Messages are your more important columns, but also make several that follow Lists (your own, or other people’s), or display tweets that contain particular words or hashtags (your “Saved Searches”). I will add a column for an event hashtag while the event is on, then delete the column afterward. Play around until you refine your filtering this way.

Here are some good lists to get you started – follow them, and also follow some of the listed people directly – you decide who is useful to you:

ScienceSeeker Members
Best mindcasters I know
Young Smart Newsies
Top Journalism Linkers
Young science writers
ScienceOnline 2013 attendees
Blogs and bloggers on the Scientific American blog network
SciAm Contributors

If there is something I’d like to tweet out, that is easy, too. No need to go to Twitter. Get some kind of Bit.ly or AddThis bookmarklet for your browser and you can tweet any link in two clicks (perhaps with a little editing, to add/remove stuff from the tweet so it’s just the way you want it).

What kind of stuff you can – and perhaps should – do on Twitter? There are several different things. First, you can just use it to find information, to pick up good links, or to eavesdrop on conversations. Treat it as a river of news – sometimes you dip in, sometimes you go away. You won’t miss much while you are away. If information is really important, it will have staying power – many people will still be linking to it, retweeting it, and discussing it next time you log in. If you missed it – it’s not important.

You can, of course, post your personal musings, but if you are going to use Twitter like a professional, keep that to the minimum. I bet less than 1% of my tweets are in this vein.

You can retweet others. Your followers do not see everything tweeted by everyone you follow. Twitter is very asymmetrical – you don’t follow those who follow you, not automatically. You follow those who are useful to you, and you are followed by people who find you useful. Thus, if someone tweets, and you retweet, this will be fresh to many of your followers. If they RT in turn, they will spread it to their followers and so on, in concentric circles, spreading the message out further and further. A tweet can go a long way.

You can engage in conversations. It’s OK to butt into other people’s conversations, but be polite and be useful and constructive. If you know the answer to someone’s question, provide it. If you are at a University and have library access, you can help your freelance colleagues in search of papers – they will use the hashtag #Icanhazpdf (but first carefully read the comment section of this post to understand the legal, moral and etiquette aspects of it).

You can be a useful filter for others. Post links to good articles and blog posts. Everyone tweets links to NYTimes, BBC and The Guardian – you don’t have to. Instead, set up Google (and Google News and Google Blogsearch) alerts for the keywords in the domain of your expertise and interest. It can be “watersheds” or “science+superheros” (one of mine is “circadian”, naturally). Some of those links in the alerts will be very interesting, yet from obscure publications. People will soon realize you are the “go to” person for that topic. Follow a few good by less-well-known blogs. Tweet out links to their posts.

Broadcast links to your own posts. But do it politely and judiciously. Tweet once in the morning. Then again that day “for the afternoon crowd”, then once next day “for those who missed it yesterday”. That should be sufficient. DM (direct message) the link to a few people with more followers than you have but who are aware of you and know who you are. Ask them to take a look, provide feedback, and they are likely to retweet it if they like it.

Here are some quick rules you should memorize on how to be a useful and respectable contributor to social media.

And finally, if you are really well organized and dedicated, you can truly use Twitter as a part of your journalistic flow – from individual tweets, to aggregations of tweets – both your own and replies you got (e.g., on Facebook or Storify), to longer blog posts, to magazine articles, to books.

Moving on to Facebook, the strangest animal of them all, undergoing a metamorphosis every year or so, often abruptly changing people’s privacy settings, expectations and experiences. That makes many people uneasy about it.

You have to be sensitive that there are two main styles of Facebook use. One is personal, the other is professional. It is perfectly OK to keep settings to ‘Private’ and to friend only family and best friends, share vacation pictures and not much else. It is perfectly OK if you prefer to use it that way. But perhaps you should set up another Facebook Page for your professional outreach. This is where you post interesting science links, urge other scientists, writers, journalists and bloggers to follow your page. Keep the two worlds separate.

Many people, including myself, do not separate the two worlds. Yes, I occasionally post personal stuff, but I mainly post links to science stories on my personal profile, which is set completely on ‘Public’. I have many FB friends, and of them many are not inherently interested in science. By being my FB friends, they get served their daily dose of science anyway. Many are thankful for this. This is the so-called “push” method of science communication, where you push science onto unsuspecting audiences. The reverse is “pull” method, in which people who are already interested in your stuff will know how to seek you and find you if they know your stuff is good (people interested in science know where to look for Scientific American).

There is a lot of scientifically incorrect information floating around Facebook. One of your roles can be as a “downer” – the person who brings in a link to the scientific information that corrects the pseudoscience. And yes, your aunt may get really angry at you because of it, but at least some of aunt’s FB friends will learn something from your link, perhaps share it elsewhere.

And now the elephant in the room – Google Plus. It is not easy to figure out what it is and how to use it and how to find good stuff on it. But if you are using any Google product (e.g., Gmail) you are already on G+ even if you are not using it. Thus, it has tons of people on there already. And unlike some past Google experiments (like Google Buzz and Google Wave), this one does not appear to be going anywhere – it is here to stay, and it’s a monster. I have more G+ subscribers than Twitter followers or FB friends. Most of them have zero background in science. The least you can do is throw some science links at them, even if you do not have time to engage further. Lots of traffic comes from there, so it’s worth a second or two to plop in a link.

What is important to know is that scientists, science bloggers and writers were some of the early invitees to the Beta version of G+ before public launch. They have explored the platform from the very early days. There are many of them there, and many are active. They are experimenting with new functionalities, especially cool uses for Google Hangouts. Find “Scientists” circles and start following people. Even if you don’t engage with it fully now, keep an eye on it, keep your presence on it, I would not bet against Google that this will wither and die.

Next step

You are writing every day. You are blogging regularly. After six months of regular Twitter use, you now have some followers and interaction. Perhaps you joined a popular group blog or even a blogging network. You have a few guest blog posts elsewhere, perhaps a few clips from school or local papers, or when you did an internship. It’s time to start pitching.

Different editors have different preferences for pitches. But many will explore your blog, your prior clips, your social media activity (potential employers for staff jobs will do that very thoroughly).

If you pitch me for the Guest Blog, for example, and I have never heard of you before, you need to write me a longish, polished pitch. Show me that you can write, that you can write a pitch just as perfectly as you will write the article itself later on.

But if I know you from your blog, from Twitter, perhaps some previous work, you don’t need to do that. You can DM me on Twitter with a very brief pitch and I am likely to say Yes.

Now go and write.

Huffington Post Science – interview with Cara Santa Maria


 

A couple of weeks ago, Huffington Post launched its Science section. I invited Cara Santa Maria, the science correspondent at Huffington Post to tell us more about this new endeavor.

Bora Zivkovic: Hello, welcome to the Scientific American blog network. The launch of the brand new Science section at the Huffington Post created quite a lot of buzz two weeks ago, so I’d like to take this opportunity to ask you, as their science correspondent, to tell us more about the project, its history, and its future. But it is probably best to first introduce you – can you tell us something about yourself, your beginnings, how you got into science, what kind of research you did, how you got into journalism, and how you ended up at Huffington Post?

Cara Santa Maria: Thanks so much for having me. Here’s a little about my background: I became interested in neuroscience while studying psychology and philosophy as an undergraduate in Texas. I had an opportunity to complete a practicum with a clinical neuropsychologist, and the more I learned about brain damage and dysfunction, the more I wanted to know about the electrophysiological, neurochemical, and network-level underpinnings of brain-behavior relationships. So, I went on to earn a graduate degree in biology with a neuroscience concentration. While in school, I worked at the Center for Network Neuroscience, where I was the chief cell culture technician and managed the culture facility. I also did some research in the area of cell-cell communication and network organization. Then, in New York, I worked in an adult neurogenesis lab, where we used a songbird (zebra finch) model. While I was furthering my education on the East Coast, life took me on an unexpected path (as it is prone to do), and I ended up in Los Angeles. Here, I was offered the opportunity to develop a pilot for HBO and to appear on different television programs, promoting science education for a mainstream audience. Along the way, I met Arianna Huffington, and when she decided that it was time to start developing a science section for The Huffington Post, she called me up and asked for my help.

BZ.: The idea about a science section at Huffington Post has been circulating for a few years now. What took HuffPost so long to start a Science section? Also: why now? What changed at HuffPost recently to make this section now possible after so many years of people proposing it?

CSM.: I didn’t start working at HuffPost until after the merger with AOL, but I know the editors have always taken science seriously. I think that the growth in editorial resources has allowed AOL/HuffPost to launch multiple new sites and sections, and it was important—especially to Arianna—that science be one of them.

BZ.: How do you go about recruiting bloggers for the section? How many did you have at the moment of launch, and how many do you expect to have as a maximum?

CSM.: HuffPost welcomes diverse voices to use its platform. We’ve reached out to many different scientists, educators, and science writers. During our launch week, we showcased blogs by Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11 moonwalker), Michael Shermer (editor of Skeptic Magazine), Lisa Randall (Harvard Physics professor), Seth Mnookin (M.I.T. science writing program educator), Saul Perlmutter (Nobel laureate), Jean-Lou Chameau (president of Cal-Tech), and even Richard Branson (founder of the Virgin Group). Site-wide, HuffPost has somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 active bloggers. At the time of the launch, we had engaged nearly 200 bloggers specifically for the science section, and that list grows every day.

BZ.: As HuffPost does not pay its bloggers, I am assuming that most of your bloggers are not going to be professional writers and freelancers, but rather researchers and others with day jobs who also like to write on the side (is that correct?). Many people like to write and gladly do it for free (just watch a billion or so people writing on blogs and social networks every day!), so why not expand one’s audience a thousand times by abandoning a small, independent, personal blog and joining Huffington Post instead? Yet this business model is making a lot of people uneasy – HuffPost is a business that makes money, so there is a sense of fairness that people who produce the product should be paid for it. Also, there is a fear of a slippery slope – if a big site like this can get away with not paying the authors, that makes it easier for other media organizations to follow the model, leaving the professional writers without a source of income. Do you have a good response to those concerns?

CSM.: Between our New York, DC, and Los Angeles offices, HuffPost has a paid newsroom staff of 320 journalists, with over 60 of them doing original reporting daily. We make a distinction between our newsroom staffers and our bloggers. People choose to blog for us because they are passionate about their ideas, and they want their words to reach the largest possible audience. Our site gets over a billion hits a month. Also, they know that they have the opportunity to cross-post the work from their independent blogs to our site, where readers have an unparalleled community experience. We also encourage our bloggers to engage with readers. Any time I write a piece or produce a new video, I find myself answering challenging questions and having exciting conversations with the commenters on my posts.

BZ.: The reactions to the launch of the new Science section have been quite interesting to watch. Most are in a “wait in see” mode, and they range between cautiously optimistic and deeply skeptical (see, for example, posts by Charlie Petit, Carl Zimmer, Keith Kloor, Mark Hoofnagle, Seth Mnookin, Michael Conniff, Autism Blog and Orac). This is understandable as Huffington Post has a long reputation as a repository for all kinds of pseudoscience, New Age woo and medical quackery, and most dangerously, the anti-vaccine screeds. Of course, only time will tell, but is there anything you can tell the skeptics today, this early in the game, why they should give the new section benefit of the doubt, and perhaps some support? You will try to do the same here at ScienceOnline2012 where many of the critics of the past Huffington Post science and medical coverage will be present (someone said to me that you must be “very brave to enter the lion’s den” there) – how can you turn your critics into your supporters?

CSM.: I am a scientist and educator first. I strive to promote rational, skeptical, evidence-based thought and to improve scientific literacy with every word I write and every conversation I have. When it comes to the science section as a whole, my editors and I feel very strongly that scientific rigor is the priority. Generally speaking, when scientists write peer-reviewed journal articles, they often take some liberties in their closing statements within the discussion section, because this is the appropriate place to discuss implications of their work, future developments, and its philosophical/moral/ethical ramifications. Without a rigorous materials and methods and results section, however, the author hasn’t really earned the right to speculate on its implications, no? Similarly, with popular science writing, information must be vetted. This isn’t to say that we don’t welcome writers with differing opinions or questioning, skeptical eyes. Instead, what I’m trying to say is that pseudoscience, junk science, and anti-science are vastly different from views that use scientific fundamentals to challenge the status-quo. I can guarantee that this is a science section, not a pseudoscience section. I can also guarantee that false equivalencies will not find a home here.

BZ.: Media outlets dedicated to science (e.g., science magazines, science sections of newspapers, science programs on the radio, science channels in cable TV, science blogs/networks, etc.) are examples of the so-called “pull” media strategy – they are destinations for the audiences that already know they are interested in science. They are easily skipped and ignored by the general audience. It takes awareness of their existence, as well as personal interest, for one to find and then consume science stories in such outlets. What we’d all like to do more is the “push” strategy – going to the audiences where they already are. This means inserting science stories into places where they will be seen by people who came there to see news about celebrities or sports or politics, and perhaps do not even think they like science. This is a way to “hook” them to science. But this strategy is hard to accomplish, mostly because of the old myth that science stories do not have audiences (myths busted over the past couple of years when outlets ranging from The New York Times to Slate noted that science stories are some of the most viewed and shared stories on their sites). Thus legacy generalist media, still with the largest general audiences out there, is really hard to penetrate. Huffington Post is one of the most visited and popular general media outlets. Its audience comes to the site for all sorts of different reasons. This is potentially a great opportunity to do the “push” method – to mix science stories in with other stuff. Which leads me to the question: how mixed is it really going to be? Will the Science section going to be just a “pull” destination for those already interested, or is it going to be always mixed in with the other topics and “pushed” on the readers no matter where on the site they may find themselves?

CSM.: Oh, I think that moving forward, we will have a very strong mix of push and pull. Our editorial mission is to inform readers, but also to engage them with the awe and beauty of the natural world. I personally find science to be poetic, intriguing, and often very, very human. I find that most individuals who run screaming from the word “science” do so out of fear more than out of boredom. Almost any topic can be described in such a way that it connects with a personal interest or emotion of a reader. I am lucky enough to be able to produce a video series, Talk Nerdy To Me, where I attempt to do just that. I discuss topics—sometimes ones that are in the news, and sometimes ones that are evergreen in nature—in a way that invites my viewers to start their own conversations around the dinner table or water cooler. I think it’s important to break down complex scientific ideas, or translate them, without dumbing down the content. Generally speaking, I think that many popular media producers underestimate the intelligence of their audiences. If we can hook a front page reader who’s perusing an article about the race for the republican nomination, the Golden Globes, or even the NFL playoffs with a snappy title and then deliver on that promise of offering an eye-opening perspective on the way the universe works, I think we’ve done what we all want to do: make a small step toward increasing the scientific literacy of the public at large.

BZ.: In his post about the launch, Charlie Petit was wondering how much science “reporting” there will be on the site. Of course, that word is tricky – there is “news reporting”, there is “investigative reporting“, and then there are op-eds, “cool animals” stories, and videos. All of that is “reporting” in a sense. There are cool stories (“look, this is so cool what they just discovered!”), there are relevant stories (“wow, this is useful information for me to have”), and there are ‘fishy’ stories (“yuck, scientists are up to no good again”). Cool stories are the best “push” stories that excite, entertain and hook readers who then, hopefully, become regular readers of science stories. Relevant stories may not be as sexy, but tend to get shared a lot. ‘Fishy’ stories are very important to do, but perhaps should go to specialized science sites rather than generalist sites as they may have a tendency to reduce trust by lay audiences in science and scientists – something that may not be a good idea on a site that is already (in)famous for its pseudoscience and angry rants against some invented conspiracies by scientists or “Big Pharma”. Or perhaps HuffPost Science may be the ideal place specifically for skeptical stories – active debunking of pseudoscientific claims (including those that appear on other parts of the site). So, how would you respond to Charlie Petit – what kind of media site is Huffington Post, and what kinds of stories can he (and all of us) expect to see there?

CSM.: As mentioned before, I think there will be a fair amount of push and pull on our site. The hope is that we will create an environment where interested readers can “hang out,” reading up on new science developments, looking at “wow” photos, watching cool videos, and engaging with bloggers and other readers within our expansive commenter community. When it comes to deniers, I have a slightly different approach than some of my peers in the scientific community. I think that scientific literacy is a gift, and not everyone has been lucky enough to receive it. It is difficult for somebody who hasn’t learned how to think scientifically to have an immediate filter for non-science, which often masquerades as science, throwing around big words that sound legitimate and hiding behind .org or .edu domain names. For example, when it comes to how many people view Big Pharma, a controversy you raised in your question, I attempt to make key distinctions between what happens in the research lab and what happens when companies market and sell their products. I, like many others, am critical of the health care system in this country. But I’m careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because I do not trust that my insurance company has my best interests at heart, it doesn’t mean that I also distrust the medication or surgical procedure that could save my life. This is an important, nuanced distinction to make, and without education, we can’t expect everyone to have the tools to make it.

BZ.: Tell us more about David Freeman, the new editor of the Science section? His introductory post was well-received. What is his vision for the place?

CSM.: David is a wonderful editor, and we are so lucky to have him. His experience and wisdom having worked at CBSNews.com, and having written for WebMD, Men’s Health, Consumer Reports, and Popular Mechanics (among others) is invaluable to the section. As for his vision, he has this to say: “Science has become absolutely central to our lives and is certain to be increasingly important as the 21st Century unspools. My goal for the new science vertical is to bring HufPost’s signature journalistic flair to the world of science, presenting science news in a way that is engaging and accessible but always intellectually rock solid. Our aim is to entertain as well as inform our readers–and to present science broadly, looking at its intersection with the arts, politics, and other aspects of popular culture. And as with all the verticals at The Huffington Post, another key goal is to foster a conversation, bringing together scientifically minded people for a spirited but always respectful exchange of ideas.”

BZ.: What exactly will be your role as a science correspondent?

CSM.: As I mentioned before, I produce a video series called Talk Nerdy To Me, in which I explore topical and evergreen scientific subjects. I also write original pieces, which generally reflect my personal style and vision, incorporating original reporting with op-ed sensibilities. Moving forward, I plan on doing more interviews/discussions both with scientific minds and everyday people. And, I am always on the lookout for new ways to engage readers and viewers, especially with new media. As Arianna said in her introductory blog, “HuffPost Science will be anchored by our Science Correspondent Cara Santa Maria.” I work closely both with my editorial team and with my video production team to ensure that the page continues to inform, entertain, educate, and inspire.

BZ.: Traffic to HuffPost as a whole is huge, but there is, I heard (correct me if I am wrong), a pronounced “Long Tail” pattern: almost all of the traffic goes to a small number of articles, while most articles get very little traffic and few or no comments. How will you ensure that Science articles get top traffic (get into the “head” or at least “neck” as opposed to the “long tail” of the traffic distribution)? Will they be routinely promoted on the HuffPo homepage? Syndicated on the sites of media partners (including Scientific American)? How much social media activity will be used to promote the content? We all have the same goal – promoting realism, rationality and science. How can we, as a community, help you do it better and reach more people?

CSM.: Science content is represented on the HuffPost homepage daily. Articles are always linked to other relevant articles within the site, and cross-promotion on other verticals (pages) is common. But, getting people to click on an article is only half the battle. We also want them to join the discussion. Site-wide, we have already reached over 2.26 million comments so far this year. The science page alone got over 4,000 comments the day it launched. We also have a team of social media geniuses on staff that are helping us engage people via all of the social tools available. We’re definitely open to any and all suggestions from the online science community at large. We are all on the same team here: team science!

BZ.: Thank you so much!

Introducing: the new Scientific American blog network!

Yes!!! It finally happened! The shiny new Scientific American blog network is now live! We are excited to announce that 39 new blogs joined the network

Check out the press release and the blogs homepage. There are also some changes on the Scientific American homepage – more of those still to come.

I know you are all very eager to see who is on the network. So I will get to that really fast – the entire list is immediately below – and will leave the technical, conceptual and editorial details to the end of the post. But, there are a few people I need to thank first (just like on the Oscar night).

First, big thanks to Mariette DiChristina, SA’s Editor-in-Chief, and not just for having the courage to hire someone wild and woolly like me, but for her vision of Scientific American as a modern, fast, nimble and experimental media organization, not afraid to try new things knowing that some will succeed and others not so much. Without courage to try new things, an organization cannot be entrepreneurial and cutting edge. But with Mariette’s guidance, Scientific American has become exactly that. See also Mariette’s introduction to the network.

The entire editorial team embraced both me and this project from the very first day. But I want to especially point out Phil Yam (Managing Editor, Online) and Robin Lloyd (News Editor, Online) who helped me navigate the labyrinths of workflow in such a large and complicated organization (like nested Russian dolls, Scientific American is a part of Nature Publishing Group which is a part of Macmillan), as well as taught me something new and interesting about the media business and the editing job every day, often in the middle of the night! They are always there to answer my questions, to help out, and support me in my work.

Finally, what you see today could not have happened without the efforts of the amazing technical, design, product and marketing team who usually work behind the scenes without visible bylines on the articles, but deserve all the kudos for doing a great job: Angela Cesaro (Editorial Product Manager), Brett Smith (Project Manager), Nick Sollecito (Senior Developer), Raja Abdulhaq (Development Consultant), Ryan Reid (Art Director, Online), Michael Voss (VP of Marketing), Rachel Scheer (Corporate Public Relations), Jamie Sampson (Senior IT Project Manager), Li Kim Lee (Web Analyst) and Carey Tse (Online Marketing Manager).

And now, the blogs…

Many of you are familiar with the eight blogs we’ve already had on the site for a while (Observations, Expeditions, Guest Blog, Solar At Home, Anecdotes From The Archive, Extinction Countdown, Bering In Mind, and Cross-Check). That number has now grown to 47. Here they are:

Editorial blogs
We now have six editorial (or “editorially-controlled”) blogs – written or edited by Scientific American editors and staff in our official capacity.

@Scientific American is a brand new blog, where several senior editors and managers will provide you with up-to-date updates on everything that is new at Scientific American: from product launches (including apps, books and more) to actions and events, from website enhancements to new issues of the magazines (both Scientific American and Scientific American MIND), from new hires to behind-the-scenes activities, including stories we are working on (and perhaps you can help us with your feedback).

– You might already be familiar with the Observations blog, as it has been around for years. With several posts daily, this busy place features opinion and analysis by Scientific American editors, writers and correspondents.

The Network Central is the blog you are on right now. This is where you will get updates about the SA blog network, including weekly summaries, Q&As with bloggers, updates on all the new plugins, widgets and functionalities, additions of new bloggers, and more. Also, in the spirit of cooperation and sharing, I will also do regular round-ups of the most interesting stories from all around the science blogosphere, including both independent bloggers and those on other networks. If there is breaking news, or interesting events, I will take a look at the coverage by science bloggers wherever they are.

– At the Expeditions blog, we invite researchers, students or embedded journalists to send in regular dispatches from their field work. Currently, we have three ongoing series: Squid Studies on ‘New Horizon’, MSU China Paleontology Expedition and The South Pacific Islands Survey, and we just recently finished the Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife series. Go on a virtual trip to explore the world together with our explorers! Or, if you are about to go out into the field to do research, let me know if you are interested in liveblogging your adventure.

The Scientific American Incubator is a new experiment. The Incubator will be a place where we will explore and highlight the work of new and young science writers and journalists, especially those who are currently students in specialized science, health and environmental writing programs in schools of journalism. There, we will discuss the current state and the future of science writing, and promote the best work that the young writers are doing.

– The Guest Blog has recently become one of our most popular blogs, with daily contributions (some invited, some submitted to us) by a wide variety of authors, in a wide variety of forms and styles, but particularly noted for the prevalence of good long-form writing. It was said that: “Based on #OpenLab nominations, @SciAm Guest Blog is becoming science blogging’s #TED: a place people step up and do their best work. ” And we overheard later: “The @sciam @sciamblogs Guest Blog is an incredible resource: a forest of stories planted by wonderful scientist-writers”. So, dig through the archives (just keep clicking on the “See More” button at the bottom of the page), and then come back to check it out every day.

Blogs by Scientific American editors, writers and staff

There are now six personal blogs written by SA employees. Two are already familiar to most of the site visitors, and the other four are new. There are likely to be more of them launched over the following weeks and months, so stay tuned for the announcements.

A Blog Around The Clock is my own personal blog. There, I will continue to cover both the areas of science I am interested in – circadian rhythms, sleep, animal physiology and behavior, and evolution – and more ‘meta’ topics, like science communication and education, the world of media, and the World Wide Web.

Anecdotes from the Archive. You may have heard that Scientific American is almost 166 year old. That is a lot of archives to go through. Mary Karmelek is digitizing all those archives, and while she does that she often encounters interesting old articles and images that make great topics for blog posts: to see how the world has changed since then, and what we’ve learned in the intervening decades.

Budding Scientist. Anna Kuchment, the Advances editor, will be the main host of this blog. Here, with the help of Scientific American editors, scientists, and other contributors Anna will share ideas for involving kids in science early and often. She will also bring you up to date on the latest news about science education, encourage you to share your own ideas and projects, and answer your questions. This blog will also serve as a hub for Scientific American’s many other education-related ventures, including the Citizen Science initiative, Bring Science Home, 1,000 scientists in 1,000 days, Google Science Fair, and more.

Degrees of Freedom is the brand new blog by Davide Castelvecchi, our math and physics editor, and a wizard at making complex mathematical and physical concepts understandable, exciting and fun. And every now and then, you can expect a brain teaser or a math puzzle – something for you to try to solve.

Solar at HomeScientific American editor George Musser, after using this blog to document his effort to solarize his home will, now that the project is done, broaden his topics to whatever piques his interest including, I am guessing, everything from cosmology and space to energy and environment.

Streams of Consciousness is the brand new blog by Ingrid Wickelgren, an award-winning journalist and author, and an editor at Scientific American MIND. On this blog, Ingrid will explore the brain, the mind, and especially the minds and the brains of children.

Independent blogs and bloggers

Let me introduce the four group blogs first:

Symbiartic is the blog dedicated to the exploration of the intersection between science and art, between nature and the visual representation of it. It is curated by artist Glendon Mellow and science illustrator Kalliopi Monoyios. This is a blog where the two of them act as hosts and curators. They will look around our network and around the WWW as a whole, to find and present work by other artists in a variety of domains of visual art: art, illustration, data visualization, sculpture, architecture, design, cartoons, comic strips, photography, etc. They will conduct interviews with artists and showcase their work, and invite artists to post guest-posts. They will showcase their own work, and also discuss how the widespread electronic communication is changing the notions of copyright in the visual realm. They will write How-To technique posts and then conduct reader critiques and reader contests. They will also help me choose the “image of the week” for the blog network homepage. If your names seem familiar, it is perhaps because you already saw them on our site – Scientific accuracy in art by Glendon, and Art in the service of science: You get what you pay for by Kalliopi.

PsiVid is a blog very similar in concept to Symbiartic – except here, the images are not still but are moving. Hosted and curated by Joanne Manaster and Carin Bondar, this blog will focus on video, movies, television, animations and games – how they present and treat science, and how they can be used in science education and popularization. You may remember that Carin has already published a couple of pieces with us (Apple, meet Orange and Reflections on biology and motherhood: Where does Homo sapiens fit in?). At PsiVid, Joanne (cell biologist) and Carin (evolutionary biologist) will host discussions, interview film-makers, showcase interesting videos, teach video techniques and host reader contests. They will also help me pick the “video of the week” for the homepage.

– At Plugged In, two young scientists – Melissa Lott and David Wogan – and two veteran writers – Scott Huler and Robynne Boyd – will explore how our civilization uses energy, how our infrastructure works, how this impacts the environment, and what can each one of us as an individual do to make a positive impact on the health of the planet. You have seen some of them on our site before, e.g., Melissa (Texas “Tea” becomes the Texas “E”?), David (Power from pondscum: Algal biofuels, Deja vu: What does the Gulf oil spill tell us about the Japanese nuclear and From fuel to film: The story of energy and movies), Melissa and David together (Waste to Energy: A mountain of trash, or a pile of energy?), Robynne (The low-carbon diet: One family’s effort to shrink carbon consumption and Epiphany from up high: Can a suburban family live sustainably?) and Scott (How Does Sewage Treatment Work?). This group blog will have a breadth and diversity of topics, a broad range of ‘reading levels’, a lot of science, and a little bit of everything else. Should be both useful and fun!

Creatology – Every July I will invite a few recent graduates from a science writing program at a journalism school to run a blog here for one year – they will be good colleagues to one another, members of the same cohort in school and living in the same town so they can easily work together and help one another. They will have a sandbox here to do whatever they want, experiment with a variety of media forms: text, images, audio, video, data visualizations, animations, diavlogs, ‘explainers’ and more. The first year, this blog is Creatology, blog run by three recent graduates from the Science Journalism program at City University London. They are Christine Ottery, Gozde Zorlu and Joe Milton. You may have seen Gozde’s name at ScientificAmerican.com before, as well as a number of Christine’s reports. I am looking forward to seeing what they do over the course of the year.

Here comes the long list of individual bloggers and their new blogs:

Anthropology In PracticeKrystal D’Costa is an anthropologist in New York, and a huge Mets fan. She is a writer and digital strategist and her interests include (online and offline) networks and identities, technology, immigrants, and history. And New York. And coffee. And baseball. This blog, continuing where she left off at the old blog of the same name (as well as at The Urban Ethnographer where she will make you fall in love with New York City), will look at the ways the urban environment shapes urban culture and affects the way we relate to each other – both offline (see Hold that door, please! Observations on elevator etiquette) and online (see Weinergate: Private Records in a Public Age). Advice: there is something essential to have when reading Krystal’s posts – a cup of good coffee, so you can sit back, relax and enjoy.

The Artful AmoebaJennifer Frazer knows her fungi! With a degree in plant pathology and mycology, Jennifer decided to become a science journalist and writer. She graduated from the MIT science writing program and worked for newspapers and as a freelancer. And I hear she may have a book in the future. Her blog (see the previous incarnation) looks at biodiversity, especially of critters we don’t often hear about – not whales or pandas, but things like moss-animals, Ediacarans and giant viruses. Important to note: Jennifer’s posts are always a visual treat as well, with lush illustrations (sometimes drawn by herself) and photographs of the alien-looking creatures.

Assignment ImpossibleCharles Q Choi likes to have fun letting his imagination run wild. A long-time blogger and a frequent contributor to Scientific American, Charles likes to ask questions like “what is too hard for science to do?“, or “what is easy to do and why hasn’t been done yet?”, or “what discoveries come straight out of Science Fiction?”, or “what wild place on Earth can I travel to in order to report cool science?” Watching this blog will be a fun ride for all of us.

Basic SpaceKelly Oakes is one of the youngest bloggers on the network, just about to shed the title of “undergraduate student” as she finishes her final year studying physics at Imperial College London. Kelly writes about space and astrophysics, trying to make it interesting to non-scientists and fun to read. Along with the research and studies, Kelly also edits the science section of Felix, the student newspaper at Imperial College. You can also see Kelly’s previous article at our Guest Blog – Habitable and not-so-habitable exoplanets: How the latter can tell us more about our origins than the former.

Bering In Mind is one of the eight old SA blogs you are probably familiar with. Written by psychologist and author Jesse Bering, this blog does not shy away from controversial topics, ranging from science of religiosity (Jesse’s latest book is The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life), to science of sexuality, to science (and personal and cultural angles) of homosexuality. If you are looking for long, active, vibrant discussions in the comments, you are likely to find one or two on Jesse’s blog at any time.

Cocktail Party Physics – Yes! Scientific American and Discover are now officially connected through marriage! I don’t know if her husband, physicist Sean Carroll, checks her science while she fixes his prose, I still think we got the better half – the amazing writer Jennifer Ouellette. If you think it’s hard to make physics fun, think again, but first you’ll have to read Jennifer’s blog, old news reports, or some of her books with titles like “The Physics of the Buffyverse”, “Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales of Pure Genius and Mad Science” and “The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse”. That is fun! As she was, until recently, the Director of The Science & Entertainment Exchange, it is not surprising that there is a lot about movies and Hollywood in her posts, along with the science and its history. I am delighted to welcome Jennifer to the network.

Compound EyeAlex Wild is an entomologist studying ants. He is also a professional photographer with his subjects, not surprisingly, being mostly small, six (and sometimes eight) legged, winged and with hard exoskeletons. It is this latter side of his expertise, the nature photography, that Alex will mainly bring to this new blog. Amazing photographs, technical advice for amateur photographers, and what it all means for promotion of nature and science! All this with a touch of insect taxonomy and evolution on the side.

Context And VariationKathryn Clancy is a biological anthropologist who focuses mainly on female reproduction – from physiology, to medicine, to society, to policy. Her previous blog got on everyone’s radar when she wrote (almost live-blogged) her own personal experience with in-vitro fertilization. That takes some courage! To get an idea what to expect, see also Kate’s previous appearance on out site: I don’t have a 28-day menstrual cycle, and neither should you. Of course, the blogging cycle is much more regular than that ;-)

Cross-Check by science writing veteran John Horgan is a fixture by now on our blogs. You may have already learned that this is the place to go to enjoy John tackling controversial topics, and to jump into lively comment discussions on topics ranging from the origins of war, to evolutionary psychology, to ‘who is wrong on the Internet this week’. His long career in journalism and a huge rolodex of sources also allow John to be fast and accurate when there are breaking news for which the scientific angle needs to be explained before the rest of the media botch it all up.

Crude Matter by Michelle Clement (formerly at the C6-H12-O6 blog) is about all the gunk and goo that makes the bodies of humans and other animals work, all the solids, liquids and gasses that exist in our bodies and are sometimes ejected out of them. In one word: physiology! How the body works can be approached in different ways, from medical perspectives to energetics, from ecology to evolution. Michelle does a little bit of all of it. And she is not afraid to sometimes blog about her own body – what it is, what it does, what it wants, and what it is hurting from. Another recent refugee from the lab bench to the newsroom, Michelle is a fascinating person and an exciting writer. But you’ll see that for yourself as the blog proceeds in the future. For starters, check out her SciAm Guest Blog post What’s the deal with male circumcision and female cervical cancer?.

Culturing ScienceHannah Waters has done research in the field, studying coastal marine ecology, and in the lab, studying epigenetics of yeast ageing, before deciding to move in a very different direction and try for a career in science writing. Apart from the archives of the previous edition of Culturing Science, see also her other blog Sleeping with the Fishes and her previous Guest Blog post Now in 3-D: The shape of krill and fish schools. Every area of biology, from molecules to ecosystems, is fair game for Hannah’s blog, as well as some wise discussions of science education and communication. Welcome to the network, Hannah!

Disease ProneJames Byrne is a PhD student in Microbiology and Immunology all the way in Adelaide, Australia (so he may be sleeping at the time readers from other continents are posting comments on his blog). His interests, well represented in his blogging, include the cause of diseases (human and non-human patients alike) and the history of medicine. James has published two articles with us so far – Bacteria, the anti-cancer soldier and Divine intervention via a microbe, which can give you some idea of the range of his topics and the style of his writing.

Doing Good ScienceJanet Stemwedel is the Cool Aunt of the scienceblogging community. With two PhDs (in chemistry and philosophy), Janet works as a professor of philosophy of science and is a veteran blogger, covering philosophical, sociological and ethical aspects of science with a characteristic cool. Also, as a parent, she is involved in, and often blogs about, science education in everyday life, including her wonderful Friday Sprog Blogging series.

EvoEcoLabKevin Zelnio is a marine ecologist, invertebrate zoologist, freelance writer, musician and a veteran of several blogs over the years. He is one of the editors (and the webmaster) at Deep Sea News. His new blog here, EvoEcoLab, will explore the intersection of ecology and evolution, as well as the way these two disciplines affect us, humans. To get a glimpse of Kevin’s writing, check out his previous SA posts – To catch a fallen sea angel: A mighty mollusk detects ocean acidification and A World Ocean.

Extinction Countdown is one of the eight blogs we already had before the launch of this network, so you may already be familiar with it. John Platt is a journalist specializing in environmental issues and, on this blog, he covers conservation issues, looking at various species (mostly but not exclusively animals) at the brink, their conservation status, the efforts to save and protect them, and the scientific, cultural and political dimensions of the struggle to preserve the Earth’s biodiversity.

Guilty Planet – After taking a year off from blogging, Jennifer Jacquet is back! You may remember her old blogs – the original Guilty Planet or, before it, Shifting Baselines. Her blog bio states that she is “a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons” yet what this means is that Jennifer studies ecology, mainly marine ecology, often in a very complex mathematical ways, as well as conservation and the cultural, societal and policy aspects of saving the biosphere, especially the oceans. See her previous Scientific American contribution – Ecologists: Wading from nature to networks.

History of Geology – When the hustle and bustle of busy life wears you down, when you come back home exhausted after a long day at work, when it’s time to put on your slippers and fix yourself a Martini on the rocks – that is a perfect moment to visit David Bressan who will transport you to his small town in Italian Alps and take you to a journey through the slow history of earth science, and even slower movement of glaciers – David’s scientific expertise. You will notice your heart beating slower, and your high blood pressure going down. Be nice about an occasional error – I bet his English is better than your Italian. To get a taste of his style, check out The discovery of the ruins of ice: The birth of glacier research and Climate research in the geologic past, David’s prior contributions to Scientific American.

Lab Rat – A biochemist turned microbiologist, Shuna E. Gould writes about bacteria, bacteria and bacteria at the Lab Rat. And it never gets old – as there are so many bacteria and they do so many wondrous things! Alongside with her blog here, Shuna also hosts the ConferenceCast blog on our sister network, Nature Scitable Blogs. Her previous Guest Blog post is Synthetic biology: Building machines from DNA.

Life, UnboundedCaleb Scharf is currently the director of Columbia University’s multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. He is also the author of the undergraduate textbook “Extrasolar Planets and Astrobiology”. His blog explores the research on the origins of life and the possibilities of life emerging on planets other than ours. How does Caleb think about this? See in How to find a habitable exoplanet: Don’t look for one.

The OcelloidPsiWavefunction is the pseudonym for a young researcher in a relatively small but exciting field of Protistology – studying a wide variety of organisms with an amazing diversity of biochemistry, physiology and behavior, that all have a nucleus in their cells, but are usually too small to see without a microscope. As this group of organisms is much less studied than others, e.g., animals, plants, fungi or bacteria, new studies quite often completely reshuffle the taxonomy of the group, or even change the notions we have on the origins and early evolution of Eukaryotes (organisms with cells that have a nucleus). Thus, evolution and systematics are big topics on the blog. As many of those organisms are unfamiliar to most of us, and as images and photographs of them are not easily available, Psi often draws them for the blog posts, and those drawings are really cool.

OscillatorChristina Agapakis is a biologist with a freshly minted PhD from Harvard. She is also a designer, a movie-maker and a writer with an ecological and evolutionary approach to synthetic biology and biological engineering. With her blog Oscillator, with the Icosahedron Labs and the video-making Hydrocalypse Industries she works towards envisioning the future of biological technologies and synthetic biology design. And makes really cool science movies! Check Christina’s Guest Blog post – Mixed cultures: art, science, and cheese.

The Primate DiariesEric Michael Johnson got his Master’s degree in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke, focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics in England, Europe, and Russia in the nineteenth century. His blog, Primate Diaries, has been traveling for a year – Eric exclusively did guest posts on other blogs for a year, before deciding to settle down here at Scientific American. Master of historical long-form writing, Eric has published on our Guest Blog before – A primatologist discovers the social factors responsible for maternal infanticide.

The Psychotronic GirlMelody Dye has a degree in philosophy and intellectual history from Stanford University and is a current NSF IGERT fellow in cognitive science at Indiana University at Bloomington. She is interested in developmenal and cognitive psychology, especially the process of learning language in children. Melody is also a professional photographer. She is also a co-blogger on the Childs Play blog and has published with us in the Mind Matters column, including Why Johnny Can’t Name His Colors (also published in the print version of Scientific American MIND) and The Advantages of Being Helpless.

The Scicurious BrainSciCurious is a neuroscience postdoc, researching actions of neurotransmitters. But on the blog, Sci is fun, and Sci writes in third person singular. With images – some funny images, some weird images, and some gross images. There are posts explaining the basics of how the brain works. There are posts covering the brand new research. There are posts covering old, classical papers. And there are posts covering bizzare research, especially about, erm, reproduction. Sci has published twice with us so far – The antidepressant reboxetine: A ‘headdesk’ moment in science and Serotonin and sexual preference: Is it really that simple?, the latter one going on to win the prestigious 3 Quarks Daily prize.

Science Sushi – Christie Wilcox is a marine biologist working on her PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii. I once said about her blogging that “When Christie Wilcox dissects a scientific paper or an issue, that is the sharpest, most definitive and usually the final word on the subject. ” I still stand by that statement. Christie is thorough. Yet great fun to read. See for yourself – How do you ID a dead Osama? and Bambi or Bessie: Are wild animals happier?

Science With MoxiePrincess Ojiaku is studying neuroscience at North Carolina Central University, and plays bass in an an awesome band. So it is not surprising that her blog often connects these two aspects of her life, from discussing neuroscience (and other science, like physics) of music perception, to interviewing scientists who are also musicians. Obviously, this blog will rock!

Tetrapod Zoology – there is no science blogging network without someone writing about dinosaurs, right? Well, Darren Naish does it here, and he knows what he’s talking about as he’s named and described a few. But his blog is about much more than just dinosaurs. Darren covers, in great detail, all kinds of living and extinct tetrapods (vertebrates with four legs, or whose ancestors had four legs), their taxonomy, their anatomical, physiological and behavioral adaptations, and why some of them are so hard to find out in the wild. He has published Do Giraffes Float? in the Scientific American print magazine, as well as a three-part post on the new systematics of Iguanodons – The Iguanodon explosion: How scientists are rescuing the name of a “classic” ornithopod dinosaur, part 1, The explosion of Iguanodon, part 2: Iguanodontians of the Hastings Group and The explosion of Iguanodon, part 3: Hypselospinus, Wadhurstia, Dakotadon, Proplanicoxa…. When will it all end?. Needless to say, there are always interesting discussions in the comments, often featuring quite a range of experts in various areas of zoology.

The Thoughtful AnimalJason G. Goldman is a graduate student in developmental psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studies the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. On his blog, Jason usually discusses the latest research in animal and human behavior, neuroscience and cognition. I also closely worked with Jason last year, in his role as the Guest Editor of Open Laboratory 2010. Jason has also been quite a regular contributor to our Guest Blog, so you should check out Man’s new best friend? A forgotten Russian experiment in fox domestication, Turkey talk: The social cognition of your Thanksgiving dinner, Impact of the Japan earthquake and tsunami on animals and environment and Digitizing Jane Goodall’s legacy at Duke.

ThoughtomicsLucas Brouwers received his MS in the program for Molecular Mechanisms of Disease at Radboud University Nijmegen. He writes about science for a Dutch newspaper, he blogs and he’s recently reported for us from the Lindau Nobel conference. Lucas covers mainly evolution, usually from a molecular or bioinformatics angle. His previous Guest Blog article was We all need (a little bit of) sex.

The Urban ScientistDanielle N. Lee did her PhD research in animal behavior and she sometimes blogs about it, as well as about evolution, ecology (often urban ecology) and mammals. But her main strengths are in blogging about science education and outreach, especially to women and minorities, and she does it often herself – both at the old version of this blog and in her other project – SouthernPlaylisticEvolutionMusic where she uses hip-hop to explain basic evolutionary concepts. Check out her Guest Blog post – Under-represented and underserved: Why minority role models matter in STEM.

The White Noise – Last on this list due to the vagaries of the alphabetical order, but most certainly not the least, let me introduce you to Cassie Rodenberg. With a degree in chemistry, and love of herpetology, Cassie turned to science journalism and never looked back. After stints in local newspapers and another popular science magazine, Cassie is now interactive producer for Discovery’s Emerging Networks, including Discovery Fit & Health and Planet Green. The topic of her new blog is addiction. Every angle of it: chemicals, brain, behavior, culture, society, policy and more. And yes, personal experiences with addiction involving people around her. That is courageous. Knowing how well she writes, and suspecting how personal some of this will be, I expect her blog to make for some amazing, riveting and emotional reading.

Some more notes about the network

First, let me tell you a little bit how I chose the bloggers, and what is the concept and vision for the network.

Over the past nine months, since I got hired to develop this network, I checked out thousands of science blogs, dug deep into the archives of several hundred of them, then closely followed, day-by-day, about 200 of those, removing some and adding some over time, finally managing to whittle it down to about 42 who I ended up inviting.

Though not absolutely unique in this, Scientific American is very rare in completely incorporating the blogs and bloggers into its website and daily workflow. A blog is just a piece of software. We are trying to eliminate the artificial line between “blogging” and “journalism” and focus on good, accurate writing, no matter what form it comes in or what software is used to produce it. Our bloggers are a part of our team, as ‘continuous correspondents’ or ‘full-time freelancers’. Thus, I made careful choices keeping this in mind – I invited bloggers whose expertise, quality of writing, and professionalism fit well with the mission and general tenor of our organization.

Diversity

The vision for the blog network I have is a collection of people who bring to Scientific American a diversity of expertise, backgrounds, writing formats, styles and voices, who will bring diverse audiences to Scientific American. They differ in typical lengths of posts, in posting frequency, in the “reading level” of their work, in the use of non-textual media, and in their approach to science communication. Each one of them will appeal to a different segment of our readership: from kids to their teachers, parents and grandparents, from the hip-hop culture to the academic culture, from kindergarteners to post-docs.

Another thing I was particularly interested in was to find bloggers who in some way connect the “Two Cultures” as described by C.P.Snow. Some connect science to history, philosophy, sociology or ethics. Many are very interested in science education, communication and outreach. Some make connections between science and popular culture, music, art, illustration, photography, cartoons/comic strips, poetry, literature, books, movies, TV, video, etc. Several produce such cross-discipline and cross-cultural material themselves – at least two are musicians, two are professional photographers, several produce videos, two are professional artists, a couple are authors of multiple books, some produce their own blog illustrations. But there are also commonalities – they all have strong knowledge of their topic, they strictly adhere to the standards of scientific evidence, they are all very strong writers, and they are all enthusiastic to share their work with a broader audience.

When I put together this group, with such diverse interests and styles, it was not surprising to discover that, without really having to try hard to make it so, they also display diversity in many other areas: geography, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, personal/professional/scientific background and more. This is something that is important for science, and is important in the science blogging world.

So, as I expect that several of you are already counting, let me make this easy for you. We have 47 blogs with 55 bloggers. Of those, our editors and staff make up 13 people (8 women, 5 men), while independent bloggers make up the difference with 42 of them (25 women, 17 men). That is a total of 22 men and 33 women writing on our network. The age ranges from 22 to 58, with the mean around 32 and median around 31 (at least when including those who are willing to admit their age).

While geographic concentration in New York City is mainly due to the fact that most editors and staff have to come to our NYC office every morning, the rest of the bloggers are from all over the country and the world (see the map of some of their birthplaces) and also currently live all over the place (see the map) and, as academic and other jobs require, move around quite often. Right now, other urban centers with multiple bloggers are Vancouver city and area (4), Triangle NC and surrounding area (4), Urbana-Champaign, IL (3), Los Angeles, CA (3), London, UK (3), Columbus, OH (2) and Austin TX (2). There are bloggers in Australia, Italy, Netherlands, Canada (5) and the UK (6). And the birthplaces also include Trinidad, Hong Kong, Belgrade (Serbia) and Moscow, Russia (two bloggers).

Size of the network

Will the network grow any more? Perhaps, but not fast, and not by much. This is pretty much the ideal size for a network, and getting much bigger becomes unpleasant for bloggers, managers and readers alike – there is a potential loss of the feeling of community, as well as a fire-hose of posts in the feed. This size is, as Goldilocks would say, just right – neither too small nor too big. We’ll try to keep it that way. As is to be expected, every now and then a blogger will decide to leave and pursue some other career avenue, which will open up a slot for someone new. One of the blog spots is designed to exist only one year at the time. And at least two blogs – the Guest Blog and Expeditions, are here to provide the platform for many others who are not regularly writing for our network.

Commenting

As regular users of our site know, commenting on our articles requires registration with Scientific American. But, for the posts on our new blogging network, there will soon be two additional log-in options: you will be able to log in with either your Twitter or your Facebook ID and password. Providing additional options is necessary to foster conversations and build our community.

We are about to update our official rules for commenting on the editorial blogs. Independent bloggers will have their own rules for what is appropriate behavior in their comment threads. Most, but not all bloggers will moderate comments ‘post-publishing’, i.e., deleting already posted comments that are deemed to be spam or in other ways inappropriate. A couple of bloggers will moderate pre-publishing, i.e., they will first have to approve those comments that will show up on their sites.

I know this post was long, but I hope you at least managed to go and visit all the blogs, and say Hi to the new bloggers in the comments. I think this is going to be great fun for all of us. Subscribe to feeds and keep coming back to see what these wonderful writers have prepared for you each day.

Thank you!

The Bezos Scholars Program at the World Science Festival

The World Science Festival is a place where one goes to see the giants of science, many of whom are household names (at least in scientifically inclined households) like E. O. Wilson, Steven Pinker and James Watson, people on top of their game in their scientific fields, as well as science supporters in other walks of life, including entertainment—Alan Alda, Maggie Gullenhal and Susan Sarandon were there, among others—and journalism (see this for an example, or check out more complete coverage of the Festival at Nature Network).

With so many exciting sessions, panels and other events at the Festival, it was hard to choose which ones to attend. One of the events I especially wanted to see centered on the other end of the spectrum—the youngest researchers, just getting to taste the scientific life for the first time in their lives.

On the morning of Saturday the 4th, four high school seniors from New York schools presented their research at the N.Y.U. Kimmel Center. This is the second year that the project, The Bezos Scholars Program, sponsored jointly by the Bezos Family Foundation and the World Science Festival, took place.

Each student starts the program as a high school junior and, with mentoring by a science teacher and a scientist or engineer in the community, spends a year working on the project. At the end of the year, the students get to present their findings at the Festival and also get to meet the senior scientists, attend other events, all expenses paid by the Bezos Family.

The event, so far, has not been broadly advertised by the Festival probably to avoid having crowds in the thousands assembling to give the students stage fright. Still, the room was filled by dozens of local scientists, writers and educators and the students certainly did not disappoint.

It is important to note here that a big part of organization, coordination and coaching was done by Summer Ash (see also).

The projects

To summarize the research projects, I asked Perrin Ireland to provide cartoon versions of the presentations. Perrin Ireland is a graphic science journalist who currently serves as Science Storyteller at AlphaChimp Studio, Inc. She uses art and narrative to facilitate scientists sharing their stories, and creates comics about the research process.

More importantly for us here, unlike most of us who write notes when attending presentations, Perrin draws them. You can find more of Perrin’s work at Small and Tender, and follow her on Twitter at @experrinment.

“Aluminum Ion-Induced Degeneration of Dopamine Neurons in Caenorhabditis elegans”

First up was Rozalina Suleymanova from Bard High School Early College Queens. Her teacher is Kevin Bisceglia, Ph.D. and her mentor is Dr. Maria Doitsidou from The Hobert Laboratory in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University Medical Center.

Aluminum is found in brain tissues of Alzheimers’ patients. It is reasonable to hypothesize that aluminum can also affect neurons in other neurodegenrative diseases such as Parkinson’s. In Parkinson’s, it is the neurons that secrete dopamine that are affected.

Human brains are large and complex, but the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans has a simple nervous system in which every individual neuron (out of a total of 302) is known – where it is, what neurotransmitter it uses, and what function it performs. It is also an excellent laboratory model organism, with easy husbandry and breeding, short lifespan, and genetic techniques in place.

What Rozalina Suleymanova did was make a new strain of C.elegans in which only the eight dopamine-releasing neurons express green fluoresecent protein which allowed her to see them under a epiflorescence microscope.

She then exposed the worms to different doses of aluminum(III) in the form of AlCl3 either as acute exposure (30 minutes of high concentration) or as chronic exposure (12 days of continuous exposure of lower concentration).

Under the acute regimen, some worms died (how many – depended on the concentration). But the worms that survived showed no changes in the dopamine neurons. Under chronic exposure, all worms survived and only a very small proportion (not different from chance) showed some minor changes in the dopamine neurons. Thus, essentially negative results (hard to publish), but excellent work!

“The Structural Stability of Trusses”

Next up was Matthew Taggart from the NYC LAB School for Collaborative Studies, his teacher and Ali Kowalsky and his mentors Jeremy Billig, P.E., Senior Engineer at McLaren Engineering Group in NYC.

He used a program called Risa3D to build virtual bridges. The program enabled him to test the design of bridges built of iron trusses.

By varying heights (‘depth’) and widths (‘span’) of trusses and applying vertical downward force onto them until they broke, he discovered that it is the height-width ratio, not either one of the dimensions alone, that determines the strength and resistance of this kind of bridge design.

Needless to say, these kinds of calculations are performed during the process of actual design of infrastructure – using computer program first, verifying by hand calculations second, then doing test designs before starting the real construction.

“Identifying Presence of Race Bias Among Youth”

Saba Khalid from the Brooklyn Technical High School was the third student researcher up on stage, accompanied by her teacher Janice Baranowski, and her mentor Dr. Gaëlle C. Pierre from the Department of Psychology at NYU School of Medicine.

She devised a questionnaire, based on some older literature on race perception, and distributed it to the students at her school. Each question showed five pictures of dolls, each with a different skin tone, and asked which of the five dolls is most likely to be working in a particular profession.

Saba Khalid then analyzed the data correlating the responses to the race/ethnicity of the responder, to their socio-economic status and other parameters.

Out of many different responses, Saba Khalid pointed out three examples that are in some way typical. For one, respondents of all races predominantly pointed the darkest doll as a likely employee in a fast-food restaurant. At the other end, most respondents of all races chose the lightest doll for the profession of a pilot. Interestingly, for the profession of a teacher, the answers were quite evenly spread, with some tendency for respondents to pick a doll closest to their own skin color.

“Proactive and Reactive Connection Relevance Heuristics In A Virtual Social Network”

Finally, Tyler A. Romeo from the Staten Island Technical High School took stage. His teacher is Frank Mazza and his mentor is Dr. Dennis Shasha from the Department of Computer Science at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at NYU.

There are two ways an online service can make recommendations to its users. One method tracks the user’s prior choices and recommends items that are similar in some way. Think of Amazon.com recommending books similar to the books you have looked at or ordered. The other method is collaborative filtering – the site recommend items that other users who are similar to you have liked in the past.

What Tyler Romeo did was to recruit eight volunteers from his school who are active Facebook users, and wrote an app for them to install. The app analyzed prior behavior of these users as to which items they found interesting (by commenting or “Like”-ing) using the type and length (but not content) of the post as a key parameter. Tyler then used a support vector machine to predict which new items on the participants’ Facebook walls would be considered interesting by others.

What Tyler concluded was that a support vector machine may be able to predict which posts users will find interesting. Also, “cleaning up” the Facebook Walls to include only the “interesting” posts improved the overall quality of the posts compared to a random feed, which can possibly lead to an improved experience for the user.

***

After the event, several of us in the audience concluded that the quality of the work we just saw was definitely higher than expected for high school – college level for sure, and the Nematode work probably as good as a Masters project. Also, the way they did the presentations gave us confidence to ask tough questions and not to treat them too gently just because they are so young.

And it is there, during the Q&A sessions, where they really shone and showed that they truly own their research and are not just well coached by Summer Ash and their mentors. They understood all questions, addressed every component of multi-component questions, demonstrated complete grasp of the issues, and always gave satisfactory answers (and yes, sometimes saying “I don’t know” is a satisfactory answer even if you are much older than 18 and not just entering the world of science).

They identified weaknesses in their experiments, and suggested good follow-up experiments for the future. I was deeply impressed by their focus and presence of mind – I know for myself how hard it is to do a good Q&A session after giving a presentation. They are definitely going places – I hope they choose careers in science as they have what it takes to succeed.

***

My first thought, after being so impressed by the presentations, was: why only four students? There must be many more talented students in New York schools, with aptitude for and interest in science and engineering.

Finding the right match between three very busy people—the student, the teacher and the mentor—and then coordinating their times and sustaining the work and enthusiasm for an entire year must be quite a challenge.

I am wondering how much a program like this can be scaled up to include more students. Also, having such a program in a city that is smaller, slower, less competitive than New York City, where fewer such educational organizations may exist but are more likely to see each other as collaborators than competitors, may be easier. It would be interesting to see how well similar programs do in other places. But for now, clearly, New York City takes the lead. Great job!

Stories: what we did at #WSF11 last week

As you probably know, I spent last week in New York City, combining business with pleasure – some work, some fun with friends (including #NYCscitweetup with around 50 people!), some fun with just Catharine and me, and some attendance at the World Science Festival.

My panel on Thursday afternoon went quite well, and two brief posts about it went up quickly on Nature Network and the WSF11 official blog.

But now, there is a really thorough and amazing piece on it, combining text by Lena Groeger (who also did a great job livetweeting the event) with comic-strip visualization of the panel by Perrin Ireland – worth your time! Check it out: All about Stories: How to Tell Them, How They’re Changing, and What They Have to Do with Science

More about the trip and the Festival still to come…

Update: See also coverage at Mother Geek.

Is education what journalists do?

We had a great discussion this afternoon on Twitter, about the way journalists strenuously deny they have an educational role, while everyone else sees them as essential pieces of the educational ecosystem: sources of information and explanation missing from schools, or for information that is too new for older people to have seen in school when they were young. Also as sources of judgement in disputes over facts.

While journalists strongly deny their educational role, as part of their false objectivity and ‘savvy’, everyone else perceives them as educators – people who should know and then tell, what is true and what is false, who is lying and who is not. People rely, as they cannot be in school all their lives, on the media for continuing education, especially on topics that are new. And people are then disappointed when, as usually happens, journalists fail in that role by indulging in false balance, He-Said-She-Said reporting, passionately avoiding to assign the truth-value to any statement, or self-indulgent enjoyment of their own “skill with words” in place of explaining the facts.

Fortunately for you all, you do not have to wade through all the tweets to see the entire discussion, as Adrian Ebsary has collected it all using Storify – read the whole thing (keep clicking “Load more” on the bottom of the page until you get to the end):

Informer or Educator: Defining the Journalist’s Role

As you can see, while there is some snark and oversimplification here and there due to short format, the discussion was pretty interesting and constructive. This is also a demonstration that useful discussions can be had on Twitter.

Whenever someone says “you cannot say anything in 140 characters” I respond with “who ever said that you only have 140 characters?”. To their quizzical look, I add “You are not limited to one tweet per lifetime – if you need 14,000 characters, you can write 100 tweets”. But, by writing 100 tweets, and making sure that each tweet – not just the collection of 100 – makes sense, has punch to it, and is hard to misunderstand or misquote out of context, one has to write and edit each tweet with great care. Twitter does not allow for sloppy writing!

Picking a theme for a few hours or days, and tweeting a whole lot about it during that period, is usually called ‘mindcasting‘. But it is even better when a bunch of other people join in and mindcast together – everyone learns something from the experience.

Now read the Storify and, if you have time and energy, respond with an essay on your own blog, as a continuation of the mindcasting process.

Update: And the first responses are in:

Whose Job is Public Science Education?

Are Journalists Educators? Does It Even Matter?

Scientific Communication all-you-can-eat Linkfest

About a week ago, Catherine Clabby (editor at American Scientist), Anton Zuiker and I did a two-day workshop on science communication with the graduate students in the Biology Department at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. Here are some of the things we mentioned and websites we showed during those two days.

Links shown by Anton for the personal web page session:

Official homepage of Aaron Martin Cypess, M.D., PH.D.
Stanford Medicine faculty profiles
Web Pages That Suck
Anton Zuiker (old homepage)
Biology: Faculty at Wake Forest
Official homepage of Thomas L. Ortel, MD, PhD
Official homepage of Matthew Hirschey
About.me
Joe Hanson’s About.me page
Jakob Nielsen’s Utilize Available Screen Space
Official homepage of Jacquelyn Grace
Laboratory and Video Web Site Awards
Web Style Guide

Link to the step-by-step page for creating a WordPress blog:

Simple exercises for creating your first blog

Links shown during the social media session:

Anton’s Prezi presentation
Delicious link sharing
Twitter and a tweet
Facebook – you know it, of course. Here’s the fish photo
LinkedIn
Tumblr
Posterous
Bora’s take on Tumblr and Posterous

==========================

From Cathy Clabby:

References:

Good books on writing well:

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Write by Roy Peter Clark
On Writing Well by William K. Zinsser
Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

Excellent articles on how to avoid gobbledygook when writing about science:

Deborah Gross and Raymond Sis. 1980. Scientific Writing: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Veterinary Radiology
George Gopen and Judith Swan. 1990 The Science of Scientific Writing. American Scientist

Web resources for good-writing advice:

Websites with smart writing advice:

Roy Peter Clark from the Poynter Institute offers these 50 “quick list” writing tools.
Purdue University’s OnLine Writing Lab
Carl Zimmer’s banned words (updated regularly on The Loom, his Blog)

You are what you read:

Newsstand magazines with excellent science writing:

The New Yorker
Discover
National Geographic
Scientific American
American Scientist
Outside

Books featuring clear, vivid science writing:

The Beak of a Finch by Jonathan Weiner
The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester
Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas
Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel
The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Best American Science Writing (a yearly anthology with a changing cast of guest editors)
The Best American Science and Nature Writing (another yearly anthology)

==========================

From Bora:

Workshop on conferences in the age of the Web:

How To Blog/Tweet a Conference:
How To Blog a Conference
On the challenges of conference blogging
What a difference a year makes: tweeting from Cold Spring Harbor

How to present at a conference mindful of Twitter backchatter:

How the Backchannel Has Changed the Game for Conference Panelists
On organizing and/or participating in a Conference in the age of Twitter

Icons to put on your slides and posters:

Creating a “blog-safe” icon for conference presentations: suggestions?
CameronNeylon – Slideshare: Permissions
Andy and Shirley’s new ONS Logos

A good recent blog post about the changes in the publishing industry (good links within and at the bottom):
Free Science, One Paper at a Time

Open Notebook Science:
Open Notebook Science
UsefulChem Project
Open Science: Good for Research, Good for Researchers?

A little bit of historical perspective on science, science journalism, blogging and social media (and you can endlessly follow the links within links within links within these posts):
The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again
Why Academics Should Blog: A College of One’s Own
The Future of Science
Visualizing Enlightenment- Era Social Networks
“There are some people who don’t wait.” Robert Krulwich on the future of journalism
A Farewell to Scienceblogs: the Changing Science Blogging Ecosystem
New science blog networks mushroom to life
Science Blogging Networks: What, Why and How
Web breaks echo-chambers, or, ‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’ – my remarks at #AAASmtg
Is education what journalists do?
All about Stories: How to Tell Them, How They’re Changing, and What They Have to Do with Science
Telling science stories…wait, what’s a “story”?
Blogs: face the conversation
Identity – what is it really?
Books: ‘Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science’ by Michael Nielsen
#scio12: Multitudes of Sciences, Multitudes of Journalisms, and the Disappearance of the Quote.

Where to find science blogs (and perhaps submit your own blog for inclusion/aggregation):
ScienceBlogging.org
ScienceSeeker.org
ResearchBlogging.org

A blog about science blogging, especially for scientists – well worth digging through the archives:
Science of Blogging

A blog post about science that was inspired by a previous post on the same blog:
1000 posts!

A blog post about the way a previous blog post put together a researcher and a farmer into a scientific collaboration:
Every cell in a chicken has its own male or female identity
In which I set up a collaboration between a biologist, a farmer and a chimeric chicken

A blog post demonstrating how to blog about one’s own publication:
The story behind the story of my new #PLoSOne paper on “Stalking the fourth domain of life”
Comments, Notes and Ratings on: Stalking the Fourth Domain in Metagenomic Data: Searching for, Discovering, and Interpreting Novel, Deep Branches in Marker Gene Phylogenetic Trees

Another example:
Comments, Notes and Ratings on: Order in Spontaneous Behavior
Paper explained in video at SciVee.tv
Author’s blog and site. See some more buzz.

Collection of links showing how Arsenic Life paper was challenged on blogs:
#Arseniclife link collection

A blog post about a scientific paper that resulted from a hypothesis first published in a previous blog post:
Does circadian clock regulate clutch-size in birds? A question of appropriateness of the model animal.
My latest scientific paper: Extended Laying Interval of Ultimate Eggs of the Eastern Bluebird

A post with unpublished data, and how people still do not realize they can and should cite blog posts (my own posts have been cited a few times, usually by review papers):
Influence of Light Cycle on Dominance Status and Aggression in Crayfish
Circadian Rhythm of Aggression in Crayfish

Good blogs to follow the inside business of science and publishing:
Retraction Watch
Embargo Watch
DrugMonkey and DrugMonkey

Who says that only young scientists are bloggers (you probably studied from his textbook):
Sandwalk

My homepage (with links to other online spaces) and my blog:
Homepage
Blog
Twitter
Facebook

How to find me on Scientific American:
A Blog Around The Clock

Scientific American and its blogs (new blog network, with additional blogs, will launch soon) and social networks:
Scientific American homepage
Scientific American blogs
Scientific American Facebook page
Scientific American official Twitter account
Scientific American MIND on Twitter
Scientific American blogs on Twitter

Cool videos:
Fungus cannon
Octopus Ballet
The Fracking Song

Why blog?
Science Blogs Are Good For You
To blog or not to blog, not a real choice there…
Bloggers unite
Scooped by a blog
Scientists Enter the Blogosphere
“Online, Three Years Are Infinity”
Studying Scientific Discourse on the Web Using Bibliometrics: A Chemistry Blogging Case Study
The Message Reigns Over the Medium
Networking, Scholarship and Service: The Place of Science Blogging in Academia

Great series of post about scientists using blogs and social media by Christie Wilcox:

Social Media for Scientists Part 1: It’s Our Job
Social Media for Scientists Part 2: You Do Have Time.
Social Media for Scientists Part 2.5: Breaking Stereotypes
Social Media For Scientists Part 3: Win-Win

Why use Twitter?

What is Twitter and Why Scientists Need To Use It.
Twitter: What’s All the Chirping About?
Social media for science: The geologic perspective
Why Twitter can be the Next Big Thing in Scientific Collaboration
How and why scholars cite on Twitter
Researchers! Join the Twitterati! Or perish!
Twitter for Scientists
PLoS ONE on Twitter and FriendFeed

Some good Twitter lists and collections/apps:
Attendees at ScienceOnline2012
Scientific American editors, writers and contributors
SciencePond
The Tweeted Times

Some interesting Twitter hashtags:
#scio12 (chatter about ScienceOnline conference, and discussions within that community)
#scio13 (people already talking about next year’s event)
#SITT (Science In The Triangle, NC)
#madwriting (writing support community)
#wherethesciencehappens (pictures of locations where science happens)
#icanhazpdf (asking for and receiving PDFs of papers hidden behind paywalls)
#scimom – scientists and mothers and scientist-mothers.
#scienceblogging
#sciwri – science writing
#sciart – science and art
#histsci – history of science
#IamScience – a great initiative, see: original blog post, Storify, Tumblr, Kickstarter – and see the related Tumblr: This Is What A Scientist Looks Like

The Open Laboratory anthology of science blogging:
The Open Laboratory – what, how and why
The Open Laboratory at Lulu.com
The Open Laboratory 2011 updates
A couple of Big Announcements about The Open Laboratory

ScienceOnline conferences:
ScienceOnline2011
ScienceOnline2012
ScienceOnline2011 programming wiki
ScienceOnline2012 programming wiki
ScienceOnline2012 homepage
ScienceOnline2012 official blog
ScienceOnline2012 coverage blog
ScienceOnline2012 organizing wiki
ScienceOnline2012 blog and media coverage
ScienceOnline2013 organizing wiki
ScienceOnline participants’ interviews

Probably the best and most current book on science communication for scientists is ‘Explaining Research‘ by Dennis Meredith – see the book homepage and the associated blog for a wealth of additional information and updates.

Probably the best book for preparing oral (and to a smaller degree poster) presentations is Dazzle ‘Em With Style: The Art of Oral Scientific Presentation by Robert Anholt.

For posters, dig through the archives of this blog:
Better Posters

Giant Dino exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, or why I should not be a photojournalist

 

As the Blog Editor at Scientific American, I come to New York City about once a month to work in the office, attend editorial meetings, and prepare the blog network for launch some time in the near future.

This week, I was in town at just the right time to join our intrepid team of reporters on assignment: the press event leading to the opening of the new Giant Dino exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.

Now that I work in a media organization, it is time for me to stop just criticizing from the outside and actually learn how the media works – from the inside. So, on Wednesday, Katherine Harmon, Eric Olson (picture right) and I met at the office early in the morning, packed all the necessary equipment and made a trek uptown to the Museum for the event. We decided to go by metro as likely faster than the cab at that time of day (though I wonder if there is any time of day on any day of the week when metro is NOT faster than the cab in this town).

My job was really just to tag along, help carry the camera and stuff, watch what they do, and try to take some photos with my tiny little Pentax – a great camera for tourist-y travel, but not good enough for taking pictures in a dark hall – my caffeinated hands cannot hold still long enough for the long exposure such pictures require. But I was going to give it my best shot anyway.

So, while Katie was interviewing people and Eric was shooting video, I was wondering around taking pictures. A few of them are below – you can find the rest of them nicely organized (with running commentary) on Facebook, and also on Flickr where you can download them in a variety of sizes (just link here and credit me if you decide to re-use them on your site, please).

Eric’s video and Katie’s text can be found on the Observations blog – New exhibit reconstructs the very biggest dinosaurs–inside and out – check it out.

I was hoping there would be out-takes and bloopers left over for me to use, but nothing funny happened – everything went smoothly, and the footage was all fine, including the interview with Brian Switek (left), blogger at Laelaps and Dinosaur Tracking, and author of Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature. Brian has just signed up with Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux to write his second book, A Date With a Dinosaur. I interviewed Brian twice on my blog – in January of this year, as well as back in 2008 before he became famous.

I wish I knew that Lance Mannion, an old blog friend, was going to be there as we have never met in person before – next time, I promise.

The event started with a press conference in the Hall of Dinosaurs at the Museum – see how nice and docile the dinosaurs are to the members of the press, just standing there politely instead of stomping them all into the floor:

Even T.rex turned away and did not eat anyone:

Here are Eric and Katie again, at the end of the press conference, ready to go and see the new exhibit:

Entering the very, very dark hall where the exhibit is located (on the fourth floor of the Museum), worrying that exposure times would be far too long for taking pictures without a tripod:

We were first greeted at the door by the head of Argentinosaurus, the largest sauropod:

Once inside of the exhibit hall, the panorama is dominated by a life-size replica of Mamenchisaurus, a sauropod with an incredibly long neck:

If you go to any natural history museum, be it the Hall of Dinosaurs at AMNH, or at the Smithsonian in D.C., Field Museum in Chicago, Carnegie in Pittsburgh, or any other, there are usually many mounted dinosaur skeletons. There will be a plate with a little bit of text explaining something about the animal, but most people do not read those signs. The focus is on diversity, large size, and taxonomic relationships of dinosaurs.

But this exhibit is completely different. While several sauropod species are mentioned here and there, the focus is on their biology, not identification. Even the Mamenchisaurus is there not so much as itself but more as a representative of the entire group, used to tell us what we know (and how we know it) about the sauropod ecology, physiology, development and behavior.

See that neck again – underneath the peeled-away skin, you can see neck vertebrae, muscles, an arthery, a vein, the esophagus and the trachea:

The central part of the exhibit is the body of the Mamenchisaurus – it was made somewhat transparent and it showed a projection – with voice-over – of a variety of internal processes occuring there: digestion, respiration and reproduction:

It takes a long time to build such a model. It was unfortunately already too late to make any changes in the Mamenchisaurus when a new study came out a couple of weeks ago showing that there is an entire new muscle along the back side of the hind leg – or, as Brian Switek said in the interview, the beast had much more “junk in the trunk” than it was shown here:

Most of the other parts of the exhibit were very interactive. For example, by pushing on the bellows, one could send air down the long plastic trachea into the large model of the dinosaur lungs (this is probably also the most controversial statement of the exhibit – the evidence that their respiration was exactly like that of modern birds – a flow-through, counter-current system – is not as strong as for all the other biology explained in the exhibit):

Here is our team in action: Katie interviewing Martin Sander, Mark Norell and Brian Switek (scientists, when excitedly talking about science, cannot stand still – thus fuzzy pictures, sorry):

Of course, every good museum exhibit has a part where kids can do something hands-on, here digging the fossils in the sand:

This was clever and sneaky! They included weight-lifting exercises into the exhibit! Good for everyone’s health… on the left is the giraffe neck vertebra and on the right is the equivalent from a sauropod. The dino one is somewhat lighter than the mammalian one due to numerous holes and caverns in it:

Sliders! I love sliders! Measure your femur, slide a slider to that number, and the other number tells you how much you’d weigh if you were a sauropod:

Or you measure some real dinosaur femurs before you go to the slider…

…and then see how much the real dino used to weigh (this is in pounds, but you can choose kilograms as well):

Finally, here is a cute little sauropod hatching out of an egg:

The way exhibit is done and set up is really refreshing, but it also reflects the way the dinosaur paleontology has evolved recently. The rush to discover, describe and mount as many species, or as strange species, or as large species as possible, is a thing of the past. Today, new techniques are available that changed the approach – the focus now is much more on the biology of dinosaurs: how they evolved, how they lived and behaved, and how their bodies functioned. Studying not just bones, but also soft tissues, skin imprints, embryos in eggs (sometimes still inside their mothers), tracks they left in the soft ground, the microscopic bone morphology, chemical traces, the positioning of fossils at the time of death, the environments in which they died… it is a much more mature science today, and this exhibit reflects this very well. If you can make it to NYC between tomorrow’s opening and January, go to the Museum and see it.

On Peer Review Radio

If you missed it earlier this week (i.e., if you do not follow me on Twitter or Facebook), you can catch up now. Adrian Ebsary interviewed Marie-Claire Shanahan, Greg Gbur, Chris Gunter and me for the Peer Review Radio Episode 20: Go Sing it On the Mountain – Communicating Science Online, about science blogging, science writing, teaching, open science and more. Worth a listen (at least for the other three guests – great stuff!).

Web breaks echo-chambers, or, ‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’ – my remarks at #AAASmtg

As you probably know, I was in D.C. last week, attending the annual AAAS meeting. This was my second one (funny, back when I was a member of AAAS I was still in grad school and I could never afford to go – now that I am out of science, invitations are finally happening). It is an enormous meeting (about 8200 people this year, I hear) and I missed even seeing some of the friends as the space was so enormous and the program so rich.

Unlike last year, when I was in a session that made quite a splash, this year I was a part of a much more academic panel on Social Networks and Sustainability.

Organized by Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University, the panelists were Mrill Ingram (University of Wisconsin), Ken Frank (Michigan State University) and Adam D. Henry (West Virginia University). These are people from areas like sociology, people who make graphs like this one and understand how to properly interpret it:

My role on the panel was as a ‘discussant’, i.e., someone who does not give a separate talk but comments, at the end, on what the other panelists have said.

I am glad I got the materials from the panelists in advance as this was quite dense stuff.

Every scientific discipline invents new words – the terminology (or jargon) with precise meaning that is necessary for practitioners to talk to each other. For the most part, natural sciences tend to stick to agreed definitions, and counter-examples are relatively rare thus usually quite well known (e.g., the different use of the term “gene” by population geneticists vs. molecular geneticists).

Social sciences, on the other hand, tend to appropriate words from the existing English vocabulary and give those words new, precise definitions. Thus, possibility of misunderstanding by non-experts is greater. Also, some of the terms are defined differently by different sub-disciplines, research communities or even individuals, which makes it even harder to be sure one got the meaning correctly.

This all made reading the materials, as well as listening to the panel, quite challenging for me, the outsider in this field. I am also not a researcher of social networks – I am a user and observer, perhaps an amateur student of them. My thoughts could not be supported by numbers and graphs, but had to, by necessity, be more impressionistic – what I learned from my experiences using, living in, and running online social communities.

As all the speakers went substantially over their allotted times all I had left was seven minutes. Fortunately for me, I had all seven (not 3.5) as the other discussant’s flight into D.C. was canceled. Also fortunately for me, this was the very last time-slot of the meeting, so nobody was in a rush to go to another session and thus everyone let me talk a few minutes longer and then remained in the room asking even more questions.

As I tend to do, and in this case particularly, I decided not to prepare too much (OK, at all) in advance. Instead, I listened to the panelists carefully and made the decision what to say only once I climbed onto the podium in the end and knew how much time I had at my disposal. I decided what to say in the first couple of sentences – the rest came out on its own, pure improvisational theater.

As I was reading the materials and listening to the talks, I realized that a couple of examples were clearly discussing real-world, meat-space, offline social networks, but that all the other examples were ambiguous: I could not figure out if those were online, offline, or combined/hybrid social networks.

So, I decided to use my seven minutes to compare and contrast online and offline social networks, how they differ (more important than how they are similar, which is the default thinking), and how they interact and potentially strengthen each other due to such differences.

This is, roughly, what I said – or at least what I meant to say but had to speed up, i.e., this is an (very) expanded version:

Social norms build and enforce echo-chambers

You want to remain in a friendly relationship with the people you see (or potentially can see) often: neighbors, family, colleagues and friends. Nothing makes for a more unpleasant interaction than discussion of politics, ideology or religion with the people you disagree with.

Thus, there is a social norm in place: politics and religion are taboo topics in conversation. It is considered bad manners to start such conversations in polite company.

This means that most people are not exposed to views other than their own in their day-to-day interactions with other people.

In a small tightly-knit community where everyone’s politics and religion are the same (and people tend to move to such places in order to feel comfortable, on top of most likely being born in such a community to begin with), there is no need to discuss these topics as everyone already agrees. If the topic is discussed, there are no other opinions to be heard – it’s just back-slapping and commiserating about the evil enemies out there.

In mixed communities, the taboo against discussing politics and religion is strongly enforced. Again, as a result, there is not much chance to hear differing opinions.

There is no more airtight echo-chamber than a small community which interacts predominantly within itself, and not so much with the outside world.

Mass media builds and enforces echo-chambers

If you are born and raised by parents with a particular set of beliefs, you will also inherit from them the notions of which media outlets are trustworthy. If you were raised in the reality-based community, you are unlikely to waste much time with the media of the fantasy-based community (and vice versa). If your parents read Washington Post, you are unlikely to read Washington Times. You’ll prefer New York Times and not New York Post. MSNBC rather than Fox News. NPR rather than Limbaugh show on the radio.

But it is even worse than that – the choice is really not as broad. The media shapes the public opinion by choosing what is and what is not respectable opinion, i.e., ‘sphere of legitimate debate’ – what opinions to cover as serious, what opinions to denigrate and what opinions to ignore. There are many ideas that people hold that you will never see even mentioned in the US mass media and some of those are actually very legitimate in the Real World.

Furthermore, the press then divides the ‘respectable opinion’ into two opposites, gives voice to each of the two, and will never actually tell you which of the two is more reasonable than the other – “we report, you decide”, aka, He Said She Said journalism.

By presenting every issue as a battle between two extremes (and the fuzzy, undefinable “middle” is reserved only for them, the wise men), the mainstream press makes every opinion something to be sneered at, both those they deem worthy of mentioning and the unmentionable ones.

By refusing to acknowledge the existence of many stands on any issue, by refusing to assign Truth-values to any, by looking down at anyone who holds any opinion that is not their own, the mainstream press fosters the atmosphere of a bipolar world in which enmity rules, and the wagons need to be circled – the atmosphere that is so conducive to formation and defense of echo-chambers and yet so devoid of airing of any alternatives.

The Web breaks echo-chambers

When an individual first goes online, the usual reaction is shock! There are people in the world who believe what!?!?

The usual first response is anger and strenuous attempts at countering all other ideas and pushing one’s own.

But after a while, unbeknown to the person, all those various novel ideas start seeping in. One is not even aware of changing one’s own mind from one year to the next. Many ideas take time to process and digest and may quietly get incorporated into one’s gradually enriching and more sophisticated worldview.

We all learn from encountering all those other opinions even if we vehemently disagree with them. And we cannot help bumping into them all the time. There are no taboo topics online, no social norms preventing people from saying exactly what they think.

Forming, finding or defending a vacuum-sealed echo-chamber online is extremely difficult, if at all possible.

Your Facebook friends will post stuff that reveals their politics is different than yours (and you did not even know that about them before – they seemed so nice in real life!). By the time you get around to blocking them…it’s too late – the virus has already entered your head [this one sentence added 2-27-11].

People you follow on Twitter because of some common interest (e.g., food or knitting or parenting or technology or geographic area) may be very different from you when concerning some other interest, e.g., religion, and will occasionally post links to articles that contain opinions you have never heard of before.

If you are, for example, a liberal and tend to read only liberal blogs, you will constantly see links to conservative sites that are being debunked by your favourite bloggers – thus you will be exposed to conservative ideas daily.

If your interest is science, you are even luckier. The mainstream media, if it links to anything at all, tends to link either to each other or to governmental sources (e.g., CDC, USDA, etc.). Political bloggers link a lot more, but again the spectrum of sources is pretty narrow – they link to MSM, to governmental pages, and to each other (including the “opposition” bloggers).

But science bloggers link to a vastly broader gamut of sources. If mass media is linked to at all, it is usually in order to show how bad the coverage was of a science story. Linking to each other is important (and that includes linking to anti-science sites when needed to counter them), but what science bloggers do that others do not is link to scientific papers, documents, databases, even raw data-sets (including some Open Notebook Science bloggers who pipe data straight from their lab equipment onto the web).

What echo-chamber? Contrary to what some uninformed op-eds in the mass media like to say, the Web breaks echo-chambers that the social norms and mass media have previously built.

The online and offline social networks can work synergistically to affect real change

Many curmudgeons like to say that the Web does not do anything on its own. They (unlike behavioral biologists) do not understand the distinction between Proximal Causes and Ultimate Causes. Web is a tool that allows, among other things, many more people in much shorter time to organize to do something useful in the real world.

Release of Tripoli 6 was an instance in which massive outpouring of support online forced the mainstream media to cover the story which then forced the hand of politicians to do something.

Likewise, in the case of resignation of George Deutsch from NASA, it was investigative work by a blogger, Nick Anthis, that energized the blogosphere, which pushed the MSM to finally report on the story, which forced the event to happen.

PRISM was an astroturf website built to counter the pro-open-access NIH bill in the US Senate. Outpouring of online anger at the tactics by the publishers’ lobby inundated the senatorial offices – as a result the bill passed not once, but twice (GW Bush vetoed the first version of the large omnibus bill it was a part of, then signed it with no changes in the language on this particular issue) and the Senate is now educated on this issue.

But probably the best example is the Dover Trial (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) that made Intelligent Design illegal to teach in US public schools. The ruling by Judge Jones (pdf) is one of the most powerful texts in the history of judicial decisions I am aware of.

There are anti-evolution bills popping up somewhere in the country seemingly every week. But because of the Dover ruling, they are all illegal. Most don’t make it to the committee, let alone to the floor of the state legislatures. Others are soundly defeated.

Before Dover, both Creationist sites and pro-evolution sites, when linking to me, would bring approximately the same amount of traffic to my blog. After Dover, getting a link from PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Larry Moran or Jerry Coyne brings substantial new traffic. Links from Creationist sites? Essentially undetectable by traffic trackers – I discover them only when I search my blog URL to specifically see if there are new links out there. Creationism, while still popular with the people, is politically essentially dead. The Dover ruling castrated it.

But Dover Trial would not have gone that way, and would not result in such a gorgeously written document by the Judge, if it was not for a small army of bloggers who contribute to the blog Panda’s Thumb. A mix of scientists from different disciplines, lawyers, etc., this group has been online – first on Usenet, later on the blog – for a couple of decades before the trial.

This is a group of people who battled Creationists for many years, online and offline, in courtrooms and political campaigns, in classrooms and in print. They know all the characters, all the usual creationist “arguments” (and provided all the answers to them in one place), all the literature, etc.

It is one of them who discovered that the new Intelligent Design “textbook” is really just a reprint of an old Creationist book, in which the word “Creationists” was replaced by “Intelligent Design proponents” throughout the text….except in one place where they made a typo: “Cdesign proponentsists”.

Ooops – a huge piece of evidence that Intelligent Design Creationism is just a warmed-up version of the old-style Creationism masquerading as something new. The Panda’s Thumb bloggers were at the trial as expert witnesses who provided all the expert evidence that Judge Jones needed to make his decision. People who organized on the Web have helped a meatspace history come to pass.

The online and offline social networks can work synergistically if the ecology is right

When looking at the role of online communities and networks in meatspace events, counting the numbers of networked citizens (or ratio of networked to non-networked citizens) is not sufficient – one also needs to know their geographic distribution, and their connectiveness with non-networked citizens. The most fresh example are the so-called “Twitter revolutions” in the Arab world.

There are at least two possible scenarios (or thought experiments) that demonstrate the importance of ecological thinking about social networks:

1) There are 10 people on Twitter in a country. All in the same city, all in the same college dorm, good friends with each other. No communication with other people. No Twitterati in other cities. Nobody knows that other people in other cities have the same negative feelings toward the government.

2) There are 10 people on Twitter in a country. One each in 10 different cities. They communicate with each other via social networks continuously. Each is also a center of the local community of thousands of non-networked people using offline methods of communication. Through this connection, they become aware that there are millions of them, all over the country, and that a revolution is feasible.

In scenario 1, there are 10 buddies dreaming of revolution. In scenario 2, there are thousands of people in ten cities organizing revolution. In both, there are only 10 people on Twitter. Yet, the outcome is likely to be very different.

Thus, the ecology of the networkers, their spatial and temporal distribution, and their effectiveness in informing not just each other but many non-networked citizens, are important data one needs for this exercise.

‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’

I shamelessly stole this sub-heading from someone on Twitter (let me know who said it first if you know). Edit: Thank you – it was Chris Rowan,

A great example of a case where the Web produced a community (aka echo-chamber) but that was a good thing, is the case of American atheists.

Before the Web, each atheist in the USA thought he or she was the only one in the country. The social norms about the impoliteness of discussing religion, as well as the real fear of reprisals by the religious neighbors, made atheism completely invisible. No need to mention that the media never mentioned them – they were outside of the “sphere of legitimate debate”.

But then the Web happened, and people, often pseudonymously, revealed their religious doubts online. Suddenly they realized they are not alone – there are millions of atheists in the country, each closeted before, each openly so after! It is not a surprise that “no belief” is the fastest-growing self-description in questions about religion in various nation-wide polls and censuses.

President Bush Senior, himself not very religious, could say that atheists are not real American citizens. A decade later, his son GW Bush, himself a fundamentalist, could not say that any more – his speechwriters made sure he mentioned atheists in the listings of all the equally American religious groupings.

Not all online communities need to be politically active. Discovering people with the same interest in knitting is nice. Exchanging LOLcat pictures is fun. But such interactions also build ties that can be used for action in the real world if the need arises.

Without the Web, I would not know many people whose friendship I cherish. Without the Web I would not have this job. Without the Web, me and many of my friends would have never gone to a meeting like AAAS. There would be no such meetings as ScienceOnline, Science Online London, SciBarCamp, SciFoo, and others.

Every time I travel I make sure that people I know online – from blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. – know I am traveling. I say on which date, at which time, I will be in which restaurant in which city. Twenty people show up. Most I have never met in real life before. But after sharing a meal, a beer, a handshake and a hug, our weak ties become strong ties. Superficial relationships become friendships. If there is a need to organize some real-world action – we can rely on each other to participate or help.

I have a separate Dunbar Number in each city I visited. And I try to connect them to each other even more than they are already connected via online communication. Which is one of the reasons we organize conferences and one of the reasons I am online all the time.

Related:

As Science Bloggers, Who Are We Really Writing For? by Emily Anthes.

Are science blogs stuck in an echo chamber? Chamber? Chamber? by Ed Yong.

Sigma Xi pizza lunch lecture – Science in the current media environment

Next Tuesday at Sigma Xi:

Hi all. Normally we aim to hold pizza lunch on the 3rd Tuesday of each month. In November, that date conflicts with the ship date of the January-February 2011 issue of American Scientist. So we’ll convene a week later. Still, I think you’ll find the session—something different this time—worth the wait.

Join us on Tuesday, Nov. 23 to hear one of our own, veteran science blogger Bora Zivkovic, talk about the shifting ecosystems within his craft. Zivkovic has had a front seat to much of that change, as author of the influential A Blog Around The Clock, as co-founder (with Anton Zuiker) of the international conference ScienceOnline in RTP, as the former online community manager at Public Library of Science and, now, as the new blog and community editor for Scientific American magazine. For a long time, people spoke of the day when print and online media would converge. In a growing share of the publishing world, that convergence has occurred. And Bora, when it comes to science journalism, has been a catalyst in that change.

Thanks to a grant from the N.C. Biotechnology Center, American Scientist Pizza Lunch is free and open to science journalists and science communicators of all stripes. Feel free to forward this message to anyone who might want to attend. RSVPs are required (for the slice count) to cclabby@amsci.org

Directions to Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society in RTP, are here: http://www.sigmaxi.org/about/center/directions.shtml

ScienceWriters2010 – NASW/CASW meeting this week

ScienceWriters2010 is starting on Friday afternoon at Yale University in New Haven, CT. This is a joint meeting of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW).

I am not exactly sure, but I think most sessions will be recorded in some fashion and made available online later.

It is much better, if you want to follow live, to bookmarks the official ScienceWriters2010 blog where recipients of the travel grants – mostly science journalism students or young freelancers – will cover all the sessions in as close to real-time as is possible.

The fellows will also tweet from the meeting, and you can follow them by subscribing to this Twitter list. Or you can follow everyone from the conference by saving a Twitter search for the #sciwri10 hashtag.

I will be on a panel Rebooting science journalism: Adapting to the new media landscape, put together by David Dobbs. My co-panelists are Emily Bell and Betsy Mason. That should be fun!

Definitely check out the rest of the schedule – it is awesome. Everyone’s biggest problem is that all those great sessions are happening simultaneously, so we’ll all also have to wait for recordings of our colleagues’ sessions afterward.

And if you are there and you see me, please come and say Hi!

Science Journalism at Skeptically Speaking

This Friday at 6pm MST (8pm EST) I will be a guest on the Skeptically Speaking radio show. The topic is Science Journalism. Send your questions in advance and tune in on Friday.

Journal of Science Communication

Issue 03, september 2010 of Journal of Science Communication is out – always full of articles interesting for further discussion by science bloggers:

Road maps for the 21st-century research in Science Communication:

This is an introduction to the essays from the Jcom commentary devoted to the statute and the future of research in science communication. The authors have a long experience in international research in this domain. In the past few years, they have all been committed to the production of collective works which are now the most important references for science communication research programmes in the next few years.
What topics should science communication research focus on and why? What is its general purpose? What is its real degree of autonomy from other similar fields of study? In other words, is science communication its ‘own’ field? These are some of the questions addressed by the in-depth discussion in this Jcom issue, with the awareness that science communication is a young, brittle research field, looking for a shared map, but also one of the most stimulating places of the contemporary academic panorama.

Notes from some spaces in-between:

Science communication is less a community of researchers, but more a space where communities of research coexist to study and deal with communities of researchers. It is, as a field, a consequence of the spaces left between areas of expertise in (late) modern society. It exists to deal with the fragmentations of expertise in today’s society. In between those fragments is where it lives. It’s not an easy position, but an awareness of this unease is part of how science communication scholars can be most effective; as we examine, reflect, debate and help others manage the inescapable cultural gaps of post/late modern knowledge communities.

Science communication, an emerging discipline:

Several publications have sought to define the field of science communication and review current issues and recent research. But the status of science communication is uncertain in disciplinary terms. This commentary considers two dimensions of the status of discipline as they apply to science communication – the clarity with which the field is defined and the level of development of theories to guide formal studies. It argues that further theoretical development is needed to support science communication’s full emergence as a discipline.

From analogue to digital scholarship: implications for science communication researchers:

Digital media have transformed the social practices of science communication. They have extended the number of channels that scientists, media professionals, other stakeholders and citizens use to communicate scientific information. Social media provide opportunities to communicate in more immediate and informal ways, while digital technologies have the potential to make the various processes of research more visible in the public sphere. Some digital media also offer, on occasion, opportunities for interaction and engagement. Similarly, ideas about public engagement are shifting and extending social practices, partially influencing governance strategies, and science communication policies and practices. In this paper I explore this developing context via a personal journey from an analogue to a digital scholar. In so doing, I discuss some of the demands that a globalised digital landscape introduces for science communication researchers and document some of the skills and competencies required to be a digital scholar of science communication.

Coming of age in the academy? The status of our emerging field:

Science communication is certainly growing as an academic field, as well as a professional specialization. This calls to mind predictions made decades ago about the ways in which the explosion of scientific knowledge was envisioned as the likely source of new difficulties in the relationship between science and society. It is largely this challenge that has inspired the creation of the field of science communication. Has science communication become its own academic subdiscipline in the process? What exactly does this entail?

Open science, a complex movement:

Science must be open and accessible, and diffusion of knowledge should not be limited by patents and copyrights. After the Open Science Summit held in Berkeley, some notes about sharing scientific data and updating the social contract for science. Against the determinist view on technological and legal solutions, we need an explicit reflection on the relation between science and society. Both academic and industrial science seem unable to fulfill open science needs: new societal configurations are emerging and we should keep asking questions about appropriation, power, privatisation and freedom.

Greek students’ images of scientific researchers:

Public images of scientific researchers –as reflected in the popular visual culture as well as in the conceptions of the public- combine traditional stereotypic characteristics and ambivalent attitudes towards science and its people. This paper explores central aspects of the public image of the researcher in Greek students’ drawings. The students participated in a drawing competition held in the context of the ‘Researcher’s Night 2007’ realized by three research institutions at different regions of Greece. The students’ drawings reveal that young people hold stereotypic and fairly traditional and outdated views of scientists and scientific activity. Research institutions are faced with the challenge of establishing a sincere and fertile dialogue with society to refute obsolete and deceiving notions and to promote the role of researchers in society.

The rhetoric of computer simulations in astrophysics: a case study:

This article is a case study and rhetorical analysis of a specific scientific paper on a computer simulation in astrophysics, an advanced and often highly theoretical science. Findings reveal that rhetorical decisions play as important a role in creating a convincing simulation as does sound evidence. Rhetorical analysis was used to interpret the data gathered in this case study. Rhetorical analysis calls for close reading of primary materials to identify classical rhetorical figures and devices of argumentation and explain how these devices factor in the production of scientific knowledge. This article describes how abduction, dilemma, compensatio, aetiologia, and other tactics of argumentation are necessary in creating the simulation of a supernova. Ultimately, the article argues that rhetorical mechanisms may be responsible for making some simulations better and more sound than others.

Pandemic on the air: a case study on the coverage of new influenza A/H1N1 by Brazilian prime time TV news:

In this paper we analyze the coverage of the pandemic influenza caused by the A (H1N1) virus by the main Brazilian TV news. Jornal Nacional (JN) – which can be roughly translated with National News – reaches an average of 25 million people throughout the country daily. We have observed that the attention cycle given to the new flu by JN lasted approximately five months with significant space given to the disease. Most of the news highlighted the number of illness cases and the health measures to control the infection. Only a small amount of news dealt with issues related to research and scientific development, and included scientists as interviewees or as information sources. We believe that the coverage made by JN may have contributed to the dissemination of what some authors refer to as a “pandemic of panic”.

Origins of Science Writers…but am I one?

The other day, Ed Yong asked science writers, journalists, bloggers and communicators to write their ‘origin stories’, i.e., how they got into science writing plus advice to people who are interested in pursuing this line of work. He received 100 comments so far which is (almost) 100 responses, from some of the top science writers in the world. I find the entire thread fascinating!. In the end I could not resist, so I posted my own comment, reproduced (with mild edits) here:

I think I need to look at the influence of my family. My grandmother was Czech. She got a degree in Philosophy at the University of Prague (at the same time as Franz Kafka and Max Brod). My grandfather came to Prague from Sarajevo, Bosnia. He received two degrees at the University of Prague: in architecture and in civil engineering. The two met at the University, fell in love, and upon graduating got married and settled in Sarajevo where my grandfather designed and built a number of buildings, some of which (including the first skyscraper in the Balkans) are now under protection as cultural and historical monuments. Being a part of elite circles of Sarajevo, they lived under the illusion they were safe. Thus, unlike their siblings who fled the city (and even the country) at the beginning of WWII, they were caught by the Nazis and placed in the concentration camp where they perished close to the end of the war.

Through smart and fast action of some friends and relatives, their daughter (my Mom) was saved and many years later she wrote a wonderful piece about her memories of the War which was published in a book. At the end of the WWII, at the age of twelve, she was adopted by her uncle (her father’s brother) and brought to Belgrade (then Yugoslavia, now Serbia). Thus it is my great-uncle and great-aunt who were the “grandparents” I actually knew and grew up with. They both had a profound influence on me. She was a Czech-born ballerina, a world-famous ballet choreographer, and the founder of the first and (still to this day) most influential ballet school in Yugoslavia, in Belgrade. He was an Army colonel, with two degrees from the University of Prague: chemistry and chemical engineering. They were both world travelers and fluent in several languages.

My parents met at the University of Belgrade. My mother was studying English, and my father was studying Philology. They both also studied a variety of foreign languages. My mother taught English for a while, but spent most of her working career working in the depths of the Serbian government. My father, together with a few friends, owned the only printing press in Serbia right after the War. After it was nationalized, he worked as editor and copy-editor for various technical publications. Occasionally he would take me with him to the printers, where they treated him like God (“one of the last old-school copy-editors who does it right” they would tell me) and where I could stare for hours at the printing presses, marveling at the engineering, enjoying the sounds and the smells and smudges of ink on my fingers.

Needless to say, both our house and grandparents’ house were full of books (as is my house today). We were all big readers of books (I swallowed massive doses of science fiction as a teenager). And we were all big readers of newspapers and magazines as well. When I was very little, I would just read the comics page, the weekly kids section, the weekly nature section, perhaps the movie and TV schedules, but as I was growing up, I made sure to turn every page and read whatever piques my interest, which was more and more as I was getting older.

My father was a language perfectionist and he made sure my brother and I learned to speak and write perfect, grammatically correct Serbian. My mother made sure we were started on English as a foreign language early on (when I was about 5). My father was also a choir singer and taught us proper diction, which is why my favorite medium is radio.

Both our house and our grandparents’ house were always full of fascinating people. Theater people, of course, from opera singers to ballet dancers to directors to composers to conductors. Artists. Art photographers. Linguists. Mining engineers. Gay couples. Writers. Physicians. Journalists. A professor of anatomy at the vet school. A food scientist who spent her entire career doing research on chocolate. A philosophy professor who later got elected into Serbian Parliament and ran for President. Many an evening the guests stayed late into the night discussing politics and all sorts of other topics, with my brother and me allowed to stay up late and listen and soak up all of that interesting intellectual discourse.

I always loved animals and planned to do something with them, perhaps become a biologist or a veterinarian of some sort. But I was also always reading and writing and discussing stuff, so a career that involved the use of language was not an unthinkable proposition. And I had a brief stint in journalism – in my middle-school newspaper where my job was to draw doodles and line-drawings (usually of animals) as fillers of empty spaces. I translated two equestrian manuals from English to Serbian. And I bought hay and oats for my horse for a year using the money I earned translating Disney comic strips (Mickey, Donald…) for a weekly.

Life interfered – I was in vet school when the war broke out in 1991. I escaped the country a week before, on one of the last trains out before the borders closed, sanctions were imposed, and the country descended into a decade of chaos. I found myself in North Carolina and, after a couple of years of getting my bearings, decided not to pursue veterinary medicine any more, but to go back to basic science – biology at North Carolina State University.

After ten years of grad school, I realized that things I was good at – thinking, connecting ideas from disparate research traditions, designing clever experiments, observing animal behavior, animal surgery, discussing, teaching, placing my work in historical and philosophical context – were going out of fashion. Instead, biology was becoming more and more an exercise in things I was bad at – pipetting all day and running gels, following recipes, doing what I am told to, working at the bench in complete silence for 13 hours a day seven days a week, getting all secretive and competitive.

So I bailed out. While I was still finishing up my last experiments, I started blogging politics. When the Kerry/Edwards ticket lost in 2004, I switched to blogging about science. The rest is history.

While much of what I do these days has something to do with writing and publishing and the media, I still find it strange to think of myself as a science journalist. I don’t even blog about recent scientific papers very often any more. I write more meta-stuff, e.g., about science communication, science blogging, science journalism, science publishing, science education, media in general etc. I have not published any articles in legacy media and while I am open to that possibility, I am not actively doing anything to make that happen – I feel at home on the Web.

Yet just last week I was granted membership in the National Association of Science Writers (my initial application was rejected as they had to follow their old “printed on paper only” rules, but this prompted them to revisit and revise their rules to allow for online-only publications). So I guess I am now officially a science writer (and will be on a panel at the NASW meeting in November).

Advice? No idea what to say. I write what I feel the urge to write, and it seems some people like it and appreciate it. Perhaps that can work for others as well, I wouldn’t know.

Science Blogging Networks: What, Why and How

Continuing with the theme from my ‘farewell to scienceblogs‘ post, I want to do some more thinking, out in public, about the current changes in the science blogging ecosystem. This post is probably going to end up being just a set of meandering thoughts and I hope people continue the discussion in the comments.

So, let’s start with history and then see how it may illuminate the present.

Inception of the Scienceblogs.com model

In 2006, Scienceblogs.com grew from initial 14 to about 45 blogs. At the time, there were only a couple of hundred science blogs written in English. Thus, the proportion of science blogs that were on Sb was huge, perhaps as many as 10% of them all were hosted on the network.

In 2006, one could argue that blogs on Scienceblogs.com included some or most of the “best” blogs, as well as a representative sample. Seed certainly targeted blogs that were well written and reliable. And Seed definitely tried to collect a diversity of topics, formats, styles and voices.

But Seed also biased their sample in two important ways:

First, they, initially at least, invited bloggers who already, for the 2006 standards, had large traffic. This was definitely a good strategy – the one that made them an instant success in comparison to other (some even older) networks who tried to get non-bloggers to become bloggers (and popular at that) over night. By joining the Seed’s network, these already popular bloggers brought their readers with them, immediately increasing the visibility of the network and immediately increasing the readership of the other blogs on the network. In 2006, some (though not all) science bloggers with the largest traffic, got to be popular by regularly tackling controversial topics (medical woo, pseudoscience, creationism, politics, religion, global warming, etc.) or by giving voice to groups that were up till then invisible in the society and mainstream media (e.g., female scientists, graduate students and postdocs revealing how the world looks like from their perspective, atheists, etc.). Those topics are very important, but are not representative of the broader science blogosphere any more.

Second, Seed initially invited the bloggers who posted frequently. It is not a bad idea, when starting a new network, to make sure there will be plenty of new content appearing all the time. But that kind of frequent blogging style is more of an exception than the norm. Very few bloggers naturally post with the frequency of PZ Myers, Ed Brayton, Grrrlscientist, Greg Laden or myself. And especially in science blogging, writing a detailed, high-quality post about science takes some time, research and effort which most of us cannot summon every day, let alone multiple times a day.

The popularity and visibility of Sb led many people to think “Hey, I can do this” and today there are thousands of science blogs out there. This means that even with 80+ blogs on the network (as of couple of weeks ago, now around 60), the SciBlings represented only a tiny sliver of the science blogosphere, perhaps around 0.1% (totally inventing the numbers here, but these things – what is an active science blog, for example – are very difficult to define, track and calculate).

Over the four years, the science blogging ecosystem changed. Many of us blogging at Scienceblogs.com also changed. Some noticeably reduced their posting frequency (perhaps moving some of the formerly bloggy material over to Twitter or Facebook). Others changed their interests and topics – this is normal as people change and their blogs evolve. These days I blog about scientific papers quite rarely, but blog often about the ways the Web is changing the world of scientific publishing, science journalism, science communication and science education. I completely understand that people who were reading my blog four years ago may not find my current blogging interesting any more (and vice versa).

Thus, in 2010, the Scienceblogs.com stable is even less representative than in 2006. And with thousands of science blogs out there, many of them excellent, nobody can claim that the blogs on Sb are “the best” any more. Some are among the best, but there are many more “best blogs” in the world not on Sb. But as the Scienceblogs.com network was huge, and hugely visible, and hugely respected, and hugely watched by MSM, all those wonderful science blogs outside the network were essentially invisible, living in the shadow of Sb and hoping we’d link to them sometimes (which we tried to do often, but that is not enough). It is like in the Mesozoic – all those tiny little shrew-like mammals hiding in underground burrows and foraging for seeds at night, being unable to spread into any other niches because the big, dangerous dinosaurs are roaming around the land.


[Image source]

But as the ecosystem was changing, the dinosaurs started feeling a little ill (at least for the past year or so). And then at one point, a giant asteroid (with a Pepsi logo on it) hit the Earth and the giant dinosaurs went extinct.

Now, looking at what is happening at Sb today, I feel that the network will survive, at least for a while. But it will be a smaller, more nimble network in which bloggers have a much bigger voice. The series of defections, followed by the blogger strike, and the management’s response to it suggest that from now on bloggers will be very much calling the shots, as they are the only viable part of the enterprise. Bloggers on the network are all experts in (self)promotion or they would never have ended on Sb in the first place. They can come up with fascinating ideas how to promote the network – and themselves as a part of it – that no traditionally trained PR person can even imagine. So, if the new model for Scienceblogs.com will be more along the lines of Workers’ self-management (also see), then we may see a continued evolution and continued high relevance of this network in the future – after all, dinosaurs are still around us, and they are very beautiful and nimble, though small: we now call them ‘Birds’.

But in the meantime, while Sb is rethinking itself, it is obvious that its size and reputation is smaller. This suddenly opened up the space for many other players to come in. An adaptive radiation of mammals after the K-T boundary, if you will….


[Image source]

The Present

So, there is an awful lot of evolutionary experimentation going on right now. Existing networks are expanding and changing their technological architecture to accommodate the growth. Individual blogs are turning into group blogs. Group blogs are turning into blogging networks. Brand new networks are being built. There will be successes and there will be failures, but when everything settles down, we will probably see a very different environment. Instead of one large island, there will be an entire archipelago of smaller islands. And the new ecosystem requires a new behavior in it, and a new way of thinking about it.

Take a look at my Blogroll on the right – most of that list are various science blogging networks. Some are run by big newspapers (The Guardian), several by popular magazines (National Geographic, Wired, Scientific American, Psychology Today, as well as Burda in Germany), some by university programs for science journalism (Scienceline, Elements), some by scientific publishers (Nature), some by scientific societies (American Chemical Society) and several are self-governing blogger cooperatives (interestingly, often aggregated around a single topic). Each of these networks thus has a somewhat different goal, and a different ‘business model’.

What worries me is that so many of these networks are trying to copy what Seed did in 2006. Now, don’t get me wrong – as I stated in my farewell post, Seed did many things right. Christopher Mims who conceptualized, started and then ran the network for the first six months was a visionary – some of the things he did with scienceblogs.com are now so “normal” that nobody can think how it could possibly be done any differently. It is certainly a good idea for all the other networks to analyze what Seed did right and what Seed did wrong, then to apply those lessons to their own goals and concepts. But they should also realize it is not 2006 any more. Four years are a millennium in Internet Time. The world has changed.

What is the overall goal?

My assumption is that most science blogs are tools for communication, popularization and education of science. The goal is to turn the world (including the individual nations in it) into a “scientific” world, aka, into a reality-based world.

If you think of science communication as a series of concentric circles, at the center are data. The only readers capable of understanding raw data are computers. Once computers analyze and visualize data, those can be understood by experts. But just like dumping reams of data online by WikiLeaks does not make an impact, raw data in science also do not make an impact on their own. Just like WikiLeaks outsources story-telling to the Media, so data need someone to turn them into a story. Those stories, the next bigger concentric circles, are scientific papers, readable (as of now, but this may change) mainly by other people in the same scientific field. The discussions going on in the comments on the papers (and this will, over time, become more common-place as more journals adopt the practice and people get used to seeing it everywhere) are the next circle.

The next big step is to translate those papers and discussions into something that can be understood by people outside of the narrow discipline – the lay audience. That lay audience is also stratified. A scientist in one field is lay audience for another field, but is highly educated and tends to think like a scientist. Then there are generally well educated people who are interested in science. And then there are people who don’t even know if they would be interested in science. Thus, there need to be several different levels of presenting science to the lay audience. And there need to be both “pull” (for interested audience) and “push” (for not yet interested audience) strategies for disseminating scientific information.

The “pull” outlets are science-specific, e.g., dedicated science pages in newspapers, science channels on cable TV, science programs on radio, popular science magazines, popular science books, and science blogs. They are seen by people with interest in science, and easily avoided by those who don’t care. Such outlets span a range of levels, from kids to scientists in other fields. Communication in this outlets is generally pretty good, with bloggers doing a great job at pitching to somewhat higher levels – the educated audience that is very interested in science (including scientists in other fields). This is also the level that is not at all covered by any of the legacy media, and has been missing until recently.

The “push” outlets are general media that may throw a science story into the mix. Such stories can be in papers, magazines, radio, TV, movies, eclectic websites, etc. Such stories tend to be written by general reporters, not specialist science journalists, and thus tend to be awful. But it is the bloggers who do a great job correcting such stories and ‘schooling’ journalist who make mistakes (who may, if their egos allows them, listen and learn and get better).

Both the push and pull versions of the traditional media have a large audience. But bloggers still don’t. Congregating into networks is what turns bloggers into Media, makes them highly visible to the legacy media that will spread stories (or correct their own) and make their spread and reach much wider. Building blogging networks is an application of the use of the ‘network effect’ to make this effort more efficient, by giving the bloggers greater visibility both to casual Web surfers and to the traditional media. Just like WikiLeaks is a global, non-national, crowd-sourced media organization that needs legacy media to make an impact with their stories, so blogging networks are also global, non-national (usually), crowd-sourced media organizations that need to be visible by legacy media in order to have their stories spread widely enough to make an impact.

The mindset that the world is a competitive place, where one company or organization will win and the others will go bankrupt (think of VHS beating Betamax and V2000), is a 20th century mindset. Yes, Google is the best and most popular search engine, but there are others and those others still are used by millions of people who have their own, often good, reasons for making that choice. Today, an ecosystem in which multiple, perhaps many, producers of the same thing, coexist, collaborate, co-depend, is becoming more and more of a reality in more and more areas of life, from globalization of the world (One Remaining Superpower model is gone, if you have not noticed), to industry, to publishing, to the Web. And so it is with science communication, which includes, among else, science blogging networks – many, not just one.

Instead of one huge network, there will be a couple of dozen smaller ones. Sharing similar goals, the networks should be collaborative, not competitive. Each network should display widgets showcasing the most recent posts from all the other networks. There should be a central place that sends people to all the networks. There should be common offline events. There should be actions that all networks participate in. Any network that decides to stay out of these things would self-isolate. And just like the world itself is now interconnected and being isolated does not work for you very well (think: North Korea), so blogging networks are interconnected and being isolated will not work for you either – nobody pays attention to you, and when they do they do not say nice things about you, you cannot control your own message and cannot respond to other people’s messages.

What does it mean to be a blogger these days?

Four years ago, one’s blog was the main and probably only way to communicate online. Blogging networks being blogging networks made perfect sense.

But today, there are many other ways to communicate online. One may exchange information on Twitter, discuss it on FriendFeed, keep social connections alive with friends (and blog fans) on Facebook, post shorter ideas on Posterous, cartoons and videos and quotes on Tumblr, upload videos on YouTube, podcasts on Imeem, slideshows on Slideshare, travel photos on Flickr or Picassa, art on DeviantArt, sell art on Etsy or swag on Zazzle (or CafePress), publish books on Lulu.com, submit scientific manuscripts to PLoS journals, edit Wikipedia, review books on Amazon or Shelfari, and use the blog only for longer, original, well-researched or more thoughtful pieces.

Different people will use their blogs in different ways, for different purposes, but in most cases the blog is not the only means of communication. If you go to an independent blog, you will often see not just the content of the blog but also a whole host of buttons and widgets showing that person’s online (and offline, including professional) activities elsewhere. I just started playing with WordPress, but you can already see on the right sidebar my latest tweets, the FriendFeed widget, links to ScienceOnline and to the Open Laboratory books, and to the homepage where you can find all sorts of buttons leading you to other places I can be found online.

For some people, their blog is their central place and all the other activity is satellite. For others, the focus may be on their MSM work, or their books, or activity on Twitter, and blog is just one of many “other places” where they sometimes do something interesting.

I think new blogging networks have to take this reality into consideration. Be networks of interesting people, whatever they do, not just networks of blogs. Help them showcase everything they do, not just blogging. And if, for technological or managerial reasons, an individual blogger is not capable of showing exactly where the blog sits in their own online work, they will not like it, and they will leave. No way to put all those widgets on the sidebar? The blog then feels isolated from the rest of that person’s work instead of as an integral part of it. The person will feel as giving up too much of their own personal ecosystem for the good of the network’s ecosystem.

Accommodate people who are infrequent bloggers, but do other interesting stuff (i.e., no frequency requirements at all). Promote their videos, podcasts, photography, art, books… Have an easy-to-find list of all of your bloggers’ Twitter feeds.

But serious content, the kind people put on blogs, still needs to be central to the project. Otherwise, it is just another social network (one of several dozen failed “facebooks for scientists”). While networking is important, good content is more than important: it is essential. I am watching Science 3.0 these days – less than a month old, thus no established blogs there as yet, but an interesting concept of putting together everything the members do.

Also, consider a way to preserve some of the content longer than the fleeting moment of a blog post. Collect “Basics” posts in one place, or have the bloggers collaborate on building so-called “explainers” on various topics. Such explainers would contain material at different levels – from kids to expert and everything in-between, including raw data and scientific papers, all clearly marked as to who the intended audience is. Such explainers would be updated (perhaps by editing, wiki-style, with preserved history of editing) as new information comes in. Such pages would also contain links to all the blog posts that the network has produced on that topic, and bloggers would likely send their readers to the Explainer page whenever they blog about that topic again. Build something more lasting out of the bloggers’ work.

Mobility and Exclusivity

This is a unique moment in the history of science blogging networks. This is the only time when people leaving a network are regarded as “hot property” and are actively courted by other networks. Being a SciBling has a certain element of reputation that other networks are now trying to capitalize on. At least six or seven networks have talked to me so far and I have yet to give a strong Yes or a strong No to any one of them. May even go solo for a little while longer.

Also, until now, it was difficult to leave the network – you leave Sb to go where? Into the dark abyss of anonymity and invisibility. Thus many people hung on….

But once there is an archipelago of networks, each roughly equally visible and respected, it will be easy to move from one to another. You join one, try it out for a month or two and, if you don’t like it, move on to another one. Networks should anticipate this, and implement a mechanism for easy move of bloggers in and out.

While networks will provide visibility and traffic, they will not automatically turn a blogger into a hot-shot any more. It is like good peer-review (or good editorial decisions in the media) – a blogger on a network has a seal of approval that s/he is OK, not spouting non-scientific nonsense, but there is no guarantee that the person is one of the elite best. For actual reputation, being a member of a network will not be sufficient any more – that, you will have to build for yourself, as an individual.

The exclusivity of the networks (“you can blog with us and nobody else”) has been eroding for quite a while now. At the beginnings of Scienceblogs.com we were expected to close our old blogs and move them to the network. Razib had quite a problem for continuing to run Gene Expression Classic. It is much more common now for bloggers to contribute to multiple personal, individual, corporate or group blogs, and even to have blogs on two or more networks. This will become even more common in the new ecosystem and any network that asks for exclusivity will not find many bloggers willing to join.

Building and Maintaining Community

With the ease of movement from one network to another, and with the ease of having a blog on multiple networks, how does any individual network get to keep anyone on board? How does one build loyalty? After all, each network is now just one node in the network, and many bloggers will feel a loyalty to the broader community but much less loyalty to the particular network they are on. It is also much easier to be a solo blogger today, as RSS is everywhere (no need to use Google Reader for it – RSS imports are on every social networking platform and more), social networking sites are busy, and multituded of networks will have to pay more attention to them now, if nothing else scouting for new talent.

One obvious way is money. If the business model allows it, and if finances allow it, pay more than the other networks, and this will persuade at least some people to come and to stay for quite a while. Bloggers on networks are media, thus they should be paid for their work, just as if they were journalists in a more traditional outlet.

Don’t pay by page-view. This creates internal hierarchies. This also creates pressures (even if there is no formal frequency minimum requirement in the contract) to post often and to post controversial stuff and to post silly stuff, diluting the science content on the network. Every month when you calculate the earnings and deduct the costs, share the rest equally among all members of the community, regardless of how much they contributed either by frequency of posting or by traffic.

Another obvious way is the opposite – promise never to have ads, never to have corporate interests involved, and never to pay anyone for anything. This is definitely appealing to some bloggers who draw salaries elsewhere and for whom complete editorial freedom and complete perception of ethical purity are essential.

Another way is to have kick-ass technical support. This is a big reason some bloggers like to be on the networks. They may have too large a traffic to be able to deal with it on their own. Or they may be too busy to deal with it. Or they may be great writers but with essentially zero technical skills. Reliable technology is a big plus. And rumors and gossip about the quality of tech support on various networks spread fast and wide.

Also, use platforms that are easy for bloggers to use and customize. These days, multi-blog WordPress seems to be in the lead. Drupal is great for developers and for making parts of the site that bloggers will not touch, but is non-intuitive and cumbersome for the non-techie users. MoveableType4 got clunky over time and requires tech support with high level of expertise and seems to be hard to be flexible with – you are building a site not just for 2010 but also a site that can nimbly change as the Web changes. One day Scripting2 will be available for everyone, and it is perfect for bloggers like me who write long posts – the asides, explanations of the basics, references, link-lists, things I inject into my posts as full paragraphs now can be hidden at first read and revealed by those who want to see them by a single click.

If you combine clunky tech-support, and no access to traffic data, with limits to editorial freedom, you get a revolt on your hands and people start leaving. If business ideas trump everything else, you’ll run afoul of the bloggers’ ethics and they willl leave really fast.

Make sure that blogs on your network have a good mobile version. Design good apps for iPhone and Ipad. Make sure your bloggers get them for free.

Provide cool swag. I have collected four Sb mugs over the past four years, one for each member of the family, and they are our favorites – I am actually drinking coffee from one of them right now. I have a t-shirt that says “Coturnix” on the back, with an Sb logo. Seed has provided, in the early years, swag for us to give to readers in contests. That is cool stuff.

Provide backchannel forums. Any platform will do, though I personally prefer Groupsite.com (formerly known as Collective X) as there is a possibility for exchanging large files, having rich profiles, having easy-to-find documents (e.g., How-To manuals for tech questions), having forums for organizing synchronized action, etc. Count on some members not participating there – there are some SciBlings who never logged into the back forums and thus never really felt like members of the community (and were also wildly uninformed about what is going on). Thus, if a network is too small (e.g., 10 or less), you’ll end up with three people chatting in the forums – that is not a community. Be a part of that forum yourself, regularly. Continuous conversation between bloggers and overlords is essential for developing trust, and thus loyalty.

Organize common actions. DonorsChoose drive every October was a great community-building activity on Scienceblogs.com, for an example.

See how your company/organization can help your bloggers’ careers. For example, if yours is a media company, you can help bloggers write for and get published in your magazine. If they publish a book, promote it. Promote the network and the individual bloggers in your promotional materials, in your magazine, on your website, etc. Also, ask bloggers to promote the network wherever they may be – especially if they go to conferences. Give them swag and let them spread the word about you.

Bloggers who come from a journalistic background want to learn how to use all these newfangled online tools. Bloggers who came from other (mainly scientific/academic) backgrounds want to widen their toolbox to include some of the traditional media. Help both groups as much as you can.

Organize offline events. Blogs are a means to finding people to do rhythmic things with. The two SciBlings meetups in 2007 and 2008 in NYC were amazing events! We gelled so well together as a group. We shared several meals, drank a lot, sang karaoke, met with our readers, met Adam Bly and others in the management, visited Seed offices, took group pictures, got tons of swag. It was a blast. It did wonders for our sense of identity as a group. Likewise, the 1.000,000th Comment parties were awesome – the NC event was at the Asheville Zoo with several SciBlings and several readers, followed by dinner.

And for the building of a broader community that includes all the networks, just come to ScienceOnline every January (the 2011 version is likely to be heavily invested in the building of the new ecosystem, so don’t miss it!), send your Overlords and a bunch of your bloggers, send swag, put up posters, moderate sessions, do a Demo of your network, promote Open Laboratory (and your own bloggers’ posts that made it into the latest edition) on your site, be a generous part of the new ecosystem and your own bloggers will love you for it.

Diversity

Make your network attractive to bloggers, feeling welcome there. If The Usual Suspects invite other Usual Suspects, A-listers invite other A-listers, a bunch of buddies who are all white men invite each other, you will have a problem. The first thing the blogosphere will notice, within the first millisecond of unveiling your network, is that there is no diversity on your network, just an Old Boys Club and an Old Clique. Instead of enjoying the attention, you will have to immediately switch into the PR disaster management mode.

Thus, make sure that at least 50% of your starting line-up are women. And hopefully not everyone’s white and middle-aged either. This will also change the internal dynamics of the community – male-dominated groups are much more competitive, and you want to foster a cooperative activity.

If you spent last few years mainly schmoozing with your buddies in science, or tech, or your neighbors in Silicon Valley, and you have no idea what women, minorities, seniors and youngsters to invite, you are a few years too late for this. If you decide to invite some of them to your network, they will probably be very polite in saying No, but to themselves they will be saying something like “Who the hell are you? What planet did you just fall from? I have never heard of you, you never read my blog, you never commented on my blog, so why this sudden interest in it, eh? You don’t follow me on Twitter, we are not Facebook friends, I am not on your blogroll, so why do you want me now? As a token to put on your pretty new network so you can add another notch on your “diversity” belt? Well, no, sirree!” And they will be perfectly correct in thinking that way.

But if you have started years ago, when science blogosphere was young, always looking around for new voices, reading the new blogs because they are fun, commenting not because it’s good for business but because you are personally motivated to say something, ask something, say Hello, than you are OK. Just by chance, half of these blogs will be written by women, some by older people, some by younger people, some by non-white people.

You would be reading them because their writing is great. You would be commenting, and blogrolling them, and linking to them, and promoting them because you love what they do, not for political motives. You would try to meet them in person when you travel, and you would invite them to conferences you organize. You would make fast friendships this way, without any ideas that this would potentially turn into anything like a business deal.

And then, if such an opportunity arises and you can start a new network, you will have a pool of hundreds or even thousands of cool bloggers to pick from, people with whom you already have a genuine friendship and mutual trust. And you would be VERY familiar with their work as you have followed it for years. Thus you will have plenty of choices who to invite in order to have a diversity of topics, formats, styles and voices – and pure statistics will ensure that about half of them will be female and a few of them non-white and non-middle-aged. No need to do anything artificial, or to do something out of the ordinary in order to get “proper balance” – it will just happen.

Later, once the network is live and kicking, you can do more stuff to promote diversity and especially to promote new and young bloggers. For example, you can make an “incubator” blog to which you invite a very new and young but talented blogger (or even a group, e.g., friends from a science journalism school) to guest-blog on for one month (Seed did that with a photoblog for a while). There is no guarantee, or even expectation that any of those guest-bloggers would ever be invited to join the network as individual bloggers, but that one month would be great training, great experience and great exposure to them, so once their month is over they can take their audience with them wherever they go, feeling confident in their blogging skills. You may specifically ask the readers to be “nice to the n00b” and ask your senior bloggers to keep an eye – be there to teach, to advise, and to defend against nasty commenters. And if an individual blogger really kicks butt, drawing a lot of traffic and comments with brilliant content, then you can certainly consider invitation for a more permanent slot on the network. In other words, be a factor in growing the community of science bloggers, not just defending your own turf.

Coda

There are many other ideas I have, and other people have. Each network will have to see what their goals are, what ambitions, what resources they have, etc.

I could have kept all of the above to myself, and charged a single network $100,000 to advise them and help them set up. But that would not work – it only works if most or all networks think about this the right way and do the right thing. A lone network doing it right cannot survive in the interconnectedness of the archipelago if all the other players adopt outdated ideas. It is a network or networks, and I hope that people who run or build networks right now read this, talk about it with each other, and come to ScienceOnline2011 to hatch a common strategy, because we have a common goal, and need to collaborate on reaching it.

On media articles linking to scientific papers (and other sources)

There are fascinating threads of comments developing on these two posts:
Science journalism pet peeve
and
Do arrogant, condescending, and dismissive attitudes contribute to the journalism crisis?
If you have bookmarked the quick guide to the maxims of new media you will easily find the origin of the phrase “Do what you do best and link to the rest.” – Jeff Jarvis in this 2007 post.
For the origin of the reluctance of MSM to link outside their own websites, watch this video.
For my own thoughts on this topic, informed by my experiences as “media tracker” for PLoS ONE, see Why it is important for media articles to link to scientific papers, the follow-up: Why is some coverage of scientific news in the media very poor?, and related: The Ethics of The Quote.
Discuss.

New edition of the Journal of Science Communication

June edition of the Journal of Science Communication is out. Focus seems to be on communication in physical space and democracy. Check out the table of contents:
Bringing the universe to the street. A preliminary look at informal learning implications for a large-scale non-traditional science outreach project:

“From Earth to the Universe” (FETTU) is a collection of astronomical images that showcase some of the most popular, current views of our Universe. The images, representing the wide variety of astronomical objects known to exist, have so far been exhibited in about 500 locations throughout the world as part of the International Year of Astronomy. In the United States, over 40 FETTU exhibits have occurred in 25 states in such locations as libraries, airports, nature centers, parks and college campuses. Based on preliminary evaluations currently underway, this project – a large-scale, worldwide astronomy outreach in non-traditional locations – has unique opportunities and implications for informal science learning. We present some early findings from the observational section of the exhibit’s formal evaluation in five selected locations in the U.S. and U.K., including emphasis on inter-organizational networking, visitor attention and participant make-up as well as generative aspects of the exhibit.

A game of democracy. Science museums for the governance of science and technology:

Luckily enough, more democracy is always called for. Even in countries that can truly be described as democratic. And democracy (which is a constant reference in these pages) is increasingly related to knowledge, be it about whether growing GMOs, starting nuclear energy production or allowing the choice of a child’s gender through IVF techniques. The need to make democratic decisions on controversial issues, which increasingly imply scientific and technological knowledge, comes from the bottom, as citizens voice – sometimes even vehemently – the desire to express themselves.

More than ‘mountain guides’ of science: a questionnaire survey of professional science communicators in Denmark:

This article sums up key results of a web-based questionnaire survey targeting the members of the Danish Science Journalists’ Association. The association includes not only science journalists but also other types of science communicators. The survey shows that science communicators have a nuanced and multidimensional view on science communication, science, and technology. Science communicators are thus more than the “mountain guides” of science, as a recent definition describes it. The survey respondents are not just interested in helping the public at large to a wider recognition of scientific knowledge, but also want to contribute to democratic debate and social legitimisation of science and technology. The respondents exhibit a certain amount of optimism in relation to science and technology, yet also take a sceptical stance when confronted with overly positive statements regarding science and technology. Finally they have a predominantly social constructivist perception of science and technology when it comes to external relations to society, while they lean towards a hypothetical-deductive science understanding when it concerns the internal dynamics of science

Transatlantic communication in the early years of the International Scientific Series (1871 to 1875):

The first 18 volumes of the International Scientific Series published in both London and New York were reviewed to assess their contribution to transatlantic communication of popular science. The dominant flow of ideas was westwards on topics such as science versus religion, empiricism in psychology, survival of the fittest, jurisprudence versus mental illness, economics and development of cinematography. There was an eastward flow in philology. The preparation of volumes was rushed and many authors merely expanded previous notes, articles and pamphlets. Commercial and idealistic motives conflicted. There were disagreements among authors. Despite all this, the series had a lasting effect on social thought.

Engagement tools for scientific governance:

Museums have a great potential to facilitate the political engagement of citizens, intended not in the sense of taking part to the “party politics”, but as full participation in the systems that define and shape society.

Changing standpoint on issues, by playing:

Sally Duensing previously worked at the Exploratorium in San Francisco and is now based in London where she carries out research on science communication. In this interview, she tells about her experience as an evaluator of the Decide project, one of the most successful discussion games ever designed. Years after its creation, Decide is still used nearly all over the world. Its main strong point is that it allows to grasp the standpoint of the others and, at the same time, to express your own standpoint in a mutual exchange of experience; in addition, the interface and the game rules allow to overcome any cultural and age gaps. However, sometimes the public expects a debate with an expert rather than a dialogue among peers, whereas on other occasions the debate was inhibited especially by the presence of a scientist. In museums, discussion games often clash with the needs of members of the public, who generally have limited time. However they can still be useful to the museum activities when the results of the discussions are used to program other activities: it is a way to gather valuable information on the public’s orientations which is often underrated.

When stories make the context disappear:

Barbara Streicher is the executive manager of the Austrian Science Center Netzwerk, a network grouping over ninety Austrian institutions committed to science communication activities. Barbara used discussion games on many different occasions, all of which were outside a museum, and took place in places such as cafés, libraries, schools, but also shelters for homeless people and prisons. The communication exchange among participants always proved to be very open and respectful at the same time, even when the topics dealt with were especially sensitive and in social distress conditions. The game experiences were generally positive, whatever the places they were set in. The negative aspects are totally irrelevant and basically concern the time limitation and, in some cases, language difficulties. However, in her experience, there is still not an involvement of decision makers, and therefore it can be said that participation games are a way to help people form an opinion on controversial issues rather than an instrument with an impact on democratic governance.

More scientists and less surrogates:

Frank Burnet, now an independent consultant, was the director of the unit of Science Communication at the University of the West of England, and his work and research experience has mainly focused on the communication relation between science and society. In addition, Frank contributed to the development of the project “Meet the Gene Machine”, a discussion format concerning topical science issues. The positive aspect of participation games is the increase in the participants’ awareness of important issues, provided that the game experience is followed by structured discussion. In this case a fundamental role is played not only by the mediator, but also by the scientist. The presence of an expert, and not so much of a communicator, is crucial if you really want to create a contact between scientific world and civil society. An unsolved issue is what the ideal place for effective formal discussion on scientific topics among adults would be: indeed, science centres appear to be heavily associated with the academic establishment on the one hand, and with children entertainment places on the other. Furthermore, real channels for connection and communication exchange with decision makers are still lacking.

Creating exhibitions from debates:

Guglielmo Maglio is Manager of Exhibitions at the science centre “Città della Scienza” of Naples. With “Città della Scienza” he took part in the creation of “Decide”, which he appreciates for its ability to create an informal atmosphere favouring discussion. As concerns the involvement of scientists and policy-makers in the debate, though desirable, it sometimes may influence negatively the spontaneity of the debate among non-experts. In the participants, the main differences can be ascribed to personal experience, rather than to other factors such as age, nationality or social groups. Though not the ideal places for the use of this kind of games, especially owing to time limits, science centres may exploit them to attract specific groups of interest and may obtain useful information on the attitudes of the public to subsequently develop exhibitions and events on the themes dealt with.

The Essence of Online Science Journalism

From a lecture by Miriam Boon

Best posts on Media, (Science) Journalism and Blogging at A Blog Around The Clock

Reposted, as I needed to add several of the most recent posts to the list – see under the fold:

Continue reading

Why is some coverage of scientific news in the media very poor?

Ever have one of those times when you have a cool new blog post all ready in your head, just needs to be typed in and published? Just to realize that you have already published it months ago? Brains are funny things, playing tricks on us like this. I just had one of such experiences today, then realized that I have already posted it, almost word-for-word, a few months ago. It’s this post. But something strange happened in the meantime: that post, in my head, got twice as long and changed direction – I started focusing on an aspect that I barely glossed over last time around. So perhaps I need to write this one anyway, with this second focus of emphasis and instead of retyping the first half all over again, just ask you to read the old post again as it provides background necessary for understanding this “Part II” post today. I’ll wait for you right here so go read it and come back….

Are you back?

OK, so, to reiterate, about four or so months ago, I started monitoring media coverage of PLoS ONE papers and posting weekly summaries and linkfests on the everyONE blog. In the previous post (the one you just read and then came back here) I focused on the importance of linking to the papers, and why bloggers tend to provide links while traditional media does not. There is also a good discussion in the comment thread there. Here, I’ll shift focus on the quality of coverage instead.

Expectations before I started:

Before I was given this task, I was already, of course, aware of a lot of coverage, just not in a systematic way. After all, I needed to read the coverage on science blogs in order to make my monthly pick.

Reading science blogs of repute, or those editorially approved by the editors of ResearchBlogging.org, or those editorially chosen to join the networks like Scienceblogs.com or Discover, I assumed that I was predominantly seeing the best of the best of bloggy coverage of science stories and that there is probably some lesser stuff out there that I just did not pay attention to. If I noted some really bad coverage, I usually discovered it via science blogs on posts that debunked them – such bad coverage I saw tended to come from specialized anti-science or pseudoscience blogs whose political agenda is to misrepresent scientific findings in a particular area of science (e.g., blogs of Creationists or Global Warming Denialists). I assumed that there was also a bunch of stuff in the middle, OK but not brilliant.

Likewise, without specifically looking for coverage in traditional media, such coverage would often find me, either if a blogger linked to it, or via TwitterFriendfeedFacebookverse. Again, it was either excellent coverage of a big story of the week, or such egregiously wrong explanation that it was the duty of science bloggers to do the fact-checking and correcting in a public place – their blogs – so the audience googling the topic would hopefully see those corrections. Again, I assumed I saw only the best and the worst and that there must be a lot of middlin’ stuff in-between.

So, if I designed a scale to measure the quality of reporting, ranging from Amazing to Excellent to Very Good to Good to Average to Meh to Poor to Atrocious, I expected to see both blog posts and MSM articles spanning the entire scale in pretty proportional distribution, more of a flat line than a bell curve.

That’s not what I found.

What I found surprised me….and depressed me.

So, let me classify coverage by quality:

1) Anti-coverage.

Anti-science and pseudoscience blogs actually rarely post about specific scientific papers. They are essentially political blogs, and thus most of their posts are broad, opinionated rants. When they do target a new paper, they tend not to link to the paper, which makes it difficult for me to find the post in the first place (my previous post describes detailed methodology I use to find the coverage).

There is plenty of anti-science and pseudoscience ranting in what goes under the heading of traditional media as well. Just like blogs, they tend to make broad opinionated rants and not focus on specific papers. HuffPo is notorious for pushing medical quackery and pseudoscientific NewAge-style woo. The things that look like media but are just well-funded AgitProp fronts for RightWing organizations sometimes focus on science they hate, especially Global Warming which they deny. Interestingly, unlike their cable counterpart which is pure ideological propaganda, the FoxNews website has relatively decent science coverage as far as traditional media goes.

It does not matter to me that many of those outlets are indexed in Google News – PLoS is a serious scientific organization and I will not reward anti-science forces with a link from our blog or legitimize them by mentioning them.

2) Non-coverage.

Some blogs are personal RSS-feed aggregators, automatically importing feeds from various sources, or with specific keywords. If those include links to the original, they are legitimate, if there are no links, they are splogs (spam-blog), but either way they are useless – that is not coverage of our papers, so I ignore it. In case of a very big story, sometimes I see a blogger who is not a science blogger post something about it – usually just a copy and paste of some text from ScienceDaily, rarely with any editorializing (e.g., a funny title, or a LOL-cat-ized picture) – also not to be considered original coverage, thus ignored safely by me.

Likewise, often dozens or hundreds of newspapers copy and paste (sometimes abbreviated) text coming from AP or Reuters or AFP or TASS. They are essentially equivalent to feed-blogs (since they usually say that this was from Reuters, etc.) or even splogs (since they never link to the original scientific paper) and only a technicality saves them from being considered outright plagiarism. Thus, I link to the Reuters original (which since recently started adding links to papers – Yay!!!) and safely ignore all the others – they are not considered coverage.

Sites like EurekAlert! and ScienceDaily collect barely modified press releases. If I can find the original press release on the University site I may link to it in my weekly post, but I do not link to these secondary sites – they are just aggregators, not sources of original coverage.

3) Poor-to-average coverage.

This comes 100% from the traditional media. Bloggers are either experts – scientists themselves (or science teachers or science writers) – and thus do a good job, or are not experts in which case they are not interested in science, do not blog about it, and certainly have nothing to say even if they copy+paste something sciencey from the MSM. So they don’t even try to write original blog posts with their own opinions. The middlin’ gray area just does not seem to appear on blogs. But there is tons of it in the MSM – the range of my quality scale from Average down to Atrocious is filled with MSM articles. They are bad, but they are “original reporting” at least to some extent (though probably warmed-up press releases, rewritten to use different words and phrases) so I include the links in my posts anyway.

4) Good to excellent coverage.

This is interesting. Many PLoS ONE papers get covered on blogs, and are usually covered wonderfully well. On the other hand, good MSM coverage happens only for the Big Papers, those that are covered everywhere (like Nigersaurus, Maiacetus, Green Sahara, Darwinius….). And then, those excellent MSM articles are written by well-known science writers in top media outlets (e.g., Guardian, London Times, NY Times….). Traditional media pull their Big Guns only for a rare Super-Paper, while bloggers cover everything well, big or small – whatever is their interest or area of expertise. Finally, I should point out that the websites of magazines and public radio (NPR or PRI) tend to cover science better than the websites of newspapers and TV outlets. At the latter, science is covered better by their resident bloggers than by the main news-site.

Why does PLoS treat bloggers as journalists, has bloggers on press list, and highlights the blog coverage? You can say we are nimble and ‘get it’, or that we want a perception of being cutting-edge, or that we’ll try to get whatever coverage we can get. But really, the most important reason we do this is because the coverage of our papers by bloggers is just plain better than MSM, and significantly more so.

So, when British Council only suggests science pages of newspapers for science coverage, or when KSJ Tracker puts together linkfests of coverage of science stories that is composed entirely of media organizations that existed 20 years ago, they are not just out-dated (and thus look like dinosaurs), they miss the very best coverage out there.

What is the difference between Good and Poor coverage?

I have been looking and looking and looking….and I think I finally figured it out. Scientific expertise or experience in covering science by the journalist (or blogger) is a relatively small factor in determining the quality of the article. Much more important is availability of space! Bad articles are short, good articles and blog posts are long.

A couple of inches is just not enough to cover a new scientific paper properly.

Let’s dissect this in more detail….piece by piece.

Lede – an MSM article will always start with it. But from a blogger’s sensibility, lede is weird. Strange. Artificial. Unnatural – nobody really talks like that! It is also superfluous – a fantastic waste of limited space. And it also feels so pretentious: if you are reporting on a scientific story, why start with a paragraph hinting you think you are some kind of Tolstoyevsky? Bloggers either jump straight into the story with a declarative introductory sentence, or start with providing context (including copious use of links) or occasionally start with a joke or personal story or a funny picture, then segue into the serious coverage (but bloggers have endless space so they can afford to waste some of it).

Human Interest paragraph – an MSM article always has it. Bloggers will have it if there is a strong human interest aspect to the story (though never interviewing Average Joe on the street to get a useless quote). Science stories are either “cool” or “relevant” or “fishy”. The latter two often have a human interest aspect to it which a good article and blog post with explore. But many ‘cool’ stories do not – the human interest starts in the reader’s mind while reading the story – the human interest is in reading the story about cool animal behavior or some wonder of the cosmos. There is no need to artificially invent a human interest aspect to such stories – those are often misleading, and always a waste of space.
Main conclusion of the paper paragraph – of course bad articles, good articles and good blog posts will have the main conclusion clearly spelled out. But good articles and blog posts have sufficient space to explain those conclusions – from methodology (is it trustworthy, novel, creative…), to authors’ conclusions (do they follow from the data, miss some important alternative explanation, or over-speculate). They have enough space to explain how those conclusions differ from similar conclusions reached by previous studies, etc. A brief article has no space for this, thus the summary conclusion is either too blunt and short to be accurate, or is too similar to conclusions that the reader has already encountered many times before.

Context – there is no space for context in a short article. Yet it is the context that is the most important part of science coverage, and of science itself – remember the “shoulders of giants”? Placing a new study within a historical, philosophical, theoretical and methodological context is the key to understanding what the paper is about and why it is important, especially for the lay audience. Even scientific papers all provide plenty of context in the Introduction portion (and often in the Discussion as well) which is sprinkled with references to earlier studies.

Quotes – even the shortest article will have a brief quote from one of the authors and/or another scientist in the field, as well as sometimes another scientist who is a naysayer or skeptical about the results. Names of these people who are quoted are usually completely unfamiliar to the lay reader, so invoking them adds no heft to their claims. This is pure HeSaidSheSaid journalism and, again, a colossal waste of space. Not to mention that there are no links to the homepages or Wikipedia pages of these quoted scientists for the audience to see who they are. And we know that a cherry-picked quote that does not link to the entire transcript or file of the interview is a huge red flag and sharply diminishes reputation and trust of the reporter and the media outlet.

Why don’t science bloggers quote other scientists? Why should they? A science blogger is simultaneously both a reporter and a source. If there is a new circadian paper that I find interesting enough to blog about, I am both reporting on what other scientists did AND am a source of expertise in evaluating that work. Why quote someone else when my entire post is essentially an interview with myself, the expert – not just a quote but the entire transcript? The chances I will get something wrong about a paper in my own field are tiny, but if it happens, other people in the field read my blog and they will be quick to correct me in the comments (or via e-mail, yes, it happened a couple of times and I made corrections to the posts). Why add redundancy by asking yet another expert on top of myself?

So, a brief article contains a lot of unnecessary stuff, while it leaves out the most important pieces: the details of methodology and the context. Those most important pieces are also most interesting, even to a lay reader – they situate the new study into a bigger whole and will often prompt the reader to search for more information (for which links would be really useful).

If you are a journalist whose editor gave you plenty of space to cover a Big Story, you can have all of the above in your article, which makes it good. If you are writing for a magazine, it is to be expected you will have plenty of space to give the study sufficiently complete coverage. If you are a blogger, space is not an issue so you just write until you are done. When the story is told, you just end the post and that is it.

But if you are a beat reporter with gazillions of stories to file each week, under tight deadlines, and a couple of inches for each story, then at least try to think how to best use the space you got – is that lede really necessary? The quotes? Can you squeeze in more context instead? And end with a URL to “more information on our website”? Then write (or have someone else write) a longer version on the website, with more multimedia, and with plenty of links to external sources, explainers, other scientific papers, bloggers who explained it better?

How to rethink the Space Restrictions

Once upon a time, buying a newspaper or magazine was an act of getting informed. What was printed in it was what information you got for the day.
Today, a newspaper is a collection of invitations to the paper’s website, a collection of “hooks” that are supposed to motivate the readers to come to the website. Different stories will hook different readers, but they will all end up online, on the site (where they may start clicking/looking around). Why? To see more!!!!

What a disappointment when they come to the website to see more…only to find exactly the same two inches they just read on paper!!!! Where is “more”? Where is the detailed explainer, the context, the useful links? Not there? What a disappointment! But the reader is still interested and will Google the keywords and will leave your site and end up on a wonderfully rich and informative science blog instead, never to come back to you and your poor offering.
Public radio folks – both NPR and PRI – have long ago realized this. Have you noticed how every program, and often every story, ends up with an invitation to the listeners to come to the website to see more – images, videos, documents, interactive games, discussion forums, even places where the audience can ask questions (and get answers) of the people they just heard as guests on the radio? Radio understands that their “space” (time) is limited and heavily rationed (seconds instead of inches) and they use their programing as a collection of hooks produced specifically to pique interest in people, as lures for the audience to go to the website to ‘see more’. And there is a lot of that “more” on their sites for people to keep coming back.

Very few newspapers have realized this yet – some have, but their online offerings are still not rich enough to be truly effective. Let’s hope they start doing more of that if they want to retain the trust and reputation of their brand names and to retain the audience that is loyal to their brand names.

ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Alex, Staten Island Academy student

Continuing with the tradition from last two years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2010 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January. See all the interviews in this series here. You can check out previous years’ interviews as well: 2008 and 2009.
Today, I asked Alex from Miss Baker’s Biology class at Staten Island Academy to answer a few questions. You can read about Alex’s experience at ScienceOnline2010 here.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you from?
Thank you! I’m Alex and I’m a freshman at Staten Island Academy in New York. I’ve lived in New York all my life and dream of living in Paris (though learning French might be necessary for that…). I’m completely invested in literature and music (I’ve played violin all my life), but now I am really embarrassingly involved in the online current events world. I’m beginning to become more reliable than Anderson Cooper.
As a freshman, I am really looking forward to taking Psych as soon as it’s available. I really just find perception, brain functioning, and behavior fascinating. But right now, I’m really enjoying biology where we’re doing a lab about genetics.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
I’ve always been really into writing, but I’ve lately been looking more into journalism over creative writing. Science journalism for the New York Times or Scientific American would be amazing. My main passion has always been and will probably always remain music, art and theater, but I’ve started to spread my horizons after Science Online. I was completely taken by Michael Specter’s speech. He really made science seem more personal, instead of a scary and distant compilation of numbers and statistics.
What particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?
Being perhaps the world’s biggest YouTube fanatic, I really enjoy the Ecogeek.com by Hank Green of the VlogBrothers. I’m also of course always on Ms. Baker’s site Extremebiology.net for updates and notes. Curiocity.ca has a lot of cool sections for kids who wouldn’t expect to like science (aka me pre-9th grade when science was just math with a different name). They have some sports related articles, but my personal favorite is 3D Makes a Comeback where they look into the engineering of 3D hits like “Avatar”. A site that merges science and breathtaking photography is my newest addiction Birdbook.org. There are some truly beautiful images on that site.
How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work and school? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do and want to accomplish?
I really think that online education is the new frontier. There are still a lot of people that need convincing, but I find it hard to believe that with all of the great innovations popping up every day that education would stay restricted to a piece of white chalk and a blackboard. A lot of kids aren’t into Twitter in my class (as some visitors to the Extreme Biology session at Sci Online may remember, 14-16 year-olds don’t see the importance), but I believe it’s mainly because Facebook seems to have all of the factors of Twitter along with a better layout. But I think it is most important to remember that kids like what other kids like. If these sites are introduced to students, it’s only a matter of time before FriendFeed is the new Facebook.
As Miss Baker, when teaching the Biology class, gives you a lot of creative freedom, how does that affect your own interest in the subject? Do you think you learn better this way? What would you suggest to do differently to make it even better? What are some of your own projects you did for the class?
Definitely! As someone who considers myself as a bit of a “free spirit”, I really think the entire class in general is really flourishing with this teaching style. This generation has a lower tolerance for traditional teaching methods. I think giving us freedom within the curriculum is liberating and effective. When the 9th grade went on a trip to London, we took 50 science related photos each and did descriptions and recorded our information. And then, of course, is the infamous blog project. After picking out topic, we wrote blog posts, and now most of them are on the website now. Instead of just writing and handing in an essay, it was so different from anything I’ve ever done in school. We got to comment on each other’s post and get involved in conversations/ debates about the topic at hand.
Do you read science blogs? If so, when and how did you first discover them? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool ones?
I’m guilty of being unimpressed by blogs. There are a lot of truly fascinating blogs, but I can’t find a way to get invested. I can’t help but feeling that answer was a cop out, so I feel I should mention my involvement in the world of podcasts! I’m trying to recruit some people for my own, but until then I love listening! ITunesU has some great podcasts from Universities like Cornell and MIT if you’re interested in those. Those are more recorded lectures, but are still really informative. Science Magazine Podcast is probably one of my favorites, but Science Podcast is also cool. As I mentioned before, Ecogeek is amazing for new green technology and has the best science podcast I’ve found so far. But my all time favorite is SmartMouths podcast. Although mostly political, they do venture into science sometimes. Plus, it’s guaranteed fun and information filled. They do some amazing debates too.
What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2010 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?
My favorite part was definitely presenting! The only suggestion I have for next year (besides an irrelevant request to bring back the same burger truck) is maybe to have a few more sample lectures. There were a few where instead of focusing on one general topic, there were about 3 presenters. I preferred this format, but overall it was such an incredible experience! And as I think I mentioned, my scientific enlightenment was Michael Specter’s speech, and the scientific journalism session. I can definitely see scientific journalism as a genre in its own right, and not just a boring collection of facts.
It was so nice to meet you in person and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.
Alex pic.jpg

Explaining Research with Dennis Meredith

Last week I went to Sigma Xi to hear Dennis Meredith speak about Explaining Research. I posted my summary of his talk over on Science In The Triangle blog so click on over…..

The New York Times Reader: Science & Technology

The New York Times Reader: Science & Technology by Holly Stocking is now out:

Science writing poses specific challenges: Science writers must engage their audiences while also explaining unfamiliar scientific concepts and processes. Further, they must illuminate arcane research methods while at the same time cope with scientific ignorance and uncertainty. Stocking’s volume not only tackles these challenges, but also includes extraordinary breadth in story selection, from prize-winning narratives, profiles and explanatory pieces to accounts of scientific meetings and new discoveries, Q&A’s, traditional trend and issue stories, reviews, essays and blog posts. These Times exemplars, together with Stocking’s guide to reading stories about science and technology, are perfect for science writers who aspire to diversify and hone their reporting and writing skills in a changing media climate. Holly Stocking is an experienced science writer, award-winning teacher, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

This is a collection of best science-related articles from New York Times, including several articles from the NYTimes by Carl Zimmer, and a few blog posts by NYT bloggers Olivia Judson, John Tierney and Andy Revkin [corrected].
I have not bought the book yet, but it is my understanding that the last chapter, on additional Suggested Resources, has quite a lot about science blogs, as well as the Open Laboratory anthologies.

Stuff I showed on my panel at AAAS

Since I don’t do PowerPoint but use the Web for presentations instead, and since the recordings from AAAS are not free (yes, you can buy them, I won’t), and since some people have asked me to show what I showed at my panel there, here is the list of websites I showed there. I opened them up all in reverse chronological order beforehand, so during the presentation itself all I needed to do was close each window as I was done with it to reveal the next window underneath.
I started with http://www.scienceonline2010.com/ to explain the new interactive, collaborative methods in science journalism we discussed there.
Then I showed this series of tweets:
http://twitter.com/cassierodenberg/status/8119288328
http://twitter.com/BoraZ/statuses/8119311288
http://twitter.com/cassierodenberg/status/8120191410
http://twitter.com/BoraZ/statuses/8120374985
http://twitter.com/cassierodenberg/status/8120268454
http://twitter.com/cassierodenberg/status/8813079426
as an example of how that system can work:
http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2010/01/hints_on_how_science_journalis.php
I then showed how I filter my Twitter stream to eliminate much of it and only get to see what people I trust deem important:
http://twittertim.es/BoraZ
http://bora-science.hourlypress.com/
http://bora-media.hourlypress.com/
I pointed out that some people got jobs on Twitter:
http://younglandis.wordpress.com/2010/01/01/firstpost/
I showed how some people – including myself – got jobs on their blogs:
http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2007/04/i_want_this_job.php
http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2007/04/i_want_this_job.php#comment-410506
http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2007/05/its_official_1.php
Then I showed an example of a PLoS ONE paper, as a center of an ecosystem, and the comments and links as an outer shell of that ecosystem:
http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0005723
http://www.plosone.org/article/related/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0005723;jsessionid=2009BD9E7195AADA6D62474B19ABA3FE
I particularly showed the links to the blog posts aggregated on http://researchblogging.org/ to show the reputability of science blogging in the current science publishing ecosystem.
Then I discussed http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2009/04/new_journalistic_workflow.php
and as example showed how I collect important links about Dunbar Number from Twitter to FriendFeed for a future blog-post:
http://friendfeed.com/search?q=%22tag%3A+Dunbar%22
A blog-post or a series of them can lead to an MSM article, and perhaps a series of articles can lead to a book contract. But even without that, one can potentially have a blog post published in a book, e.g., in the Open Laboratory:
http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-open-laboratory-the-best-science-writing-on-blogs-2007/2234830
Finally, if one gets a book published, there is nobody organizing the marketing and the book tours any more, so I showed how Rebecca Skloot organized it herself, by tapping into her online community:
http://scienceblogs.com/culturedish/
http://rebeccaskloot.com/events/

Best posts on Media, (Science) Journalism and Blogging at A Blog Around The Clock

As this blog is getting close to having 10,000 posts, and my Archives/Categories are getting unweildy (and pretty useless), I need to get some of the collections of useful posts together, mainly to make it easier for myself to find them. I did that by collecting my best Biology posts a couple of weeks ago. Today, I am collecting my best posts from the categories of Media, Science Reporting, Framing Science and Blogging. There are thousands of posts in these categories combined, most with excellent links or videos, but here are some of the posts that have substantial proportion of my own thinking in them.
It is also interesting to note – if you pay attention to the dates when the posts were published, going back to 2004 – how my thinking and attitude changed over the years, as well as how the world of media, blogs and science communication changed at the same time, forcing me to evolve with it:
Defining the Journalism vs. Blogging Debate, with a Science Reporting angle
What is Journalism?
What does it mean that a nation is ‘Unscientific’?
What is ‘Investigative Science Journalism’?
New science journalism ecosystem: new inter-species interactions, new niches
The Ethics of The Quote
‘Journalists vs. Blogs’ is bad framing
New Journalistic Workflow
Why good science journalists are rare?
Why is ‘scientists are bad communicators’ trope wrong
Push vs. Pull strategies in science communication
What is journalism and do PIOs do it? And what’s with advertising?
Why it is important for media articles to link to scientific papers
Using Twitter to learn economy of words – try to summarize your research paper in 140 characters or less!
North Carolina science journalism/blogging projects getting noticed
AAAS 2010 meeting – the Press Room….why?
Twittering is a difficult art form – if you are doing it right
Hints on how (science) journalism may be working these days….
Journalism wrap-up from ScienceOnline2010
Making it real: People and Books and Web and Science at ScienceOnline2010
Talkin’ Trash
Scientists are Excellent Communicators (‘Sizzle’ follow-up)
ScienceOnline’09 – Saturday 4:30pm and beyond: the Question of Power
The Shock Value of Science Blogs
Caryn Shechtman: A Blogger Success Story (an interview with Yours Truly)
Behold the Birth of the Giga-Borg
‘Bloggers’ vs ‘Audience’ is over? or, Will the word ‘blogger’ disappear?
I don’t care about business models of journalism/publishing.
The Perils of Predictions: Future of Physical Media
Graham Lawton Was Wrong
Science by press release – you are doing it wrong
Incendiary weekend post on bloggers vs. journalists
Who has power?
D.C. press corps dissed again – but this time for good reasons
Bloggers vs. Journalists Redux, part N
‘Newsworthy-ness’
Are we Press? Part Deux
Science vs. Britney Spears
Sizzle
Bloggers vs. Journalists morphs into Twitterers vs. Journalists
Elites? That’s somehow bad?
Will there be new communication channels in the Obama administration?
Smoke Signals, Blogs, and the Future of Politics
I inform people against their will!
To Educate vs. To Inform
Fair Use and Open Science
Talking To The Public
More than just Resistance to Science
One-Stop Shopping for the Framing Science Debate
Framing Science – the Dialogue of the Deaf
Framing ‘framing’
Did I frame that wrong?
Framing and Truth
Just a quick update on ‘framing science’
Joshua Bell and Framing Science
Framers are NOT appeasers!
Framing Politics (based on science, of course)
Everybody Must Get Framed
How to read a scientific paper
Blog Carnivals – what is in it for you?
Science Blogging – what it can be
Michael Skube: just another guy with a blog and an Exhibit A for why bloggers are mad at Corporate Media
Blog is software
What is a Science Blog?
False Journalistic Balance
The Inter-Ghost Connection
ConvergeSouth: creepies, domestic tranquility and amplification of serendipity
Proper Procedure For Shutting Down A Blog

For the millionth time: bloggers vs. journalists is over!

Science in the Media: Rude or Ailing Health? was a panel that recently convened in the UK, in a response to a recent UK government report on science in the media . You can watch the video of the entire thing at this link.
The panelists were Natasha Loder of the Economist, Andrew Jack of the Financial Times, Fiona Fox of Science Media Centre (and the author of the report) and Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science blog.
It is interesting to watch and there is much one can say. But it is unfortunate that there was a part of the panel proceedings that descended into the old tired journalists vs. bloggers trope. Most of us are over that. Have been over that for a few years now. But there are still people around, it seems, who just don’t get it. So, it is not surprising that there was a lot of reaction to this, especially to Fiona Fox’s repeat of the tired old idiocy that ‘bloggers cannot be journalists’ which she reiterated in her subsequent article blog post. See these excellent reports and reactions here (I wanted to have them all in one place, for archival purposes – one-stop shop, single link, to all of it – if I missed something, please let me know so I can add the link):
The Science Media Debate: Is this blog journalism or not? by Charlotte King.
When is a blogger/journalist/communicator not a blogger/journalist/communicator? by Harriet Vickers.
Bloggers vs. Journalists: A Response to Fiona Fox (and Richard Littlejohn) by Martin Robbins.
On the bowls versus ice-cream debate by Ed Yong.
Investigative science journalism by Christine Ottery.
Who is to Blame for Bad Health Journalism? by Le Canard Noir.
Bloggers, journalists, same difference? by Grant Jacobs.
Jack of Kent: Orwell Prize Shortlist – and why blogging is *not* the new journalismby Jack of Kent
More on Blogging vs Journalism by Martin Robbins.
An outbreak of crankiness – UPDATED by Dr Aus

Using Multimedia to Advance Your Research and Adventures in Self-Publishing

Science Communicators of North Carolina and Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, present:

“Using Multimedia to Advance Your Research” — and – “Adventures in Self-Publishing”
By Dennis Meredith, author of Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work (Oxford University Press)
April 26, 2010, 6:00 p.m.
Sigma Xi Center, RTP
Dennis Meredith drew a standing-room-only crowd when he talked at the 2010 AAAS meeting about the role of multimedia in research. We’ve prevailed on Dennis, formerly of Duke University, to reprise his presentation for the home-state crowd.
From the AAAS Annual Meeting guide:
“Creating video and Web explanations of research not only enhances the public’s understanding of science and technology; it also brings scientists practical benefits, such as content that helps funding agencies and legislators advocate for research budgets. And more personally, it teaches scientists an invaluable “visual vernacular” that they can use to enhance their communications with key audiences, including their colleagues, donors, institutional leaders, and students.”
Dennis will also discuss his experiences in publishing Explaining Research with Oxford and in self-publishing his supplemental booklet, Working with Public Information Officers. Although there are many caveats and pitfalls, it is possible to self-publish a science book and make money. Dennis will be signing copies of both books after the talk.
Food and drink will be available at 6:00. The seminar begins at 6:30.
RSVP to chapters@sigmaxi.org by Tuesday, April 20
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, 3106 East NC Highway 54, Research Triangle Park, NC

Weekend reads

Good stuff to keep you occupied over the next couple of days:
Systemic issues in science journalism – the reinforcing cycle of niche reporting
Investigative science journalism
The Bias of Veteran Journalists
Dangerous DNA: The truth about the ‘warrior gene’
The Language of Science – it’s ‘just a theory’
Should journalists report on unpublished research?
Joe McLaughlin will be an excellent journalist
Scientists Embrace Openness with a good vibrant discussion of both Open Science and Open Journalism on FriendFeed.
Home Libraries Provide Huge Educational Advantage
Why Do We Dream?
NSF governing board spikes evolution from science literacy report and A Response to Science on the Decision to Not Include Evolution in the NSB Science Indicators Report and There’s More to Science Than Evolution.
GPS backpacks identify leaders among flocking pigeons

Two good interviews about science journalism

In his ongoing series, Colin Schultz posted two excellent interviews, with Ferris Jabr and with Ed Yong. Both interviews are long-ish, and cover a lot of ground, e.g., about the importance of the “news hook” for science stories, the role of PIOs and press release sites, and the useless blogging vs. journalism wars.

Week in review

This was a busy, crazy week.
On Monday and Tuesday I was in Boston. You may remember I went to Boston last year as well and for the same reason – spending a day at the WGNH studios, helping with the World Science project that combines radio, podcasts and online forums. You have probably noticed I have posted announcements of these throughout the year.
A short story airs on the radio show The World, about some science-related topic with a global angle. The same scientist (or physician, or science journalist) who is interviewed for a couple of minutes on air is also interviewed for 20 minutes for the podcast, and then keeps coming back for another week, responding to the questions on the online forum. Last year, that was just an idea we helped turn into reality – the website went live about a month or so later.
This year, we had something to look at and analyze – how did it go, where the traffic came from, etc, and could make suggestions for improvements for the next year. I hope that the insights from us, the outside consultants, is useful to the crew there. I personally felt that this year’s meeting was better and more productive – perhaps because we had the website and the statistics already in front of us, instead of just visualizing in our minds how this should look like.
The composition of outside consultants also changed over the year. Only Rekha Murthy and I were there from the last year’s lineup (see the first two links in this post for last year’s list). The new folks in the room were C.C.Chapman, Andy Brack and Adnaan Wasey and we quickly ‘clicked’ with each other and with the World/SigmaXi/Nova/PRI people so the business of the day was pleasant and productive.
I will keep pointing out the new podcasts/forums over the year here (and on Twitter/FriendFeed/Facebook) and I hope you give them a listen/read. And I hope I get invited to Boston again next year. I really like this project and think it can become big and popular over time. You can follow World-Science on Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook and download their podcasts on iTunes.
Unfortunately, unlike last year, I was staying in Boston only one night and did not have time for a meetup/dinner with friends, bloggers and twitterers. If only I knew I’d spend six hours at Logan airport waiting for my flight home, I could have organized one. Eh, perhaps next year….
Being in Boston, I had to miss both Pecha Kucha Raleigh and this month’s Monti. Can’t get everywhere!
You already know I spent some time struggling with my laptop. I am also in the middle of teaching my BIO101 course, lectures on Wednesday nights, labs on Saturday mornings.
And yesterday, for the third year in a row, Abel Pharmboy and I went to Misha Angrist’s class to talk about science blogging, social networks and media. Last two years, Sheril was the third part of the trio, but as she just moved to Texas, we went without her. We’ll need a replacement for her next year, I guess. This is always a fun thing to do – Misha always has interesting, engaged students.
And tonight, we are off to the Salon of Music, Poetry, and Theater at Common Ground Theatre in Durham.

Today’s must-reads on science communication/journalism

Journalism has always been communal
Top Google queries about scientists: should we be surprised?
Getting more out of scientific content
Telling tales…
The Science Reader: A Crowd-Sourced Profile
Journalism and the public understanding of how science works. A suggested remedy.
So what do the journalists and scientists think?
Evaluating science journalism – with a Matrix!
Ed Yong, Colin Schultz, & More: A bloggitty twitterview conversation on sci-journalism, awesomeness, dirt digging, and wonkiness.
Understanding push-pull market forces and promoting science to under-served audiences
Push vs. Pull strategies in science communication
More on ‘Science blogs and public engagement with science’
Best science writing from the blogosphere!
New blog on science journalism and communication
Engaging the public on science? Surely you’re joking!
Now put all of those ideas together and draw a single conclusion?

Push vs. Pull strategies in science communication

Danielle Lee, who just defended her PhD last week (her defense was livestreamed and livetweeted and liveblogged – Congratulations!!!!!!!!!) wrote a very thought-provoking post this morning – Understanding push-pull market forces and promoting science to under-served audiences. Go read it now.
If general public will not actively seek science content (‘pull’) than perhaps we can have the content come to them wherever they are (‘push’). But people are scattered over gazillions of media places! How do we get to them everywhere? One answer is to try to get many people to contribute science-y stories everywhere (or, as I said before, we don’t need one Carl Sagan, we need hundreds…. or thousands of them, each in a different media spot).
But the other important factor, and this is something that Danielle points out and I did not think of clearly before, is that the general population is not homogenous. There are groups that are not scattered all over the fragmented media but flock to specific media outlets that cater to them – media outlets they tend to own or run or work at or write for or have influence on.
Danielle goes into detail about the media consumption of the African American community, but her thoughts apply to other groups as well, e.g., Latinos, or gays, etc. This may also apply to various blogospheres, e.g., mommybloggers, atheist bloggers, feminist bloggers – all groups with strong group identity, congregating at a relatively limited number of media outlets on a regular basis.
One thing that Danielle noted is that media outlets that target African Americans prefer if the science stories are “Africo-Americanized”, i.e., that they specifically hook the audience with something that is directly relevant to that community (and supposedly no other community). Why? Cool science stories are cool for everyone. I suspect that this was more editor-think than the actual response of the audience to Danielle’s science articles that were cool without being ‘Africo-Americanized’.
And some of the communities are more inclined to be interested in science than others, especially those communities that see themselves as ‘reality-based’, thus inherently science-friendly. Thus progressive blogs like DailyKos have regular science coverage both on the main page and in the diaries – cool science stories, as well as science/political controversial topics. Atheist blogs are sometimes indistinguishable from science blogs. Feminist bloggers, like Lindsay Beyerstein, Jesse and Amanda at Pandagon and some of the community bloggers at Shakesville regularly touch on science topics (especially those with either public health concerns, or environmental concerns, or with political controversies associated with them).
But how do we get science stories, purely cool or group-targeted, in front of other audiences, e.g., those based on race/ethnicity, or gender/orientation? Are whites much more scattered across the media than minorities or do they also congregate around their various interests? Where do they congregate? How do we ‘push’ science there where they are? Not just online, but also in big corporate media, especially television?

What is journalism and do PIOs do it? And what’s with advertising?

Elia Ben-Ari, on her ‘To Be Determined’ blog, wrote an excellent, thought-provoking post on the fine distinctions between science journalists and Press Information Officers: More on the Science Journalism Ecosystem and What Is and Is Not Science Journalism

…And an understanding of the underlying science is certainly helpful in reporting the “something smells fishy” stories as well as the “wow, that’s neat” stories. I maintain that one person can and may do both types of science reporting, so it doesn’t make sense to separate “investigative journalism” from “science journalism.”…

Interesting comments there as well….
Michael Tobis wrote three relevant posts related to this question on ‘Only In It For The Gold’ recently: Long Strange Trip:

…Science journalism in the future will mostly be conducted by scientists….

Michael Tobis again: Does Science Even Matter?

My position is first, that science can no longer depend on the press, or the institutional press office, or pop science media to get important messages out. That much has become blazingly obvious. Second, that certain messages of science are necessary to sound governance, that science is a crucial component of collective decision making in modern society. As a conclusion, it is necessary for science as a culture to participate directly in public communication. It may not be possible for science as an institution to do so. Consequently science as a culture may need to create new institutions and certainly new career paths to more effectively participate in consequential public discourse.

Michael Tobis yet again: Loose Cannon in the Press Office?

If there are temptations about to misrepresent science, it is the responsibility of scientists to stop them. Looking at the matter from the point of view of the young career-seeker, apparently there are two career paths for “science writers”; one being science journalism and the other being the “PIO” or “Press Information Officer” for a scientific research institution. The failures of the first have been crucial to our recent problems, but we should spare a moment to consider the second group.

Of course, we can answer questions ‘is A or B journalism’ only if we agree on the definition of journalism. So, Mike Orcutt at ‘Meta-Morph It’, asks us to help define it: Explanation:

How can we have a discussion about the journalism’s role before we discuss what journalism — either in general or specifically within the context of science communication — is? A conversation between a scientist and journalist, about the journalist’s role in the communication of science, can be productive only if the interested parties work together to determine a mutually-held definition of the term in question.

Finally, Paul Raeburn at KSJT thinks that support for Charlotte Observer’s and Raleigh News&Observer’s science pages by Duke Energy is fishy: Questioning ‘NPR-like’ funding for newspaper science section:

Thames said he began a search for “someone in the local community” who would underwrite a science section. That helpful community resident turned out to be Duke Energy, one of the largest energy companies in the nation.

Strange! Newspapers have been lamenting that advertisers, their only source of income, have been leaving them in droves thus precipitating lay-offs and bankruptcies across the industry. And now that one of them decides to come back and throw some pennies, that’s a problem?
OK, let me try an analogy. This is like if my rich Uncle Joe was the only one giving me start-up money for my new business. Let’s say it’s a family newspaper. He writes me a nice, big check that can cover a year’s effort, and in return he wants me to place his ads in it for free. Uncle Joe is an interesting fella, like any family will have. He can be nice and generous. And then he can say something awful. Or he keeps voting for that other, wrong, party every election day….
So, funded for the year, I get started with my newspaper. Then, one day, I say something mean about Uncle Joe in my newspaper. He probably does not read it. If he does, he probably looks down at it and laughs, but thinks it is his duty as a rich member of the family to help out nieces and nephews get on their feet and become independent. If he goes mad, that is just bad business sense on his part – he cannot get his money back (that was the deal, signed by both) and if he says/does something nasty, he just gets slammed harder in the next issue. To which rich Aunt Matilda responds, with glee (she hates Uncle Joe), by promising money for my 2nd year in business ;-)
Duke Energy is local. It is like a funky rich Uncle around here. The first one to ask for money. If that does not work, there are other rich uncles around….

Science Journalism/Communication week in review

Lots of interesting stuff this week, so I decided to put everything in a single post – makes it easier for everyone….
First, there was a very nice article in Columbia Journalism Review (which someone subscribed me to – I guess because my name appeared there the other week….someone is trying to remind me how it feels to read stuff written on actual paper!) about the beginning of a resurgence of science journalism in North Carolina. The article covers all the bases, focusing mostly on the new Monday science pages produced collaboratively by The Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer, including the history of how the project came about (which I did not know until now). It also mentions ScienceOnline2010 and then delves some into the new online project ScienceInTheTriangle.org (the website of which is about to undergo some nice redesign and renewed activity soon):

Colin Schultz is writing an interesting blog about science journalism – check out his archives for older posts. But specifically, I want to draw your attention to the interviews he recently conducted with some of the interesting people in science journalism, especially with Carl Zimmer, David Dobbs and Ed Yong (only John Timmer is missing to have a complete ‘Rebooting science journalism’ panel from ScienceOnline2010).
Speaking of interviews, my Scio10 series of interviews with people interested in science communication from various angles is growing fast and strong (I already have two more lined up for next week).
I was also busy myself, with three provocative blog posts on the topic: Why it is important for media articles to link to scientific papers, Science blogs and public engagement with science and New science journalism ecosystem: new inter-species interactions, new niches, all three of which received quite a lot of response around the blogo/twitter-sphere (mostly, surprisingly, quite positive!). The last one, especially, appears to fit in this week’s theme of The Future of Context.
NYTimes had a nice long feature about a mommyblogging conference, which is wonderful, but made me unhappy that a similar article never appeared in NYTimes for any of our four ScienceOnline conferences – don’t tell me there is absolutely NO audience for that!?
I would like to go to The Online News Association meeting but for that to happen, you need to vote for and comment on my panel.
Chris Brodie’s class on Explaining Science to the Public (introduced here) has posted several interesting blog posts analyzing three long newspaper articles by Carl Zimmer.
Dennis Meredith, author of the excellent Explaining Research book, has a new press release – Cultural Flaw Hampers Scientists in Public Battles, Says New Book. He was also a guest of Ernie Hood (current chair of SCONC) on his weekly science radio show Radio In Vivo and wrote a new blog post – Communicating Research in 3-D Virtual Worlds.
Also listen to the interview with Andrew Revkin – The Death of Science Writing, and the Future of Catastrophe.
Finally, Chris Perrien took that board (remember?) everyone signed at the end of ScienceOnline2010 and framed it. Yesterday he presented it to us during lunch at RTP and everyone pulled out the iPhones and took pictures – here is one (you can see more on my Facebook profile….):
scio10 placard2.jpg

New science journalism ecosystem: new inter-species interactions, new niches

Almost a year ago, Nature published a set of opinion articles, including Science journalism: Toppling the priesthood by Toby Murcott. I did not react at the time, but JR Minkel and Jessica Palmer did and got some interesting responses in the comments. The article was brought to my attention by Gozde Zorlu who is ruminating on the same ideas and will have a blog post about it shortly (and I will let you know when it’s up).
The article covers a lot of ground and has many layers. I finally read it and these are just some really quick thoughts, just to provoke discussion…..
First, Murcott is complaining about being essentially a lay-person outside of his own domain in biochemistry. That is true. Science reporters who don’t have any scientific background are in an even worse shape – they definitely have a handicap, but not something they cannot overcome with years of study. But for this, they need to have the freedom to focus on only one area of science, e.g., Andy Revkin focusing on climate, Carl Zimmer on evolution, etc. I wrote a little bit about this before.
If you have spent some time in science before moving into journalism, you understand that years of total immersion in the field are necessary to fully understand it – I mean a narrow field! And not just the purely scientific information, but also historical, philosophical and social context, who-is-who in the field, relative strengths of various hypotheses, etc. You understand that it is impossible for a single person to gain a full understanding of every area of science.
- Can you play violin?
- Sure, of course
- Have you ever played?
- No. But it looks easy, I’m sure I can do it.
This is how non-scientists often think about science. This includes some journalists, until they get started on science reporting and realize that it’s not as easy as it looks. But their editors do not grok it. Editors think of ‘science’ as a single thing – there is a sports-guy and a fashion-guy and a science-guy in the newsroom and they get assignments accordingly. Which means that the poor science reporter has to report on everything from cosmology to math to medicine to ecology with no time to actually study these areas sufficiently to understand them. Of course they get nervous and exhausted and touchy… ;-)
But in the era where newsrooms are firing in-house journalists and relying more and more on freelancers, this is an opportunity for freelance journalists to put a stake into a particular territory: specialize in one field and refuse to write stories outside it. That way, a journalist who has become, over years of study and reporting, an expert in field A, will only report on A, will be on rolodexes (I guess not virtual but real physical ones) of every editor in the country/world for stories on A and will be asked all the time by everyone to cover A. And will do it really well. Each editor will have a list of experts on A, B, C and every other area of science. With specialization, biochemists will not have to risk showing off their ignorance of astronomy, media organizations will know they have all topics covered by the best of the best, and the general quality of reporting science will increase.
In the next segment of the article, Murcott seems to want more investigative science journalism. But, compare this to this. Connie St.Louis and I have the opposite ideas what science journalism is. I am not specifically targeting Connie, it just happens that I am aware of her post that puts into words, very clearly, what many other journalists say or at least hint at.
Everything that I think is science journalism, she dismisses as not being ‘real’ science journalism: science reportage and explaining. And one aspect of it that she thinks is the real science journalism is the only one I think is really not – “investigative science journalism” is, in my book, just the regular investigative journalism in which the people under scrutiny just happen accidentally to be scientists. The former (science reporting and explaining) requires that the journalist understands science, the latter (investigating potential misconduct by people who happen to be scientists) does not. As I said before, if the investigation involves analysis of data, it is done by scientists and reported in specialized media: scientific journals (these can be then translated into lay language by journalists and reported to the general audience). If the investigation involves potential misconduct of humans who happen to be scientists, it is done by journalists, but it is not science journalism any more – it is more something like political journalism (as misconduct usually involves money and prestige).
Steve Mirsky (editor at Scientific American: here on Twitter ) once said, and I agree with him, that all of science journalism should be activist: evangelizing for truth (not capitalized). There is no mealy-mouthed HeSaidSheSaid, False-Balance, View-From-Nowhere tabulation of opinions held by people. Science journalism is straightforward: this is how the world works and this is how we learned it.
Which brings me to another important question: why professional journalists dismiss Press Information Officers. If journalists think that journalism that investigates scientists is what should be called ‘science journalism’, and see that what PIOs are doing is not that, they will not think of PIOs as journalists. On the other hand, if you agree with me that investigation of scientists is not science journalism, but reporting and explaining science is, than PIOs, many of whom have science degrees, are actually doing the brunt of science journalism these days. Sure, not all of them are perfect, and not all press releases are good, but they are getting better (as science majors are replacing j-school majors as PIOs at many institutions), they are, seeing how media is crumbling, starting to see themselves as serious journalists filling the void left by the massive layoffs of science reporters in the MSM, and are writing better and better copy, usually much better than what remaining newsroom reporters write under horrendous deadlines and pressure.
In other words, as we realize that scientists, PIOs, journalists and audience are in it together, collaborating on science reporting, we need to eliminate this antagonism between newsroom journalists and institutional journalists (formerly known as PIOs). For that antagonism to be eliminated, the two need to agree on what the definition of science journalism is. And I don’t think defining it as ‘investigating potential misconduct of scientists’ is a good and healthy definition. It is much more productive to leave that kind of stuff to political reporters (who will be tipped off by scientists themselves, as was always the case: all data-fudging was first discovered by other scientists, the only people with expertise to notice it in the first place) and have everyone focus on real science journalism – reporting and explaining science.
Next, Murcott wants to move science journalism from a) presenting facts (including results of latest studies), to b) presenting how scientists work and their method. He, and many others, forget that the key element is the third level: c) trust. Read this carefully to understand why. So, all three things need to be reported. Eyeing every paper and every press release as suspect, and treating scientists as dishonest until proven otherwise, is one of the journalistic techniques that undermines the trust in science. Whose side are you on, guys? Creationists, GW-denialists, HIV-denialists and anti-vaccers? Job of a journalist is to explain the world as it is. Science is the best method to figure out how the world works. Use this method as a journalistic method.
Scientific method has several (actually many) elements in phases, but one can oversimplify here: get an idea, test it, communicate it. Yes, communicating science is a part of scientific method. Which is why both scientists and journalists have to do it, hopefully together as allies, not as opponents eyeing each other with suspicion. See also many of the reports from scio10 – almost all of them focus on the need for collaboration between scientists, press officers and journalists, not antagonism. It’s a new ecosystem today. And the new niche for science journalists is NOT the top predator any more – the mindset has to shift from the competitive to a collaborative view of media ecology.
More and more people studying the evolution of media are coming around to the idea that the job of a journalist these days is a person who collects, aggregates and interprets information. Even data.
The story is important, as humans are storytellers by nature, but the story is a hook that takes people to the wealth of underlying information, the background, and the data. Each news-report needs to be embedded in a broader structure that also contains an “explainer“. Which is why it is essential for the story, the “hook”, to link to all the relevant background information and data.
Finally, we get to Murcott’s wish to see reviews….the reviews that scientists have written during the process of peer-review of manuscripts. Murcott, pressed for time, thinks that being able, as a journalist, to see the reviews, would help him understand the story better and glean some of the context that he is missing because is writing a story outside of his area of expertise and has not time to study it first. In essence, he is asking for a shortcut that helps him do his job. But he is not considering how this would affect the review process.
First, it is important to remind everyone that peer-review is a very new thing. Only one minor paper by Einstein went through peer-review. Nature only started experimenting with it in the late 1960s. Yet lots and lots of great science was published before this was instituted. There is no data supporting the view that peer-review actually does much good.
We at PLoS ONE are trying to improve the process. What we have noticed (and most of our academic editors and authors agree) is that by eliminating the need for reviewers to evaluate if a manuscript is novel, exciting, revolutionary, paradigm-shifting, mind-boggling and Earth-shaking, and only asking them to evaluate the technical aspects of the work, the review becomes MUCH better:
As the scientific paper itself evolves, more and more of the peer-review will happen after publication, on the paper or connected to it and journalists need to be a part of it.
You can search the Web for many discussions of “open review” and you will see that there are many more cons than pros. The reviewers will find it difficult to be frank. Fewer people will agree to review (and there is already too many manuscripts for the available number of reviewers). Showing reviews to journalists would have exactly the same effect, for good or ill. Having a journalist see reviews is …a crutch for a journo who does not have the time, or expertise, or inclination to do the heavy lifting of personal education and everybody would object to this, rightly so.
Specialization of journalists – each grabbing one’s own area of expertise – and the collaborative journalism done by scientists, PIOs, journalists and audience, would make a ‘peek’ at reviewers’ comments unnecessary and irrelevant. The collective WILL have all the necessary expertise and historical/philosophical/sociological/theoretical/methodological context to get the story (and attached data/information) right.

The Online News Association meeting – vote for my panel

The Online News Association organizes a meeting every year (and gives Online Journalism Awards there). The next one will be in October 28-30, 2010 in Washington, D.C.
The program is formed by the online news community submitting proposals, then everyone else voting the proposals up or down. I guess that the organizers also have some say in it (especially if the voting produces a horrible gender imbalance – easy to happen with so many proposals put forward by men).
The proposals are now all up online and ready for your votes – you need to register (they have to avoid spammers, robots, automated votes, multiple votes from individuals, etc.) which is easy and quick, then start clicking on thumbs-up and thumbs-down icons on each session. There are some cool sessions/panels proposed there, e.g., by Andria Krewson and by Jay Rosen + Dave Winer., to name just a couple. In case of panels, you will only see the name of the person who proposed the panel, not the names of people who would be panelists, as it is not yet known for many of them if they may or may not be able to make the panel.
At the last minute, prompted by friends, I put my proposal into the hat:
Today’s Science Journalism is a Very Different Animal:

At the time when so many policy decisions rely on science and when science newsrooms are cut to the bone, scientists, bloggers, press information officers and freelance journalists are starting to work together to provide accurate and timely scientific information online. We’ll discuss the forms of such collaborations and show some examples.

I hope you vote my session up (and post supporting comments if so inclined – these may sway the organizers). If my proposal gets included, I will be able to contact potential panelists and then announce their names once they say Yes. The competition is tough and some of these people (many of them, in fact) have much larger pools of audience on their platforms and in social media than I do, so I need your help: vote and ask your friends to vote as well.

Why it is important for media articles to link to scientific papers

You may be aware that, as of recently, one of my tasks at work is to monitor media coverage of PLoS ONE articles. This is necessary for our own archives and monthly/annual reports, but also so I could highlight some of the best media coverage on the everyONE blog for everyone to see. As PLoS ONE publishes a large number of articles every week, we presume that many of you would appreciate getting your attention drawn to that subset of articles that the media found most interesting.
So, for example, as I missed last week due to my trip to AAAS, I posted a two-week summary of media coverage this Monday. And that took far more time and effort (and some silent cursing) than one would expect. Why?
I don’t think I am a slouch at googling stuff. Some people joke that the entire Internet passes through my brain before it goes to the final audience. After all, I have been monitoring the Web for mentions of ‘PLoS’ and ‘Public Library of Science’ on blogs, Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and elsewhere for a few years now. If I don’t catch a mention within minutes of it being posted, you can bet one of my many online friends/followers/subscribers is bound to quickly let me know by e-mail or Direct Messaging somewhere. If someone says something nice about PLoS, I am quick to post a ThankYou note. If someone asks a question, I try to answer or to connect the person with the appropriate member of the PLoS staff. If someone is publicly musing about submitting a manuscript to one of our journals, I am right there to give encouragement. If someone makes a factual error, I gently correct it. It is very, very rare that I need to raise the Immense Online Armies because someone is wrong on the Internet ;-)
So, why is it difficult then to compile a collection of weekly media coverage? Let me walk you through the process….
First, as you probably already know, PLoS makes no distinction between Old and New media. We have bloggers on our press list who apply/sign-up in the same way and abide by the same rules as traditional journalists (and, unlike mainstream media, bloggers NEVER break embargos, not once in the past three years since we started adding bloggers to our press list). For the kind of coverage we prefer to see, we point bloggers to the ResearchBlogging.org criteria. In return, bloggers can send trackbacks to our articles, their work is showcased side-by-side with the traditional outlets in our weekly posts, they can be discovered via Google Blogsearch, Postgenomic and ResearchBlogging.org links directly from each article, and one blogger per month wins a t-shirt and special recognition.
So, I start with blog posts first. The first thing I do is take a look at ResearchBlogging.org. Those are the best of the best posts – not merely mentioning our articles, but adding analysis, commentary, critique, context and additional information. How do I find them? I just search the site for the phrase ‘journal.pone‘. That search brings up every single post that mentions a PLoS ONE article because that phrase is a part of every possible form of the URL of the article (including the shortest one, which includes just the DOI). If a post links to our article (and that is the only way to get aggregated on ResearchBlogging.org) I will find it this way. Needless to say, this process takes just a few minutes per week.
Knowing that there are some good blogs out there that are not registered at ResearchBlogging.org (which is strange and unfathomable why – RB.org is a ‘stamp-of-approval’ place for science blogs recognized by the outside world of journals and media, as well as a nice way to get extra recognition and traffic, and even awards), I then repeat the same search – for ‘journal.pone‘ – on Google Blogsearch. This may bring up a few more posts that I did not catch yet. Occasionally, some of these are good. Another couple of minutes. Blogs are now done. Move on to traditional media….
And this is where the Hell starts. Try searching Google News for ‘journal.pone‘…?! All I get are a couple of prominent blogs that I have already counted, e.g., those blogs that are listed by Google News (scienceblogs.com blogs, Ars Technica, Wired blogs, etc.). Where are the others?
The problem is, nobody in the mainstream media links to papers.
So I have to search for PLoS and for Public Library Of Science and then figure out which ones are covering specifically PLoS ONE articles (sometimes they don’t specify, sometimes they name the wrong journal – last week an article on PLoS Current-Influenza was reported to be in PLoS ONE by a number of outlets copying the error from each other). Then I have to search for keywords for individual articles I suspect may have received some coverage. Last week, for example, I searched for “swallows+antioxidants” and “St. Birgitta”, among many others. This lasts for hours! And at the end I am still not 100% sure I caught everything. How frustrating!
Not just is there a big difference in time and effort spent between finding blog posts and finding media articles, but there is an even bigger disparity when one considers what results come out of these searches. I have been doing this for a month now. I expected that there would be poor blog posts and poor media articles, that there would be good blog posts and good media articles, and that there would occasionally be some excellent blog posts and excellent media articles. So far, that is true…. except I have yet to discover an excellent media article. As a rule, the very best coverage of every paper in the past month was done by a blogger or two or three. Then there are some other, good pieces of coverage in both the New and Old media, and then there are some really bad pieces in both realms as well (not all blog posts I count here are really bad – they may just be too detailed, technical and dry for lay audience because the blogger is intentionally targeting scientific peers as audience, which is fair thing to acknowledge).
So, every week, it takes me a few minutes to find the very best coverage (which is on blogs, usually those aggregated on ResearchBlogging.org). And then I spend hours looking for remnants, in the traditional media, which turn out to be so-so, some OK, some not so good, some horrible. If I wasn’t paid to do this, I would not do it – it cannot be good for my long-term mental health.
The resistance to post links is an atavism, a remnant of an old age before the Web. I know (because I asked many times) many good science journalists keep trying to add links, but the editors say No. The traditional media has still not caught on to the Ethic of the Link, which is an essential aspect of ethics of online communication.
I can think, off the top of my head, of three good reasons why everyone who publishes online should include a link to the scientific paper described in the article (just post the DOI link that comes with the press release if you are on the press list – if it does not resolve immediately, it is not your fault, you can always blame the journals for being slow on it – though this should never happen with PLoS articles):
Reason One: I will not go crazy every week. I am assuming that every scientific publisher has people on the staff whose task is to monitor media coverage and each one of these people is cussing and cursing YOU, the Media, every day. Try to make friends with people who provide you with source material on a regular basis.
Reason Two: Media coverage is one of the many elements of article-level metrics. Furthermore, links from the media affect the number of views and downloads of the article, and those are also elements of article-level metrics. Number of views/downloads then, in the future, affects the number of citations the work gets which is also and element of article-level metrics. Thus omitting the link skewes the ability of readers and observers to evaluate the papers properly.
The current ecosystem of science communication has a scientific paper at its core, additions to the paper (e.g., notes, comments and ratings, as well as Supplemental materials, videos posted on Scivee.tv, etc) as a shell, and incoming and outgoing links – trackbacks, cited papers, citing papers, links to other papers in the same Collection, links to other papers with the same keywords, and yes, incoming links from the media – as connections building a network: the entire inter-connected ecosystem of scientific knowledge.
By not linking to scientific papers, traditional media is keeping itself outside of the entire ecosystem of empirical knowledge. By doing this, the traditional media is fast making itself irrelevant.
Reason Three: if an article in the media discusses a scientific study, that scientific paper is the source material for the article. If the link is missing, this is an automatic red flag for the readers. What is the journalist hiding? Why is the article making it difficult for readers to fact-check the journalist? Something does not smell good if the link is not provided (or worse, it is impossible to figure out even who are the authors and in which journal did they publish – yes, that is more common than you think).
The instant and automatic response of the readers is mistrust. Every time you fail to link to the paper, you further erode whatever trust and reputation you still may have with the audience. You soon cease to be a legitimate source of information. Sure, most readers will not go hunting for the paper to read it in order to fact-check you. But two or three will, and they will let everyone else know if your article is trustworthy or not, either in the comments under the article on your own site, or on their blogs which will be quickly picked up by Google (remember: Google loves blogs).
So please, media types, hurry up and catch up with the world. The 21st century is already a decade in – you really need to do some very fast learning. Right now. Or you’ll go extinct in a nanosecond. And despite my reputation, I never said that I’d consider that result to be a Good Thing. We are in this together, you just need to do your part. To begin with, start linking.

Using Twitter to learn economy of words – try to summarize your research paper in 140 characters or less!

A couple of weeks ago, there was a flurry of tweets, tagged with #sci140 hashtag on Twitter. What was that about? People were trying to summarize scientific papers in 140 characters or less. Actually, they had to use less as the hashtag itself took some space.
Almost 200 tweets were made, and they have all been collected (and the winners chosen) in this blog post on f1000 blog.
I found the exercise fascinating!
First, it was quite incredible how many more people chose to tweet well-known classical papers compared to those tweeting their own (thus obscure) publications. I would not call it cheating, but summarizing stuff that’s in textbooks is much easier. Why?
First, you don’t need to spend another several characters in order to include a link – a must if one tweeted their own paper. Why link to Pasteur, Darwin, Shroedinger, Newton, Galileo, Watson&Crick or Pavlov when everyone already knows what they did? I had to link to my papers when I tweeted them – a tweet was like a press title: not a joke, not a definitive description, but a bait for the reader to get sufficiently curious to click on the link and read the paper itself.
Second, there is so much that one could assume readers already knew about the well-known historical papers (and sometimes entire books!). Tweeting a Classic was more an exercise in witty hinting as to which paper was mentioned than actually explaining it – those who tweeted their own papers had no such luxury: they had to really summarize the papers.
Then, looking at only the tweets summarizing people’s own publications, thus obscure publications that could not be just hinted about, it could be seen that they had two distinct flavors. Some people decided to use the space to say what they did (methods) and others decided to say what they discovered (conclusions). Nobody said why the study was relevant or important to lay audience on Twitter. Obviously, the character limit makes it impossible to include all three. Why did people make choices they did? Who chose methods, who chose conclusions, and why?
I found tweets about people’s own papers fascinating. Why are these tweets so much clearer about the papers than the actual official titles of those same papers? Can we or should we try to make our papers’ titles so short yet so informative as if they will be tweeted in full?
Twitter forces one to think about the economy of words, to become much more efficient with one’s use of language. It takes work and thought and practice to get to the point of tweeting truly well. I remember Jay Rosen once saying that some of his tweets take 45 minutes to compose and edit until he is satisfied that the text uses the words for maximal clarity and impact. There is no luxury in using superfluous language and the result can be a crystal-clear statement or description that far outshines the often-wordy original.
Go look at the collected tweets. What do you think?
Then, I want to issue a challenge. All these tweets were done by working research scientists. I would like to see how professional science journalists, writers and editors would tweet those same exact papers, using the same #sci140 hashtag.
Are professional users of economic language better or worse than people who deeply understand the underlying science but were never trained to be economical with language? Go try….

Explaining Science to the Public

Chris Brodie is teaching the ‘Explaining Science to the Public’ class at NC State University. His students come from English, science and engineering departments and he is teaching them how to write well and how to utilize all of the modern technologies for science communication.
The students are now all on Twitter – yup, that’s a class assignment – and you can follow their discussions if you search for the #esttp hashtag.
I visited their class last month and discussed various new forms of online science communication with them. Almost all of them also came to hear a wonderful presentation by Dr.Rick Bonney of Cornell Ornithology Lab about citizen science the other night at Sigma Xi.
Now they have started a class blog – Explaining Science to the Public – and posted their first stories. Chris and students would really appreciate it if you would read and comment on their stories and help them improve their brand-new craft – for most of the students, this is their very first attempt at doing something like this: writing about science for lay audience AND doing it out in public on a blog (so be gentle – these are not seasoned science bloggers, hardened by years of fighting various denialists, pseudoscientists and creationists online in bitter and nasty battles).

How the Hidden Brain Controls Our Lives – new PRI The World Science Forum

Listen to the podcast, post comments, ask questions – the new forum is now live and will go on for the next week:

How the Hidden Brain Controls Our Lives
We like to think of ourselves as conscious, rational beings.
But human behavior is largely driven by unconscious attitudes.
These attitudes reside in the deep recesses of the brain, and we ignore them at our own peril.
So says Washington Post journalist Shankar Vedantam.
Vedantam is the author of a new book, The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.
Vedantam explores how the workings of the unconscious mind explain everything from genocide and injustice to the rise of suicide bombers.
The World’s science reporter Rhitu Chatterjee spoke with Vedantam about the role of the hidden brain in our lives and actions. Listen to that interview here.
Download MP3
Now it’s your turn to ask the questions. Join the conversation. It’s just to the right.
* Have you ever regretted a decision you made, realizing later that it was impulsive and ill-informed?
* Do you think it’s possible to change our unconscious biases by better understanding our hidden brains?
* Or does understanding our hidden brains makes us more confused, less sure of our decisions?

North Carolina science journalism/blogging projects getting noticed

If you are interested in the topic of science journalism, how it’s changing, what’s new, and who’s who in it, you are probably already reading Knight Science Journalism Tracker. If not, you should start now.
They have recently been digging around and finding projects with which I am involved in one way or another. For example, a few days ago, they profiled science blogs in general and scienceblogs.com in particular, but mainly focused on ResearchBlogging.org which aggregates and gives a stamp of approval to blog posts covering peer-reviewed research. The aggregator is a local thing – it is a brainchild of Dave Munger here in Davidson, NC, and it was first announced to the world at the 2008 Science Online conference here in RTP.
Blog posts that show up there are also tracked by PLoS articles as a component of article-level metrics, and the blogging guidelines for getting onto the PLoS press list are taken directly from ResearchBlogging.org. Aggregation on ResearchBlogging.org is also a requirement for eligibility for our Blog Pick Of The Month prize.
A couple of days ago, folks at Knight Science Journalism Tracker stumbled onto an article in Raleigh News & Observer and were curious where the original local science reporting is coming from, knowing that the paper has laid off its science reporters a while ago.
Having a lot of well-connected readers and commenters, they got their question answered quickly: the brand new Monday Science section, a collaborative project of Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer (both owned by McClatchy group).
Instead of full-time reporters sitting in the newsroom, the articles are written by freelance writers (mostly) residing in the area, including Dave Munger (remember Cognitive Daily blog?), DeLene Beeland, Sabine Vollmer (former science reporter at N&O), Cassie Rodenberg and a number of others (mainly writers organized around SCONC).
But the new Monday section is not the only thing the folks at Knight Science Journalism Tracker learned about in this effort. They also heard about – and thus blogged about – Science In The Triangle.org (and its blog), a new online project designed to fill in the vacuum in science, environmental and medical reporting left by the deep cuts in local newsrooms. The site is still in its infancy, but we are working on it. Currently we have one videographer (Ross Maloney), one professional journalist (Sabine Vollmer), and two bloggers (DeLene Beeland and myself). I hope you take a look, subscribe/bookmark, and watch the site evolve in the future.

AAAS 2010 meeting – the Press Room….why?

I arrived in San Diego on Thursday night and checked in my hotel that was 6 miles away, almost in Mexico – I could see the lights of Tijuana from the hotel. I had to take a cab each morning and evening.
On Friday morning, I got up bright and early and came to the convention center, lugging my huge and heavy laptop with me. And that was the first surprise of the day – there was no wifi anywhere in the Convention Center, and almost no power outlets anywhere: something I am not used to as the meetings I tend to go to are pretty techie and take care of such details.
Not even speakers/panelists had free wifi. Nobody noticed, as they all used PowerPoint anyway (did you see the Bad Presentation Bingo cards?). But our session was about the Web and we wanted to use the Web to show our stuff, so our panel’s host PAID for online access for us to use in our session.
A journalist wanted to interview me after lunch so we went to the press center to see if there was a free interviewing room there. Aha! There is a press center there! Power! Wifi! Free coffee! Yee-haw!
Oh! No! They had employees standing in front, letting in only the people with green name-tags – the Press tags. How quaint! I had a blue one, just an Attendee (though that was an error as well – I should have gotten the Speaker one, but it really did not matter for any practical purposes). So, the only way I could get in was if led by someone with a Press badge, leading me in as an interviewee. That was, again, a surprise to me as I have been using press centers at meetings for years, most recently at the Lindau Nobel conference in Germany and FEST Trieste in Italy.
So, I was there, with the journalist. In the press room. I used that opportunity to ask if I could also get a Press name-tag. I also wanted to use that moment to get into the press center in order to get online and perhaps blog something about the first sessions I saw, etc.
The AAAS employees manning the desks in the press room were unsure what to do about me – they did not belligerently say “No, you are just a blogger”, they just did not want to risk making their bosses mad by making an inadvertent mistake of giving me a press pass. After all, I was not officially affiliated with any traditional media outlet, they said. I did not want to make a scene so I just said ‘OK’, but used the opportunity to sneak into the press/computer room next door and set up my laptop. I went straight to Twitter and wrote:
“#AAAS10: 8000 people (incl.1000 journalists). No wifi anywhere. No power outlets. Bloggers not counted as press.”
As you can see, I was just stating the facts with no adjectives or emoticons, though anyone knowing me could guess how I felt about it. But then others retweeted and/or replied – and some of them did voice anger and disappointment. And for the rest of the day and the next day many asked me about it, or commented, or approached me and commiserated, and agreed that all three of the statements were right and that they were a bad sign about the state of mind of the AAAS leaders, demonstrating how behind the times they were. I agreed with them in these personal conversations.
Later that night, in my hotel room (with free wifi – small hotels, like Days Inn, are much more up-to-date on this than the fancy hotels) I also mentioned this fact on my blog. Others added comments on FriendFeed and Facebook (where my tweets and blog posts are automatically imported). Not too much noise, but there was some.
On Sunday I did not bother bringing the laptop with me, but in the afternoon I wanted to go to the Press cocktail party. Journos are “my crowd” much more than scientists these days, and I wanted to meet many of them and share a drink. But I could not, not having the press pass.
So, one of the bloggers who did have a press pass (for also writing for a “real” media outlet) got quite agitated, took me into the press room again and, instead of asking the employees/volunteers again, asked to see the boss. The boss (Engle? – I did not catch his name – edit: his name is Earl) came out and we asked him for a press pass for me. I was trying to be nice, but the other blogger was quite agitated (an effective Good Cop Bad Cop strategy, it turned out). She said stuff in pretty strong words about AAAS not giving me the press pass.
I trotted out the names of four organizations I am affiliated with that can be counted as ‘media’ in one way or another. But my Attendee pass said my institution is PLoS. Engle? Earl said that journal editors are not really press. I agree, but I said I was not an editor but on the Communications team at PLoS, as well as a blogger for PLoS, for ScienceInTheTriangle.org, for Seed Media Group, and an advisor for the science programing for PRI/BBC/WBHG The World. He said something about AAAS having to rethink these things in the future and told one of the ladies manning the tables to issue me a press card. He was very nice about it throughout, and apologetic, but I am not sure he really grokked the problem.
Afterwards, I tweeted that I got the pass, and many others on Twitter cheeered and gloated in my name.
I think employees/volunteers at the desk were initially just not sure if giving me a pass would be OK. Perhaps it was the PLoS connection (and AAAS is a publisher of ‘Science’ so perhaps they perceive these things as important). I did not push much so did not get much of a response the first day. I think everyone interpreted me not getting the pass as “for being a blogger” but on the other hand Maggie of BoingBoing was issued a press pass, so this is not clear. It was clear, though, that I was not easy to classify – in that world, I am not an accredited journalist for a traditional media organization. That was so confusing to them.
So I would really like to know what was the AAAS’ real reason for this – it could have been just mis-communication. But an out-dated worldview certainly played a part or there would have been zero confusion. Expecting wifi everywhere it never occurred to me to apply for a press pass in advance, just in person once there. I also did not have a clue in advance that press center would be so closed to non-press-tagged people – those were all very novel situations to me. I am used to freedom to roam and blog from everywhere in the building PLUS access to special amenities for the press in those rare cases when I may need them (e.g., information, interview access to VIPs, press releases and fresh fruit).
So, there is no clear track of events that one can point to, something like “Bora officially asked” (no, Bora wandered in and kinda asked), then “AAAS declined” (no, they were unsure what to do and did nothing as I did not push any further), then “Bloggers rebelled” (no, a few tweets a revolution do not make, and I doubt anyone at the top of AAAS ever read them or was aware of the issue), then “AAAS finally gave in” (no, Engle? Earl was nice about it once it was explained to him).
There is a lot of play of perceptions here – and some of them are true e.g., that AAAS is behind the times on this, not having heard much that the media ecosystem has dramatically changed over the past ten years or so.
But, keep in mind that it is the Convention Center, not AAAS, that has no free wifi or power outlets. So it is really the Center that is behind times. Of course, if AAAS was up-to-date on such things they would have certainly thought about this and could have fixed the obvious problems by bringing in a lot of power strips and hiring a company to provide free wifi like we did with paying SignalShare at ScienceOnline2010.
In today’s world, everyone is potentially a journalist. Out of 8000 people there, perhaps 1000, perhaps 2000 would have wanted to report from AAAS in some form. Some would write stories for traditional media, some for New Media, and some would write for personal blogs. There is really no distinction between these. And it is almost impossible to predict in advance who will blog – anyone can just get inspired on the spot, or a blogger can come in, find it boring, and not write anything (not being able to blog on the spot, I am not sure I will have energy and inspiration to do much post-hoc blogging now that I am back home).
Some people were paid to come to AAAS and write stories for a particular media outlet. But many others would have done some kind of reporting as well. A few blog posts. An avalanche of tweets. A bunch of good pictures on Flickr. Perhaps going around with a digital audio recorder or video camera, interviewing people and posting the files online. Some would do a lot of this. Some very little. Most would do nothing. The best of the best would do ALL of this.
So what every conference needs is a lot of power outlets and the free wifi everywhere. That way both traditional and new journalists can do their jobs everywhere in that space. Neither old nor new journalists really need a press center for anything any more, except for free coffee (which should be provided for everyone anyway). There is no need for a room full of computers. People prefer to work on their own laptops anyway. And often prefer to write their stuff in some secluded corner, not surrounded by the noise of 100 keyboards on fire.
What did the decision to have a press room accomplish? It limited the power outlets and online access to a very small part of the space. The Fire Marshall decides how many people can fill that space. Many more people, not being able to get online outside of it, would want to enter that space. This then introduces a problem for the organizers – how do they limit the use of the space to only the number of people that can legally occupy it? So they pick an arbitrary criterion: allowing the entrance into that space only to people who are officially working for organizations that in the last century were called “press”.
So, not having wifi everywhere, while having such a thing as a “press room” in the first place, is quaint and outdated and leads to these kinds of problems. This is a structural problem that leads to the artificial division between “journalists” and “bloggers” (and bad feelings that come from the enforcement of this division).
If everyone can send/post all their stuff from everywhere in the building, there is no need for a designated room. If there is no designated room, there is no need for designated name tags, no need for applying for press passes, no need for credentialing, and no need for anyone to make arbitrary decisions who is press and who is not.
I hope AAAS has learned from this year’s experience and will grow up by the time of next year’s meeting in Washington DC. I hope their scouts are looking for a venue that has power outlets everywhere and free wifi for everyone. So we don’t need to worry any more about the definition of “who is a journalist” for the coverage of conferences.

AAAS 2010 meeting

In San Diego this week. Check it out. I’ll be there – see my session. If you will be there, let me know. Let’s have coffee or lunch, etc. My session is on 21st in the morning, and there is a lot of social stuff I agreed to on the 19th in the afternoon and evening, and of course I want to see a lot of other sessions, but I am generally flexible. Just ping me over e-mail or Twitter or phone (if you have my number) or post a comment here.

Very young people blogging about science – let’s welcome them

A few days ago, I asked what it takes for a young person to start and, more importantly, continue for a longer term, to write a science blog. The comment thread on that post is quite enlightening, I have to say – check it out.
What is more important – that post started a chain-reaction on Twitter and blogs. Arikia Millikan, herself a young blogger, wrote a post in response which also attracted a lot of interesting comments. Go and comment.
Mason Posner wrote not one, but two posts in response: Science blogging in the classroom, an update and Young science bloggers need community. Go and comment.
Some of his students also congregated on his Facebook wall and, energized by all the spotlight they were getting, decided to restart their old class blog: Science Haggis. Go and comment.
Amy Breslin, former student of Posner, is the only one of his last year’s students to have continuously blogged ever since, on Plague-erism. Go and comment.
Then, someone on Twitter brought this link into the discussion – a blog post by a science blogger on The Life of Pi explaining one’s own insecurities about blogging and why it is hard. Once that link got passed around on Twitter by a bunch of people, the blog post received a lot of encouraging and wise comments as well. Go and comment.
Christie Wilcox, who is a better known youg science blogger, also voiced some similar uncertainties after coming back home from ScienceOnline2010. Go and comment.
What many of these blog posts and comments point out is that it is really hard to keep blogging if the audience is invisible. It is an absolutely astonishing coincidence that Anil Dash wrote a fantastic blog post on exactly the same topic just yesterday.
The current technology online makes it easy for you to see who you follow and read. It makes it easy on some platforms for others to see who you follow and read. But it is almost impossible to see who is reading you! Where’s the audience? Am I just blowin’ in the wind?
In a way, traditional blogging, in the absence of much feedback, is a one-to-many communication, which is not the best way to do it.
Sure, you can use various software to see how many people subscribe to your blog feed – but not who they are or if they are reading you at all. You can find out many bloggers who put your blog on their blogroll – but you still don’t know if they are actually reading you.
There are two ways people can tell you if they are reading you. One is to link to an individual post of your (not just the homepage). A simple link with no commentary on their blog or Facebook or Twitter or FriendFeed etc., is a simple statement “this may be interesting to you” targeted at their audience – it does not mean endorsement, but it is nice nonetheless. A link that adds commentary to it – agreement or disareement or addition of further information or providing an additional angle – is even better. You can find the links to you in your tracking software (Sitemeter referrers list, Google Analytics, etc.) or by putting your blog URL in Google Blogsearch or Technorati.
The other, much better way to let you know they read your post is to post a comment on it. Once they do – and posting the very first comment is the hardest – reply! Don’t make commenting on your blog difficult or exclusionary. Keep it open. You will get a substantive, pleasant discussion in the comments if a) you set the tone in your own post, b) carefully monitor the comments, c) moderate as needed, and d) respond frequently. Do not make the mistake that newspapers made of letting the loudest, most obnoxious commenters take over and scare away everyone else. At the same time, do not quickly delete every comment the tone of which you don’t like – this also has a censoring effect and will not make you many friends. Make your own criteria, draw your own line.
So, the best way to encourage a blogger – any blogger, but especially a new or young one – is to post comments. Good, quality comments. You may be used to the Usenet tone, but n00bs take some time to get used to it. Be gentle toward the young ‘uns. Go and comment.
For the new bloggers – of course there is some advice (including that already mentioned in the many comments on the blogs I linked above).
If you write a post about a peer-reviewed paper – have it aggregated on ResearchBlogging.org: this will bring yo not just traffic, but also respect. Not everyone can have their stuff up there – you need to apply and get approved first.
Send your best posts to blog carnivals on a regular basis. You’ll get traffic, new readers and will be joining a community of bloggers interested in the same topic.
Shameless self-promotion is not a bad word any more. In the world of the Web, nobody will know your blog exists unless you say “Here I am – look at me!” sometimes (yes, keep it tasteful, but it is OK).
Comment on other blogs and use your blog URL as a link that people will follow when they click on your name. The blog owner is almost certainly going to click there.
Link to your best recent posts on other online platforms: Facebook, FriendFeed, Twitter, etc. E-mail the link to your Mom every now and then. Marketing yourself has become an essential aspect of communication in the 21st century – nobody will do it for you any more.
Here are some other new/young bloggers of note:
Naked Little Ape is a blog by Hannah Lucy King. The discussion of this topic on Twitter persuaded her to make her blog public and to promote it there. And the blog is fascinating! Go and comment.
The Difference between Ignorance and Apathy is one of the current student blogs in Posner’s class. Go and comment.
SexyScience is one of the current student blogs in Posner’s class. Go and comment.
Thirsty Pandas is one of the current student blogs in Posner’s class. Go and comment.
Successors of Solomon is one of the current student blogs in Posner’s class. Go and comment.
Trisha Saha is the only one from the Duke Summer class who continued blogging after the course was over. And even she has not posted in a while. Bloggers on Nature Network have no access to tracking and traffic statistics, so the only way she can possibly know if someone is reading is if someone posts comments. Perhaps she will blog again if she starts getting comments on her older stuff. Go and comment.
Anne-Marie Hodge, though so young, is already a veteran science blogger. Since moving from undergraduate to graduate school she is busy and her blogging has become more infrequent. Though, when she posts it’s awesome. She is also on Nature Network so the only way you can make invisible audience become visible to her is if you post comments. Go and comment.
Miss Baker’s high school biology students are posting on Expert Biology. Check out Jack’s, Ammar’s and Alex’s posts about ScienceOnline2010. Check their other posts. Go and comment.
Lauren Rugani is a young science blogger/journalist. Go and comment.
Christine Ottery is a young science blogger/journalist. Go and comment.
Elissa Hoffman’s students are also blogging. Go and comment.
Dale Basler’s students are blogging. Go and comment.
Naon Tiotami is a very young blogger. Go and comment.
Sam Dupuis is a very young blogger. So is Djordje Jeremic (see this). Go and comment.
Mimi is a wonderful young blogger. Go and comment.
Students are blogging on the Project Exploration Blog. Remember Project Exploration? This is where it all started. Go and comment.
Let’s make sure new and young science bloggers feel welcome in our community. Let’s help them make their audience visible. Go and comment.

Science Blogging News

Several items showed up recently that may be of interest to science bloggers, their readers, and related science communicators of various stripes….
A) Today, Eureka, the science section of London Times, published a list of Top 30 Science Blogs.
Every list that has me in it is a good list ;-)
They say “Zivkovic, who studies circadian rhythms, is an often-provocative evangelist for new media who has probably done more than anyone else to inspire scientists to blog. He is also a must-follow on Twitter, where he posts as @boraz”
They could have had a more diverse group (in sense of gender, race, ethnicity, age, etc.) and there are some obvious blogs missing from the list (Cosmic Variance, Bad Science, Science-Based Medicine, several SciBlings, a few people from Nature Network, etc.). There is also a curious inclusion of an anti-science, global-warming denialist blog there at the #30 spot. But they are asking for feedback and for suggestions for another 70 blogs so they can make a list of Top 100. So go and leave some ideas in the comments there and help them make a better, more diverse and higher-quality list. Or e-mail them your suggestions to eureka@thetimes.co.uk, with “Best blogs” in the subject line.
Research Blogging Awards 2010B) Research Blogging Awards 2010 are now open for nominations. Which blogs meet the criteria? Those that, at least sometimes, write about peer-reviewed research papers. It is all nicely explained at this page with links to additional information.
You don’t need to be registered with ResearchBlogging.org to nominate (or to be nominated, though existing in their system makes both nomination and judging easier), but have to be in order to be one of the judges.
Important to note: nominate yourself! Do not be shy! Everyone is nominating themselves first! Nobody knows your blog, your archives and the links to your four most representative posts as well as you do. So go do it. Then nominate others (Yes, I nominated myself and three other blogs that are not the Usual Suspects, i.e., unlikely to be remembered by many others to nominate).
There is a whole list of categories one can enter to win and each blog is also included for the big prize for the Research Blog of the Year which is $1000 (another $1000 is divided among winners of all the other categories).
C) There was, more than a year ago, a useful blog meme going around the science blogosphere, asking several questions about why science bloggers do what they do: write blogs. Martin Fenner has collected (and even analyzed) all the responses here.
It is time to re-start this meme, with all the new bloggers around. This time, Steffi Suhr came up with the questions and jump-started the meme. Several people did it in the comments on her blog. DrugMonkey did his part on his own blog. Join in either in the comments on Steffi’s blog or on your blog (but make sure Steffi gets the link).
D) You have probably heard that Cognitive Daily is closing shop after five years of blogging. This was, how shall I put it, a science blog that early on showed us by example how good science blogging is done. We are all indebted to Greta and Dave for everything we learned from them over the years (and a fascinating blog post every single day!).
But don’t despair yet, because they are not….really done. Not only will Dave continue running ResearchBlogging.org (and its associated news blog), but he will also continue blogging on his personal blog Word Munger. And, just the other day, Dave unveiled his newest project – The Daily Monthly with a unique concept: he will write a post per day, sticking to a single topic for a month, from various angles and perspectives. Topic for February 2010 is AIDS. So, adjust your bookmarks and RSS feeds to include this interesting new project.
E) 2010 National Academies Communication Award looks interesting:

The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative – a program of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, with the support of the W.M. Keck Foundation – will award four $20,000 prizes in 2010 to individuals or teams (up to four individuals associated with the creation of the work being nominated) who have developed creative, original works that address issues and advances in science, engineering and/or medicine for the general public. Nominations are accepted in four categories: Book; Magazine/Newspaper; Film/Radio/TV; and Online. The winners will be honored sometime fall 2010 and are expected to attend the awards ceremony in person.

F) Sarah Greene over at The Scientist says that Our conversation is about to get a lot more interesting and I am looking forward to seeing how it works out – The Scientist teaming up with the Faculty of 1000 to, with a help of some nifty geeky t-shirts, get scientists to talk back and give feedback…. we’ll keep an eye.
G) It is incredible that almost three weeks later, people are still using the #scio10 hashtag on Twitter and still blogging about ScienceOnline2010!!! I have never seen a conference (except for SciFoo perhaps) remaining ‘hot’ so long after it ends. Let me know if your blog post is not listed – it’s quite possible I missed it.

Hints on how (science) journalism may be working these days….

You are a young journo. You get an assignment. You don’t know where to start. But you follow and are followed by a bunch of scientists and science journalists you just met at ScienceOnline2010. So you tweet…..and within minutes your story takes off:
cassierodenberg: Starting to work on a lede graph for a story on plant-based medicines. Wish I could float off to a picturesque field right about now.
BoraZ: @cassierodenberg you may want to interview @abelpharmboy for that – he’s the expert!
cassierodenberg: Twitter first: Updated status, then emailed by @abelpharmboy, scientist willing to lend expertise & insight into my plant-med story. Wow!
BoraZ: @cassierodenberg Yes, @abelpharmboy is a real Mensch! Science writers, as @laelaps said in his post, are a helpful, tight-knit community. (referring to this post)
cassierodenberg: @BoraZ: @abelpharmboy = not only an expert, a generous expert! Can’t get over offer to help a strange writer. Sci community is astonishing
Yup. We are all in this together and more we help each other the better it will be for all of us.

American Scientist

One of the things I picked up from the hallway tables at Sigma Xi during the ScienceOnline2010 meeting were four latest issues of the American Scientist:
AmSci covers.jpg
Now that I found a moment to sift through them a little bit, I got reminded why I think (and always thought) this is currently the best popular science magazine. Others have closed doors, or gradually declined, or went all sensationalist. But American Scientist keeps on publishing Good Stuff. I really need to support them, so, I promise that today I will subscribe to the print edition.

Eureka

A few months ago, London Times started a new science section called Eureka. The Brits over on Nature Network are reading and critiquing it, mainly for its huge, gender disparity, both in the authors and in the number of scientists portrayed and in the ways they are portrayed. But this is not available to people here in the USA and I wanted to see it for myself. I actually I tried to get them to send 250 or so copies for our swag bag at ScienceOnline2010, but that did not work out this year. So I was very happy when Simon Frantz walked in the hotel and saw me and pulled out these two issues he brought as a present for me. I’ll take a good look:
Eureka covers.jpg