March 13, 2008

Interview with Bora Zivkovic, Crazy Uncle of the Science Blogging Community

Welcome to the latest installment in my occasional series of interviews with people in the scitech world. This time around the subject is Bora Zivkovic, Online Community Manager for the open access journal PLoS ONE. Bora is also well know as a prolific science blogger at his blog A Blog Around the Clock. In yet another persona, Bora has organized two science blogging conferences and edited two anthologies of the best of the science blogs.

One of the great things Bora did in association with the most recent North Carolina Science Blogging Conference was host a series of interviews with various attendees on his blog (myself included), all of which are well worth reading. So, I thought I'd turn the tables a little bit and get Bora to answer many of the same questions he posed to his various subjects.

I'd like to thank Bora for his enthusiastic, insightful and fun responses. Enjoy!

Welcome to the Confessions of a Science Librarian. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your scientific background?

I grew up in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), reading books and riding horses since an early age. I majored in biochemistry and molecular biology in high school, then went to vet school with the intent to specialize in equine medicine. In 1991, I sold my horse and saddle and bought a ticket -- train to London, then plane to JFK. The war started a week later, breaking the country into several smaller pieces.

After a summer in Hendersonville, NC, working in a summer camp, and about a month in Boston and New Hampshire, I came back to North Carolina, to Raleigh, to work in a horse barn while dealing with the Immigration bureaucracy. On my first day in Raleigh I met Catharine who, a year later, became my wife. We have two kids -- a son and a daughter -- as well as a dog and three cats. We moved to Chapel Hill five years ago and love it here.

My transcripts from the vet school in Belgrade did not count for anything here, so instead of just finishing up in a year or so I would have had to start all over again. Instead, and after talking to horse vets at the barn for a couple of years, I decided that the situation here is quite different than in Yugoslavia. On one hand, the equine veterinary field is quite competitive, leaving little choice as to the location where one has to move to. On the other hand, one can actually do top science in the USA and biology was always my first love.

My interest was always in evolutionary biology, but I was often dismayed with some of the theoretical stuff that seemed to ignore the way the organisms actually work. My vet-school background, heavy on physiology, made it pretty easy for me to get into the NCSU Zoology program where I could integrate physiology, behavioral biology and evolutionary thinking into a single project. I did my MS on the physiology of circadian rhythms and photoperiodism in Japanese quail with Dr. Herbert Underwood, one of the pioneers of chronobiology, and continued with my PhD work in the same lab expanding both down to the level of the molecules and up to the evolutionary context. As you know, I have not defended my Dissertation or published any of that work yet...

After almost ten years in grad school (and after three deaths in the family in succession) I became depressed. The political situation in the USA was depressing as well. I spent more and more time online, reading and commenting on political blogs (including on the Edwards campaign blog), and less and less time writing my thesis. After the 2004 election, I got tired of political blogging and started blogging about science on a new blog instead, with immediate success (my very first post on the science blog got many thousands of hits from BoingBoing and others within the first day of the blog's existence!). In 2006, I got invited to move my blog to Seed The rest is history.

What do you want to do/be when you grow up?

When I was a kid I had this great idea to be the first person to win both an Olympic medal and a Nobel prize. I am older and wiser now. Four years out of the lab, and fifteen years off the horse, the childhood dreams are over. And last time I checked, dealing with comment trolls does not qualify for the Peace prize. Jobs come and go. Passions come and go. But passion for making the world a better place for our children never goes away. I want to do whatever I can toward that goal. And, of course, be happy with my family and have lots of friends.

If Janet Stemwedel is the Cool Aunt of the science blogging community, you have to be the Crazy Uncle (only in the best way, of course). No one is a bigger supporter and cheerleader for the science blogging community. Can you explain a little the inspiration that's led you to edit an anthology series and organize a couple of conferences around this community? And what's next!?

I guess I am a gregarious type. Also, while blogging for a few years I have looked at the ways by which blogs get recognized and become popular, how top groups get entrenched and how much more difficult it is to make a break now than it was just a couple of years ago. So I feel an obligation to find and promote good new blogs as much as I can.

I have also quickly realized that I have made many good friends online and in many cases their own writing resulted in me knowing them better than many people I know in the meatspace. Meeting an online friend in person is like meeting an old childhood friend after a long break. No need to go through the rituals of "getting to know each other", you just hug and continue -- off line -- the conversation that started online. And having met in the real world, we understand each other better online afterwards (and are likely to be nicer to each other). One reinforces the other. There is something particularly strong about friendships that happen both online and off line. And this is something that Anton Zuiker has recognized a long time ago and showed us all, through meet-ups and conferences, how cool and powerful this idea is.

Thus, wanting to get my online friends, the science bloggers, together was a natural next step. And the way to do it was to organize a conference. And then another one. And we are working on the next one already. The idea is not just to have a giant meet-up where science bloggers get to share a beer, but to do something productive at the time as well -- put together people who probably would never meet otherwise: scientists, students, science bloggers, web developers, science journalists, science writers, science librarians, publishers, teachers and let the cross-fertilization of ideas produce magic!

There are still many people, scientists included, who are not very Internet savvy. Blogs have received quite a lot of bad press from threatened op-ed writers over the years as well, making people even more reluctant to check blogs out. We thought that one way to break this vicious cycle would be to present the best writing on science blogs in a medium that such people are comfortable with -- a book. The first anthology was a big hit and we hope that the second one will get even broader coverage and readership. And of course, we are already planning the third one.

Your real life job is Online Community Manager for PLoS ONE. Could you tell my readers the amazing story of how you go that job and what it consists of? Is herding cats a too gentle phrase to describe it?

My cats are marching in a perfect formation! Scientists....not yet... ;-)

When PLoS ONE was launched a year ago, on the new TOPAZ platform that incorporates readers' commentary, PLoS decided to hire a manager for the online community. Liz Allen was doing the search and, among other things, she sent e-mails to people who could potentially help identifying the right person, i.e., someone with both a scientific background and an experience online. One of the recipients of her e-mail was Anton Zuiker, my friend and co-conspirator in various local blogging activities, including the Science Blogging Conference and the anthology. Anton immediately forwarded the e-mail to me insisting I apply right then and there. Well, it was Friday night, so I thought I'd spend a weekend thinking about it, talking to my wife, fixing my CV, then applying on Monday morning. But, being a blogger, I could not resist posting the job description on the blog and asking my readers to let me know if this job was right for me or if I was just fooling myself. The readers started piling up in the comments, urging me to apply and urging PLoS to hire me. One of the comments, on Saturday morning, was from Chris Surridge, the Managing Editor of PLoS ONE, who wrote: "So should we take this blog post as a formal application?" The rest, as they say is history. So yes, I got the job in the comment thread of my own blog. Who said blogging is bad for your career?

So, my job is primarily to try to get people to post comments, notes and ratings on PLoS ONE articles. This means I have to keep making friends -- online and offline -- in the scientific community, to educate about Open Access, about PLoS, about TOPAZ, etc. I also manage the PLoS Blog, use my own blog to inform my readers about news from PLoS, and I sometimes evangelize OA at meetings.

When, how and why did you become a believer in Open Access publishing? In discussions of Open Access on science blogs, at meetings, between scientists and publishers, most people talk about Gold, while sometimes we librarians seem to prefer the Green approach to Open Access. Given the recent Harvard announcements about the Green approach, what's your current feeling about the balance between Green and Gold?

Back in grad school I was a fanatical downloader and reader of scientific papers. I read papers old and new in my field, in several related fields, and in some unrelated but interesting fields. I read, carefully, several papers per day. Then, a few months after I left grad school and started science blogging, my password expired for the school library and suddenly I realized what I never thought of before -- papers are actually NOT free and available for everyone to read. And I needed my daily dose of papers, both for blogging and for my, at the time, illusion of writing a Dissertation. I had to resort to begging friends for PDFs. When I look back, even to the early days of my science blogging, more and more of my blog posts were about papers in OA journals, mainly PLoS Biology (to which e-mail I was subscribed from the very beginning of the journal's existence).

I have mixed feelings about Green approach to Open Access. On one hand, it is a Good Thing -- papers previously unavailable become available for everyone to read. This is definitely an improvement over Toll Access. On the other hand, I have two main problems with it. First one is technical/practical: papers deposited in many places are more difficult to find and papers deposited with different formats are hard to machine-mine for data. I think all the papers should be in the same format, searchable from a single place and interconnected. Second problem I have is tactical/psychological. Settling for a semi-Good solution will slow down the movement towards the Good solution. Many people will be smugly satisfied with Green and will be hard to recruit to fight for Gold.

How do science blogs fit in the entire ecosystem of scientific publishing, communication and education?

Ah, we had two conferences on this question and we are not sure we have the answer yet! Every now and then, the science bloggers do a round of navel-gazing: what is science blogging (see the discussions from 2006 and the 2008). I could probably make this interview really long by writing a treatise on this, but let me try to point just at a couple of main functions, keeping in mind that every blogger has somewhat different motivations, methods and goals for blogging.

Science blogs are an educational resource. Some are actually used as teaching tools in the classrooms, while others are open to everyone (see, for instance, the series of Basic Concepts). Google loves blogs and many science blogs have high traffic and high ranking in search engines. This brings students (and teachers and other interested people) to science blogs when they search for scientific terms and concepts. My posts with the greatest longevity (and total traffic over time) are my educational posts, e.g., my BIO101 lecture notes.

Science blogs remove filters. A scientific paper is usually dry, dense and difficult to read. Most people outside of the particular field need some level of translation from Scientese into English (or whichever other language). Traditionally, this is the job of the Press Officer at the researchers' institution, often a person who does not have the requisite background in that scientific discipline and may thus make mistakes. The press releases are then picked up by journalists who write their articles based on these. They also usually do not have scientific background and find it difficult to read and understand the actual scientific papers. Thus, they add another step in translation which may, and often does, distort the meaning of the published research. Science bloggers are scientists and they tend to write about the research in their area of expertise (as I would write about chronobiology papers and leave physics to others). They read the actual papers. They tend not to make mistakes. And, as only a small proportion of scientists write blogs, the science bloggers are self-selected for love of writing -- so, at least after a few months of doing it, they become very, very good writers, often as good (or better) as the professional science journalists. And, as they tend to point out the mistakes in press releases and media articles, they keep the journalists' feet to the fire, making journalists better at their job in the process.

Science blogs protect science. Most working scientists do not have the time, energy and inclination to actively fight against various pseudoscience and anti-science movements. Many science bloggers do. And, as blogs tend to have high search-engine rankings, their responses to such attacks on science usually show up higher than the original attacks. Every time someone says something stupid or pernicious (for personal, financial, religious or political reasons), a chorus of science blogs dissects the quasi-argument and replaces it with correct information. This is what people will find if they search the relevant terms.

Science blogs are starting to change the way science is done. The examples are few for now, but Open Notebook Science, i.e., the publication of daily lab notes on a blog or a wiki (the way, for instance, Jean-Claude Bradley does it), is slowly gaining adherents. Sooner or later, hypotheses and data published on blogs will routinely get cited -- I have published both hypotheses and data on my blog before, and I had a blog post cited as a reference in a paper. In the other direction, scientific papers (like those published in PLoS journals) enable bloggers to leave trackbacks. This will become more and more frequent in the future.

How is a scientific paper going to look in 20 years from now? How is that going to affect the way scientific research (and teaching) is done?

It is hard to make predictions (although I did before), especially with such temporal precision -- things may happen much faster or slower than I think. It depends on the state of science in 20 years -- its global size and power, its global distribution (will the US science, with its US-specific culture, still be dominant in 20 years?), the technological breakthroughs and societal/political environment.

Most scientific disciplines go through cycles. A new technology (microscope, telescope, computer, gene-sequencing machines) suddenly allows people to gather previously intractable data. A whole industry develops around this new technology and over some years or decades, mountains of data are produced, yet the analysis and understanding of data is still quite superficial and preliminary. So the field swings to the other part of the cycle -- data analysis and interpretation and construction of new theoretical scaffolds, also a time for bitter theoretical battles within the discipline...until it is settled, by which time usually there is a new technological invention that allows for collection of new kinds of data and the cycle moves on again.

Right now, some fields, e.g., astronomy and genomics, are in the data-producing phase. Much money and manpower is dedicated to the production of enormous amounts of new data, with little time to stop and think about them. So, it is in the interest of researchers to make the data available to others for analysis. Thus, they are dumped online (where else? reams of printer paper?). Is publication of a new genome a scientific paper? It is just a lot of raw data, after all, with minimal and highly formalized Introduction, Methods and Discussion sections.

My prediction, probably false, but I'll go out on the limb here, is that a scientific paper of the future will be a work in progress -- with different people with different skills and talents contributing to a body of work sequentially: one has the idea, another turns it into a hypothesis, another designs the experiments, another runs them, another analyzes the data, another visualizes them, another interprets them, another places several such pieces of work together into a historical and philosophical context and finishes writing the "paper". The bits and pieces of it are independently searchable and citable and they are all interconnected by links until the final version is put all together in one place. After all, science as the work of a lonely genius is pretty much a myth -- it has been, for the most part, a very collective endeavor. The readers of the paper then keep adding their commentary, links to subsequent "papers," etc. The unity of the paper -- a single date, journal, volume, issue, page -- will be gone. All of science will become interdisciplinary and interconnected.

Bora -- the question that everyone wants to know the answer to: how do you manage to be such a prolific blogger and still hold down a job, edit anthologies, organize conference and maintain a life outside all that stuff.

It helps that most of it is a part of my job. I love my job, I love blogging, I love learning, and I love making friends -- and all of it is interconnected in my life right now. I do not sleep enough (but I do, every night, despite rumors to the contrary), I do not go out to commune with nature enough, and, unfortunately (and that HAS to change), I do not find enough time any more to read books as much as I used to.

When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?

Since I started as a political blogger, it is no surprise that the first blog I encountered was The Intersection, at the time when Chris Mooney was starting to write his material for The Republican War On Science. His blogroll then led me to Pharyngula, Deltoid and a few other science blogs. After that, by jumping from blogroll to blogroll, as well as through blog carnivals, I discovered hundreds of others.

It is impossible any more (for at least a year now) to keep up with all of them, so I tend to rotate them -- some I check daily for a few months, then move to others, while checking the others only sporadically. I'd love to have a thousand Favourites (just check my blogroll!), but it is just physically impossible. I read all of my SciBlings pretty regularly (it is easy by checking The Last 24 Hours page), visit my old friend Archy just to say Hello every morning, check Peter Suber for professional reasons, and enjoy the fresh new young voices, e.g,. that of Pondering Pikaia or Laelaps. Like most of my interviewees, I encountered the delightful Inverse Square Blog at the Conference, as well as The INFO Project blog, the OpenHelix blog and will keep an eye to see how Space Cadet develops over time.

Is there anything that happened at this Conference -- a session, something someone said or did or wrote -- that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

It's hard, when you are the organizer, to quit worrying about the organization, choose a session and settle down with a full focus on the conversation. I actually had to watch the videos and read the blog posts afterwards for most of the sessions. In my mind, the most important development is the realization, reached by both sides I think, that former adversaries, the professional science journalists on one side and the science bloggers on the other, are really on the same side and need to find ways to collaborate.

Another focus for me, during the entire year of organization as well as during the meeting, was finding the ways to fully include people who traditionally were not invited to the table when scientists talk -- not only concerning gender and race, which are important, but also age and formal qualifications, e.g., undergraduate and high school students, writers, journalists, amateur naturalists, middle school teachers, elected officials and parents. I think that the Conference was quite successful in those goals, but I am already concocting plans for making the ScienceOnline09 even more inclusive if I can.

It was so nice to finally meet you and thank you for the interview.

It was great meeting you, too. It was a pleasure. See you next year at the conference.


Anonymous said...

Great interview, John!

Thanks, Bora!

Karen James said...

Wow, this is the best post I've read this week (and it's a Friday!). Thanks, John for hatching the plan to give Bora a taste of his own medicine, and thanks especially to Bora for being so open and candid (as of course a blogger should be)!