ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Ivan Oransky

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 Ivan Oransky from Reuters Health and Embargo Watch to answer a few questions.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?
I grew up in the New York suburbs. I earned a bachelor’s in biology, then trained as an MD, and got through a year of psychiatry residency before leaving medicine to be a full-time journalist. Along the way, I spent four summers and some other time working in basic science labs, studying the complement system and pediatric infectious diseases. Today, I’m the executive editor of Reuters Health, based in New York, where I live in the less and less appropriately named neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. My wife and I split time between there and western Massachusetts.
Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?
Ivan Oransky pic.jpgI left medicine in 1999, but I had been committing journalism since I set foot in the Harvard Crimson as a freshman in 1990. (Or perhaps more accurately, since I joined my high school paper in 1986.) I eventually edited the Crimson’s science and health coverage, and became executive editor. In medical school, I edited the medical student section of JAMA, and wrote for other outlets including the Baltimore Sun, The New Republic, and U.S. News and World Report. During my first year of residency, American Medical News was kind enough to give me a column, which a Yale dean made a point of saying embarrassed him in a letter to all of my clinical supervisors. Around that time, I also started a weekly column for The Forward, a weekly Jewish newspaper, called The Doctor. If there’s a health problem Jews don’t worry about, it’s news to me, so I had plenty of material. Between then and now I’ve written for a number of other publications, from The Boston Globe to Salon to Slate to the Wall Street Journal Online. I’ve also co-authored books including The Common Symptom Answer Guide.
My first full-time journalism job, starting in May 2000, was as editor in chief of Praxis Post, a webzine of medicine and culture. We had a great time and earned important recognition, including being named a finalist for the 2001 Online News Association Award for General Excellence, but soon sadly went the way of the dot-com boom. In 2002, I became web editorial director of The Scientist, and I was promoted to deputy editor of the magazine in 2004, overseeing web as well as print. We won a slew of awards while I was there, including the Magazine of the Year Award from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. I left The Scientist in March 2008 to become managing editor of online at Scientific American, where we grew traffic by 50%. I left SciAm in June 2009 to take my current position as executive editor of Reuters Health.
Throughout my decade of editorial management, I’ve had the good fortune to have smarter and more talented people than me willing to be part of my staff. Learning from them, and working with them to implement our joint visions, has more than made up for the fact that I really don’t have the time to do much of my own writing anymore. I’ve also benefited from generous and brilliant mentors such as former JAMA editor-in-chief George Lundberg.
What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?
My day job takes up most of my time, as well as my mental energy. It’s a challenging time to be in journalism, as A Blog Around The Clock readers know, so just keeping up — and improving — the high standards of Reuters Health, while experimenting with new journalistic forms, is a full-time job. But my work at Reuters goes hand-in-hand with my three other passions: the Association of Health Care Journalists, where I’m treasurer; New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program, where I’ve taught medical journalism for eight years and have served as faculty advisor to Scienceline for four; and my new blog, Embargo Watch.
My goal in all of that work is to help people commit better journalism. Some of those people are full-time journalists. Some may be training to become full-time journalists, and some may not be employed as journalists at all. But if they’re writing for me, a student of mine, an AHCJ member, or reading and commenting on my blog, to me they’re part of ensuring the future of journalistic ideals — independence, accountability, and accuracy, to name a few.
Then, of course, there are the New York Yankees, whose season is about to get started as I write this. Which means I’ll be on the subway up to my season tickets in the bleachers as often as possible…
How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? 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?
Although I contributed to the news blogs at The Scientist and Scientific American, I’ve just started my first personal blog, Embargo Watch, whose tagline is “keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage.” I’m an active Twitter and Facebook user. I’m not on Friendfeed at the moment. I am squarely in the necessity camp when it comes to this stuff. I learn something whenever our audience comments on, retweets, criticizes, or ignores what we’ve put out there. And the story tips — for Reuters Health as well as for Embargo Watch — are invaluable.
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?
ScienceOnline sessions are always great, of course, but for me the highlights of ScienceOnline2010 were, as always, the gathering of the best minds in science blogging, all of whom are available for passionate chats in the hallways and the bar. I’m not sure I can point to anything in particular, but rather to the whole experience, as spurring me to start Embargo Watch. Getting invited to guest blog by the wonderful Ed Yong, whom I met for the first time at ScienceOnline2010, was important inspiration, as was knowing I can count on the other people I met for support and guidance. This year, the cabal — and I use that term with love — of book authors I hung out with has also encouraged me to think about a book I want to write.
I look forward to ScienceOnline2011, 2012, and on and on. Having been to all four of them now, I can say confidently that they keep getting better. My one suggestion for 2011 and beyond is to pay attention to the potential pitfalls of ScienceOnline’s success. It’s already become a place a lot of people want to be, and its audience one that a lot of interests want to engage. That’s a good thing. But it also means that the participants need to think carefully about conflicts of interest, funding sources, and that sort of thing. An example: Carl Zimmer and I turned to one another during the last after-dinner Ignite Talk this year and wondered, at the same moment, whom the speaker’s clients were. I think the speaker was happy to tell us, but that was the sort of thing that should have been baked into a disclosure in his talk. Setting ground rules like that ahead of time will only help ScienceOnline grow and mature even more than it already has. But this isn’t a criticism — I’m just speaking from experience as someone who has been on the board of directors of a group that’s only turning 12 this year.
It was so nice to see you again – the fourth time! – and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.


3 responses to “ScienceOnline2010 – interview with Ivan Oransky

  1. We should all be so lucky as to commit similar acts of journalism 😉

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  3. Pingback: ScienceOnline2011 – introducing the participants | A Blog Around The Clock