Saturday, January 15, 2011

Science Online 2011: The craft of blogging, and getting this durn blog to count for something

In my experience as an academic, the first time I attend a conference I am all about the panels and symposia. I run frantically from one room to the next, barely stopping for food or to use the restroom, and take notes at every speaker. Then, with every year I attend the conference, I attend fewer talks and spend more time catching up with friends and networking with a combination of collaborators and people I hope will write external letters for my tenure case. Both the early zest, and the later relaxation and connections with other people, are really enjoyable states. My first experience with Science Online has been sort of a combination of the two, because it was organized in a way to maximize our enjoyment of the speakers, while also very intentionally setting up opportunities for us to socialize in a way that helped awkward scientists get to know each other with minimal effort.

Friday, January 14th

I arrived on Friday just in time to see Bora, hug him, and run to my first afternoon workshop. I attended Joanne Manaster's and Carin Bondar's workshop on making your own short video, then Clifton Wiens's workshop entitled "Science Documentary - The Challenges and Possibilities." Joanne and Carin were energetic and hopeful, and offered a lot of practical advice. They also had us break up into small groups twice to discuss first what kind of short videos we were interested in producing, and then to work together in that same group to talk through one of our ideas. Based on some interesting conversations in the first round on leeches, and an eye toward SEO search terms, we came up with a short video concept entitled "Lady Gaga's Meat Dress or Justin Bieber: Who Would Leeches Prefer?" We had a lot of fun thinking through how that would look... and to be honest, I kinda want to see the thing made now. My small group had a number of wonderful people, and with apologies for who I am forgetting we had Ariel Neff, Holly Tucker, Randi Hutter Epstein, Bora Zivkovic, Jai Ranganathan, Megan Lowman, and several others.

Friday night we had a Books and Beer event, which I mostly spent ogling all the people I had been reading and admiring for years (I got to hug Ed Yong, and meet/hug a number of other truly wonderful people), and then we went out to group dinners that we had to sign up for ahead of time. I signed up for the group dinner that Anne Jefferson was in, because she and I have been friends for years, and had never met. It was so exciting to meet, and hug, and feel that instant connection of friendship in person that had developed online. Notice, that's now three hugs I've received from people I'd never met in person before. This will be a recurring theme.

At the group dinner, a number of women ended up together, chatting about Anne's and my upcoming panel on blogging as a woman. Holly, Christie Wilcox, Melissa, Kea, and others weighed in with insightful comments, observations, and frustrations. I am beginning to think we will never get to everything we want to get to in that panel in just an hour... but we'll try (Sunday, 11:30am, Room B!).

Saturday, January 15th: morning

Saturday is the first full day of the conferences, with panels and speakers and demos. For my morning panels, I chose topics that would help me think about the crafts of blogging and communicating science: Making the History of Science Work for You, Experiments with the imagination: science and scientists through the medium of fiction with Jennifer Rohn and Blake Stacey, and The Entertainment Factor - Communicating Science with Humor with Brian Malow and Joanne Manaster.

All three panels were great, but I wanted to spend a little time unpacking some of my own thinking about the wonderful fiction panel.

Jenny and Blake are both published authors of fiction, and they organized their time in such a way as to really encourage the audience to participate. We discussed the pull to get the facts right, but also the pull to get the people (the scientists) right, when writing fiction that contains science. Jenny discussed fiction as "a stealth tactic to slip in science," which I liked, and we talked about what it means to get more people excited about science, and the trade-offs of often having to trade some reality for drama. Blake made some nice points about how a reader can suspend disbelief if the science is off in something, but if they get the scientists wrong, it's a horrible mistake. Showing scientists act in a way that they would never act is inauthentic, and dehumanizes them. If we want more people excited about science, and getting into science, scientists have to be portrayed realistically.

I was interested in what we could learn from fiction and storytelling to help us capture more readers in our science writing. Recently, I have had two experiences that have shown me that it's important to take into account how literal-minded some layfolks can be when reading or learning about things, as opposed to the skepticism scientists often bring.

For the first experience, last month I wrote a guest post for Scientific American entitled "I don't have a 28-day menstrual cycle, and neither should you." It was pretty popular, was retweeted widely, and got a lot of comments (at least for me). I did some sleuthing to try and figure out who was reading it or talking about it, and found someone had cut and pasted my entire post into a forum at If you read the comments, you'll see how outraged many of the women were at what I thought was a humorous, if provocative, title. They took the title literally.

The second experience is related to teaching. For the last several semesters in the courses I teach, I have discussed the economic situation of my university with my class on the first day, where the money goes, how their tuition is on the rise, and what my contract covers (in terms of research, teaching, and service, and the expectations of the time I'll allocate to the three, which happens to be 55%, 35% and 10% respectively). In that same lecture, indeed only moments later, I explain my radical teaching philosophy and share with them my passion for teaching and connecting with them and sharing my excitement for the material. Every semester I have done this, I get at least a few student evaluations who say "From the first day Prof. Clancy showed she hated us and hated teaching, and said she was only here to do research and that's what she's paid to do. She hates students!!!1!11!!" Again, even though the "reveal" was seconds after the set-up, a number of students took me literally.

Now, it's entirely possible that I lack much writing and speaking finesse, and this leads to these misunderstandings. But I suspect a certain literal-mindedness from lay readers and new learners of science, because of the way that they are taught that science is something you KNOW, something with irrefutable FACTS where you are right or wrong. They don't learn the process of science, so they don't know to suspend their disbelief, they don't know to think about the whole picture, they don't expect something with nuance. The question I have is, does that mean in order to communicate with a wider audience that we should lose the nuance, or do we just know that we are going to lose readers, or, is there some way to encourage the reader to rise up to the level of our writing? They're smart enough, they just don't have a scientist's toolbox. Can we give them that toolbox as science bloggers and writers? How would we do that without being pedantic?

Saturday, January 15th: afternoon

I attended another two great panels: Blogs, Bloggers and Boundaries? with Marie-Claire Shanahan, Alice Bell, Ed Yong, Martin Robbins and Viv Raper, and How is the Web changing the way we identify scientific impact? with Jason Priem, Paul Groth, Martin Fenner, and Jason Hoyt (check out their Google Doc here). I want to touch on the second panel, because it feels particularly important to someone like me, a tenure-track professor foolish enough to blog under my real name.

I asked (and it was retweeted many times to apparent amusement!) whether the panelists could create alt-metrics that could look more official. What I meant, which I don't think I conveyed that well, was that I know that blogging is important, I know its value, and so does everyone in the room. What those of us who are practicing scientists have trouble with are the majority of our other colleagues, because the rest of them don't blog, and are not only skeptical, but occasionally openly mocking or hostile. Blogging is still seen as frivolous in slow-to-catch-on academia. In some disciplines or at some universities, it may very well be a black mark on one's tenure papers. So how can we show the impact we are having on society in a quantitatively measurable way that doesn't take significant effort on the part of the end-user/scientist? Or perhaps more selfishly, because this would certainly help with tenure: how can we demonstrate with alt-metrics that our online science work brings prestige to our institutions? Can we create a blog impact factor, or a personality/brand impact factor? I can tell you the number of twitter followers I have, the number of times particular posts have been read, and even the type of browsers my readers use. But I can't always measure whether a post or tweet is having a positive effect on people unless they tell me.

After the panel, I ended up talking to Paul Groth and Jason Priem for a little while, and what I heard was encouraging. The social science research to link alt-metrics with impact is underway now, alongside the developers trying to build those new metrics. Perhaps in another year or two, we will have both empirical evidence of the importance and effect of social media, and the tools for scientists and science communicators to measure it for themselves. Then I can put a line in my CV that identifies my social media and web presence and its impact on fellow scientists and the public.

Tomorrow is the last day of the conference, which makes me both happy and sad: happy to be having my panel (did I mention that it is Sunday, 11:30am, room B?), happy to be heading home; but sad to already have to leave friends with whom I feel so close. I feel a different kind of camaraderie here compared to what I have at academic conferences: here, we have a shared mission to make the world a better place with science and to share our curiosity, delight and excitement with as many people as possible.

Of course, the good news is that I can take all these wonderful people home with me in my pocket -- it's called Tweetdeck for Android.


  1. Sounds like scio11 is awesome, especially meeting all those sci comm celebs who I read as well. I liked the comments about science and fiction, I'm trying to combine the two more and maybe make some kids books. Though people might sometimes take things literally, I don't think that should stop you describing things creatively. It's only the minority who take it the wrong way, and then probably because they WANT to.

    Also, I totally want to see your SEO video, I think it would be a winner.

  2. I want to come next year, if only for the hugs.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful writeup - would have loved to go, maybe next year.

    Really interested to hear how you try to demystify academe for your students - good on you for doing this. I often hear from people that they were well into their undergraduate courses before they realised that faculty were there to do things besides teaching. It's all implicitly picked up - I don't believe I ever had any of my lecturers explictly describe anything of the process.

    - Fiona

  4. Captain Skellett, thanks for the comment (and follow!). I agree that sometimes people area ready to disagree with you or not read something all the way through, and that helps explain literal-mindedness. As an instructor, however, I wonder if there is more I can be doing with the thousands of non science majors I have already taught in my couple of years at the University of Illinois. I think I need to address this with my students and teach them the skill of how to read things critically but thoroughly.

    Julienne, you definitely need to come next year. The hugs are worth it!

    Fiona, thanks! I hope you can come next year too. In terms of how I demystify academe, I just try to make my life as transparent as possible. I have written some "day in the life" posts over at my lab website. I show the finances of my university. I explain as much as I know of where rising tuition goes, and I explain the tenure process. However, as much as I try to explain that while that is reality, it doesn't reflect how I wish universities work, students frequently conflate the two. I guess I'll keep trying to get better at it!

  5. Nice comments, both here and at the session, about alt-metrics.

    I'm also optimistic that in a year or so we'll have tools to measure some of a researcher's alt-metrics, and a growing body of research to help us interpret those measures. I think we'll see live CVs reporting some of these metrics for publications (formal and otherwise) within that time, too.

    Of course, It's going to be a *lot* longer before these sorts of things gain any widespread changes slowly. But it's an exciting time to see it begin; we're on the right side of history :)

  6. Your comments about the literal way in which non-scientists can understand certain things is really thought provoking. In my current position, I teach science to non-science majors and I have been thinking more and more about revising my classes a bit to get at what I REALLY want them to learn, which is to question things presented to them as facts, understand the difference between an anecdote and replicated findings, and improve the clarity and organization of their thinking. Right now, I've implemented an assignment in my intro class where the students are writing research proposals. I hope this will expose them to some scientific literature and get a little taste of how scientists work. Anyway, this subject has been forefront in my mind and I am still working on ways to integrate these skills into the classes I teach.