Tag Archives: journalism

Has blogging changed science writing?

I gave a talk to students on the Science, the Environment and the Media course at American University this week. The actual talk was a reasonably long and sprawling event, so I’ve pared it down a bit for this blogpost.

There’s an oft-made joke that the answers to questions in headlines is always ‘no’, and that this is especially apparent in the era of click-from-the-tweet linkbait news production. It was neatly parodied by Martin Robbins in the sub-heading to his (infamous) This is a news website article about a scientific paper post for the Guardian last year.

So, here’s a headline question: Has blogging changed science communication?

No.

Or at least ‘ish’.

Yes, various technologies of online communication, and cultural changes surrounding them, mean we can do new things with science writing, but that doesn’t mean we have done them, or that we’ve done them in simple ways.

There are various thing we can talk about in terms of how blogging has or has not impacted on science writing. In the longer version of this piece I covered several. There’s the ongoing story of journalists vs bloggers (the silliness of it, though also the sense where it is real). There’s the complex ways in which trust can be build via pseudonymous blogging (the about us section at HolfordWatch is a fascinating example). Or, for all the promise of the web as a great leveler, when it comes to science many of the old patterns of authority and anti-authority are played out online (I think science bloggers tendency to networks is interesting here). I also cautioned against naivety when it comes to setting ‘information’ ‘free’, using Ben Goldacre’s scepticism over an investigation from the Guardian Health team as example, including the idea that open data might need open methodology too (credit). To which I might add the need for open education, not to mention an awareness of the role of tacit knowledge (and that’s without getting into economic arguments…).

Here, I’ll posit two ideas in more detail, and invite your response: (a) I don’t think hypertext has transformed science writing, but (b) I do think blogging has fostered greater reflexivity in the field.


Hypertext hasn’t transformed science writing

Or at least it hasn’t transformed it as much as it could.

The link is a form of rhetoric like any other form of communication. Placing one, thinking about what you’ll link to, how and when, is part of the craft of modern writing and something to delight in. It’s a challenge that, as someone who has been writing about science online for over a decade, I personally adore. However, many science writers don’t link, even to the paper a story is about, let along further context.

There are various reasons for this. Content management systems many professional writer work with can be very clunky, constraining a writer’s hypertextual expression. A lot of text online has to also be available in print. In the tough economies of professional writing, links are used to increase search engine optimisation, or even advertising (Mary Knudson shared a story about this at a DCSWA event last week). Writers often also ask the simple question ‘link to what: a paywalled document no one will understand?’ (which brings us back to access issues…).

We might similarly argue that there are many more complex tools available than simple href tag which could add something to the way we tell stories about science. Several writers have been playing with timelines recently (e.g. this one from Henry Nicholls) as ways to connect the rich context around a story. These are great, and I look forward to their use more and more, but they are underused. The Guardian’s Story Tracker idea is nice, but very low tech and hardly used. Compare it to the Guardian’s Arab Spring timeline. Where’s the human genome project version of content like this?

I know a lot of science journalists who are incredibly excited by the various new media options available to their craft. They just don’t have the time or resources to pursue them. I should note that it was Mun Keat Looi, Online Editor at the Wellcome Trust, who prompted me to wonder where the HGP roller-coaster was. Maybe it’s institutionally based science writers like him who have the resources to make these sorts of projects? (maybe this is a problem?)

This isn’t necessarily a criticism. I don’t expect science journalism to have to ‘tech up’, nor do I necessarily think all their audiences want it. But let’s not assume more than there is. The history of technology is often as much a story of what innovations we haven’t taken up as those we have (see Edgerton, 2006); there has always been more options than actions when it comes to science writing.


Blogging has fostered reflexivity in science writing.

By which I mean we can see science writers engaging in critique and debate about the meanings and methods of science writing.

Especially in the UK, the role of Ben Goldacre and other members of the ‘Bad Science’ blogging community shouldn’t be discounted, but I think my favourite example here has to be the US-based EmbargoWatch. It’s quite ‘inside baseball’, and in some respects, an example of the ability of the web to connect niche interests groups (it’s a bit ‘Long Tail’). I mentioned this to a professor of science journalism recently and his eyes grew into saucers with geeky glee: ‘there’s a whole blog, on embargoes?!’ Another nice example is Christopher Mims’ reminiscing over the history of science blogs. Or there’s the Guardian’s recent series linked to a competition, or simply the way so many science writers use their blogs to disperse posts about their craft alongside actually doing it.

The niche element is only part of the story though. Going back to the impact of ‘Bad Science’ blogging, Martin Robbins who now blogs on the Guardian network (great post about this here by the way) makes for a super case study here. There is that parody I mentioned earlier, or his occasionally mischievous tweeting. What makes Robbins so interesting though is not just that he gets to post critiques of professional science journalism on the site of such professional journalism (as Ben Goldacre does too), but the way in which this demonstrates an audience for such a critique (again, see also the success of Goldacre). Just look at the share stats at the top of that parody post: 4747 tweets, shared on facebook 37K times. That’s unusual for the Guardian science pages. I checked with Martin, and it amounted to 15% of traffic to the site for 2 days; about a quarter millions hits per day.

That’s not to argue that such critique is always useful, valid or listened to. Just that it’s there. It’s probably worth noting that much of this sort of critique is of the kind that both the scientific community and media-watchers (including mainstream media itself) have made for years. It’s not necessarily all that new; it’s just more overtly embedded alongside the work itself now. I’d also add that for all that the odd blogpost may be highly perceptive and well researched, not to mention sometimes incredibly funny, there’s still a role for the more developed work of academics (e.g. from Andy Williams, Matt Nisbet or Jenny Kitinger, Felicity Mellor, Martin Bauer, Angela Cassidy, Brian Trench…).

In conclusion, science and blogging are both large and amorphous cultural spaces: aspects of the above will be more or less true depending on where you look. I don’t claim to know about all of it. Personally, the thing I appreciate most about blogging is that it seems to have make it more socially acceptable to finish with questions. So, what do you think?


What hope for science journalism?

On Wednesday, I attended the London Public Understanding of Science seminar at the LSE. The speaker was Andy Williams of Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, presenting work from the ‘Mapping the Field‘ research project about science news journalism in the UK.

It’s interesting stuff. Do have a look if you haven’t already. It’s also paints a rather dismal picture of current and future science journalism. Williams interviewed UK science journalists and got back a story of increased demands for content, less staff, a steady stream of churn-able PR, pressure, bad management from newsdesks and simply not the time, space and resources to explore and prod science news stories with the degree of critical reflection we might hope for.

As many people at the seminar pointed out, we seemed to be presented with an image of a golden age of science journalism, and this is somewhat of a myth. The story was also one which blamed PR. Again, people at the seminar stressed that the role of a science press officer isn’t exactly one of Malcolm Tucker, and that there is a long history of a close relationship (even overlap of roles) between science writers and science PRs; just read Dorothy Nelkin

A story of too much PR is, one might argue, part of a mythologising of journalism by journalists, as is a story of nasty newsdesks and crappy subs. As analysts we need a critical approach to this. Although I’d argue that science journalists too often get an unfairly bad press, and it is right to acknowledge the constraints they work under, I also think media researchers should be able to take a larger view than simply beat/defend the journo. One empirically grounded way to do this might have been to extend the study to include a larger range of media actors; to get PR’s, bloggers, editors, scientists, etc to give some perspective on the journalists as well as the journalists self-testimony.

(It occurred to me that reference to ‘bad press’ above was a bad metaphor, but I don’t think it is necessarily, and the very fact I can use this term about them shows science journalists do not, alone, produce public science commentary).

Something that wasn’t mentioned at the seminar, but thinking back on it probably should have been, was the role of scientists mediating themselves. I wonder if the people at the seminar would have filed such work under PR. It doesn’t fit the Fourth Estate vision of press Williams largely applied. Still, I think there is a huge role for this, working in dialogue with their various audiences, and alongside independent journalists and other communicators. There are other issues with this though, not least providing decent support systems to allow scientists to do such work.

I also wondered if Williams was working from a slightly limited notion of science writer. He kept out freelancers and/or bloggers. The hopeful voices I know in science journalism are the young freelancers, many of whom blog. Or at least they are hopeful about quality, they are shitting themselves about a regular wage.

Williams made the point that is wasn’t nearly as bad as in the USA, and I heard worse from American academics at the Science Online conference in January. John Rennie suggested that we might have to deal with the idea that science journalism was like poetry: people would do it for the love of it, and earn a living from teaching or winning the odd prize. My response at the time was that there’s a lot of bad poetry, and I’m not sure how I feel about more ‘bad science’ (and that I didn’t like the idea that science writing might end up the preserve of those rich enough to do it). Still, he had a point. More productively, I also said that the very thing some people blame for the destruction of golden age science journalism – online communication – can help open up science writing, and in particular help open up support networks so science writers could help each other get work. Ed Yong’s set up a sort of virtual ‘tip jar’ (and owes me a few quid apparently). I made him a scarf in a similar gesture. It was amazing to watch the reaction to Ed Yong and Brian Switek announcing they were going freelance this week; so many people were quick to wish them luck and offer advice.

Ok, a few friendly words, a few quid and a scarf won’t pay the rent, but perhaps it’s a start? Maybe I’m kidding myself though, what do people think? Is there more hope in science journalism, if we just looked somewhere other than the spaces Williams’ research project had?

Simple scribes


This week, the Guardian’s science blog published Tim Radford’s Manifesto for the Simple Scribe. It’s a lovely set of tips for better writing which has been passed around the UK science writing community since it was first written in the mid-1990s.

I was really sceptical it’d appeal to a broader audience. I was wrong. As soon as it was posted, it spread quickly on twitter and facebook; spread with warmth and across the globe. I’ve seen tweets about it in several different languages. It’s currently the most-read piece on the Guardian science pages, even beating the story about the astronaut falling off his bicycle.

Ian Sample asked a great question when he shared a link to the manifesto: this was written last century, what would you change? This is my attempt at starting an answer. I’d be interested to know what others think.


Interaction

Martin Robbins suggested twitter ‘nukes’ point one (that you’ll never meet your reader). I think Robbins is right to draw our attention to a change in read/ writer relationships, but I’m not sure nuke is quite the word. It’s only a small percentage of readers a writer is likely to interact with.  The loud ones, the bored, the ones with an axe to grind or, more positively, those that feel some relationship with the author or community of other commentators. Yes, it’s easier to do this and twitter lets you talk to them. You can also watch people sharing your work, using sites like topsy.com. This is more than was available a few years ago, but it’s no where near comprehensive. It’s also a development of structures for relationships with readers that were already in place: It’s worth remembering that Radford was letters editor before he moved to the science desk.

The manifesto was published on the run-up to a Q&A with Radford we held at Imperial on wednesday. A member of the audience there asked him how he felt about readers comments when his writing ends up on the web. Radford said he’d found himself ‘depressed, but also profoundly impressed’ by these.  On the one side there were those commentators  who react to some key word like ‘climate’ and ignore what you’ve written, ranting off about something else entirely. But then he had also witnessed experts on a topic find each other through comments and develop ideas mentioned in a piece, making something new from their interaction. I thought it was fascinating that both of these examples were a matter of readers interacting really without the need for the writer.

Maybe that’s a function of an old-media writer, one that is slightly unaccustomed to building a relationship with readers through comment threads. I suspect a similar list written today would include some tips on how to work productively with the people formerly known as the audience.  But I also think it’s partly a matter of working for a mass-media brand, and there are practical difference between the crowded space of the Guardian and a cozy personal blog. I’m not entirely sure it’s appropriate, or possible, to expect one to try to be the other. I know I teach differently in a large lecture theatre, compared to a small seminar room (or a meeting in my office with one or two students). I’m not sure we can expect writers to meet their readers, especially when writing online, as texts may become all the more open. Or at least we can’t expect them to meet all of them. To allow the illusionary interactive feel of twitter con us into thinking we have would be silly. 


Linking

The manifesto doesn’t really talk about linking, a point made critically in the blog’s comments. If anything Radford makes a point of stressing linearity for clear writing (though he does mention putting ‘twiddly bits’ in, see point 10). I think linking is part of the art of being a writer in the 21st century. I think it is something writers have to think carefully about, take time over, will get better at over time, and will develop their own distinctive style for. I suspect it is a skill which the wise old writers of the future will be keen to share tips about, and in that respect this manifesto shows itself up as a bit 20th century.


Long tails

For me, the biggest difference between today and the 1990s is the way the online communication means it easier to get away with writing for rather niche audiences (a small percentage of the WHOLE INTERNET still being a fair quantity). Much of this manifesto reads like tips for sharing science to as broad an audience as possible. It’s classic mass-media communication. Today, a writer for the Guardian might want to speak to as many people as possible, but the many bloggers who will have lapped up Radford’s advice won’t necessarily feel the same way.

I suppose niche writing has always existed though, just as I think there is an ongoing market for writing which aims to share a piece of science with as many people in the world as possible. Indeed, one might argue that because niche communication now increasingly happens in relatively public spaces of the web, there is a need to make it digestible to diverse audiences. Similarly, we might argue that as science becomes increasingly specialised, all science should be easier to understand outside the small community of peers which produced it (and that goes for the composition of journal articles as much as anything else).

Another question we might ask is whether this desire to talk share science with a mass audience ever really held true, even back in the 1990s? When I posted a link to it on twitter, I did so with the quote: ‘No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand’. Mariette DiChristina, the editor in chief of Scientific American, re-posted this with the comment ‘Except some SciAm readers, who will!’. She has a point. I’ve heard complaints along these lines too. Indeed, we could see some in the comments to Radford’s piece, many incorrectly conflating ‘easy to understand’ with patronising the audience. I suppose it’s a slightly utopian statement in some respects, a challenge (see also point 4, on journalism never being self-important).


Finally

And that, in the end, is my answer to Sample’s question. Yes, these tips are a decade and a half old, but it’s a manifesto. As such, it’s a statement of desire born out of an awareness of what is understood as some key problems. It is a statement of hope, not matters of fact. Our tools for science writing may have changed slightly, and I do think this has an impact on what we expect of it, as well as the relationships between scientists, writers and readers. But I don’t think our ideals for science writing have really changed that much.

Science and its spam filter

Yesterday, I was part of a panel entitled ‘Blogs, Bloggers and Boundaries?’ at the Science Online conference. You can see an abstract for the panel over on Marie-Claire’s Shanahan’s blog (scroll down to second half of post).

My talk spoke in quite general terms about science and social boundaries. I did this using an analogy I’ve stolen from David Dobbs; a spam filter.

Cast your mind back to the ‘Great Arsenic Bug Saga of 2010’. If you can’t recall the details, I can recommend Ed Yong’s link-filled timeline of the story. In terms of the point I want to make, all you need to know is that some scientists criticised a paper by a team of NASA astrobiologists. Some of these critiques were voiced on blogs. When asked about the critique, a spokesperson from NASA was reported as saying ‘the agency doesn’t feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers’. Instead, they’d keep to ‘scientific publications’.

David Dobbs blogged about this statement from NASA, suggesting it was a call to ‘pre-Enlightenment thinking’. Later, he told the Guardian Science podcast:

I got a lot of reactions saying ‘you can’t just open this process to everyone or there’ll be a rabble, you’ll spend all your time arguing with anti-science people and so on’. Well, you’re trying to have a spam filter here, right? You’re trying to draw a circle within which trolls can’t come in and dominate the conversation. I guess to an extent that makes sense, but you don’t want to draw a circle that boxes out legitimate scientists like Rosie Redfield.

I love this analogy. In some respects, science has always had a spam filter. On one side there’s a commitment to free debate, on the other side there is frustration with those who are seen as at best time-wasting and at worst, mendacious. Science has always sought to break, or at least not be limited by, social boundaries. At the same time science has always needed these boundaries to, and benefited from them.

Another analogy which can help us think about this issue is that of a map. This one I’ve stolen from sociologist/ historian Thomas Gieryn. In his book The Cultural Boundaries of Science, he argues that rather there being one, singular essential criteria for what makes something scientific, this thing we call science is the consequence of many different declaration of boundaries which, over time, have helped define what science is and what it is not. To quote Gieryn in more lyrical mode:

Mount Science, located just above the town of Reason in the State of Knowledge, which is adjacent to the States of Fine Prospect and Improvement, across the Sea of Intemperance from the State of Plenty, all this on the other side of the Demarcation Mountains from the towns of Darkness, Crazyville, and Prejudice, and the islands of Deaf, Blind and Folly (Gieryn, 1999: 6. See also pages 8-9 for actual map)

A Gieryn stresses, this is ‘not idle play with Venn diagrams’ (Gieryn, 1999, 12). Just as a map provides a traveler with physical directions, such ‘cultural cartography’ for science is used as shorthand when faced with a range of practical decisions (e.g. do we get a flu vaccine; is a hybrid car worthwhile?). Modern society is rooted in the advantages of specialist knowledge. We can’t all be specialists in everything, so we have to rely on trust, something Gieryn’s metaphorical map aims to capture.

Gieryn talks about ‘boundary work’; the active process of producing symbolic boundaries which our location in cultural space. We all do this all the time, and it’s not always intentional, neither is it necessarily malign. Educational researcher Basil Bernstein also wrote about the importance of symbolic boundaries back in the 1970s: the positioning of furniture in a classroom to emphasise the authority of a teacher, curriculum divides between subjects, the use of language or cultural references which some children understand but may be lost on others (Bernstein talks about this in terms of social class and the perpetuation of social inequalities through education).

One of the things I like most about the cartographic approach is that maps articulate shared space as well as boundaries. I think it’s worth emphasising that community and exclusion can be  two sides of the same coin. Jargon and in-jokes are nice examples here.  Jargon can provide precision for those who understand, just as it confuses those who do not.  An in-joke makes you feel left out if you are on the outside of it, but can be a lovely expression of friendship if you understand it.  Most importantly though, in-jokes and jargon are good examples of types of boundaries we can put up without realising it.

Keeping to communities we already know is tempting. It’s sometimes said that the various long tails of online communication allow us to surround ourselves with people who agree with us: self-curated bubbles of cozy agreement. This can be useful. It lets us network with others who have similar tastes, interests or worries, allowing us to share skills and information, to build movements (see also my London Science Online talk on ‘the science vote’). Interaction in niche groups can also be rather limiting. In his great book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins compares this to ‘choosing to live in red states and blue states’ (yep, sorry, another geographical metaphor, Jenkins, 2006: 249). Jenkins goes on to argue that we tend to join web communities for recreational interests rather than political ones. So, by hanging out at, say, a knitting blog, you might engage in discussion with someone of a different political viewpoint from yourself, a different religious one, or cultural, generational, professional.

We might argue that the science is one of these recreational interests, and so still suffers from people opting in or out of it. I honestly don’t know how this effects science blog readership. I suspect it varies. I’d like to stress, however, that one of the great things about Gieryn’s cartographic approach is that it helps us view this thing we call ‘science’ as rather heterogeneous in itself. Science isn’t a bubble, it’s a field teeming with diversity.

Moreover, science in all its diversity looks at a load of different topics, in a load of different ways, for a load of different reasons, many of which will have some non-scientific link to peoples lives (or at least non-obviously-scientific link). Another term I can offer you from sociology/ history of science: ‘boundary objects’. This refers to items of shared space that several different groups can – simultaneously – use, spend time with, be attracted to, and find meaning in. Locating this sort of shared space is something I suspect a lot of science writers aim for, or at least science writers who want to draw new audiences into science. Star and Greisemer, who’s paper on Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology I take this term from, note the active work that often has to go into making something shareable. For example, they suggest libraries as an example of spaces built to deal with problems of heterogeneity: ordered piles, indexed in a standardized fashion so that people with a host of agendas can use or borrow from the pile for their own purposes without having to negotiate differences in purpose. Boundary objects do not always simply offer themselves nakedly, and I think that’s an important point.

Star and Greisemer also reflect on the problems of working in shared spaces. They refer to people who have feet in two cultures and stress that managing multiple identities can be volatile and confusing. Such people may resolve these problems by denying one side of their identity, oscillating between worlds, or by forming a new social world composed of others like themselves (Star & Giesemer, 1989: 411-412). None of this is easy.

Boundaries are an unavoidable part of social life. They are useful, and they are limiting. We need to be as clever as possible about them: to keep an open and enquiring mind about who might be on the other side of a boundary; to be careful of accidentally building them and inadvertently seeming standoffish or snobby. We all have spam filters, and we’ve all nearly missed some great email or blog comment because of them. The trick is to keep an eye on them.

Uncertainty (again)

I’m blogging from the Science and Citizenship Conference. It’s being held partly to mark a ten year anniversary of the Lord’s report on Science and Society. Much of the programme was based on workshops considering key theme’s in the report. I took part on one about uncertainty and risk, and thought it was worth sharing my notes.

We started off with four key questions. Is it a new problem? To what extent are journalists to blame? To what extent are scientists to blame? What can we do to make it better? What can we all do to improve things?

We passed back and forth through various reasons why the issues of risk and uncertainty might be new, and then in turn why they are not. For example, I played the annoying “I once did a history of technology course” card that many of the fears about online media could be seen at the introduction of public libraries (the printing press, paperbacks…). Instead, I suggested maybe we have a growing intensification of activity and awareness around issues of rick and uncertainty.

In many ways, the things were were saying reflected ideas Ulrich Beck discussed in terms of ideas of the Risk Society, decades ago. As I grumbled a few months ago, the debate is an old one. That said, one of the reasons why Beck makes for an interesting example is his discussion of an increasing awareness not only of uncertainty, but the various contexts behind such uncertainty (which in turn can make us more uncertain as we seek new certainties, part of Beck’s notion that “modernity has become its own theme”).

We all seemed to agree that there was a lot of uncertainty in science and that this should be discussed openly with non scientists. We went through the various reasons why we might blame the media or scientists for not communicating such uncertainty, before critiquing ourselves to then defend both groups. For a while we seemed to pour blame on the education system, arguing that school science needs to think more about how to best prepare future-publics (rather than just training future-scientists). Though I agree school-science is important and could be improved, playing who’s to blame isn’t especially productive and  I’m not sure it’s realistic to pile too many expectations on the shoulders of an education system.

One participant mentioned a line from David Willetts – that in a society which is fragmented and uncertain, scientific evidence gives you something you can all agree on – and argued that this actually puts a huge pressure on science. It’s easy to say “yay, the science minister likes science”, but the scientific community should think about what they are are being offered here. When talking about who might be to blame, it was suggested that science holds some responsibility for being seduced into a political and media system where they are asked for certainty. That science from WW2 onwards might have seemed over-confident, but if so, it was because it sold a confidence back to people who (unfairly) asked it of them. It was also suggested that sensitivity over climate change denial is making things worse, with people defensive over the authority of science denying uncertainty. Again, it’s worth asking who’s hands are the scientific community playing to if they try to claim undeniable certainty?

(I don’t know, maybe climate change is another issue with it’s own context, and maybe working in a context with “merchants of doubt” means it’s necessary).

I’ve heard Willetts use that line too. As I argued at the time, in some respects this is a lovely thought. The big and scary postmodern world brought together with the warm glow of science. I just don’t think science tends to work like that. The very “scientific way of thinking” Willetts is prizing here is, itself, fractured and contestable. Indeed, the delivery of evidence can often be the beginning of a debate. I don’t think this is a criticism science, if anything it’s a celebration: the capacity for debate and sense that there is always a possible black swan around the corner is one of the things I like about science.

And solutions? There were the arguments about education. Perhaps predictably, “dialogue between journalists, scientists, members of the public and politicians” was mentioned, though, again predictably, we didn’t seem to have time to talk about how. Other suggestions included more standup maths shows, and citizen cyber-science. There was also some discussion of the advantages of citizen science projects in helping people feel ownership of science in some way – so science doesn’t seem like a project done by “those other people”. An interesting point was made with respect to work in Kenya; that science is sometimes seen as a Western thing and it’s been important to communicate that science can be African too. As one participant put it, this is perhaps “engagement through a sense of appropriation”.

For me this boiled down to another key word in that Lords report – trust. As Demos said back in 2004, an emphasis on risk and uncertainty is arguably a consequence of engagement happening too late in the process. If you want to build trust, you have to start early.

Taking science journalism “upstream”

row of boatsToday I spoke at Science Online London as part of a plenary panel session curated by David Dobbs and also featuring Martin Robbins and Ed Yong on “Rebooting” (aka the future of) science journalism. This is the typed-up version of my talk, along with links and extra bits of context.

As the academic on the panel (not to mention the only one that isn’t, shhhh, in any way a journalist) I thought I’d focus on an idea: an invite to take things “upstream”.

That probably sounds dirtier than it should.

The term “upstream” is (a) a metaphor and (b) jargon. Both of which I apologise for. The concept has been incredibly influential in the engagement end of science communication work. Science communicators use it all the time, they even tell each other off when they’re “not upstream enough”. But has never really carried through to journalism.

In essence, it’s an argument for showing more of science in the making, not just waiting for publication of “ready-made” peer-reviewed papers.

Imagine science as a river.  Upstream, we have the early stages of communication about some area of science: meetings, literature reviews or general lab gossip. Gradually these ideas are worked through, and the communicative output flows downstream towards the peer-reviewed and published journal article and perhaps, via a press release and maybe even a press conference, some mass media reporting. Let’s not get too carried away with this metaphor though, or we’ll just end up with boring stories about scientists going rafting (it also relies on what is, arguably, an over-linear model of science, but that’s a whole other argument).

The term “upstream engagement” has various antecedents, but really stems from a (2004) report from think-tank Demos, See Through Science, by James Wilsdon and Rebbecca Willis. They argued that science communication initiatives had become over-dominated by questions of risk, which they felt, was too late in the process. The March 2006 POST note (pdf) provides a good example of the difference between early and late (upstream and downstream) engagement, drawing on reactions to GMOs. It refers to a 1994 consensus conference funded by the BBSRC and held at the Science Museum anticipated issues surrounding genetic modification (GM) of plants and involved publics at an early stage. In comparison, they argue that the 2003 GM Nation project, although government-funded and promised to take up recommendations, it was “too little, too late” (POST, 2006: 2). GM Nation asked people to respond to what had been delivered to them, whereas the 1994 event had given people access and, simply, insight into what might be delivered.

Wilsdon and Willis were heavily influenced by Stephen Hilgartner’s (2000) book about US science policy, Science on Stage, and echoing this they have a lot of fun with theatrical metaphors:

The task of upstream engagement is to remove some of the structures that divide the back-stage from the front-stage. It seeks to make visible the invisible, to expose to public scrutiny the values, visions and assumptions that usually lie hidden. In the theatre of science and technology, the time has come to dismantle the proscenium arch and begin performing in the round (Wilsdon & Willis, 2004: 24)

I should note, the idea has its critics, e.g. Dick Taverne’s letter to Nature or, somewhat more thoughtfully, William Cullerne Bown. Still, these are exceptions. Listening to some of David Willetts’ statements on public engagement, I suspect he is a fan of working upstream (or is at least has been briefed by someone who read that POSTnote).

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that journalists haven’t really taken it up though. The idea of upstream engagement is to fix problems in the relationships between science and society. The government like this, clearly, so write POSTnotes and fund things like ScienceWise, but it’s not the business of journalism to deal with it. They just want to sell papers. They have their own rules to play with (c.f. Andy Williams’ reference to news values in the recent Times Higher piece on science writing).

But I think upstream science journalism offers something sell-able. It’s based on theatre after all. It swaps that cliché of “scientists have found” for “scientists are doing”. It focuses on “scientists find interesting”, “scientists wonder” or “scientists are excited by”. Actually, I’d hope it looses the sloppy generalisation of “scientists” and instead introduce researchers with rather less anonymity. That’s part of the point. It lets the audience look science right in the eye and see it in all its glory (beauty and wonder; warts and all).

I suspect people are waiting to respond with the criticism that it is irresponsible to report work that isn’t peer-reviewed (ooo and here it ista Evan).  Although I have sympathy this issue, I’d also say it’s a lazy stick with which beat science journalists with, not to mention somewhat supportive of the publishing industry. But upstream science journalism can be done responsibly, and without tripping over patents or embargoes. Remember, the focus is more on the people, their ideas, worries and enthusiasms, not the results. Moreover, I  still want a place for “downstream” science reporting. The publication of a major paper is a news event worth covering. I’m not dismissing a creative, articulate, probing and context-bringing write-up of peer-reviewed research in the slightest. Done well, it can be a beautiful and important thing. There is also, I think, a lot to be said for what we might call “really, really far downstream” reporting: maybe we need more about what happens to science after publication. Science journalism should follow scientists all the way through society (yes, that is a Latour reference and yes I have read Amsterdamska’s review).

I also think science journalism would be served well by taking itself upstream, not only working to show how science is made, but making its own workings more visible too. Upstream engagement was, after all, designed to deal with a crisis in trust. Perhaps a bit more upstream communication would help  science journalists to gain trust from their audiences, and from the scientific community. This would include openness, but also involving their audiences (upstream, and meaningfully, not only letting them comment at the end of the process).

I don’t think this call to move upstream offers something drastically new. I use it as a nice phrase to, I hope, encourage and focus attention in this area. I think it is already being done, and new media is making more feasible (and showing there is a market for). As Vincent Kiernan argued during last year’s WCSJ’s fight over embargoes, new media mitigates against what John Rennie called “Big paper of the week syndrome”, the reliance on cycles of “pseudo-news” about what happens to have been published in one of the larger journals (see also the embargowatch blog for fascinating tracking of these tensions).

My favourite example has to be this video of the ICHEP conference hosted on the Guardian. I’ve also noticed recently that Times health correspondent David Rose uses twitter not just to post links to finished pieces, but as news comes in. It’s also worth mentioning the interactive way Mark Henderson has used his twitter account in conjunction with the Times’ Eureka blog (especially during the election), as well as others who favour the “DVD extras” approach to blogging alongside traditional journalism. Further, the Guardian’s science storytracker gives insight into the evolution of a story, and it was interesting to see the the Guardian’s health team use their Datastore during the death rates investigation. In terms of “really far downstream” (in a good way) science journalism, I think Gaia Vince’s blog is a nice example.

This death rates points us towards a possible pitfall: Ben Goldacre’s criticism of their stats, and more to the point, that such open data needs to come with “open methodology” too. As I said at the time, however, precisely because it is so complex, an approach which is iteratively discursive (rather than momentarily confrontational) is perhaps the most likely to succeed. There are also, in the business of journalism, matters of competition to be remembered: the worry of being scooped (perhaps beautifully demonstrated by this story). As with be careful of embargoes and patents (competition issues in science), I think it’s a matter of being careful, being clever and being imaginative. Maybe the tweeting of political journalists during the election is a nice example?

This sort of upstream work can be pretty niche. A nice example of that being exchange between Evan Harris and Jon Butterworth over “if” you wanted to know about supersymmetry. But that’s why it can work online, because you can find those niche markets (e.g. first comment on Jon’s post). We might similarly argue that it doesn’t provide news, but again the web might be of here, as people come to content at different times and through a range of routes: I think blogging has already started to blur boundaries between feature and news piece when it comes to science writing.

The niche point does, however, point us towards the best argument against upstream science journalism: that it’d would be boring. Maybe that scientists go rafting feature was a bit dull. But people write dull pieces based on research papers all the time. If a science journalist thinks scientists at work is boring, then I think they are in the wrong job. Similarly, if they think the ideas and knowledge of their readers is boring, I suspect they’re increasingly find they are in the wrong job.

I don’t think moving science journalism upstream will solve all its problems. Neither do I think the concept offers something drastically new: it’s already happening. Still, thinking about upstream as a one of the many possible new forms for science journalism might focus attention in a fruitful direction. Or maybe it’s a ridiculous mis-application of what is a slightly aging and rather self-indulgent idea in the first place. Tell me your thoughts.

EDIT (September 2010): You can see a video of the session.

EDIT (March 2011): I have been amazed by the way the online science writing community have taken to this – e.g. a mention in David Rowan’s speech on How to Save Science Journalism and, especially, the the newly launched PLoS blog Science Upstream.