PLoS, it rhymes with floss: Interview with Liz Allen

Today I have to be very, very careful, because Liz Allen is the person who hired me for PLoS and is my immediate supervisor. This means, in PLoS terms, that we work great as a team, talk on the phone a couple of times per week and exchange approximately five gigazillion e-mails every day, enjoying every second of it as we are both true believers in our mission – getting everyone to LOVE Open Access and Public Library of Science. Liz is the Director of Marketing and Business Development at PLoS and the person in charge of communications, online and offline. Some of you had the good fortune to meet her in person at the second Science Blogging Conference four weeks ago. So, I hope you all behave nicely in the comments, OK?
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?
Thanks Bora. It feels a little strange to be writing this to you from home, since we live in each others virtual pockets at PLoS, myself in our San Francisco office and you in Chapel Hill. This distance has proved to be no obstacle to our partnership in which we attempt to bring the joys of open science to the research community – ready or not out there here we come.
What do you want to do/be when you grow up?
I think we can both safely say I am already truly grown up. My job, as head of Marketing and Business Development for PLoS, is to be the number one PLoS cheerleader (although sadly I look nothing like). Previously, I was fortunate enough to spend 11 years at Nature, and I can honestly say that both then as now, I’ve never had a dull day. I tell my friends my working life at PLoS is “all doable as long as you assume that every day is launch day”. This isn’t a surprising statement when you realize that PLoS has started 8 websites in 5 years and built a formidable brand to rival that of others with a 140 year track record. It’s a lot to pack into a short period of time and it frequently feels like it.
How did you end up working for PLoS?
I moved to San Francisco from Chicago and Mary Waltham, who was previously Managing Director and Publisher of the Lancet and worked with me at Nature, told me about the position – she’d heard about it through her connection with Barbara Cohen, an inspirational founding employee of PLoS, who was also previously at Nature.
Barbara called me up and a few interviews later, I agreed to join as a consultant and rapidly converted to a full time employee when I realized the enormity of the communications task that lay ahead of me.
The challenge of starting at PLoS nearly three years ago was best summed up by the blank stare on the faces of most scientists back then when I told them I worked for PLoS (rhymes with floss I would say – still no flicker of recognition). All in all, a very different experience from saying that you worked for Nature – this statement would be greeted by reverential silence and the red carpet would magically be rolled out to smooth your path to whatever it was that you wanted. I realized that my job was to get the word out about PLoS and build a brand around the fact that great peer-reviewed science could be published online and made freely accessible to all. I am happy to say that now, when I say that I work for PLoS, I usually receive a nod of recognition and the carpet, while not red, is definitely warming in hue.
My readers know my side of the story on how I got the job with PLoS (see here). They may not know the PLoS’s side or that you were personally quite instrumental in this happening. What were you thinking!?
I was thinking this: “Here I am stuck at the airport in Denver and the only thing to eat is a brand of Tex Mex fast food with a reputation for Botulism. What shall I do instead? I know, I’ll call that interesting sounding Zivkovic guy that all those bloggers (sciblings as I now know them) are raving about in the blogosphere and give him an interview off the cuff. He’ll probably be up for it, after all, he’s one of the first people in history to apply in public to the equivalent of a situation vacant posting in a blog, he’s probably as strange as me”. I called you up and we got on famously, the rest is history, as they say.
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?
Well I have to confess to having a weakness for a blog called patently silly but that’s not really scientific. Naturally I follow all the sites religiously – I am quite intrigued by the ocean sciences (but am too chicken to dive) so anything with that theme attracts my personal attention and I am also quite a fan of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. At the conference, I enjoyed meeting Karen from the Beagle Project and now I follow her blog, she’s even been nice enough to comment on a PLoS ONE paper, which I was delighted to see.
You have also given quite a lot of thought to online social networks and how they can be used in organizing scientists, spreading scientific information, etc.., both using the general sites like Facebook and sites specifically designed for science networking. What are your thoughts on this?
Good question. So, PLoS ONE is a network of scientists that comes together around the articles. The PLoS Facebook group on the other hand comes together to bond around issues affecting PLoS itself, web technology and the philosophy of open access. From what I can see, folks in both environments still have a fledgling relationship with the articles or with the organization, and less frequently with each other in an open enviroment. This is understandable given the competitive culture of science and the grip of academic tenure. Researchers who build successful relationships often do so within international collaborative project groups and for that they might use their lab pages, project wikis, or email but they aren’t yet using these forums. I could see this changing over time if tools were introduced to facilitate that. At the end of the day though, I still see researchers bonding as a group around the science itself, and with each other because of their shared passion for the work and the associated career opportunities.
Is there anything that happened at the Conference – a session, something someone said or did, a new friendship – 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?
Yes, a few things. At the conference it was good to feel a very warm and positive vibe towards PLoS (that’s not to say it was uncritical at all times!) and frequently I got the feeling that really the organization does truly belong to the community which is of course true. We were founded by scientists for scientists and we hope to continue that way. It was also good to discover that although PLoS is relatively small in size (but mighty in terms of influence we like to think!), with the collective support of folks I met at the conference, it could be possible to make progress on issues such as getting PLoS content into the hands of more people in the developing world.
It was so nice seeing you again and thank you for the interview.
You are welcome, can I go to bed now?
Check out all the interviews in this series.


3 responses to “PLoS, it rhymes with floss: Interview with Liz Allen

  1. I’ve been avoiding Facebook, because it was shut off from the wider web — but they seem to be opening up a little. I may yet have to join. (Resistance is futile…)

  2. Good thing about FB is that one can choose how to use it. I am still resisting twitter, though, but I do not know for how long.

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