How I published a book, thanks to The Open Laboratory

GIREP 2009 Proceedings cover
Available at Scribd & Lulu

I’ve been busy in August, and one of the things I’ve been work­ing on has been out for a couple of weeks and I for­got to blog it. I’ve pub­lished a book.

I haven’t writ­ten a book, or edited it or any­thing requir­ing any aca­demic input. I just worked on the pub­lish­ing. The book is the first volume of the Proceedings from the GIREP-EPEC and PHEC 2009 con­fer­ence. In English, it was a Physics Education con­fer­ence. I had noth­ing to do with the con­fer­ence, but my Head of Department men­tioned to a col­league at McMaster University that he was going to pub­lish a pro­ceed­ings volume and she remembered I’d worked on the cover for the first Open Laboratory book, and so must be an expert in publishing.

I’m not, but as Shawn Graham has shown, the actual pro­cess of pub­lish­ing a book via Lulu is easy and pain-free if you’re will­ing to make some com­prom­ises. The draw­backs are things like a lack of pro­fes­sional type­set­ting, but these days pub­lish­ers often insist on camera-ready copy any­way. There’s also no mar­ket­ing. For some con­fer­ence volumes this will be a line in a cata­logue and an email and, pos­sibly a dis­play at the next con­fer­ence meet­ing of the pre­vi­ous pro­ceed­ings. You do lose some help by bypassing a pub­lisher, but you can poten­tially gain a lot more too.

Firstly we set the price. We went quite high. The print ver­sion of the book is £20. That’s about 6p a page so it’s a sim­ilar cost to pho­to­copy­ing the book. It’s not extra­vag­antly high, but it’s higher than it strictly needs to be as we’ll also be mak­ing it avail­able via Amazon. We decided to do that because people are famil­iar with buy­ing a book from Amazon, they’re not so famil­iar with Lulu, even though it’s the same product. To release a book on Amazon we have to double the retail price, to allow their mar­gin. Despite this a 365 page aca­demic book could often be more than £50 so it’s a saving.

But we can do better.

The book is released with a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence and we’ve put the PDF up on Scribd. You can read and down­load it for free as a PDF. Print out the chapters you’re inter­ested in and leave the rest.

After two weeks we have 900 views and a few sales. It’s likely that it’s not 900 unique views, but it’s still not a bad res­ult for two weeks. In the Humanities print runs of 250 volumes are com­mon. I don’t know about the Sciences, where the pub­lic­a­tion cul­ture is dif­fer­ent any­way, but we have some­thing that I think will com­pete well in terms of read­er­ship in com­par­ison to a sim­ilar volume released via a tra­di­tional pub­lisher. It won’t be any­thing like as prof­it­able as a book pro­duced by a tra­di­tional pub­lisher, but none of the aca­dem­ics would see that profit any­way so for us that’s not an issue.

It’s also a lot faster to get to pub­lic­a­tion. Cheryl Hurkett did all the LaTeX work on the file and when she was ready she called me in. I registered her with Lulu and we set up a new pro­ject. We tried upload­ing a PDF out­put Lulu, but that didn’t work. So we sent the out­put to a .ps file instead. That con­ver­ted pain­lessly. The cover took a bit more muck­ing about as we went with a vari­ation on the stand­ard tem­plates, but the whole thing went from LaTeX to book on one Thursday. The only gripe we had was that you have to choose to get the free ISBN num­ber right at the start of the pro­ject, and once you have that num­ber your title is set. The book on the Lulu page is lis­ted with the work­ing title, which is pass­able for a first attempt but not good enough for volume 2.

There will be a volume 2, as we could show how simple the pub­lic­a­tion pro­cess was.

It’s not a pan­acea for all aca­demic pub­lish­ing. There are plenty of pub­lish­ers who do add value to a book. However, for con­fer­ence pro­ceed­ings the only reas­ons for choos­ing to pub­lish via a spe­cial­ist pub­lisher rather than Lulu are social. The aca­demic out­put is the same, it’s just that one is slower and more expens­ive and that’s the sys­tem we’re used to. The out­put can be traced dir­ectly back to Bora Zivkovic’s innov­a­tion with The Open Laboratory so his blog­ging is con­trib­ut­ing to an observ­able dif­fer­ence in the sci­entific process.

Friendfeed: I’m doing it wrong


I’ve been put­ting together a work­shop on social media for the Physics depart­ment here at Leicester. It’s two hours to cover Web 2.0, so to cover it all I’d have to work at the rate of 1.0 per hour. Instead I’ve opted to cover a small range of the most use­ful tools. deli­cious, Google Reader and blog­ging, which I’m using Posterous for. The more ser­vices you sign up for the more dif­fuse your pres­ence, so I’m put­ting Friendfeed at the centre of the work­shop to pull it all together.

The model I’m using is one I’ve stolen from Alan Cann which is that Friendfeed is Facebook for sci­ent­ists. I know it’s not exactly, but it’s close enough as an intro­duc­tion. In some ways it’s a Twitter sub­sti­tute too. I’ve left Twitter out of the work­shop, which I know is a big hole, but Twitter takes a couple of days to under­stand because it doesn’t make sense without the replies and inter­ac­tion, while Friendfeed has more tools for shar­ing stuff. Friendfeed needs inter­ac­tion too, but it is at least a bit easier to see the point of Friendfeed using the Facebook model. If you’re not really plugged into the idea of net­works then Twitter looks like a dull and crippled rip-off of Facebook.

So while I’ve been put­ting this together I’ve also been think­ing about how I use web­sites. Blogs are still the place for gath­er­ing longer ideas like this, and reflect­ing on them. They’re not so good for some other things. I find inter­est­ing things on the web and I want to share them. This is a prob­lem, and it’s one that Brett Holman blogged on while I was put­ting this post together.

How do you put together links for a blog post? You could just put up the links and titles, but that doesn’t make for much of a post. You could blog on each one, but that’s a lot of work. In the past I’ve used things like deli­cious or ma.gnolia to com­pile posts from book­marks. The prob­lem with that is that you need a cer­tain num­ber of book­marks in a post else almost every posts is Links for %date%. On the other hand if you store up links in groups of 10, then link 1 could be out-of-date by the time you have ten links to make a post. Blogging used to be the best way to share links, but now there are bet­ter ways. Brett Holman is using Twitter. I’m using Friendfeed, because the way it handles com­ments is easier and it can post to Twitter any­way; it’s not an either/or choice.

I don’t see it as blog­ging versus twit­ter­ing as some people have either. You could see the move to put links onto Friendfeed as cut­ting back on blog­ging. I prefer to see it as free­ing the blog from hav­ing to carry posts that don’t suit it. Friendfeed or Twitter is the per­fect place for point to this photo of cute nuzz­ling chee­tahs.

There are some prob­lems with Friendfeed. People import their twit­ter streams, and that doesn’t usu­ally work very well. Conversations appear out of con­text, but it’s an easy enough issue to solve. Friendfeed has a ‘hide’ but­ton, and you can hide all entries from Twitter unless they get a ‘like’. You’re rely­ing on other people to find the note­worthy tweets for you, but if you’re on Friendfeed you’re prob­ably also on twit­ter too — so it’s no great loss.

Following that, I’ve made a slight change to the front of the blog, with the Friendfeed stream going to the front instead of the fea­tures gal­lery. If you want to fol­low me, then you can find my Friendfeed account at http://​friend​feed​.com/​a​lun and if you tell what account you’re using I can fol­low you back.

I’ll be post­ing a link to the work­sheets for the work­shop once the class has star­ted on Friendfeed.

Time to ditch the press release?

Fixing the newspapers. Photo (cc) Evil Erin.

Fixing the news­pa­pers. Photo (cc) Evil Erin.

At the National Astronomy Meeting in 2004 I listened to Dr David Whitehouse, who I think was then Science Editor at the BBC, give advice about feed­ing sci­ence stor­ies to the media. He made quite a few points, but there are three I remember.

  1. Don’t push a story on the grounds it’s the biggest / old­est / shi­ni­est / crum­bli­est etc. thing found. It’s a cliché and it’s dull.
  2. Don’t waste people’s time with the for­mula for ‘x’ where x is any­thing which really shouldn’t have a formula.
  3. Don’t use press releases.

At the time he really didn’t con­vince me. The biggest, old­est and so on remains a staple news item. Likewise Cliff Arnall has shown you can make money from non­sense for­mu­lae. What really under­mined him though was the news­room run by the RAS at the meet­ing. I could wander in there and see the press releases. The next day I could see the same stor­ies, often with little edit­ing, in the national press. If he were to give the same talk today he might find it even harder. I can go to Eurekalert and pick up a sen­tence from any press release. If I paste it into Google I will find masses of news web­sites repeat­ing the press release near verbatim.

Surely this proves pub­li­city is about get­ting your press release into the right press release mill? I might have a news story by the end of the year and so I’ve thought about what I want to achieve with pub­li­city. I’m job hunt­ing. Press cov­er­age could be really help­ful to intro­duce me and my work to depart­ments. That’s why I’m more inter­ested in qual­ity rather than quant­ity and that’s why I think David Whitehouse could be right.

The reason I was scep­tical is because of an adversarial model of researcher-journalist rela­tions. Basically this is down to two complaints.

  1. Journalists regur­git­ate press releases without any crit­ical thought.
  2. Journalists don’t regur­git­ate my press releases without any crit­ical thought.

Clearly that proves that any prob­lems in sci­ence journ­al­ism are the fault of journ­al­ists rather than my work being unnews­worthy. You can’t argue with logic like that unless you’re very drunk.

If you see journ­al­ists as a bar­rier between you and the pub­lic then bypassing them makes sense. The tar­get becomes get­ting the press release as unmangled as pos­sible into the public’s hands. This kind of think­ing is the basis behind Futurity. The journ­al­ists are a resource val­ued as far as they can repro­duce the release you’ve given them. Presumably there’s a corol­lary to this rela­tion­ship from the journ­al­ists’ side where sci­ent­ists are val­ued as far as fit­ting a mar­ket­ing niche.

David Whitehouse argued that what journ­al­ists really want is an exclus­ive. Sticking a press release out means that it’s low pri­or­ity because every­one will be able to cover the story. It wasn’t the best sales pitch because what I heard at the time was “If you put out a press release then lots of people will cover it, but an exclus­ive means only one per­son cov­ers it.” If you’re in the adversarial model then the choice between press release and talk­ing to just one journ­al­ist, who may decide not to run your story, is a no-brainer.

Now I’ve changed my mind.

My work is inter­dis­cip­lin­ary. Journals, gen­er­ally, aren’t. That means if I pub­lish my work in one journal then it’ll be missed by a lot of the poten­tial audi­ence because research­ers tend to read journ­als in their own dis­cip­line and only a few out­side it. What I need is to pub­li­cise the work so that research­ers out­side the field of whatever journal I pub­lish in will be aware of the paper. So if I pub­lish in The Journal of Obscure Astronomy then I’ll have to find some way to alert clas­si­cists and archae­olo­gists to the paper, else they’ll never read it — even if JOA is open access or the paper’s on arXiv.

Having a press release appear on a thou­sand web­sites is great for the ego, but it’s point­less if they’re a thou­sand web­sites that no-one with an interest in clas­sics or archae­ology reads. If I wanted to announce work to a small num­ber of intel­li­gent people I’d post it here. What I need is qual­ity of cov­er­age rather than quant­ity. In fact as I wrote that last sen­tence it struck me how irrel­ev­ant quant­ity of cov­er­age is.

It sounds good. It’s some­thing people can meas­ure in column inches but real­ist­ic­ally 10 column inches in two papers is not twice as good as 5 inches in one paper. Sharing links is easy. If the story appeared in just one major site, the link would be passed around. Appearing in more papers aids dis­cov­ery, but the stor­ies will all be say­ing sim­ilar things about the work. I was told that the recent pub­lic­a­tions on the Antikythera Mechanism appeared as news stor­ies in all the qual­ity papers in the world. But I bet if I were to sit down and read them all I’d find very little new inform­a­tion after the first three stor­ies. Certainly appear­ing in more qual­ity press is a bet­ter res­ult, but the size of the read­er­ship for the major news sites is such that appear­ing in just one major site will still deliver more reach than a hun­dred minor sites.

It also looks like a prac­tical way to aid good journ­al­ism. I’m will­ing to bet that any sci­ence journ­al­ist with even a bit of tal­ent would like to see the end of press releases being called news. If we rein­force the idea that a recycled press release is news then there’s no call for spe­cial­ist sci­ence journ­al­ists because any­one can recycle a press release.

That’s why I’ve decided the next time I have a story — if the journal doesn’t have its own media policy — I’m going to try pitch­ing it dir­ect to a journ­al­ist rather than via a press release. I’m not com­fort­able with this. Every day you can see press releases work­ing in the papers and if web­sites recycle mater­ial big num­bers are attract­ive. But maybe that’s a safety net? If news sites really are put­ting up press releases as news then even if attempts to pitch the exclus­ive fail you can always fall back on a press release. That’s another reason press releases shouldn’t be the first option.

The Drayson / Goldacre Debate


On the 16th of September there was a debate between Lord Drayson, Minister for Science amongst other things, and Ben Goldacre, the Guardian’s Bad Science colum­nist. The mat­ter under dis­cus­sion was the qual­ity of sci­ence journ­al­ism. It stems from a debate at the ABSW meet­ing where Lord Drayson said that British sci­ence journ­al­ism was the best in the world. This came as a bit of a sur­prise to many people. There was a lot of response on Twitter and Drayson agreed to debate with Goldacre about sci­ence journ­al­ism. Hence the debate on 16th September.

There’s a vote going around as to who won the Science Media debate. Who the ‘win­ner’ was tends to depend on whether or not you’re a journ­al­ist. Goldacre had the much more emo­tion­ally attract­ive pos­i­tion for sci­ent­ists. All sci­ent­ists think their work is inter­est­ing, but given the space avail­able in the media it’s inev­it­able that many will be cruelly over­looked. It will be genu­inely inter­est­ing, even it’s been pitched badly, but being so close to your research will mean you don’t always have the full per­spect­ive. Also there’s always someone who’s doing more news­worthy research than yours. There’s mine for a start.

The fact that so many sci­ent­ists say it was close has to be due in part to Goldacre not going out with the inten­tion of just beat­ing Drayson. It was more like to grown-ups hav­ing a sens­ible dis­cus­sion about the prob­lem. There’s some very pos­it­ive points which came out of this, which is why I don’t think it’s a cop-out to say both sides won.

Drayson was care­ful to qual­ify his defence of sci­ence journ­al­ism, it was only journ­al­ism by spe­cial­ised sci­ence journ­al­ists he wanted to defend. I think that’s not a help­ful dis­tinc­tion. There are good sci­ence journ­al­ists, but that doesn’t mat­ter in the least if sci­ence stor­ies are being writ­ten ignor­ant gen­eral sci­ence journ­al­ists. Some people might read who got the byline, but for most people the author is just a name. They’re read­ing the story because it’s in the Sun or Mirror, not because Joe Bloggs really knows his genet­ics. Additionally he com­plained that people would take a scep­tical view of a sci­ence story just because it appeared on the front page of the Express. This, he held, was dam­aging trust in sci­ence journ­al­ism. I dis­agree. I think pub­lish­ing Diana con­spir­acy stor­ies on the front page of the Express dam­ages trust. Science journ­al­ism doesn’t exist vacuum and the cred­ib­il­ity of report­ing mat­ters whether it’s polit­ics or science.

On the other hand there were some very good ideas that came out of the dis­cus­sion. Drayson con­firmed that the next round of UK research assess­ment, the REF, will include points for pub­lic engage­ment and that will include blogs as well as main­stream media. That’s good but prob­lem­atic. The plan is to get some respect for aca­dem­ics who talk to the pub­lic as well as research­ers. But, as Alan Cann said to me, this won’t work if these people can­not get into the assess­ment in the first place. Previous research assess­ments have been manip­u­lated by uni­ver­sit­ies so that only the stars get entered. If they hold the opin­ion that pub­lic engage­ment detracts from a researcher then they won’t get into the REF to pick up points. There’s only so much any gov­ern­ment min­is­ter is going to be able to do about that. It requires a shift in atti­tude in aca­demia, but it would be help­ful if the value of pub­lic engage­ment could be spelled out in very clear lan­guage well before the next REF.

Ben Goldacre raised the point that while sci­ent­ists should be encour­aged to talk and write about their work, their out­put is improved with edit­ing. He was also very keen to talk up activ­ity on the inter­net and he and Drayson agreed that a small grants scheme should be in place to sup­port sci­ence blog­gers. Lord Drayson also encour­aged sci­ent­ists mis­rep­res­en­ted by the media to con­tact him, and pledged to tweet his office email address — which he did.

To some extent the Q&A ses­sion was tri­bal. The journ­al­ists felt that uncom­mu­nic­at­ive sci­ent­ists were the prob­lem, while sci­ent­ists thought it would be nice if journ­al­ists listened. It reminded me a bit of the prison report — the one which read that the troubles in the jail were not down to facil­it­ies, staff or sys­tems but that the smooth run­ning of the jail was hampered by the fact many of the pris­on­ers were crim­in­als. Equally com­plain­ing about the wrong sort of journ­al­ists or sci­ent­ists might be right, but it’s not a step towards a solution.

This is where I thought, from the sci­ence side, that Drayson’s focus on spe­cial­ist sci­ence journ­al­ists was help­ful. Journalism isn’t about recyc­ling press releases, so per­haps it’s worth ask­ing how use­ful the press release is to many sci­ent­ists which is where I’ll pick up next time.

If Futurity is the answer, then I don’t understand the question


I’d like to blog about the Drayson / Goldacre debate before the topic gets too cold, but before I do I thought I’d men­tion Futurity. It’s inter­est­ing because it’s sup­posedly, an attempt to address a decline in sci­ence journ­al­ism. “In an increas­ingly com­plex world, the pub­lic needs access to clear, reli­able research news. Futurity does the work of gath­er­ing that news,” says the about page of the site. That’s fas­cin­at­ing because, if they’re right, I’ve com­pletely mis­un­der­stood what sci­ence journ­al­ism means.

Here’s an example. First up, a press release from the University of Michigan, Researchers find gene that pro­tects high-fat-diet mice from obesity, which starts like this:

U-M research­ers have iden­ti­fied a gene that acts as a mas­ter switch to con­trol obesity in mice. When the switch is turned off, even high-fat-diet mice remain thin.

Deleting the gene, called IKKE, also appears to pro­tect mice against con­di­tions that, in humans, lead to Type 2 dia­betes, which is asso­ci­ated with obesity and is on the rise among Americans, includ­ing chil­dren and adolescents.

Next there’s the press release on the pub­licly access­ible Eurekalert, U-M research­ers find gene that pro­tects high-fat-diet mice from obesity. That reads:

University of Michigan research­ers have iden­ti­fied a gene that acts as a mas­ter switch to con­trol obesity in mice. When the switch is turned off, even high-fat-diet mice remain thin.

Deleting the gene, called IKKE, also appears to pro­tect mice against con­di­tions that, in humans, lead to Type 2 dia­betes, which is asso­ci­ated with obesity and is on the rise among Americans, includ­ing chil­dren and adolescents.

Finally there’s the public-targetted story: Gene—not diet—makes mice obese?:

Researchers have iden­ti­fied a gene that acts as a mas­ter switch to con­trol obesity in mice. When the switch is turned off, even mice on high-fat diets remain thin.

Deleting the gene, called IKKE, also appears to pro­tect mice against con­di­tions that, in humans, lead to Type 2 dia­betes, which is asso­ci­ated with obesity and is on the rise among Americans, includ­ing chil­dren and adolescents.

“Futurity is aimed at gen­eral audi­ence rather than report­ers” said one of the sites founders in the Columbia Journalism Review. I’ve looked at a few stor­ies and com­pared them with their Eurekalert coun­ter­parts. What Futurity offers is a dif­fer­ent head­line and an occa­sion­ally re-ordered dis­play of inform­a­tion. The link to the National Bureau of Economic Research work­ing paper in the Futurity story above comes fur­ther down the page. Is this qual­ity sci­ence journ­al­ism? I wouldn’t have thought so. I’d have called it a press release. I’m not exactly sure how you meas­ure the qual­ity of sci­ence journ­al­ism, but I would have thought there would have been more to report­ing than par­rot­ing the press release. Is this an isol­ated incid­ent? Does Futurity offer some­thing that a press-release doesn’t. Here’s the top four stor­ies today on Futurity com­pared with their coun­ter­parts on Eurekalert.

Futurity Eurekalert
‘Punk-size’ T. rex found in China
CHICAGO—A 9-foot dino­saur from north­east­ern China had evolved all the hall­mark ana­tom­ical fea­tures of Tyrannosaurus rex at least 125 mil­lion years ago, includ­ing a large head com­pared to its torso, tiny arms, and lanky feet well-suited for running.

University of Chicago pale­on­to­lo­gist Paul Sereno and five coau­thors describe the newly dis­covered dino­saur in the Sept. 17 Science Express, advanced online edi­tion of the journal Science.

T. rex body plan deb­uted in Raptorex, but 100th the size
A 9-foot dino­saur from north­east­ern China had evolved all the hall­mark ana­tom­ical fea­tures of Tyrannosaurus rex at least 125 mil­lion years ago. University of Chicago pale­on­to­lo­gist Paul Sereno and five co-authors describe the newly dis­covered dino­saur in the Sept. 17 Science Express, advanced online edi­tion of the journal Science.

Raptorex shows that tyr­an­no­saur design evolved at “punk size,” said Sereno, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, “basic­ally our body­weight. And that’s pretty stag­ger­ing, because there’s no other example that I can think of where an animal has been so finely designed at about 100th the size that it would even­tu­ally become.”

Photo reveals Africa’s cryptic cat
YALE—An anthro­po­lo­gist has cap­tured pho­to­graphic images of a rare, cougar-like cat ran­ging at night in an endangered Ugandan forest.

The images of the African golden cat (Profelis aurata) were taken by a digital infrared cam­era trap set last year by the anthro­po­lo­gist who was study­ing prim­ate beha­vior in the wild.

No equi­val­ent on Eurekalert, but Yale’s press release reads:
New Haven, Conn. — A Yale anthro­po­lo­gist has cap­tured pho­to­graphic images of a rare, cougar-like cat ran­ging at night in an endangered Ugandan forest.

The images of the African golden cat (Profelis aurata) were taken by a digital infrared cam­era trap set last year by the anthro­po­lo­gist who was study­ing prim­ate beha­vior in the wild.

Same name, dif­fer­ent lung can­cer
Lung can­cer in patients who have never smoked is a very dif­fer­ent dis­ease than the lung can­cer smokers get, and should be treated as such, new research finds.

It is becom­ing increas­ingly clear that the genetic, cel­lu­lar, and molecu­lar nature of lung can­cer in many never-smokers is dif­fer­ent from that of smoking-related lung can­cers, and there is good evid­ence now that the best treat­ment and pre­ven­tion strategies for never-smokers may be dif­fer­ent as well,” says Charles Rudin, asso­ci­ate dir­ector for clin­ical research at the Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Guide on lung can­cer in ‘never-smokers’: A dif­fer­ent dis­ease and dif­fer­ent treat­ments
A com­mit­tee of sci­ent­ists led by Johns Hopkins invest­ig­at­ors has pub­lished a new guide to the bio­logy, dia­gnosis and treat­ment of lung can­cer in never-smokers, for­ti­fy­ing meas­ures for what phys­i­cians have long known is a very dif­fer­ent dis­ease than in smokers.

It is becom­ing increas­ingly clear that the genetic, cel­lu­lar, and molecu­lar nature of lung can­cer in many never-smokers is dif­fer­ent from that of smoking-related lung can­cers, and there is good evid­ence now that the best treat­ment and pre­ven­tion strategies for never-smokers may be dif­fer­ent as well,” says Charles M. Rudin, M.D., Ph.D., asso­ci­ate dir­ector for Clinical Research at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. Lung can­cer in never-smokers is the sixth lead­ing cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S.

Nanotubes may yield greener solar cells
CORNELL—Using a car­bon nan­otube instead of tra­di­tional sil­icon, research­ers have cre­ated the basic ele­ments of a solar cell that may lead to much more effi­cient ways of con­vert­ing light to electricity.

The research­ers fab­ric­ated, tested, and meas­ured a simple solar cell called a pho­to­di­ode, formed from an indi­vidual car­bon nan­otube. Reported online Sept. 11 in the journal Science, the research­ers describe how their device con­verts light to elec­tri­city in an extremely effi­cient pro­cess that mul­ti­plies the amount of elec­trical cur­rent that flows. This pro­cess could prove import­ant for next-generation high effi­ciency solar cells, the research­ers say.

Carbon nan­otubes could make effi­cient solar cells

Using a car­bon nan­otube instead of tra­di­tional sil­icon, Cornell research­ers have cre­ated the basic ele­ments of a solar cell that hope­fully will lead to much more effi­cient ways of con­vert­ing light to elec­tri­city than now used in cal­cu­lat­ors and on rooftops.

The research­ers fab­ric­ated, tested and meas­ured a simple solar cell called a pho­to­di­ode, formed from an indi­vidual car­bon nan­otube. Reported online Sept. 11 in the journal Science, the research­ers — led by Paul McEuen, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics, and Jiwoong Park, assist­ant pro­fessor of chem­istry and chem­ical bio­logy — describe how their device con­verts light to elec­tri­city in an extremely effi­cient pro­cess that mul­ti­plies the amount of elec­trical cur­rent that flows. This pro­cess could prove import­ant for next-generation high effi­ciency solar cells, the research­ers say.

To me the stor­ies on Futurity look like re-headlined and slightly tweaked press-releases. The table above is not an entirely fair com­par­ison so if you’re scep­tical you can click on the links to see the stor­ies in full. Futurity has a yel­low masthead.

One of the points Ben Goldacre made in the Times Higher debate was that not every pub­lished study is worth a whole news story. The end res­ult would be the Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project which fol­lows the Daily Mail’s attempt to clas­sify everything in the world as things that cause or cure can­cer. In the case above obesity is a com­plex prob­lem with diet­ary, hered­it­ary and social factors. There’s no magic bul­let to solve the prob­lem. It’s a com­plex story that needs con­text to make sense but you’re not going to get that from a press release. What is prob­ably a very good piece of research has been turned into quite a bad story.

It might be more inter­est­ing to ask “Why are around 35 top uni­ver­sit­ies releas­ing warmed-over press releases on a web­site when the pub­lic already have access to Eurekalert?” You could make it sound quite sin­is­ter. Are the rich uni­ver­sit­ies attempt­ing to hive off pub­lic interest away from Eurekalert so they don’t have to com­pete with Hicksville State University? Alternatively is it an attempt to dis­tance the uni­ver­sit­ies from some of Eurekalert’s more eccent­ric contributors?

There’ll be more from me on sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion over the next month as I’ve been think­ing about it for a few months now. One idea I’m not keen on is that the prob­lem is the mass media. Clearly they con­trib­ute, but Futurity shows that when you bypass sci­ence journ­al­ists alto­gether the res­ult looks amaz­ingly sim­ilar to the kind of report­ing people com­plain about.

I’ll con­cede that there could be some­thing really clever about Futurity which couldn’t be done by tweak­ing Eurekalert. I’m no media expert so it’s entri­rely pos­sible that there’s some big prob­lem that Futurity is the per­fect shape fix, but if Futurity is the answer, then I don’t under­stand the question.

Science is interesting. If you don’t like it, it’s your problem not mine.

I’ll admit not every­one is inter­ested in the world around them.

Here’s a site I like, The Hall of Ma’at. I don’t read it as much as I’d like because my read­ing tends to be RSS based. Still, it means that when I do remem­ber to visit their forum there’s plenty of inter­est­ing stuff. I’ve just learned about The Chocolate Hills. As well as being fas­cin­at­ing geo­logy, that thread also includes a bit of mock­ery. It’s an inter­est­ing place. They’ll have vis­it­ors who have found the exact ali­ens which built the pyr­am­ids every so often, and they’ll listen. On the other hand I don’t see them com­prom­ising on the need for evid­ence. If you’re wrong or mak­ing stuff up, you will know about it.

The founder, Kat Reese, is an inter­est­ing per­son. She con­trib­uted a chapter to the book Archaeological Fantasies. Not all of Memoirs of a True Believer is vis­ible at Google Books, but cer­tainly there’s enough. She puts her­self under the micro­scope and tells of her move­ment from altern­at­ive his­tor­ical beliefs to more main­stream archae­ology. One of the key dif­fer­ences she sees between pop­u­lar altern­at­ive archae­ology authors and the aca­dem­ics is that the altern­at­ive authors see this as a polit­ical debate. It’s not about the science.

Claims about the past are about people, so they’re often polit­ical. However, so to are claims in other pseudos­ciences. You get pro­nounce­ments on health policy from the many and var­ied quacks shun evid­ence as a means for determ­in­ing med­ical care. I’ve recently seen people com­plain­ing about the LCROSS impact on the Moon who care deeply and pas­sion­ately, though not quite to the extent that they vis­ited NASA’s site on the LCROSS to find out what the mis­sion is about. NASA’s research on the effects of the LCROSS impact is a prob­lem if you don’t know any­thing about lunar geo­logy but you want to argue against them. You could learn, but that’s time con­sum­ing. It’s much easier to argue that NASA simply don’t know any­thing about the Moon. This is about stand­ing up to author­ity which, along the way, means tak­ing down Science.

Now, here’s the head-spinning bit.

When Deepak Chopra makes his appeals to send him more money he doesn’t do it because of mys­tic ooki­ness. He does it based on appeals to quantum phys­ics. I’m using the word ‘based’ in a com­pletely incor­rect sense there. Chiropractors get stroppy about being next to other New Age prac­ti­tion­ers. Homeopaths don’t refer to them­selves as magi­cians. They give each other degrees and not just any degrees but BScs. Oh yes, the days when sci­ent­ist could visit the lav­at­or­ies in the Arts block and smugly write “Arts degrees, please take one,” next to the toi­let paper dis­penser are over. If there’s so much oppos­i­tion to sci­entific reas­on­ing, why do cranks make their claims in pseudo-scientific lan­guage?

Even Ken Ham, the man who pushes the line that the Bible is inerr­ant, pro­motes his sci­ence cre­den­tials on Answers in Genesis. He’s got a Bachelor’s degree from QIT. Why on earth would you need a sci­ence degree if you say the answers can all be found through Biblical study? The answer is import­ant for sci­ence communication.

People love science.

It’s recog­nised as one of the best meth­ods for learn­ing about the world around you. A lot of people find the world around them quite inter­est­ing. Added to that is test­ing of ideas and abil­ity to weed out bad ideas that makes sci­ence attract­ive. When nutri­tion­ists are push­ing their pill sup­ple­ments they’re not inter­ested in ‘another way of know­ing’. They’re eager to equate them­selves with sci­ence because that makes their work fact. When people want to belittle evol­u­tion, they don’t refer to evolution’s sci­ence base. Instead evol­u­tion is a reli­gion or a faith pos­i­tion. It sug­gests to me that polit­ical groups are aware gods can­not com­pete with sci­ence as explan­a­tions for a lot of the pub­lic. If faith was as import­ant as it’s cracked up to be then call­ing evol­u­tion a reli­gion wouldn’t be a put-down. Similarly global warm­ing den­iers don’t say that sci­ence can­not be used to exam­ine cli­mate change. Instead they say vari­ous argu­ments are aren’t sci­entific. Very few people dis­miss an argu­ment by call­ing it sci­entific because even, if you don’t like it, sci­ence has a repu­ta­tion for work­ing out what is true.

That’s why I think expli­citly tag­ging polit­ics onto sci­ence could detract in some way from the sci­entific mes­sage. In Kat Reese’s chapter she’s open that what worked for her was the emphasis on veri­fi­able facts, and the dif­fer­ence in method between the sci­entific and the pseudo-scientific archae­olo­gists. It’s a great selling point. If that’s the case ped­dling reli­gion as con­trib­ut­ing to or being a part­ner in sci­entific find­ings is not only dis­hon­est, but also con­fus­ing the pub­lic about what sci­ence is. Religion can cer­tainly be an inspir­a­tion, but so can the works of Shakespeare and no-one argues that Shakespeare is an essen­tial part­ner in ques­tions about the universe.

That doesn’t make advocacy wrong. Janet Stemwedel put it much bet­ter than me in say­ing sci­ent­ists (and aca­dem­ics as a whole) are not all after the same thing.. That might include lob­by­ing for a more eco­lo­gic­ally respons­ible pos­i­tion or against reli­gion infringing human rights. But these are polit­ical aims. Mooney and Kirshenbaum are appeal­ing for people who have dif­fer­ent polit­ical view to them to talk about some­thing else. The fact they don’t see why this might be a prob­lem shows a wor­ry­ing lack of aware­ness of soci­ety. Personally I’m not inter­ested in whether you believe in a god or not. I def­in­itely don’t feel any respons­ib­il­ity to (de-?)convert people. I already have enough respons­ib­il­it­ies. My interest starts when someone claims their beliefs limit what I can do without any jus­ti­fic­a­tion other than a vague feel­ing. That is also polit­ics rather than science.

So what can you do for sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion? I think It can be helped by people shar­ing tac­tics, but the requires accept­ing the diversity of sci­ent­ists or pub­lic. It could be help­ful to share what works and what doesn’t in dif­fer­ent con­texts. On the other hand if you insist your polit­ical beliefs are in fact a com­ment on sci­ence, you’ll end up with a self-destructive row which does no-one any good.

That’s my attempt to start mov­ing to some­thing pos­it­ive. I don’t think someone’s a fail­ure just because they don’t appeal to every­one. If the long tail means any­thing we should be shar­ing and cel­eb­rat­ing all the small suc­cesses as well as the a-list. Except me, if I am a suc­cess, because whenever I get a traffic spike I always think, “Bloody hell, what have I gone and said now?”

Science is Cultures


I was walk­ing across a bridge one day, and I saw a man stand­ing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said “Stop! don’t do it!“
“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!“
He said, “Like what?“
I said, “Well…are you reli­gious or athe­ist?“
He said, “Religious.“
I said, “Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?“
He said, “Christian.“
I said, “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?“
He said, “Protestant.“
I said, “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?“
He said, “Baptist!“
I said,“Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?“
He said, “Baptist Church of God!“
I said, “Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God , or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?“
He said,“Reformed Baptist Church of God!“
I said, “Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reform­a­tion of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reform­a­tion of 1915?“
He said, “Reformed baptist church of god, reform­a­tion of 1915!“
I said, “DIE, HERETIC SCUM!” and pushed him off.

Emo Phillips demon­strates no-one is gen­er­ic­ally ‘religious’

I had 2000 words on Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s blog­ging typed up. I was going to leave it for my own files, then I was going to work it in a blog post. Since then there’s been a bit of a melt­down on the Intersection. That means I’m not going to pick through most of their con­tra­dic­tions. There’s plenty of other people doing that and at worst, if I do it badly, it’s going to feed into the they’re vic­tims of the big blog­ger / bul­ly­ing PZ in the national media argu­ment (delete as appro­pri­ate). They’re the two pop­u­lar frames for the argu­ment, and being seen in one or the other pretty well rail­roads you into one sid­ing or another.

I’m aware Frames are deeply unpop­u­lar with some sci­ence blog­gers. If you’re not famil­iar with them, they come from an opin­ion piece in Science, Framing Science, by Nisbett and Mooney which argued that sci­ent­ists should com­mu­nic­ate their work in a social con­text, or frame, which res­on­ated with the pub­lic. To social sci­ent­ists the idea that texts have social con­texts is a mundane obser­va­tion. To sci­ent­ists who entered the sci­ences because they were inter­ested in sci­ence rather than cul­ture, this is per­haps less obvi­ous. At its most basic the mes­sage is “know your audi­ence”, which appears in more or else every book on present­a­tion I’ve read. Where Framing Science went fur­ther is that it seemed to assume that sci­ence was polit­ical and com­mu­nic­a­tion was advocacy. My opin­ion was that sci­ence was polit­ical, with a small p, but that the cul­ture in sci­ence was built around try­ing to min­im­ise that effect to cre­ate a neut­ral product. As far as I know there’s no expli­citly social­ist Law of Gravity. Nisbett and Mooney failed to either real­ise or con­vin­cingly acco­mod­ate how anti­thet­ical to some notions of sci­ence their pro­posal was. Either Frames are non­sense, or their meth­ods were an example of doing Frames badly.

Spin on to 2009 and Mooney and Kirshenbaum are advoc­at­ing a change in prac­tice in some sci­ent­ists. That’s per­fectly reas­on­able. No-one I know thinks sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion is per­fect. One of their stated tar­gets is to change the beha­viour of sci­ent­ists who are unsym­path­etic towards reli­gious belief. This isn’t irra­tional. They give reas­ons and come to a con­clu­sion. Whether or not you agree with them isn’t the prob­lem. If you do think the New Atheists should turn down the volume then how do you go about it? Telling the people you want to per­suade that they’re bad people and their narrow-mindedness is harm­ing Science isn’t the method I’d choose.

If I were to argue that the biggest bene­fit to sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion would be for PZ Myers to stop attack­ing reli­gion (to pick a totally ran­dom example), then I’d want to frame my mes­sage so that it res­on­ated with people like PZ Myers. I might argue that aggress­ive debate with a pub­lic which isn’t used to evidence-based debate as part of every­day life is polar­ising. This is a prob­lem if you occupy a small minor­ity pos­i­tion because the prob­lem is polit­ical rather than sci­entific and polit­ics is about quant­ity rather than qual­ity. I’d pre­face my argu­ment with data to show it wasn’t some­thing I pulled out of the air. This is because even if you think New Atheists are dog­matic it’s part of their self-image that they aren’t, so data would play well with them. If New Atheists genu­inely aren’t dog­matic then they can exam­ine the data any­way, so it’s win-win. Of course if the data doesn’t exist to sup­port the pro­pos­i­tion I might want to ques­tion if my pos­i­tion was sound.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum have adop­ted a some­what dif­fer­ent tac­tic. They’ve aggress­ively gone after PZ Myers, omit­ting some details Myers thinks are import­ant in their dis­cus­sion. Even if Mooney and Kirshenbaum are entirely cor­rect in what they say this still a cata­strophic fail­ure of frame if they intend to alter Myers’ beha­viour. This fail­ure is being com­poun­ded on their web­log. I’m left won­der­ing who the tar­get of the frame is. In the­ory it looks fine. Mooney and Kirshenbaum are the prag­matic sci­ent­ists who are fed up with the God Wars. That’s a frame which should appeal to a lot of athe­ists who can’t be bothered with reli­gion because they have no interest. However the dis­cus­sion of how the New Atheists are Bad People, pulls it right back into that argu­ment. The only way that could make sense is if Science is a monoculture.

That’s where SEED magazine is wrong. Science isn’t Culture. Science is Cultures, plural, with dif­fer­ing motiv­a­tions, meth­ods even social beha­viour. Physicists will often pub­lish to pre-print serv­ers and work from those rather than wait for formal pub­lic­a­tion in a journal. Other sci­ent­ists wouldn’t. I’ve lost track of how many dif­fer­ent defin­i­tions dif­fer­ent dis­cip­lines have for the word ‘agent’. I’ve vis­ited one com­bined depart­ment where people iden­ti­fied which sub-field you were work­ing in by see­ing what you were drink­ing. One group drank beer, one group drank wine and the third drank to for­get. Throw in com­plic­at­ing factors like per­sonal polit­ical views and sci­ent­ists are not a homo­gen­ous bunch. You can’t reach every­one, and you don’t even need to try. You can pick your fights.

The same assump­tion of a homeo­gen­ous (and pass­ive) audi­ence is seen else­where. Many com­ments have argued that Dawkins prob­lem is that he isn’t Sagan. Sagan was respec­ted. Sagan bridge sci­ence and reli­gion. Sagan reached 500 mil­lion people with his shows. Basically Sagan is the Chuck Norris of sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion. No-one seems to have added that the world has moved on. When Sagan at his peak there were three tele­vi­sion sta­tions in the UK. It’s com­mon for a British house­hold to have hun­dreds now. I don’t know how dra­matic the change has been in America. Also there’s addi­tional factors like the rise of the web. Broadcasting is now sat along­side many-to-many com­mu­nic­a­tion. These days niche pro­gram­ming is the norm and people will search out the niches they want. I’d like to say the 60s and 70s were a golden age of com­mu­nic­a­tion with people like Jacob Bronowski or James Burke being appre­ci­ated for their mas­ter­ful per­form­ances of sci­entific poetry. Yet I can’t help won­der­ing if one of the reas­ons many people watched was because the only altern­at­ive was hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with their partner.

There’s no longer one audi­ence, there’s many. Anyone arguing that there is just the one true way to reach those audi­ences is only going to sat­isfy one audi­ence. For instance some other people have held up Gould as a com­par­ison to Dawkins. Gould really doesn’t move me, but then I have no interest in base­ball. I’d hope there’s room for a more inter­na­tion­al­ist approach to sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion than Americans com­mu­nic­at­ing exclus­ively with Americans, Britons with Britons and so on. It’s yet another layer of com­plex­ity. That’s why I’m wary of Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s cri­ti­cisms of strongly athe­ist sci­ence com­m­un­ci­ation. But equally it also means that reject­ing some com­mu­nic­at­ors because they’re ‘appeas­ers’ is going to miss some of the pub­lic. If we want sci­entific soci­et­ies and aca­demia to sup­port com­mu­nic­a­tion then acknow­ledging the import­ant of diversity would be helpful.

Sorry for the lack of links. I’ve cobbled this together at the last minute because what I had was far worse and even longer to make a simple point. I’ll try and add more links in tomorrow’s entry where I’ll try and make a pos­it­ive case for ignor­ing reli­gious sens­it­iv­it­ies (or even chal­len­ging them) in sci­ence communication.