Wednesday, February 13, 2013

We're All Worth $20,000

If you're a science writer chances are you're pissed off right about now. I am. What has me and so many other writers pissed off is this: The Knight Foundation recently paid disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer $20,000 to speak about how he lied, plagarized and basically stomped all over journalism.

His speech was a lousy apology. I mean, it's not his fault he made so many mistakes, he's just too smart for his own good guys. I agree that watching him talk while a public flogging took place on Twitter on a screen behind him was awkward, but are we really supposed to just look at the situation and say, welp, everyone makes mistakes? No. That time I killed the dinosaurs several million years too late because I forgot the zeroes on a date was a mistake. A mistake that came from sloppiness, that I apologized for, and learned from. I was forgiven for that mistake (which was even in an article I wasn't paid to write.) Fabricating quotes, plagarizing, and lying in multiple publications, for a prolongued period of time, that isn't an, "everyone makes mistakes" scenario. That is a, you have fundamental character flaws that should prohibit you from doing this job, scenario.

A lot of the science writers I know, young, new, established - it doesn't matter - were and still are up in arms about the Knight Foundation paying Lehrer $20,000 for his "apology" speech. I'm mad too, I'm mad for every single good journalist out there staring at their bank account wondering if they'll be able to pay this month's rent. I'm mad because $20,000 could fund a lot of amazing journalism and the Knight Foundation paid it pretty much just to get people riled up and talking about the Knight Foundation. I'm mad because good journalists are giving up because they can't make enough money to stay alive in this business. Giving up. But we're going to keep Lehrer's career alive. That's insane.

I have a full time salaried science writing job - it makes me feel lucky on a daily basis that I'm getting paid to do something that I enjoy. Still, as a science writer for a cancer center I've been told that I'm a sell-out. I've been told that I can't consider myself a journalist anymore because my objectivity and integrity is tainted by being associated with an organization. Any organization. It doesn't matter if it happens to be a decent, hell even a good, organization. I took a job in science communication rather than chasing a career in pure journalism because it makes me happy. While in graduate school I started having serious doubts about whether my personality was cut out for journalism. I took a long hard look at what I loved about science writing and decided that the act of communicating, of explaining, of seeing the impact of helping people understand was most important to me. It wasn't a decision made based on money, but obviously the fact that I could get a paying job doing communication when there are no guarantees in journalism made the decision easier. The decision I made still gets to me sometimes though. It REALLY gets to me when I think about the fact that people contend I can't consider myself a journalist anymore, but Lehrer can. Lehrer gets to be a journalist. Really?

Where do we even start to try to address the problem here? Can we ever even hope to convince the people who have the money to pay up for writers that are actually worth $20,000 (and really so much more?) I don't know. But, I think the science writing community did a great thing by reacting to the whole $20,000 debacle by tweeting the names and articles of good writers using the hashtag #worth20k. The suggestion came from @vero_greenwood and was Tweeted by Ed Yong - who is worth far more than $20,000 himself - and ended up creating a list of pretty fantastic writers who deserve a lot more financial support for their work than they're getting.

I wanted to add my two cents, but twitter is a medium for brevity and I feel like I need to explain WHY the fact that the following people exist means the science communciation ecosystem doesn't need someone who lies, plagarizes, and then tries to tell us it's just because he's so smart. And arrogant. Can't forget the arrogance. I could never list everyone whose work is worth20k, so this just a few people who inspire me, or have had an impact on my career in some way. I hope you'll check out the hashtag itself for more, and as Bora Zivkovic said on twitter the whole SA Incubator is a list of people who are worth20k, so editors - help a new science writer out!

Picture created by Maki Naro @sciencecomic
#worth20k (and so much more)
Jennifer Ouellette - I've been pretty open about the fact that I've never taken a physics class, barely scraped my way through high school chemistry with a D, and never took a math class higher than Algebra III (which I and everyone else in my high school knew was math for the dumb kids.) I've pretty much always wanted to write about science, but there was a moment in there when I wanted to be a scientist, (straight A's in biology might have had something to do with it) - but I decided against science itself because I didn't think I'd ever be smart enough to pass the classes. When I was just starting graduate school for Journalism focused on science writing I was really intimidated by writing about things I'd never studied. Enter Jennifer Ouellette. She came to UW-Madison as the science writer in residence and talked to us about how she taught herself physics. She blogs at Cocktail Party Physics and has written several books on physics and calculus. Whenever I start feeling like I'm in over my head and I'm just not going to get something right, I think about that talk. I dive back into the paper, or look up the answers and I figure it out. I remember that I can do this. I remember that I'm smart enough. TELL ME THAT'S NOT WORTH $20,000.

Steve Silberman - Last year UW-Madison hosted a conference on Science Denial. I was just sitting pre-session drinking my coffee when Steve Silberman sat down next to me. As we started up a conversation in my head I really couldn't help thinking, "this is the most unassuming guy ever" because he clearly had no idea that I'd been trying to think of something inteligent to say to start up a conversation with him since the conference started. I've admired his writing for a while now, I always enjoy his PLoS blog and am so looking forward to his book! He always impresses me with the bravery and honesty in his writing. He tackles issues that might make people uncomfortable or be controversial and he does so with grace and eloquence. Worth $20,000.

Maggie Koerth-Baker - Maggie is someone I only recently got to meet (cheers, scio13) but whose work I've admired since I came across this fantastic explainer she wrote following the Fukushima nuclear incident. Nuclear Energy 101: Inside the "black box" of power plants is an awesome example of how to explain something that can be really complicated so that people take away the key information they need. I write a lot of explainers in my job, and I come back to this piece often as an example of how to get things right. Worth $20,000.

Rose Eveleth - The fact that since Science Online I have had people say to me, "wait, so you actually KNOW Rose?" totally just shows how amazing and admired Rose Eveleth is in the science writing community. She is a thoughful and creative science journalist who is busting her ass to make the science communication ecosystem better. You know what I would like you to do? I would like you go put her Kickstarter for Science Studio, a project with Ben Lillie and Bora Zivkovic, over the $8,000 goal so that they can sort through the best science audio AND video for us. Please. Only needs $8,000 but is SO WORTH $20,000.

Ivan Oransky - The man behind Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch, Ivan inspires me as a science writer because he saw a need in science communication and he did something about it. He started the blogs, and they've become a great resource and forum for talking about serious issues in science and communication. He made something, that we needed and benefit from - and he just does it so well. Be inspired. Create new, awesome things. Worth $20,000.

The rest of #sci4hels - Bora Zivkovic, Lena Groeger, and Kathleen Raven - All of you, and of course Rose, leave me pretty much feeling honored that I get to be associated with you. Whenever I talk about our panel at the World Conference of Science Journalists and people ask me "so why are you going?" I always reply with "I have no idea" because I really don't feel worthy compared to all of you. I admire all of you so much, I did before all this #sci4hels killer science journalists of the future business, and I know I'll continue to admire you after. Bora - our brave leader and the blogfather, not afraid to say what needs to get said, a never ending source of support and one hell of a writer. Check out his post on commenting threads, just the latest in a long line of awesome, thoughtful posts. Lena - her work at Propublica consistently impresses me, check out the awesome data visualizations used to track oil and natural gas pipeline accidents. I always love reading Kathleen's articles, just one example is David Blaine's Electrical Stunt Could Create Harmful Ozone. You are each worth $20,000 and then some.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Highlights from Science Online 2013

I recently had the privilege of attending the Science Online conference in Raleigh, NC. The conference, hosted by North Carolina State University, has been described as "returning to the mothership" for bloggers, social media enthusiasts, journalists, writers and scientists passionate about communicating online. I heard a few people this year saying they didn't feel that way, but I guess I drank the kool-aid, because I certainly did.

Attending Science Online in person was something I wanted to do because blogging and social media isn't a part of my full time science writing job, but it's still extremely important to me. Communicating effectively means using whatever platforms fit the story the best, and I feel like I do some of my best writing on this blog. I get to be my own editor (which comes with some pressure) but I also get the freedom to explore whatever I feel like I need to talk about, to share what I love and to hopefully help other people learn new things or be encouraged to try writing themselves.

I owe so much to Bora Zivkovic, blogs editor at Scientific American and co-founder of Science Online, for bringing me and my little blog into this community. Attending Science Online in person really did feel like coming home. I know a lot of people have said that before, but for me it was actually the first time I felt like I belonged in such a large group. I've been on teams, in clubs, in a sorority, in a grad program, and have held jobs where I've gotten to work alongside other science writers - I say with all sincerity that I've never felt so comfortable being my true self around so many different people, and that's coming from an extrovert.

The Sci4hels team together at Science Online: Me, Kathleen, Bora, Rose, and Lena
Photo by Russ Creech
So, now that I've established that I'm all-in on the love-fest aspect of Science Online, what were the highlights?
-As a first time attendee, I was completely floored and honored by everyone who came up to talk or say hello. It was wonderful to meet in person people whose writing I've admired and been inspired by. One of my favorite comments that I received was that I have a good twitter avatar because online me looks like real me, so I was fairly easy to spot.
- Actually rallying the nerve to take the microphone and talk about my own experience keeping up my blog and twitter while working full-time for an organization. I was in the session on what to do when people start taking your online rambling seriously, and I added the point that when looking for a job I actually used my blog and twitter as part of my resume. I've never tried to hide my online activities, so I still feel comfortable being myself online, even though I now also represent my employer.
- Attending the session on using personal narrative to tell stories really got me thinking about how much of myself I put into my blogging and social media. One of the most important points is that personal narrative can be effective, but it needs to serve a purpose ie: don't put yourself in the story just to have yourself in the story.
- On a similar note, I thought the session on thinking beyond text was also really valuable and I took away the same idea: multimedia needs to serve a purpose. Don't use audio, video, etc. just to use it, make sure it helps the story. One of the ideas that I tweeted was that you don't have to do all of the things all the time - I'm a firm believer in doing what you enjoy the most. I am, as Ed Yong said, "a committed text-monkey" so it makes sense to partner with people who love multimedia when I want to tell a story in a different way.
- From the session on fighting bullshit in the science communication ecosystem (aside from some fantastically tweetable one-liners, see below) I took away the idea that to counteract inaccurate stories, or you know stories that are mind bogglingly ridiculous, we as a community need to be as loud as the people who are spreading the bad story. We need to amplify our impact when we do debunking.
- I had several great conversations about my decision to take a job in communication rather than pursue a standard journalism job. My ideas on this are still percolating (and I suggested it as a session at #scio14 with Kate Prengaman) but it has been bugging me for a while that there is this perception that journalism is somehow better than communication, and that if you take a communication job you can never ever go back to being a journalist ever again. Ever. One reason it bugs me is because by that definition I am, already, an epic failure. Wasn't exactly my life goal. I do something I love, so clearly I don't agree with that, and I'm tired of hearing it.  Especially for stressed out grads or recent-grads, it feels like your entire career hangs in the balance if you don't land that perfect journalism job right out of the gate- I think that's ridiculous.
- It was really interesting to me to witness the unraveling of the session on explanatory journalism with of all things, what I interpreted as miscommunication between the points that were trying to be made by well, I think everyone? It felt like the scientists and journalists in the room were spinning their wheels after a while, and I can't wait to see how the conversation evolves in the future.
- One of the things I enjoyed the most throughout the conference were the people who followed along with my tweets, and replied to me or added to the discussion. You are all awesome.
- Listening to Diane Kelly tell the story of the first time she met Carl Zimmer when they were in their 20's was awesome. It really drove home for me how the friends and colleagues I make now could end up as life-long connections. You should also check out her TEDMed talk, because it is great.
- I am so excited at the idea that is floating around to start a regional Science Online in Boston. If you're interested in joining us to try to get this off the ground check out #sciobeantown on Twitter and make sure to let Karyn know you are interested.

A few other things:
- Remember that time on the first night I ended up in a conversation with Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, and David Dobbs? At. The. Same. Time. It might have included an inner dialogue that went something like: "you can do this, they are just people, say words."
- I put my livetweeting skills to the test, ended up in battle, and emerged victorious (though, there was talk about it being a draw by those nicer than I, also a few accusations of intimidation - which I know nothing, absolutely nothing about.)
- After receiving copies of Spillover by David Quammen, My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova and The Philadelphia Chromosome by Jessica Wapner I might just have to revive the book reviews section of my blog.
- I am perfectly dreadful at origami.
- I was able to meet Michelle Banks (aka Artologica) and bought an awesome painting. There is some great stuff in her Etsy shop.
- We managed to squeeze in a great Sci4hels brainstorming session, and I am so excited for Helsinki and our panel on the Killer Science Journalists of the Future (it was also awesome to have Bora, Lena, Rose, Kathleen and myself in the same place for the first time!)
- One of my favorite things to witness was Perrin Ireland's live storyboarding of the session discussions, it was completely amazing.
- Pie is a serious issue, and I can read a dessert menu with the best of them.

As a last thought I want to take the time to say thank you to Karyn Traphagen, Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker because this conference takes a lot of work, and it is run with so much dedication and care. I want to thank everyone in this community, whether you made the trip to Raleigh or not, because you make my life so much better by sharing your thoughts and insights. A last thank you to everyone who shared a story, let me share my own, and had a good laugh with me - meeting you was truly the best thing about Science Online.

Also, this:

For more posts on the conference check out the list from the Scio13 Planning Wiki

Friday, February 8, 2013

Blogging 101 Here's What I Know

Not that I expect anyone to want to take the 20 minutes to watch a video that is essentially just me talking, but I recorded this interview about tips for bloggers who are just starting out so I thought I'd share it here. This was done as a prelude to a guest lecture that I gave in a Life Science Communication class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The students asked some great questions, that I figured were also worth answering here on the blog. If you have questions about getting started as a blogger or want to add some wisdom (please, do!) definitely let me know in the comments.

Questions from the class:

Has your strategy for promoting and writing the blog changed since getting a full-time job?
Absolutely, I have less time to maintain the blog than I did when I was in school, so I have to be more strategic about what I do. I'm down to writing one post a week and I spend a lot more time on Twitter. 

How do you find and pick which topics to write about?
For a more detailed answer about this one, you can check out Filling the Empty Page: Reading to Write where I talk more about how I get story ideas from the things that I read, and how important it is to write about what genuinely interests you. 

If there is one thing you could have done differently what would it be?
I would have (and still should) comment more on other blog posts. This is a case of not practicing what I preach, I'm well aware of the benefits of commenting and getting involved in other forums, I just don't do it nearly as often as I should. 

Is there a certain way you suggest commenting? As in: ask questions, critique, converse, praise, etc.
Comment however you want to, just make sure you are saying something that contributes to the conversation in some way.

How do you make yourself seem credible when writing about a serious matter?
If you check your facts, use the right sources, and are thoughtful and dedicated to getting the post correct then you are credible. People will see that. 

Are you using other social media sites besides Twitter to grow your blogging audience?
I just started using Google+ more, I'm intrigued to see what comes of it. 

Any advice in finding your blogging voice?
Blog a lot. When I first started Science Decoded, I wrote a lot more than I do now. You need to try it out, try different kinds of posts, explore different topics and eventually you'll figure out what feels right to you. Give yourself time to develop your voice, you aren't going to have everything exactly how you want it right out of the gate. 

Any tips for reaching out to influential stakeholders, it seems intimidating.
If tweeting or commenting to someone well established in your field, I think the best advice I can give is to just go for it - but have something of substance to say. If it really makes you uncomfortable, practice interacting with people you consider your peers first to get a better sense for how it all works. 

After you established a professional blog did you ever find yourself posting off topic of your specific aim because it was just so interesting you had to share it?
Absolutely. I kept Science Decoded fairly open ended in the first place because I knew I wanted the ability to write blog posts about a variety of topics. Even so, I've written posts that haven't been related to science like when I went on a rant about supporting philanthropic causes or explained my fascination with Amelia Earhart. In my opinion, you can go off topic once in a while and you shouldn't have a problem.

How do you keep your ideas confined to a tweet?
Tweeting short hand is tricky, it takes practice to instinctively distill ideas into a tweet but you'll get the hang of it. 

What aspect of your writing has improved most over the years? (being concise, structure, etc.)
I would say the thing about my writing that has improved most since I started blogging is the ease with which I write in my own style. Like I said in answer to another question, your voice develops and becoming comfortable with my own voice is I think the best take-away from blogging. 

If you have any tips of your own, or if you have any other questions you'd like me to try to answer leave it in the comments! 

Monday, February 4, 2013

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak's first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders! I'm so excited to introduce you to our February scientist of the month Dr. Rebecca Wragg Sykes. Becky is a palaeolithic archaeologist (I'll let her explain what that means). Like I did with our other scientists, Penny, Philipp, Anne-Marike, and Pete I asked  Becky some questions to find out more about what she does. I hope you will enjoy learning more about her and her research. Below you can read our interview, and if you'd like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments!

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Researchers on a field survery in South
Africa in 2004 (photo by Dr. Sykes)
Becky: I’m a Palaeolithic archaeologist, which means that I study how people lived during the Stone Age by looking at the things they left behind. “Palaeolithic” actually means ‘old stone age’, and I specialise in the Neanderthals, who were an ancient type of human living in Europe and parts of West Asia between about 300 thousand and 30 thousand years ago. There were four ices ages in the enormous length of time they were around, as well as periods when it was warm like it is now. You will have up to 4% Neanderthal DNA inside you, depending on where your own ancestors come from in the world.

I try to work out how these very successful humans lived, by looking at how they used different types of stone technology to survive (for example they made the first glue, from birch bark pitch), how much they moved around the landscape and what kinds of social networks they had: how often did they meet up with each other.

Erin: What did you study in school, and where did you go?

Becky: I loved learning a lot of different things, including literature, history and science. I also enjoyed art. But when I chose my A-levels (final high school subjects) I took Ancient History (Roman and Ancient Greek), French and English Literature. My school (Graveney School, London) was a comprehensive (not fee-paying) school with a great mix of students from many cultures and backgrounds. I did my first archaeology degree at University of Bristol because they had a rock art course, then I decided I enjoyed human origins and did a Masters in this at University of Southampton. My PhD on the British Late Neanderthals was at University of Sheffield.

Erin: Where do you work and what does a typical day at work entail?

Becky: Right now I work part-time to support my family while I am writing a book and articles on my PhD research. This June I will be starting my first proper science job at the Université Bordeaux in France, thanks to a European fellowship (the Marie Curie program). I will be working with many other specialists from around the world who all study human origins too.

My project is looking at the Neanderthals who lived in the mountains and valleys in South-West France, trying to match the stone tools that come from open-air sites with those we have already studied from caves with lots of deep layers of artefacts and animal bones. By looking at the kinds of rock the tools are made from at each site, and where those rocks come from, you can start to map out the territory of Neanderthals in the landscape. From this you can begin to work out how far they travelled, whether they exchanged tools with each other, and how complex their relationships with each other must have been. These are the Big Questions in human origins research!

As a stone tool researcher, my day could be spent measuring and recording features on lots and lots of artefacts; later on I use computer programs to look for patterns, like which kinds of stone were preferred for which types of tools. After this, I spend time writing about my findings so everyone can understand about our amazing ancestors.

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Becky: I’m a scientist for the same reason that you are all interested in the things you like: everyone has something they’re fascinated by, that they want to know more about. Asking “How?” and “Why?” are things we should never stop doing, and being a scientist means you get to find these things out about the stuff that interests you most. Since I was very young I loved history and imagining what living in the past would have been like, so when I found out that being an archaeologist meant I could do that, I decided that this was the job for me!  If I hadn’t become an archaeologist, my other dream job would be an astronomer or a wildlife researcher.

Becky working with colleague Geoff Smith, a
mammoth specialist, on a museum collection.

Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Becky: I think two things are my favourite. One is that as an archaeologist I get to be outside excavating sites which is a lot of fun, especially if the weather is nice! I also get to become really great friends with people who I dig with for weeks, and finding something incredible never gets old!
The other thing is that working in science means I get to meet amazing people from all over the world who are interested in the same thing as me, and we can share our passion and find new ways to work together.
Erin: What is something about your job that might surprise us?

Becky: Even though it’s true that archaeologists spend time digging, we also spend many hours back at our office or lab, for example I’ve spent months and months studying thousands of stone tools. Even though collecting my data like this can get a bit boring, sometimes it hits you that a real Neanderthal who lived and laughed and enjoyed the sun also held this tool when there were still woolly mammoths and glaciers (ice sheets) a mile thick. That’s pretty awesome to touch the past like that.

Erin: What are your favorite things to do for fun?

Becky: I love getting out into nature especially watching birds (I’m writing a book about birds in prehistory). I enjoy writing about science on my blog, and taking photographs. I really like to play games on the Xbox with my husband, and I have a weakness for science fiction novels.
What do you think first graders? I think Becky's work is pretty cool, do you have any questions for her? Be sure to leave them in the comments. For any adult readers you can catch Becky on twitter @LeMoustier