Former Scientific American editor in chief and current Gleaming Retort blogger John Rennie, blogger and Scientific American blogs network director Bora Zivkovic, and Scientific American online news editor Robin Lloyd talk about the future of science news.
Steve: Welcome to the Science Talk, the more or less weekly podcast of Scientific American, posted on February 16th, 2011. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, a little inside baseball—but if you are a consumer of science news, which you are, you'll be interested. We're going to be talking about science and science news on the Web, blogging, and various other related issues with three experts. Former Scientific American Editor in Chief John Rennie, current SciAm Web site news editor Robin Lloyd, and the ubiquitous blogger Bora Zivkovic, better known as simply Bora or Bora Z. First up, John Rennie, who spoke at the recent Science Online 2011 Conference in North Carolina, which is run by Bora. John's topic was "Can online science journalism be better than traditional science journalism?".
Rennie: My name is John Rennie, I am a PLoS blogger; I was the editor in chief of Scientific American for 15 years, or basically right around the time that there started to be a Web that mainstream media could put things onto. And so, if the question that we would want to talk about today is: Can science journalism online be better than traditional online journalism? The answer that leaps to mind for me at that point is, "mother of God, I hope so." (laughter) But, putting that in an appropriate context, now it's not just that obviously online journalism lends itself so well to a lot of good coverage; the fact that it is so easily lent to dialogue and linking to sources, to multimedia, to the diversity of opportunities and ways of approaching all of this; not to mention the extraordinary explanatory power of lolcats. But, (laughter)but you know, and there had been some, I think, really great accomplishments in the area of science journalism already, and in particular something I would like to, actually, really flag is the work Ivan Oransky has been doing, with his creation of both Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch, which I think are actually a perfect examples of the kinds of new venues that can pop up for addressing something that most of us in science journalism have acknowledged for a really long time; which is that we haven't generally paid enough attention to the retractions, and we haven't really looked or offered enough of a glimpse inside sort of the sausage factory of scientific publication, both of which are hugely important for conveying the realities of how science is actually changing and being presented, not even just to the public, but to the scientific community itself.
Those are all really important; it's great that we have the opportunities with online science journalism to try to address that. But I would like to say that if what we are trying to do in science journalism online is get a fresh start and genuinely be better than what we've been doing in the past, then the most important thing is to actually try to fix what has bugged me for years and years as one of the biggest failings of traditional science journalism; which is that 95 percent or more of what passes as science news is driven by what I refer to as the big paper of the week model. It's the one in which the prestigious science journal issues its embargo ed press release, which goes out to everybody, which everybody jumps on, which everybody then writes about and it all comes out at the same time. And we have a wonderful example of a kind of pack journalism, and we have to get those stories out right away all at the same time because you don't want to be scooped by the other guys who are writing the exact same story, because that will make you look a stupid if you didn't have that same story. And, of course, you have to hurry, because the journals are continuing to pop push out a whole bunch of new information, and you've got to write about that soon too. So, heaven forbid you step off that treadmill for one little second. How in the world does this help the cause of informing the public about what the actual nature of science is? When a paper appears in the scientific literature, that's the beginning of its life and that's really one of the least important moments in terms of when it will actually start to matter in terms of the science. And why are we in such a hurry to try to collect the opinions of scientists or anybody else who we think is relevant to the stories and cram those into stories instantaneously with very little opportunity for forethought? It doesn't make a lot of sense. How does that serve, also, to make sure that the public is largely exposed to a very small number of stories; not just ones that are appearing in a select subset of journals but even to a few stories within those premium journals? What is the greatest curse that you could have as a researcher but to actually have the crowning accomplishment to get your work into something like Nature or Science or one of the other top tier journals when it isn't one of the most exciting stories? It has the misfortune to appear at the same time some other bigger story is breaking. You're overlooked just as much as if you had been in some other, you know, more minor lower peer journal, what a curse that is. And so, you know, as a Gedankenexperiment about this, play along with me on this: Hypothetically—and really it's an impossible one, but that's what Gedankenexperiment s are for—hypothetically, suppose in the same way that the journals institute their own, sort of, embargo about when any of us could write it, and we can't write about anything earlier than certain moment. Suppose we—the huge extended whatever constitutes science journalism—we instituted our own informal moratorium, which is that none of us will actually write about anything that appears in the science journal for six months after it appears.
(clapping and laughs)
Rennie: I am just one man, please. (laughter)Suppose we did that. What would be the result of that?
Female voice: Editors would say, "Why don't you have that story ?
Rennie: Well no, that's, what I am saying is, like, if the editors, the reporters, everybody involved, if we collectively said we wanted to reexamine what constitutes the science news. Because right now, we are defining science news as, What did they publish this week?What? That's been discussed in all sorts of meetings and a lot of the follow-up studies and the further scrutiny of that will accumulate over time. I understand why it happens that way, but for the purposes of my experiment, just imagine that we all decided we are all going to just wait six months. What would happen? Well the science would still move right along because the scientists are all going to see it in the actual journals, so we are not interfering with the progress of science, and by the time we would actually write about this stuff there would be a much clearer opinion about whether or not this was a real finding and whether or not it held up in any sort of way. And the public for the most part is not going to be any less well informed by any of that. So, I mean, I'm not really pushing that as an actual policy, but I want to just point out that what we are doing right now, for the most part, under the heading of science journalism, does not really serve the interest of science or the public. What it serves the interest of is us. Because it's really, really convenient, and it's really, really easy to write stories when people hand you press releases about them. It gives you this great ramp up on a story. But what I want to point out is that that ramp up is putting you into the back of a van with the journals driving you where they want to go with that. (laughter)So there. With that in mind, I am going to go sit down now and let somebody else rant . (clapping and laughter)
Steve: John Rennie's blog is called the Gleaming Retort; it's at blogs.plos.org/retort. Next up let's hear from BoraZ. We spoke at the Scientific American offices.
Steve: How did you get to become king of the science blogging universe?
BoraZ: I don't know, it just happened. I've been blogging for several years now and blogging on ScienceBlogs.comfor a few years, which is a very visible platform, so it was easy to be seen and heard while blogging there; also organizing the Science Online conferences, editing the Open Laboratory anthologies—makes one a lot of friends that way.
Steve: And now you are here with us at Scientific American.
BoraZ: And happy to be here.
Steve: How did that happen?
BoraZ: How did that happen? Earlier this summer , a whole series of events happened in the science blogosphere which is usually referred to as PepsiGate. Let's not go into details of exactly what happened, but as a result ScienceBlogs.com is now not the only and the most visible network. What is happening is an appearance of a brand new ecosystem of science blogging, with a number of different networks, some owned by media or publishing organizations, other are blogger's collectives. Some have been around and they just became visible in the wake of these events, and the others are brand new. So, Scientific American who has had seven blogs for several years now and a wonderful Web site is a natural entrant into this field.
Steve: And anybody who missed PepsiGate can, if you just google PepsiGate…
BoraZ: Yes, it is all over the place.
Steve: You'll find more information than you could ever want on what happened there. And it was a huge deal within science journalism. I am not sure how much the rest of the world paid attention to it but…
BoraZ: The journalism world in general paid attention to it, so people, there was a lot of discussion among media folks on Twitter for instance and on blogs, discussing, so you know, Nieman Journalism Lab and those people, they've been discussing PepsiGate in quite a lot of detail.
Steve: So what are you going to be doing with Scientific American? And what more broadly is the role of the blogger within both the science journalism world and the broader scientific world at this point, the whole world of research?
BoraZ: We don't have three hours for this but I will try to explain it really quickly. So my job is going to be to conceptualize design, launch and then run a network of independent bloggers who are going to be blogging under the banner of Scientific American alongside with Scientific American writers and editors and correspondents, which adds another dimension, because most of those people are scientists or, you know, some of them are, you know tenured, some of them are grad students. But they lend a dose of expertise that maybe somebody who just came from J-school who would not have; on the other hand, people from J-school may write better. But, you know, working together, and you know, having each other as role models and colleagues and discussing with each other, both sides improve.
Steve: What can you do as a blogger that maybe you can't do as a traditional journalist?
BoraZ: I can have a much stronger voice and say, like, "Okay this is the truth."
Steve: What do you mean by that though?
BoraZ: Because the tradition in the past, I would say 50 years of journalism, especially U.S. journalism, is so-called objectivity, which means you can't really say "this is the truth." You have to put it into somebody else's mouth.
Steve: Oh, you're talking about stenographers.
Steve: So, what we are talking about here is, a traditional journalist might think that his or her job is to quote the evolutionary biologist, quote the creationist and let the reader decide, whereas the blogger can say, "Oh, by the way, this stuff that you're hearing from the creationist is nonsense."
BoraZ: Yeah. Of course there are good journalists who already do this. But the media is still very uncomfortable with this idea that you're actually putting the truth statement on something yourself instead of as a quote.
Steve: That's not real objectivity though; that's a trap that a lot of mainstream journalists have fallen into.
BoraZ: Yes, correct it's a false subjectivity; and it's, you know, covering oneself for, you know, from being attacked by one side or the other.
Steve: You have a really interesting personal background just in terms of, you are from a war-torn region quite literally. Tell a little bit about your background and whether the region has recovered in terms of the science—you used to have some wonderful science coming out of there—and whether the science, the research effort has gotten back off the ground a little bit.
BoraZ: Yeah, the war-torn region that Yugoslavia, I was born in Yugoslavia, that's seven countries now. I was born in Belgrade which is now Serbia. In the 90's, there were you know, five wars and, you know, and sanctions and all that stuff and a lot of great scientists have left the country. It is recovering now, I was there two years ago, and I don't think Belgrade has ever looked as good as it is looking now.
Steve: Is that surprising to you, that it looks so great so soon?
BoraZ: I was surprised at how quick the recovery was, because I was there in a middle of the '90s and it was very depressing; it was much worse than everything, you know, I remember from growing up. And suddenly, you know, '08, '09,—I went there twice—and it is clean and it's colorful and it's wonderful. There's lot of new boutiques and stores and, you know, scientists are, you know, picking up the loss of the brain drain. But there's a lot of, you know, excited new young people, their, you know, first you know that they had for instance an open access event, during the Open Access Week last year actually in two or three different places. So, they are now trying to quickly catch up and to see what's happened over these, you know, those 10 years in the world of science, in the world of science publishing and the Web; because of all the wars and sanctions it's one of the least online countries in Europe, and so they're trying to catch up on that as well.
Steve: Did most of the scientists who left come to the U.S. or they are scattered all over?
BoraZ: They're scattered all over. They're all over Europe. Some are in the U.S., Canada; wherever you could, you know, get a visa to get out so….
Steve: Is there a virtual ex-Yugoslav scientific community that exists now, because of the availability of such a virtual world?
BoraZ: Not really. I mean, you know, people kind of randomly find each other, and say, "Yeah you're also Yugoslav" and—or ex-Yugoslav—and it's very interesting how the people who've left of different ages, they don't really care if you are Serb, Croat or Bosnian, we are all ex-Yugoslav, we speak the same language, and we are all scientists, well, you know, let's talk.
Steve: What are your favorite things to spend your time thinking about and writing about?
BoraZ: It's shifted. You know, when you look at my blog, it's shifted now that I am off the bench now for several years, it's becoming more and more difficult for me to actually write about the, you know, the science of my background which is circadian rhythms. I still follow the literature and talk to people, but I feel like I am losing my touch with it as far as, you know, the details. It'sgetting harder to write about it. So what I'm writing most about now is the Web—how social networks and blogs and things like that are used. There's a lot of, you know, social science research now on how for instance, scientific messages are propagating through Twitter or blogs and what is the quality of the blogs?
Steve: It really is fascinating when you're on Twitter to see how quickly messages windup returning to you through networks that were previously unknown to you. Or how people know each other who you would never have expected to know each other, and there are maybe only three degrees of separation between you and a lot of other people.
BoraZ: Yeah, that's absolutely fascinating. And how on Facebook it's very similar, but works in different ways, because it's a, you know, Twitter is asymmetric—you can follow without being followed back. On Facebook we have to follow each other mutually, and still you get some on the same patterns. And I think it's absolutely wonderful because when scientists let's say, tweet, or on Facebook chat with each other, there's a lot of nonscientists who are privy to their conversation and they find often the science stories fascinating. And that's a way that people who otherwise would not, let's say, buy Scientific American the newsstand or specifically go to a science blog or something like that, they keep hearing stories about science and find them fascinating and interesting. And that's what we like to call the push strategy. Pull strategy brings people who are already interested, they know they're interested in science and they come to a science site. Push strategy is pushing science to people who didn't even know they're excited about science and until they saw it.
Steve: So how are going to people access your writing in the Scientific American blog system?
BoraZ: You'll find Scientific American blogs at ScientificAmerican.com/blog; there are seven already and we will have whole network in a couple of months. My personal blog, which will eventually move on to the Scientific American site, you can find it at blog.coturnix.org C-O-T-U-R-N-I-X…
Steve: …dot org for all the wit and wisdom of Bora.
BoraZ: I try.
Steve: Finally, let's hear from Robin Lloyd the Scientific American Web site news editor. She spoke recently as part of a panel addressing the future of science news reporting, an event that was part of Social Media Week. I'll let the moderator of that panel, Flatiron Communications' Peter Himler, introduce her.
Himler: Robin Lloyd is a sociologist and science writer with extensive print and online experienced at big and small news and science organizations on both coasts of the U.S. She is at Scientific American, where she is responsible for editing and assigning online news stories. She also manages SciAm's Twitter feed @sciam, S-C-I-A-M, and Facebook page. [Previously] she was senior editor for live science at SPACE.com. Robin has additional experience in print journalism—newspaper business (Pasadena Star–News); wire journalism (City News Service of Los Angeles); and network online journalism (CNN.com). She is [a] PhD in sociology from the University of California Santa Barbara and received a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at M.I.T. Hi, Robin.
Lloyd: I want to just, sort of, stick really close to the title of the session, because I think that's become, it's a perennial topic, it's a monthly topic, it's a daily topic—where is science news reporting heading? And I like that you, I mean I found it interested and challenging that I had to think about not just the future of science journalism but the future of science news reporting. Because what we're seeing is that a lot of the science news that's been generated now is not pure journalism or it might not be journalism at all. In fact some of the people were creating it, don't want to be called journalists. They don't want to necessarily operate within the rules and code of conduct that journalism has prescribed for decades in this country. So, that's been interesting and sometimes nerve-wracking for journalists to watch; it's sometimes confusing for nonjournalists and people in the media sphere and the publicity sphere to engage with. Because it's kind of hard to know what sense to make of the new media landscape—we keep hearing this phrase "the new media landscape". So, I am going to throw out some answers to this quickly and then give you some of the evidence that I see for the trends I am noticing. A lot of, you know, probably everyone in this room is responsible for coming up with these phrases and trends that I am going to throw out or is very aware of them, but I think it is good to revisit them and re-list them and start to then say, "Well, what is the evidence for these trends and how valid, you know, really are these trends? Or are these just memes and catchphrases that we're throwing around?"
So we're seeing that science news these days is multi-platform. I work on the Web site. I've been working online on and off for the past 10-plus years. Online is this, you know, relatively new platform in the United States and abroad. Multi-platform does not just include the Web; it includes Facebook and Twitter. We're now understanding at Scientific American and some of the other places that I work that our presence on Facebook and Twitter is really important; that these are publishing platforms for us. We're not just putting out a magazine, we're not just putting out a Web site. We need to be present and engaged and publishing on those platforms. There are other platforms—podcasting is very important. So the environment—the ecosystem as my colleague Bora Zivkovic calls it—the ecosystem for science news is very dynamic, is changing; the number of outlets is growing exponentially. It's diversifying. The voices that we're hearing from, you know, we're not just hearing from the same people and the same demographic. We're hearing from people all over the world for science news, we're hearing from men, we are hearing from women, we're hearing from people in the United States, we're hearing from people outside the United States. This is great, this is enriching. We're getting a diversity of perspectives. We're hearing stories that we never used to hear before. And that's exciting and that's fun and it's great for education. It's great for scientific progress, and it's great for, you know, the progress of democracy and freedom, which are values that are really important to us. Science literacy, while, you know, the United States doesn't always score so great on that, I would argue that overall among consumers of news and information, science literacy is growing. Science curiosity is growing. People, I have so many friends now who are not in science journalism but come up to me and say, "You work for Scientific American? Cool. What did you work on today? What's new in science?" And they really don't know a lot about climate change; or they don't know a lot about evolution, or they don't know a lot about biodiversity. But they want to know more and they see me as a source. which is a lot of pressure. And I do try to give them at least some kind of answer. But there's a growing, in the community of people who are consuming news and information now, there's a lot more interest in science, technology, math and engineering—STEM some people call that; NSF is very interested in promoting STEM information. There's a lot more experimentation, which we're seeing online in all these digital platforms that I am talking about, which is exciting. And then there's, you know, along with that comes mistakes, misinformation, holes, gaps in coverage. But I think experimentation is good; it's at the heart of science. I'm a bit of an advocate for the scientific method and for scientific progress and the promotion of scientific information, and that's part of what we do at Scientific American. We're narrowcasting. So we used to broadcast. That's the one to many model where there was one voice; you know Peter Jennings, Walter Cronkite. These were the, you know—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal—these were the voices, right, and they would broadcast their information out to everybody. And now we're doing a lot more narrowcasting, we're moving towards narrowcasting; which means dozens, dozens and dozens of outlets are communicating with smaller groups of people. But some of the new technology tools that are out there—obviously Facebook and Twitter are the big ones right now—are really helping us with narrowcasting such that we get to curate the feed that we get everyday. So, Twitter has basically become my newspaper. I curate it everyday; everyday I am pruning it ruthlessly, following new people, unfollowing new people, I follow more than 600 people. Sure I don't read everyone of those tweets, but anytime that I check in, any half hour that I have, any 10 minutes that I have, any five minutes that I have, I can go to Twitter and see what's breaking, what people are talking about in the field that I have chosen to define by the people that I follow on Twitter right now. That's invaluable. It doesn't matter that I don't read everybody's tweets everyday. It's that anytime, I've got a newspaper for the interest that I have right now; I know what's going on and read the influencers in that field.
So back to evidence. So the evidence for this came a few weeks ago, the best evidence I have came a few weeks ago. I got back from Science Online 2011. This is the fifth year of this conference, it's a science blogging conference. And it's an amazing place because it's, everything that I've just been talking about happens at Science Online. And it's very challenging as a journalist to go to Science Online, because a lot of the people at Science Online do not call themselves journalists, do not want to be journalists. But they're leaders and innovators and pioneers and doing really important writing like Ed Yong. But basically they're doing a lot of the really exciting work right now in science news reporting, so I see a lot of future happening there. What happened at Science Online? Well first of all, registration occurred in November, there were 300 seats, registration closed in 45 minutes. That's how excited people are, right now in my field, to go to Science Online. So, yeah, Science Online sold out in 45 minutes there were 300 of us there; there could have been 600 easily, could have been a 1000. They just don't have the space in the budget right now. Hopefully, next year I think, Bora Zivkovic may—again the blogging communities editor at Scientific American; we're so lucky that he's on board with us right now; he's really the guru right now for science blogging and really knows the landscape. He is hoping for 500, space for 500 next year. And I think the conference will still be down in Durham. The fact that it is in Durham is very telling and interesting, right. The research triangle is so dynamic right now. It didn't really catch on at first, but now it's really catching on. That's very interesting, that it's in a scientific research center that is, you know, anchored by three or four really strong research universities right now. So you see that energy moving away from and again, the media, and more into the field of science. So who was there? I didn't get any exact figures and I am not sure if Bora and Anton Zuiker—the co-organizers of Science Online—have done the statistics on this, but it just anecdotally looks like one-third, one-third, one-third. So that a third of the people there are journalists—conventional, you know; to a certain extent we've got staff or full-time, you know, paid jobs to do science journalism. Another third are scientists who've decided to blog in their free time. It doesn't necessarily help them get tenure; they're doing it because they love to communicate about science. It's basically unpaid, and that's a whole trend among scientists right now is that they're dying to, they're excited, they're wired, they know how to set up a blog, and they want to tell you about it. And they are curating information for us too. And they're not just promoting themselves and their own research, they're promoting their field, they're promoting other interesting stuff they've read about. They're thinking about what they're doing, there's a lot of meta writing that they do about the science blogging that they're doing. And the last third are bloggers, just straight bloggers right. I'm not a scientist, I am not a journalist I am a blogger, don't call me a scientist, you know. So and there's a lot of, there's a cowboy kind of mentality I call it, that happens there, where I live by my own rules, a lot of individualism. They are informed by journalism, they are informed by the scientific method and scientists, but my sense is that there is some resistance to living by anybody's rules. That's kind of work some, a lot of people who have embraced the internet and the Web really love is, you know, writing your own story, choosing your own template, choosing your own layout and deciding how to tell the story. So that's where you get all the innovation. You get a lot of narrowcasting happening there and a lot of new stories that we never would have heard otherwise. I see a movement toward journalism, even among people who aren't embracing journalism. So one of the reasons that you can argue this is, there is this definition of journalism that gets tossed around sometimes, and it's a quote from this gentleman Lord Northcliffe. Lord Northcliffe's definition is that journalism is something that somebody somewhere wants to suppress; everything else is advertising. And the interesting thing about that definition—which, of course, could be argued against; this is not be the all end definition of journalism—though is that that means a lot of us in this room in the current climate in this country towards science and technology and a lot of, you know, towards reason, rationality, the scientific method, are engaging in acts of journalism pretty regularly. Just simply putting out scientific information, sticking to data, sticking to evidence and promoting the scientific method in any way, and saying, "Let's look at the evidence here and make a decision based on that." This is not always a popular position or, you know, the reigning position right now among the leadership in our county. So the other thing that happens with the bloggers, it's also moving in that direction. A lot of the bloggers are joining networks now, and so scienceblogging.org is a site that Bora and Anton pulled together to highlight, so it could be a one-stop shop for all the science blogging news that you wanted to get at any day and it's auto updating throughout the day; and it basically lists about 25 science blogging networks and some of the names of the blogs that are part of those networks. Networks are basically being launched by major media outlets, for instance Public Library of Science, Wired, Discover magazine has one, The Guardian has a blogging network; these are the, these are some of the major ones. And what happens when you join a network that is operated by a journalistically-oriented outlet is that your writing starts to become more journalistic, more within the tradition of journalism. So, I am seeing even among the, sort of, the very cowboy, very independent, I'm-not-a-journalist blogosphere, there is a move toward operating within the strictures and codes and approaches and training and traditions of journalism. So, I am actually quite optimistic and excited about the blogosphere and what it can do for the future of science news reporting.
Steve: That's it for this episode. Get your science news, edited by Robin Lloyd, at www.ScientificAmerican.com, where you can check out the video I shot at the Bronx Zoo of a giraffe undergoing operant conditioning. And follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet about each new article posted to our Web site. Our Twitter handle is @sciam. And don't forget to get the free Scientific American Advances app for your smart phone. As I discovered a few days ago, a smart phone can come in really handy for shooting videos of giraffes. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.