Big changes at the Scientific American Blog Network
Revamping the Scientific American Blog Network is quite a big deal. As Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn reports, SciAm is eliminating about half the bloggers in the network and instituting a new editorial guidelines policy that foretells much more editorial oversight for bloggers.
Which leads DrugMonkey to observe, “So… maybe don’t pretend to have blogs? Just call them columns like you used to?”
Worth pondering. Is this the beginning of the end of blogging as, in Dave Winer’s classic definition, “the unedited voice of a person?” SciAm’s quite reasonable rationale is that it’s a news outlet and so its standards must differ. Does that mean we can expect that blogs (at least blogs associated with Serious Publications) will, inevitably, turn into columns? What about, for example, the New York Times? I don’t know it for a fact, but I strongly suspect that the Times does not edit Andy Revkin or the undeniably controversial Paul Krugman.
New guidelines for SciAm blogging
The new guidelines give SciAm editors what Raeburn calls “significant control” over blog content. As announced, the way this will be done is a little confusing. Staff blogs will be edited in the usual way staff contributions are edited. But posts from nonstaff bloggers, Raeburn reports, will not be edited in advance. OTOH they can be yanked after the fact. Bloggers are instructed to stick to their areas of expertise and to consult with editors if they don’t, especially if the planned post will be controversial.
Which of course raises the question of what’s controversial. This is a point Paige Brown Jarreau makes in her extended analysis at From The Lab Bench. (Highly recommended for reasons discussed below.) Controversy is very much in the eye of the beholder. A comment that seems to a blogger to be both obviously true and innocuous can stimulate a barrage of enraged (and sometimes organized) tweets.
At The Finch & Pea, Josh Witten mourns the loss of friends’ gigs. Of the guidelines he says, “The new “Blog Network Guidelines” are strict, and appear specifically geared to preventing controversies like a blog posting racist and sexist arguments.”
Raeburn quotes the (relatively new) SciAm Blog Czar Curtis Brainard as saying “there will be more internal communication and coordination around upcoming content . . .” One interpretation of that comment is that bloggers will be encouraged to write on particular themes at particular times, and those themes might relate to articles in the magazine(s). Depending on the topic and the approach, that need not necessarily turn blogs into marketing tools. But it’s also a possible slippery slope.
Who’s going and who’s staying?
Jarreau did a detailed analysis of blogs going and staying in an attempt to figure out how SciAm is hoping to shape its reorganized blog network. As she points out, a substantial number of the eliminated blogs published posts infrequently. That’s as good a reason as any to show a blogger the door. Surely one of the points of blogging is repeat business, trying to build an audience that will return often to see what’s up. That regularity is the lifeblood of a publication that wants advertisers.
But as Jarreau points out, infrequent posting is not characteristic of all the dismissed bloggers. Her comments on the ex-blogs that were updated frequently:
“It’s interesting that of these blogs being cut, several deal with ‘inside science/academia’ topics, science communication and culture of science and journalism. I don’t see such topics represented much in the blogs staying on the network, other than Danielle Lee’s superb blog, which often deals with women in science and diversity in science issues. Perhaps this is a matter of cutting more of the blogs that counted other scientists, graduate students and science writers among their primary audience, as opposed to broader and more explanatory science communication?”
Her other observation about about these blogs: “Most of the blogs being cut for it would seem reasons other than posting frequency, are written by women.”
Black and white. The Cocos fire in San Diego County, May 15, 2014. Credit: DigitalGlobe
But of the blogs that are staying she says, “[T]here is still a good mixture of both male and female blog authors, career scientists and career writers/communicators. The topic areas represented seem to be quite ‘popular’ for lay readers of science. Interestingly, several bloggers who have recently been irregular in posting frequency are staying on the network.”
Matt Shipman also blogged about the SciAm Blog Network developments at Communication Breakdown. The post includes a brief Q&A with SciAm’s Brainard.
A bit of irony: Both Shipman’s and Jarreau’s blogs are part of the SciLogs Blog Network, and Jarreau is also the Czar of that network–although she says she edits none of the posts. SciLogs is “associated”–not clear quite what that means–with Nature.com, part of Nature Publishing. Which also owns Scientific American.
There are many hundreds of science blogs, perhaps thousands of them. But science blogging is still something of a small world.
List of best of top ten science lists, 2014. Part I
We used to be able to rely on Charlie Petit at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker for an incredible amount of research in putting together his lists of the year-end “Best of lists” relating to science. But, sob, Charlie was retired last summer in the (coming) reorganization at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program. So I’m all on my own, but be assured that I’m not putting nearly as much work into it as Charlie did.
So, for this last post of 2014, I’ve culled (pretty randomly) a selection of the various science-attuned “best of” lists. This is Part I. There will be more such lists in the coming weeks, and I’ll cover a selection of them in Part II next year.
List of Lists 2014: Top Science Stories
Speaking of Scientific American, first on its Top Ten science stories list was Ebola, of course. So many others were covering–and overcovering–Ebola that I decided not to pursue it here at On Science Blogs. But you could read about some of SciAm’s Top Ten here too: Rosetta’s comet-hunt and successful (if short-lived) touchdown on a comet, the BICEP2 proof-of-the universe’s inflation-or-maybe-not, the atrocious handling of dangerous microbes at government labs, and the shell our remote ancestor Homo erectus possibly maybe etched in an abstract crisscross pattern half a million years ago.
Several of those topics were on the Science News top stories list too, but they selected 25. (These appear to be free to read.) Ebola was #1 here too, but also selected were Rosetta and the comet, an ancient human DNA roundup, and dusty BICEP2.
List of Lists 2014: Physics
Jennifer Ouellette, proprietor of the SciAm blog Cocktail Party Physics, has compiled a couple of physics lists. Best 20 physics papers of 2014 included some that were, she says, just appealingly silly, and I don’t know whether that’s how she characterizes her #3 choice, Schrödinger’s Picture, or not. See her post for an explanation.
Jennifer Ouellette’s #3 physics paper was Schrödinger’s Picture. Credit: Gabriela Barreto
The biggest physics story of the year, she says, is still the BICEP2 announcement that it had direct evidence of the universe’s inflation, despite the subsequent assertions that what they had seen was just . . . dust.
She also selected 20 videos, ranging from #1, 3-D fractals, mind-blowing even in black and white, to the evolution of the universe (inexplicably at #20.) #12, watching ice melt, reminded me of nothing so much as the light shows of, gulp, 40 years ago. Which you’re probably too young to remember.
List of lists 2014: Neuroscience and mental health
Thomas Insel is director of the National Institute of Mental Health, and his blog is one of the finest around, certainly the finest “official” blog I know of. I assume he doesn’t write it himself, in which case laurels to the science writer(s) who do. Swell job. Useful, informative, clear. If he does do the writing, apologies for my doubts, and I am stunned.
This post sums up the top mental health stories of the year. Examples: the rise of optogenetics as a terrific tool for brain investigations, discovery of rare genetic variants in autism and common genetic variants in schizophrenia, and the deeply distressing problem of failure to replicate some 70% of preclinical studies. The main problem is not misconduct, he says. “Lack of rigor in experimental design or data analysis appears to be a much more important factor, along with the complexity of behavioral and biological research.”
List of lists 2014: Science books
At the Guardian, Grrl Scientist throws herself into Best Books Lists, with separate posts on biology, physical science and math, nature, and even bird books, birds being her area of expertise. A sampling: The Sixth Extinction (the Elizabeth Kolbert book about the present and the future that’s on everybody’s Best list this year, even the non-science lists); Neanderthal Man, Svante Pääbo’s memoir of how he invented the study of ancient DNA, which I reviewed over at the Genetic Literacy Project. Also Christine Kenneally’s The Invisible History of the Human Race, which I also reviewed and didn’t like as much as everybody else did.
As you might expect, Wired‘s best science books list has a tech slant. It starts off, however, with Being Mortal, Atul Gawande’s meditation on how badly we manage the end of life, which I suppose can be viewed as anti-tech. But it also includes Faster, Higher, Stronger, in which Mark McClusky checks out how sports medicine is building better humans, and Geek Sublime, by Vikram Chandra, which my spouse got for our daughter and I am frantically trying to find time to finish before she gets here and takes it away.
You can listen to Science Friday’s best books list, discussed by Deborah Blum (soon to be of the Knight Science Journalism program) and Annalee Newitz (always at io9), along with host Ira Flatow. Or you can read the list at the same site. It includes Being Mortal and Invisible History, but also several books not duplicated on other lists.
Also on the list is The Martian, one of those fairy-tale publishing stories that fill tormented writers with anguish. And hope. First a self-published ebook, then picked up by a trade publisher, and soon to be a Major Motion Picture directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. Merry Christmas, author Andy Weir! Also Happy New Year!
List of Lists 2014:Graphics
At Wired, Betsy Mason has pulled together her annual lists of stunning science graphics. Starting off with images of our world from WorldView-3, a satellite with the highest resolution of any commercial satellite, launched early this year by Digital Globe. (Example: the San Diego fire, above.)
A butter daisy (Melampodium divaricatum) magnified 2X. Credit: Oleksandr Holovachov
That’s the big picture, but she also assembled the magnificent microscopy winners from the Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging competition. First prize winner was a video, not a still, reporting development of a fruit fly embryo over 24 hours. In its mobile black-and-whiteness, it reminded me of the fractals video I mentioned above.
And of course, Nature’s list of videos of the 10 cutest animals–although they cheated by including robots: one disguised as a baby penguin and another video of self-assembling robots. A brilliant marketing strategy, capturing media and remarkably benign Twitter attention. No trolls here. Some scathing denigration on science writer listservs, but my hunch is that Nature regarded this experiment in in showing that Science Can Be Cute as a singular success. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year.
List of Lists 2014: Miscellany
At io9, Robbie Gonzalez departs from the annual tradition of annual-ness and promotes a new National Geographic book about 5 covers in the magazine’s history and the stories behind them.
The eyes of Sharbat Gula, from the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic. Credit: Steve McCurry
DrugMonkey did his annual year-end summation, selecting a post from each month of the past year and quoting the first sentence. DrugMonkey is a very satisfying blogger, but I gotta say he does not write a great lede. Still, it’s given me an idea for a post that I may pursue next year. We’ll see.
Speaking of next year, I’m taking off the next couple of weeks and will be back on Friday, January 9, 2015. Happy New Year!