On science blogs this week: Explainer

WHAT IS SCIENCE NEWS? The blogging most pertinent to us this week is not examples of science writing but discourse about how to do it. This had its roots in the ScienceOnline2011 meeting last month, beginning with a talk by John Rennie renewing his attack on the way science journalism pretends that science news consists of what a handful of papers in a handful of high-profile journals are reporting at the moment. Rennie rounded up what he said and the aftermath at his PLoS blog, the Gleaming Retort.

Megablogger Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science responded to Rennie's challenge with a different way of presenting new work. He posted his usual excellent discussion of two Nature papers reporting on how induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) — specialized adult cells reprogrammed to supposedly behave like unspecialized stem cells with the ability to become any kind of cell — in fact retain memories of their past lives that can influence their development. But Yong also spent a full workday putting together a timeline of the history of iPSCs since 2005 that was fully up to date on new work. In fact, he added another new publication after his timeline was published.

Yong's timeline caused quite a stir. Said Rennie in a second post:

Even if we all agree that the press release-driven pack journalism that now passes for science news is unfortunate, who is really doing anything about it? Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science, that’s who.

But, among other things, Rennie also acknowledged that putting the timeline together required a helluva lot of work initially and (as Yong discovered quickly) also required constant updating. The question of how to support this kind of auxiliary material is an acute one. Who pays for it? I believe Yong has a day job, but many bloggers lack one. For those of us who are self-employed (me, for example) blogging literally costs money. And even a day job is not the answer, since Yong himself acknowledged that the project was exhausting.

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn raved about Yong's timeline experiment, calling it "inspiring." While praising Yong's approach, the comments following that post were somewhat less over the moon.

Mico Tatalovic noted, for example:

This is a nice way of presenting science, but it’s not a news article. A textbook is a nice way to present science, but it's not a news article either.

In fairness to Yong, remember that he also wrote a long blog post — really a news article — about the papers, cited above. The timeline was an adjunct, which Yong likened to the extras on a DVD.

Said Dan Vergano:

the remuneration question is a big one. Will advertisers pay more for stories with these features? Will readers click on them more often. Dunno.

Nobody seems to have noted another point that seemed important to me: There's nothing new about timelines. Magazines and newspapers have been employing timelines — well, maybe not forever, but certainly for decades. What was different about Yong's was his use of Dipity, "a free digital timeline website," which brought marvelous extra graphical dimensions to the timeline. Note, however, that not every reader can view the timeline in all its glory, owing to the limitations of their digital devices. Smartphones are not yet always smart enough, nor is bandwidth always adequate to this complexity. So Yong had to provide a text transcript too — yet more work.

SPACE, THE FINAL FRONTIER. Another thing that nobody noted was that these extras we are bringing to science writing would not even be under discussion were it not for an aspect of cyberspace that hardly ever gets mentioned. Cyberspace is just that: Space. The room the online world offers for our cogitations is, as a practical matter, infinite. What are we going to do with this endless scroll of papyrus stretching before us?

Nonfiction writing has really only been around for a few hundred years. But for the first time in that short history, we deal with no constraints whatever on the length of what we write — except maybe the constraint of our own stamina and (perhaps sometimes) a bit of self-control imposed by our dim awareness that nonstop nattering can drive readers away rather than draw them in.

In the electronic world, "paper" costs us nothing.

"Ink" costs us nothing.

"Distribution" costs us nothing.

Heaven. For us, if not always for readers.

So what do we do with this freedom to write and write and write that will get people to read and read and read?

Periodically I see paeans to long-form writing, and in some limited circumstances the very long scroll of papyrus can work, I guess. The Fresca experiment at Slate was encouraging. There are doubtless some exceptionally talented science writers out there who can pull it off. Occasionally.

The other solution is: Chunks. Discrete blobs of information designed for specific purposes and usually accompanying a longer explanatory article. Our version of the extras on a DVD.

These could include short items: stand-alone paragraphs, bullet points, and captions. Some could be much longer. Like timelines. Like the complete interview transcripts from Carl Zimmer and the complete text of a statement from the arsenic bug researchers via Dan Vergano, which I have talked about here before.

Maybe that list could include the text of panel discussions too, or talks — although video would probably be better, body language being pretty important for conveying meaning. Or perhaps both, if we ever get to that Nirvana where speech-recognition software can cope with voices in different registers, heavy accents, and folks interrupting each other.

IDEAS FROM THE NIEMAN JOURNALISM LAB Nieman is not talking about science writing or even science journalism per se. But some of the ideas bounding around there are certainly adaptable to what we do.

Begin at Matthew Battles's discussion of the John Rennie complaint, which goes on to Ed Yong's timeline solution. This piece is mostly about Rennie's declaration that science news shouldn't be defined as a smidgen of what's published this week and includes a section on the irritations of embargoed science news in general. But the Nieman piece also adds to the store of ways to exploit our unlimited space to tell people about science, this time using explainer pages.

The example of explainer pages, written by Megan Garber, describes what Mother Jones has done for the Egypt story. But heaven knows explainers are suited brilliantly to much — most? all? — science writing.

What struck me most strongly about this explainer example are two things: First, that the selection of background material and updates is curated, put together by a real person with some sense of the subject matter, maybe even the writer of the main piece. It's not just a robo-assembled concatenation based on keywords. Second, the explainer also has structure, with the curated topics organized under headings that make the material easier to navigate and cherry-pick. Unfortunately, curated explainer pages are expensive and time-consuming, involving as they do actual work by flesh-and-blood creatures. Robo-assembled concatenations are not.

This is a big contrast with the features of Twitter that drive me craziest. Posts are chronological, and therefore the tweet flood, even when collected under a single hashmark, is usually a mishmash of topics and disparate conversational threads. Also, individual tweets often are so jammed with shorthand and tiny URLs as to be unintelligible.

C'mon, convince me that doesn't drive you crazy too.

However, the explainer page can't quite rid itself of the same mishmash mentality that characterizes so much electronic communication. What I didn't like about the Egypt example was the extraneous clutter that vitiates the clean, organized, unconfusing ideal of the explainer page. The right-hand column is full of unrelated material — links to other stories and blogs, ads,subscription forms, logos for Facebook and other sharing sites, lists of most-emailed items — the stuff (some useful, much not) that litters all web pages because sites are trying to persuade you to click on links so as to drive up their page-hit count to attract advertisers.

Garber makes an additional point that couldn't be more relevant to what we do:

another noteworthy element of MoJo’s Egypt explainer: It’s welcoming. And it doesn’t, you know, judge. That’s not a minor thing, for the major reason that stories, when you lack the context to understand them, can be incredibly intimidating.

You can keep up with techniques for explaining by checking in with Explainer.net. A journalism class at NYU has launched this experimental project, which is collecting and commenting on explainer pages on several topics. Explainer.net explains itself thus:

The project will experiment with the form of “the explainer,” a genre in journalism that provides the essential background knowledge necessary to follow events in the news. Explainer.Net is the public face of this project, where we will share findings and promote quality work in the rapidly evolving industry of explanation, both inside and out of journalism.

Even though they are not explicitly about science, these techniques are for every science writer, whether you do journalism or not. The approaches described here apply broadly to nearly all kinds of science writing. That's because explaining is what we do.

SCIENCEONLINE2001 YET AGAIN. We began with this meeting, so let's end with it too. I'm delighted to report that two of the promised session videos have now been posted. Topics are explaining science via history of science and via fiction. Find them here. I have been promised that videos of more sessions will be posted soon.

February 11, 2011

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