Publicity matters to scientists, too

250 swap ideas on getting noticed

CorrespondentJanuary 19, 2010 

— Three years after publishing what he thought was valuable research in his master's thesis, obesity researcher Peter Janiszewski checked a citation index and learned that a grand total of "two people had cited my work. I thought, there's got to be a better way to do this."

Welcome to ScienceOnline2010, a three-day conference of about 250 scientists, bloggers, journalists and interested others that concluded Sunday in Research Triangle Park.

Dedicated to using the Web to encourage collaboration among scientists, people who write about them and the people who read about them, ScienceOnline showed that face-to-face meetings can be important, even to a very wired crowd, organizers said.

Participants came from all over the United States and eight other countries, according to organizer Bora Zivkovic, online community manager for the Public Library of Science. Co-organizer Anton Zuiker, who works in internal communications at Duke University, wasn't surprised to have so many come so far. The conference, he said, is "based on this idea that to build online community takes face-to-face offline events."

There was a range of presentations, including best practices in podcasting and "crowd sourcing," that is, involving an audience in researching a topic. There were demonstrations of science video storyboarding, workshops on social networking and blogging, and tours of area science facilities.

Six-foot video screens scrolled through Twitter postings made by participants in other seminars.

Involving the public

Scientists who use crowd sourcing are gathering field data online, for example, using Twitter to enable participants in fishing tournaments to enter data helpful in tracking fish populations. In another experiment, people can go to fold.it/portal to participate in a game that helps scientists research protein folding.

"The Triangle is a place of cutting-edge science and a vibrant online community," Zivkovic says. "We wanted to get these two together and learn from each other."

Communicating about science online means more than just blogging about science, though. In fact, actress and new media producer Tamara Krinsky, in a session called "Science and Entertainment," referred to multimedia title bars and advertisements on the Web. "With all that eye candy out there," she asked, "what will become of the ordinary text blog?" Much of the session focused on emerging initiatives for scientists to give input to Hollywood so that science in movies is portrayed more accurately.

Scientists find a voice

ScienceOnline participants emphasized that communicating about science was no longer just for professional communicators. For example, Janiszewski, a doctoral candidate at Queen's University in Ontario, along with a research partner writes a blog, obesitypanacea.com, debunking get-thin-quick schemes, bringing research directly to the public.

Much scientific research is complex and hard to wade through even for the few science journalists not yet laid off by struggling print publications. "So we take research we think is important that people are not reading and try to take it to a level my mom and dad can understand," Janiszewski said.

They also do a regular podcast. "Our idea was people might come to the blog via iTunes," he said, and that has happened.

Marine researchers Craig McClain and Kevin Zelnio, both of Duke University, run a Web site, DeepSeaNews.com, that experienced a spike in readership when the Raleigh Sewer Monster became a two-day Internet wonder. Its YouTube video has more than 7 million hits. They had better information than many print sources, and they now take that responsibility seriously, they said.

"The day of scientists just doing science and not interacting with the public are over," McClain says. "We tried that, and it doesn't work."

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