#Scio13: Dispatches from the Hive Mind

Only 450 science bloggers and scientists actually met face-to-face a week ago in Raleigh  for the 7th annual Scio13 unconference. And yet the buzz from this extraordinary meeting of the science communication hive mind only grows louder as time passes and the broader science community absorbs and joins in the conversations borne or given new urgency there.

It helps that nearly every word spoken at North Carolina State University between Jan 30th and Feb 2nd remains alive and well online; with voluminous archives of the live video streams  and millions of tweets now transposed to Storifys and handily arranged by individual session names, along with blog posts written since. For those seeking more in depth thought pieces, the Scio13 planning wiki is also still available on the Science Online website — along with the brand new wiki for, you guessed it, Scio14.

Some Takeaways

Although I’ve been blogging on mental health and the craft of nonfiction writing since 2009, this was my first Science Online event, and only the second national meeting of science writers I’ve attended representing PLOS BLOGS.  With my jet lag and exhaustion now largely gone, the experience of Scio13 remains incredibly intense. The image of a centrifuge comes to mind, with those of us in attendance tasked with sending the most essential “material” to the “top” for larger and deeper group thinks (with fellow bloggers, editors and bosses) in the weeks and months to come.

Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer were among the science writers who shared freely in formal and informal unconference moments

What rose to the top for me at Scio13 was an impression that many leading science bloggers have moved beyond some of the fixations that dominated similar conferences in the past. I found present but much less pronounced the distress many have articulated about their (perceived) responsibility to cure the public at large of its science deficit. Sure, science denialism came up, but the discussions I heard were less apocalyptic, and more practical.

Also tamped down was the tension that has existed between scientists and science writers and their editors over issues of scientific accuracy—providing a welcome break from the long-running “blame game” over who is more at fault for the misleading representations of research which are the bane of all involved in the science communication enterprise.

Indeed, two recent studies published by PLOS demonstrate there’s plenty of blame to go around: a PLOS Medicine paper detailing the misleading nature of many researcher-written abstracts and institutional press releases; and the paper in PLOS ONE showing how research findings reported after and differing from a big headline grabber are routinely given far less media coverage.

One Scio13 session called “How to Make Sure You’re Being Appropriately Skeptical when Covering Scientific and Medical Studies” led by Ivan Oransky, a medical doctor, founder of Retraction Watch, and editor of Reuters Health, offered some useful advice. Mirroring the instructions he gives his reporters at Reuters, Oransky advocated that science writers routinely add two paragraphs after writing the newsworthy results of a new study. This add-on, Oransky says, should set the context for the new finding; summarizing prior research that both supports and refutes it.  Seems obvious, but how many science writers are doing it? And how many editors are giving up valuable website real estate to make room for it? (Note to self: discuss this with PLOS Network bloggers)

High on this Year’s Sci-Comm Agenda: Craft and Reader Engagement

If Scio13 is any indication of what matters to the field (and there can be no doubt it is), as  science blogging matures and the marketplace for explanatory and opinion driven science content expands, its bloggers are feeling the need to refine their craft and establish some best practices for reader engagement.

Science Storytelling

David Dobbs introduced this unconference thread with a highly interactive how-to session on the use of narrative techniques — borrowed from or more commonly associated with fiction — to enhance nonfiction science writing.  A who’s who of science bloggers then offered anecdotes and advice; with tips such as taking quick photos at the scene of an interview to record those all-important visual details that can make the protagonist in a science story come alive for readers.  Another highlight of this session was David Quammen vividly describing how and why he invoked a particular tree as a full blown character in a story he wrote for National Geographic.

The theme of craft continued in discussions exploring the science blogger’s identity.  One I attended focused on when first person narrative should or perhaps should not inform the telling of a science story. Emily Willingham, who writes a blog called The Science Consumer at Forbes.com and is founding science editor at the women-focused site Double X Science, discussed the many hats she wears when she combines her perspectives as a scientist and the mother of a son with Asperger’s.  Maggie Koerth-Baker, science editor at Boing Boing and a contributor to the New York Times magazine, discussed the responses of readers and colleagues after she included her own recent medical experience in a post about women’s reproductive health. And Hillary Rosner pointed to a PLOS blog post titled “OMG, This Blog Post Is WAAAY 2 Long 4 My Girl Brain 2 Follow” in which she discussed her personal frustrations as a writer within a larger critique that takes women’s magazines to task for giving short shrift to science. Several participants talked about why they made a different choice, explaining their preference to keep personal and science blogging separate.

In a separate session touching on blogger identity, Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, led a discussion of the intersection between science blogging and activism, including tensions that can arise when a blogger is seen as more of an activist than an objective journalist. This discussion closed with a memorable comment from MIT Science Communication program’s Tom Levenson who reminded the room that (despite the assertions of creationists, climate deniers and anti-vaccine activists) after centuries of empirical study, the scientific method as a way to understand how the world works is not mere theory, since the same laws have been shown over and over to be demonstrably true.

In yet another jam packed session , Ed Yong made the case for explanatory science as a vital staple of science blogging — one in which science writers employ as many artful techniques as do authors who tell a story with a recognizable beginning, middle and end.

Maggie Koerth-Baker of Boing Boing speaking about her blogging identity



Hillary Rosner leading the session titled “How Much “I” is ‘TMI‘?











Seth Mnookin of The Panic Virus led a session on science blogging and activism








Ed Yong describes his area of science writing as the “wow” beat 









Risks and Rewards of Engagement with Online Readers

Beyond craft, there was lots of discussion at Scio13 about the perils and occasional successes produced by different policies and methods to increase and improve reader engagement.  Pointed horror stories involved trolls (persons paid by corporate and other interests to subvert open threads with official talking points and venom) and apparent crackpots (presumably unpaid individuals speaking their own twisted minds) hijacking blog site comments. One session titled “Dialogue or Fight? (Un)Moderated Science Communication Online” struck home with our ongoing efforts at PLOS BLOGS to find the sweet spot between too much and not enough comment moderation. Among participants of this session, including a cross section of popular science outlets (e.g. Wired, Scientific American), I observed a new attitude: in short, “Enough is enough!” There’s a definite turning away from an “anything goes” approach to comment streams and a movement towards exercising greater control. The point of the change, several participants made clear, is to ensure that individual off-point or nasty rants aren’t allowed to derail an otherwise lively and informative discussion stream.

Other talks and smaller conversations touched on how social media, especially Twitter lists and Google+ circles  have shifted online science communication to be simultaneously more public yet more focused on specific interest groups.

Still other Scio13 threads and sessions covered the blossoming worlds of Citizen Science and science e-books. Popular among scientists were sessions that went in-depth into peer review in scientific journals, including discussions of the similarities and differences between open access publishers such as PLOS and Peer J and several proprietary science publisher-editors who were also present.

Click here to see Scio13 Storify summaries – listed by session including those mentioned above.

More Fun…

Beyond these wall-to-wall weighty discussions, Scio13 offered plenty of opportunities  to experience the joy and inspiration that comes with meeting new people doing the same work as you, and talking with science writers you’ve long admired. Also precious was the opportunity to hang out with the bloggers I work with on a regular basis but usually only communicate with through email.

Among the PLOS  people I was happy to hang with at Scio13 were PLOS Biologue editor Jonathan Eisen, and our founding bloggers: John Rennie, Hillary Rosner, and Seth Mnookin. Also on hand were some of the newest on our network: Viet Le of the Public Health Perspectives, Jean Flanagan, lead blogger on SciEd, and Caren Cooper, a contributor to our new CitizenSci blog.  Two other long time PLOS bloggers unveiled galleys of soon-to-be released science books: Emily Anthes, who writes our Wonderland blog, brought Frankenstein’s Cat, while Jessica Wapner of Work in Progress shared The Philadelphia Chromosome (look for PLOS BLOGS posts about these authors and books in the coming weeks).

Some of my favorite Scio13 pics follow…

Jonathan Eisen is an editor for the PLOS Biology journal community blog, Biologue







John Rennie with Melanie Stegman of the Federation of American Scientists








Emily Anthes, left; and Jessica Wapner are PLOS bloggers with new books previewed at Scio13








Bora Zivkovic and Karyn Traphagen, Scio13 organizers extraordinaire, delivered another hugely successful unconference — THANKS from PLOS!


PLOS staffers (from right) Ruchir Shah, senior editor at PLOS Biology and Patrick Polischuk, Product Development, with Figshare’s Kaitlin Thaney enjoying the final day at Scio13












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