Take back the comments sections

Remember when we all left comments on blogs? I looked at some of my old blog posts, and they’re full of discussions, friendly notes, silly pictures, and occasionally spin off into random banter. I have made friends via blog comments, and found interesting other blogs through the links left by commenters.

Now, all conversation about blog posts seems to happen externally – mostly on social media – and blog comment sections themselves are either empty or filled with spam.

It’s easy to blame others for not leaving comments, but be honest, when did you leave a friendly blog comment yourself? Let’s be the change we want to see, and all that. Let’s leave our own friendly blog comments on others’ blogs, and try to get back a small fraction of the early ‘00s web community.

I will revive blog commenting in July 2014 by leaving at least one comment on a blog post every day.

If you want to join me, sign the pledge here. (I’m sorry it has such a stupid name – I thought I was selecting a url extension but it turned out to be the title…)

Anticipated FAQs:

Q. Can I comment on something else? A YouTube video? A Soundcloud post?
A. Sure! Some YouTube channels actually have amazing comments sections already, but it never hurts to leave more.

Q. Does a Tumblr reblog count as a comment?
A. Only if you’ve added some text to it.

Q. What about those comments in the sidebar at Medium?
A. That’s fine. It’s just in a different location, but it’s still a comment on a blog post.

Q. What about a newspaper article?
A. That also counts, if you dare entering into those territories. These days many things people interpret as “newspaper articles” are actually blog posts run by the newspaper, so it’s all becoming a grey area anyways. And even professional journalists like comments.

Q. Do I have to comment on something every day?
A. If you can. At least try to. There are a lot of great posts out there that I’m sure you have something nice or constructive to say about.

Q. Can I leave anonymous or pseudonymous comments?
A. Yes.

Q. Can I comment on an old post?
A. Yes.

Q. Can I post more than once per day?
A. Yes.

Q. Do comments on my own blog count?
A. No.

Q. Can I leave one-word comments?
A. Sure. ;) (A friendly word like “cool” or “awesome” directly under a blog post might mean more to someone than a retweet of the link. But beware that your short comments might be interpreted as spam!)

Q. Can I leave multiple comments on the same post over several days?
A. If it makes sense in context (e.g. if someone responded to your comment and you wnat to reply to that), yes. Not if you plan to leave the same comment every day or split one comment into one-word-each comments.

Q. Can I leave negative comments?
A. The remaining commenters on the internet already specialise in negativity, so this pledge is mostly meant to increase the number of friendly and useful blog comments, but if you MUST leave a negative comment, please let it be constructively negative. Good: “I appreciate your thoughts, but I think I disagree with what you say in the second paragraph because blabla”. Bad: “tl;dr”

Q. Can my friends and I exchange comments on each others’ blogs?
A. Yes.

Q. Are you just trying to get more comments on your own blog?
A. No, but I have considered that it might be a side effect of posting this pledge. I just want to see if we can get some of our collective pre-Twitter commenting spirit back.

Q. Do you have any blog recommendations?
A. No. I mean, I have favourites, but if you’re interested in this pledge you probably have your own list of blogs you like reading.

Q. Can I leave a comment that is just garbled sentences grabbed from other blog comments, with a list of links to sketchy websites?
A. No. YOU are already leaving ENOUGH comments online.


Writing ideas

Through some ill-advised decisions I ended up with five blogs. I maintain the work blog, I have a Tumblr about music and science and a neglected Medium page, I write a weekly travel feature for The Finch and Pea, and of course I have this blog as well. On top of that, I occasionally write for other publications.

I don’t have time to instantly turn every idea into an actual post or pitch, because I only rarely have time to sit down and write – and when I do sit down to write, I need to have ideas ready to go. Those ideas come at random moments: at work, on the bus, while half asleep in bed. If I’d write them down in a notebook, I would have to always have that particular notebook on me: if I write my ideas in whatever notebook I’m using at the time, it will get lost in between all the other notes and to-do lists.

Last year, I came up with a solution, and I’ve used it often enough now to be certain that it works for me. (“For me” is the important clause. It might not work for you, but nobody else’s methods ever worked for me, so I made my own. For me.)

I created a Google Form called “Writing Ideas” in Google Drive. Google Forms are meant to create web surveys or to gather the opinions of the people you email it to. In my case, the form is secret, and only I have the url to find it.

My form has a big text box for writing ideas, and a few tick boxes with some of the regular places I would place these ideas. (Work is deliberately missing from the list, because I’m never short of ideas for that blog, and it doesn’t require the same creative thought process. )

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When I enter something in this form, it automatically goes to a spreadsheet. As you can see below, this  is the 28th row on that sheet. Once in a while I will move the used ideas to a new tab, so the ones left are all ideas that I can still use for future posts or pitches! (Although some I delete when I realise how stupid they are. I’m still on the fence about “purr review”.)

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 20.24.02

I have this form bookmarked on both my personal laptop and my work computer, so that I can jot down ideas no matter which computer I’m at.

But what if I’m not at a computer?

2014-06-24 20.27.08I also have the form bookmarked on my iPhone, and I have that bookmark set to show as an icon on my home screen. It only takes me a single tap to open it on my phone, and it works the exact same way: I enter the idea, submit the form, and it adds it to my spreadsheet of ideas.

Some of my favourite Finch and Pea travel posts this past year have come from ideas I entered in my Writing Ideas form, including today’s post about the Mariana Trench, this one about the dark side of the moon, and the one about Taq polymerase and Yellowstone. My talk at Story Collider in April was also based on an idea I entered on the form, as was “Owl’s lament” on this blog – and in fact this very post was also on my list of ideas as “meta! this form!”

I’ve tried lots of different note-taking and productivity tools, but for this purpose, for me, a Google Form turned out to be the best solution.

Lightbulb cover image via André Mouraux on Flickr

Follow these people!

Lists that recommend scientists and science communicators to follow on Twitter always include the usual suspects. I mean, I can tell you to follow @edyong209, @scicurious, @phylogenomics, @ehmee, or @DNLee5, but you probably already ARE following them.

So here are twelve science “tweeps” (ugh, that word) who for some inexplicable reason each have fewer than 1000 followers! That needs to be remedied, so check them out and follow them:

Rachel Pendergrass – @backtobeatrice

Coma Niddy – @comaniddy

Diana Crow – @CatalyticRxn

Chris Ing – @jsci

Cat Vicente – @catcvicente

Laura Shum – @lauracshum

Julia Wilde – @Julia_SCI

Vibhuti Patel – @VibhutiJPatel

Matt J – @mattjaywhy

Kate Whittington – @WhittingtonKate

Francie Diep – @franciediep

Ryan Buensuceso – @rcbuensuceso

And honourable mention for having already (but barely!) passed the 1000 followers mark:

Matt Hill – @insectecology

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What I do at work

I realize that I’ve been in my current job for over a year now and haven’t yet explained what I actually do there. My parents sort of understand, but I noticed that a lot of my friends still don’t, so I decided to write it all out:

I’m Outreach Director for F1000Research, which roughly means that I talk to a lot of scientists, both to tell them about open science publishing, and to find out what their needs and expectations are when it comes to publishing.

F1000Research is an open access journal for life scientists. Open access means that you don’t need a subscription to read the journal. Life sciences are biology and medicine, but it broadly includes things like bioinformatics, social science of medicine, and anything else that ties into these fields. Like many open access journals, F1000Research charges a fee to publish, but it’s much lower than many other journals, and at the moment it’s free to publish articles about science communication/publishing/education/policy and data notes (data notes are articles that are just methods and results, without interpretation).

I do several different forms of outreach. For example, I go to conferences (see main image above) and visit research institutes to talk to scientists directly. I often give talks that are specifically about peer review or about data sharing, since those are the areas in which F1000Research is much more open than most other journals: all articles are accompanied by the peer review reports and reviewer names, as well as all the data that was used to write that article.  The time at which peer review happens is also different from other journals, and that usually requires a lot of explanation in my talks: instead of publishing only the articles that have passed peer review, all articles that are sent for peer review are published online, and then the reviews appear with the article. If the authors need to send in a new version of the paper after review, that is linked to the previous version, so the entire peer review process is transparent and dynamic. Articles aren’t sent to external databases until they do pass peer review, but the authors can show them to funders or colleagues in the mean time, or even cite an article before it passes review if they want to. That’s quite a different process from what most scientists are used to, and I spend a lot of time talking about it, and getting feedback from researchers.

I also designed a survey earlier this year, to find out more about the researchers who read our journal, or who have published or reviewed papers with us. I’m still analyzing that at the moment, to figure out what it means for us (what do we need to change or emphasize) but already found a lot of interesting things in there.

I also co-founded the F1000 Specialists programme, which allows researchers (usually PhD students and postdocs) to tell others in their community about F1000 products (including F1000Research). The day-to-day programme is now run by someone else, but I still keep up with who is joining, and when I visit a new city or university I check whether there is a Specialist around, and try to meet them (or recruit new ones if there are none!).

Then I also do social media and marketing things – basically anything that ties into outreach. When I’m not out of the office for conferences or talks, I spend a lot of time in meetings or answering email, or working on future outreach projects. I have a lot of fun science-y things on my desk to look at while in the office.

Things on my desk at work
Things on my desk at work

Finally, another part of my time is spent keeping up with what other journals and companies are doing. If a scientist asks me how our journal is different from a particular other journal or website, I have to know that. I’m also writing a series of blog posts about some core concepts in publishing that relate to what F1000Research does, and those cover other journals as well. The first two, on open access and on open peer review are now up.

Basically, every week is different. This past week I went to a librarians meeting in Switzerland on Monday, and had a lot of meetings in the office the rest of the week. I also emailed a few contacts at universities I plan to visit this summer, to arrange those trips. A few weeks ago most of my time was spent doing outreach for one specific paper we published, which we knew would be really interesting to stem cell scientists on one level, and other people on another level, so I helped figure out who to reach out to and what message to send them. As a result it came with two separate press release. Here’s the scientific one, and the general one. We produce a lot of documents in the office, from press releases and blog posts to conference abstracts and website text, and I’m usually involved with either writing or editing something a few times per week.

I also spend a lot of time eating cake. There is so much cake and chocolate in my office all the time. We run entirely on sugar!


Paper vs Paperwhite

After the zillionth time being unable to read a book on a crowded tube because I couldn’t read while grasping onto a pole and fighting for a tiny bit of space to stand, I finally got a Kindle. I’d noticed that the Kindle-users were still able to hold their devices up even under the most crowded London tube conditions. I was also planning a two-week trip to the US, and I had no room in my luggage for books, but I could fit an e-reader in there somewhere.

I’d always resisted e-readers, because I love books. I love holding them and stroking the pages, and that was lost in digital form. Now, after three months with a Kindle, I have to admit I still mostly feel the same. I still miss physical books.

I miss flipping back and forth, when you just want to look something up and you remember that it was on a left-side page sort of one-third into the book.  I miss the unique feel and smell of each book. I miss judging books by their cover.

Ebooks don’t take up any shelf space, but sometimes you want your books on a shelf. I already regret reading Neil Gaiman and David Sedaris books on my Kindle, because they’re some of my favourite authors and they deserve to sit on the packed shelves of my bookcase. Even though I paid for their ebooks, it doesn’t feel like I own the books. They’re just ones and zeroes in a small electronic device.

I also immediately forget the books I read on my Kindle, because they’re not lingering around after I’m done, and I can’t even remember all of the titles because I rarely see the front of the book: The Kindle remembers where I was, and shows me that page immediately. I don’t see the covers and titles. All my books look like my Kindle cover now.

But since I got my Kindle, I have read many more books than I did in the months before. It’s small and fits in all my bags, so I can grab a book to read almost everywhere I am, even on a crowded tube. Today I’m packing for another trip, carry-on luggage only, and I’m bringing three unread books with me.

The trade-off between coveting books and reading more often reminds me of the library. When I was a kid I read several books per week, then returned them to the library, and never saw them again. For most books that was fine, but there are a few books from my childhood I would have loved to own. The Kindle is similar: it’s great to make reading books more accessible, but sometimes I just want to hold and own a physical book.





2014-04-24 09.06.08

Coloring with Cell

2014-04-24 09.06.35I picked up “Coloring with Cell” from a conference recently. (On the last day, when all exhibitors are trying to get rid of their materials, and instead take back the top swag from other exhibitors…)

This book is a coloring book from Cell, full of cell biology images just waiting to be colored in. I did a few, so you can look at color images rather than the boring black and white ones.

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It’s pretty cute, but I couldn’t be bothered coloring in giant surfaces like the inside of that nucleus.

I’m not really the target audience, though. The text in the book, and some of the pages (including the world’s easiest connect-the-dots puzzle) suggest that it’s meant for children. In that context, the images are far too complicated, though. No child will understand the sense of scale or where these cells and other bits actually exist, and it isn’t always well explained. But then again, this isn’t meant as an educational tool – just a fun coloring book. The most likely people to benefit from it are probably undergrads, who can see the fun in doing kids activities, and need to learn the parts of the cell.

Now, this was actually the second time I picked up this book at a conference. The first time, I gave it away to someone closer to the target age group. She was probably a bit too young, though, but nevertheless did a great job on this virus particle! Bonus points for the dog sticker.



News and updates!

Since I’ve been quiet on here for a while, here’s an update on things I’ve done/written, and then we’ve got all the self-promotion out of the way for a while. But first, something I’m going to do this week!

Story Collider
I’ll be telling a story spanning a few years of high school and undergrad at this week’s Story Collider in London (Wednesday night at The Book Club). Story Collider is an amazing show and podcast where people tell personal stories about science. The speakers come from all walks of life, but all stories are somehow related to science. To attend the London event, you can buy a ticket for only £5. If you can’t go to this event but still want to give them money, no problem: Here’s their Patreon page, and here is a list of shows elsewhere in the world.

octopusThe Finch and Pea
I’ve written many posts since the Yellowstone post I last linked from here. Some of these even contain info about trips I recently went on: the Duke Lemur Center and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I also wrote about Gallifrey and about the dark side of the moon – that last one was probably my favourite post I’ve done this year. In general, if you want to know about my travels – real or imaginary or on the wish list – you should read The Finch and Pea.

I spoke about open science publishing at the Cambridge Science Festival and at an event for Spanish researchers in the UK last month, and I co-hosted a meetup in Cambridge. Phew! I was also sick with mono (glandular fever) for all of these, and they took up all my energy, but were well worth it. Great people at all three events!

Science Online
I was at Science Online for the first time since 2009. Caught up with some people I hadn’t seen since then, and with some I only met online, and with new people, and people I see quite regularly but still never enough. Launched MySciCareer. Talked about science careers and about publishing and listened to lots of interesting people talk about lots of interesting other things. I dressed as a Tardis for the Intergalactic dinner and won dinosaur cookie cutters in the costume contest. Nevertheless, it was a bit weird. I have many thoughts about many things related to the community and conference, and this is not the place/time to hash them all out.

Happy Easter(nblot)!

What better day to resurrect a blog than Easter, especially if that blog is called easternblot.

Of course nobody is going to read anything posted on Easter, so for now please enjoy my latest obsession. Videos of raccoons stealing things!

Raccoon stealing cat food:

Raccoon stealing door mat:

Another raccoon stealing another door mat:

Raccoon stealing shoes:


MySciCareer launch! Personal stories about science careers.

myscicareer_greyscale_232x130px_transp_bgTomorrow I’m moderating the #ScioAlt discussion at Science Online, about “alternate” careers in science. I don’t really like the word “alternate”/“alternative” when it comes to science careers. I started my PhD knowing that I didn’t want to run my own lab, but wanted to learn more about scientific research than the few months I had done so far.

The career I wanted was one that involved science, and where I got to write and give talks. That is exactly what I’m doing right now. It’s not an “alternative”; it’s what I planned to do.

But that’s my story. Everyone else will have a different path. Some graduates eventually become professors, some move to industry, some switch careers at a later stage, some end up on a particular career track by accident. Every science graduate has their own story to tell. And for the past few months, Lou Woodley and I have been working hard to get these sorts of stories in one place.

Today we launched MySciCareer – a website that showcases first-person stories about science careers. Our launch content contains a mix of people in a variety of different jobs. They previously talked or wrote about those jobs, and the interviews or blog posts were already online, but you had to know where to look. MySciCareer is a one-stop shop for any first-person stories about science careers.

I showed a small sneak peak of the site when I spoke at the Naturejobs Career Expo in September (see slide 34), but we’ve made a lot of progress since then! We’ll regularly be adding more content, and there is already a lot to see on the site. Lou describes how the site works on her blog, but you can probably figure it out by clicking around.

The MySciCareer logo is designed by Ricardo Vidal, and the quote layout and colours were designed by Lou and me. The launch content on the site contains 17 quotes from a range of different sources, who have kindly given us permission to use the extracts you find on the site. Do make sure to visit the original pages to read the full content of each article or interview.

If you would like your own career path featured on MySciCareer, drop us a line! There’s a contact form on the site, and we’re on Twitter and Facebook.

If you post content elsewhere that you’d like to be part of the science careers conversations, please add the #myscicareer hashtag – this will work on all major social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Storify, Instagram and Flickr.

So, please take a look at the site, send us your feedback, spread the word and let us know which stories we’re missing. We’re intending this to be a growing collection of resources so if you’d like to contribute we’d love to hear from you.

We talk a lot about talking about science

It’s 6AM and I’m wide awake, because my bank did not realise that I’m at a conference in California to talk to scientists about peer review and thought 4:45 would be a great time to call me. Thanks to them, I was already awake when my iPad started pinging at me for every mention I got in a Twitter thread about a possible tweetup for science communication types in London that I unwittingly got included in. And now that I was properly awake, I might as well catch up on reading.

While tweeting about the biophysics conference to a following of mainly scientists, I’d seen several people get riled up about a column in the New York Times, so I decided to figure out what the fuss was about. From the tweets I saw, people seemed offended about an accusation that academics don’t do more outreach to the public. Since I’m seeing most of them at the Science Online conference next week, I thought I’d better get up to speed on the source of the outrage.

In his NYT column, Nick Kristof writes about professors, who are not part of greater discussions outside of academia. I put some consideration into that second comma in the previous sentence, but the difference between all professors and those professors who are not part of greater discussions outside of academia is so small that it only made a subtle difference. That’s the point of the column: very few professors are engaged with the non-academic world. Kristof points out that this inherent to the reward system. There is usually no reward to spend time doing outreach, and only penalization when an academic spends less time on their work.

I carefully wrote “professors” and “academia” above, because there are huge differences between different academic disciplines. This is also addressed in Kristof’s column: for example, he points out that economists are more likely to step out and interact with the world outside the ivory tower. He also mentions “some sciences” as an exception to the rule.

But I’d say that even in the sciences most academics don’t engage much with the public. Next week will be my third visit to the Science Online conference. I haven’t been in five years, but I know many of the other attendees. They’re the usual suspects. Science communication is almost a discipline of its own, where those people active in it have formed their own community and attends their own conferences to talk about it. Yes, there is also a large emphasis on science outreach at several other large conferences, such as the AAAS Meeting and the SfN Meeting, but those large conferences are not usually the conferences that are most important to an academic’s tenure progress. The conferences that are the most crucial to an academic making progress in their career are the smaller ones, where speakers dare to present their newest findings, knowing that the small audience are collaborators, not communicators. This is where they get feedback on their work, and plan their next joint grant applications. The big ones are social events, and, increasingly, places to discuss science communication.

The science communication community is great, and the academics within that community are doing an amazing job of combining a career in academic with public outreach, but Kristof is right: this is the exception. It’s not true for most scientists, especially not those beyond postdoc-level, and it’s not true for most other fields of academia.

I ended up in the science communication community because I did lots of outreach when I was still in the lab. I blogged, I visited schools, I had a side gig writing about the science in a TV show. I didn’t have much interest in doing research, so I left the lab, but I stayed connected to academia. I now work for a scientific journal, so I mainly talk to researchers. I tell them about our novel method of doing peer review, about the importance of data sharing, and, for those that do it, I let them know that they can even publish their science communication papers with us. I write emails, visit institutes, and attend conferences. That, talking to academics, is my job as Outreach Director. I’m very aware that that is “outreach” only to a very specific audience.

One day when I was coming home, my neighbour, taking a tea break outside his corner store, asked me what my job is. I couldn’t explain. He doesn’t know that academics need to publish papers to progress in their career. He has never heard of peer review, let alone about post-publication peer review. He probably never attended any sort of conference, let alone a scientific one. For all my work doing outreach about science, I wasn’t able to explain the culture of scientific academia and how it was intrinsically linked to my job. The whole system was unrelated to any of his daily experiences, and I struggled to find a summary or analogy that made sense.

“I work for a magazine for scientists”, I offered, thinking it was the most satisfactory explanation I could offer in the time I was opening my front door. “Can I read it?” Technically, yes. It’s open access. But I wouldn’t recommend it as casual reading for non-scientists. “I don’t think you would like it very much. It’s written for other scientists.”

And that’s probably true of most of what I’ve ever done in any form of outreach. Even when I was doing outreach about science (rather than about scientific publishing), it was mainly seen by people who sought it out – and I’m sure they were often other scientists, or high school students interested in science.

Really engaging with “the public(s)” is hard, and takes time, and there are reasons why very few academics take on the responsibility. It’s part of the culture of academia, and I think that Kristof’s column is addressing that culture, and not blaming individual professors for not trying hard enough. Before patting ourselves on the back for getting it right, I think we need to be aware that when we’re at Science Online next week, most of our colleagues don’t understand what we’re doing there. We talk a lot about talking about science, but when it comes down to it, we seem to be the only ones.

science and other interesting things