From the trenches of Open Access: Interview with Hemai Parthasarathy

Hemai Parthasarathy spent about five years as an editor at Nature before joining PLoS where she was the Managing Editor of PLoS Biology from its very beginning, through about five years of it until just a few months ago. When I got the job with PLoS and spent my first month in San Francisco, Hemai was my tutor in a sense, teaching me the lore of the inner sanctum of the publishing world – how it works, who is who, why Open Access, and other useful stuff. So she was a natural choice for me to invite to lead a session on Open Science: how the Web is changing the way science is done, written and published (see the videos here) at the Science Blogging Conference two weeks ago.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your background? What is your Real Life job?
Well, of most relevance to your readers, I am a biophysicist and neuroscientist by training, an editor by profession, and a consultant (at the moment) by circumstance. Of me, personally, I could say that I am an Alaskan by birth, an Indian by ancestry, and a California girl by choice (and possibly temperament).
What do you want to do/be when you grow up?
Do I have to? I’d like to have a dog when I’m grown up. But, if I ever have a sofa, I’ll know that I am too grown-up.
I have a children’s book about a mule at home. Sound familiar? Anything to say about it? No? OK.
You are a cruel man, Bora, to bring up my childhood traumas on a public blog. Yes, I used to spell my name “Hemi” (which is how it is pronounced) and yes, I do have one namesake in the children’s literature, Hemi: A mule.
When, how and why did you become a believer in Open Access publishing?
I find that phrase kind of odd – like being a “believer” in evolution. I’m not sure open access is something to believe in. Its just logical, inevitable… it basically falls out of thinking about scientific communication + the internet. So, I’d say I “believed” from my first exposure, which was the open signature campaign that launched the Public Library of Science (PLoS). The question of how to make it work given the legacy of the subscription-based system, was less clear when I joined PLoS, but the last five years have seen a lot of change towards that goal.
How is a scientific paper going to look like in 50 years?
No Idea. Didn’t you write about that? I don’t even know what science is going to look like in 50 years. Science has always been written about in multiple forms, from the conference abstract to the clinical trial to the dissertation. Already the classical form of the research paper does not fit many disciplines (“high throughput” systems biology springs to mind). I hope it will have multiple forms as it does now, but that it will be much more integrated with the data it represents and the steps that come before/after it.
When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?
I don’t think I’d ever read a blog, let alone a science blog, until Chris [Surridge, editor of PLoS ONE, ed.] started posting regularly on the PLoS blog. For all my support of the internet revolution in communication, I still like my information in large well-digested chunks that I can interact with tactilely as well as visually (aka paper). So, I probably discovered science blogs through you! The only science blog I now read regularly is The Tree of Life, mainly because I am so impressed by Jonathan Eisen’s brain. Since the conference, I’ve also been reading Science and Religion, which is a theme I have taken a recent interest in; and, Aardvarcheology hooked me with Martin’s visit to the Amazing Randi, of whom I remember stories from my days at Nature and the infamous water memory paper.
How do science blogs fit in the entire ecosystem of scientific publishing, communication and education?
I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that. Blogs are clearly an integral part of all publishing, not just scientific publishing, It seems to me that the quality of science blogs is quite high compared to the average blog, but that may just be my sampling bias. I hope they encourage people who are on the outside of the elite research process to promote scientific discourse within society.
What are your plans for the future (at least what you are willing to disclose) in your life and work?
I’m not sure. I had thought about doing something completely different (e.g. culinary school), but in the end, I value too much the experience I have gained in scientific evaluation and communication; and still feel that I have something to contribute in this arena. I am currently working as a consultant in the drug discovery world, which may turn into something very relevant to open science and open access. Stay tuned!
Would you consider trying your hand at blogging?
… its tempting, as I love to write. But, I’d need to be convinced that I could contribute to the signal, rather than the noise; and so far, I am not convinced.
Is there anything that happened at the 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?
Well, this will sound entirely self-serving, but I was moved when Bill Hooker asked the audience in the open access session how many of the publishing scientists would aspire to publish in PLoS Biology. I didn’t expect such a large response (of course, they might have been humoring me!), and in general, I didn’t expect quite as much enthusiasm for PLoS. I guess I’m used to trying to convince the skeptics, so it really brought home to me the successes we have had. A lesson, then, is what I take away: That it’s easy to forget how many allies you have, when you’re deep in the trenches. Of course, that is one way that the blogosphere empowers people – you don’t actually have to meet face-to-face to be with like-minded people. Is the corollary, then, that I should have been reading more blogs when I was at PLoS?
It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview.
Thanks, Bora, for inviting me to participate in your conference. It was a wonderful experience.
Check out all the interviews in this series.


5 responses to “From the trenches of Open Access: Interview with Hemai Parthasarathy

  1. [Image by Gabrielle Lyon]

  2. “The signal instead of the noise” – I like that, except that I’m pretty sure I’m part of the noise myself. Based on my brief conversation with you, I’ll bet you’d be part of the signal, Hemai. That’s a great photo by the way.

  3. I so thoroughly enjoyed meeting Hemai at the conference. She was the perfect choice to lead the Open Access discussion. I’d like to add my vote for Hemai to start her own blog – I cannot imagine anyone more capable of generating meaningful and interesting content. I would also like to add in a plug for culinary school. Really can’t go wrong with cooking (and eating well) all day.

  4. But, I’d need to be convinced that I could contribute to the signal, rather than the noise; and so far, I am not convinced.

    Fuck it. Give it a whirl!
    Hemai! Hemai! Hemai! Hemai! Hemai!

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