ellipsix informatics

First steps toward new scicomm conferences

Join the Google group mailing list to stay informed or to help with planning!

My post last week considering options for a new science communication conference series got a pretty strong response, at least relative to most things on this blog. As it turns out, there already are some people in various stages of planning new (un)conferences in the style of Science Online, much like what I was thinking about. I won't say anything about them here because those people haven't revealed their plans yet, but I hope they will go public soon!

I also completely forgot that Science Online was not monolithic; it had regional branches around the US and around the world, which were largely separate from the main organization. At least two of them are still holding events: Science Online Leiden and Science Online DC. (There are also branches in Boston, Denver, and Vancouver, maybe others that I don't know about, but they seem to be inactive.) These smaller groups could play a big role in the future of the science communication community, since as several people have pointed out, it's a lot easier to organize events that involve fewer people. Perhaps a big international conference is too much to plan for in the next couple of years, but bringing together communicators from a couple of neighboring states? Not so hard. If there's no science communication group in your area, why not start one? If you do, it'd be an excellent thing to announce on the mailing list!

In fact, the same goes for topical conferences, like the massively successful Science Online Oceans. Again, a smaller conference is easier to organize, and it could build up over time to become something for the whole community.

Of course, there's no reason for me to only be writing about Science Online affiliates. I just do it because those are the events and groups I know, or can easily find out about. Actually, a lot of people I've heard from think that we should see any new conference, not as replacing Science Online, but as an opportunity to construct an event that the science communication community wants, from the ground up. I agree. After all, Science Online had its share of problems; the brand is somewhat tarnished, and any new events would probably do well to set themselves apart from that history.

Toward a new conference

While other people pursue their plans for new conferences, I've been musing on the seven-step "plan" (if you can call it that) I laid out in my earlier blog post. Here are some thoughts on the early steps, in light of what people have told me in the past week:

  1. Putting together a group with organizational experience: the Science Online "regulars" were no strangers to organizing events. After all, if you want to communicate with people, bringing the people to you is step 1. So the talent and the experience are out there. I've actually been in touch with several people who would be very capable of planning a new conference, once they decide it's time to go ahead and do it.
  2. Figure out what went wrong with Science Online: a lot of things. Here's a (partial) list, in fact. Here's another one. But this step is ongoing.
  3. Gauge interest: Yes, people are interested. Maybe not all the same people who used to regularly attend Science Online events, but a lot of them are interested enough that — as I mentioned above — they were talking about plans for some kind of new event even before my first blog post on the matter. The trick seems to be putting the interested attendees in touch with the interested organizers, which is what I'm trying to do right now.

The rest of the details — time, location, content, name, sponsors — is stuff for the future. For now, I think it's all about communication. So, whether you're interested in planning a conference or just want to be kept up to date on what everyone else is doing, please, join the mailing list!


The future of science online without Science Online

Join the Google group mailing list to stay informed or help with planning!

It's been a little more than a month since Science Online, the organization famous for its annual series of conferences (and infamous for the sexual harassment promulgated by one of its founders) announced that it was disappearing for good.

As a result of our state of insolvency, the ScienceOnline board of directors voted on Oct. 6 to proceed with a plan for dissolution, which we will implement over the coming weeks.

One unfortunate but necessary consequence of this decision is that we have to cancel the ScienceOnline Together 2015 conference scheduled for Atlanta in February. We have notified those who have already registered for ScienceOnline Together 2015 and will be fully refunding registration fees.

The decision took a lot of people by surprise, since the organization had been in the middle of planning their 2015 conference in Atlanta. But all of a sudden, with no warning, it was all over.

When the news broke, a lot of former attendees took to Twitter to share their favorite memories of past conferences.

My time at last year's conference, as a first-time participant, was pretty close to being the best three days of my life.

I'm not ready to give up on that.

I'm not the only one, either.

Science Online had some great aspects that were worth preserving. The "unconference" format of moderated discussions, in particular, did an amazing job of drawing new people into the community. And the half-hour coffee breaks between sessions, organized lunches, evening activities, really emphasize the idea that networking is the most important part of an event like this. I want future generations of science communicators to be able to experience that inclusiveness too.

A new conference?

At the moment, I don't see anyone else making serious plans for a successor to Science Online Together, so I'm going to push for this myself.

There are a few things that need to be done before a new conference series can take Science Online's place.

  1. Put together a steering committee with people who have expertise in organizing, and who are also legitimately committed to seeing the legacy of Science Online continue. Goodness knows I don't have any idea how to organize a conference, especially not from halfway around the world, but I do know it takes a lot of work from many, many people.

  2. Figure out why Science Online failed in the first place, and how to avoid making the same mistakes. Everyone seems to have their own ideas, ranging from the cost of the conference and travel, to the change in location, to the fact that many "regulars" were taking a break this year. Most people probably suspect that Bora's sexual harassment scandal and the organization's inadequate handling of it at Science Online 2014 played a role.

  3. Decide whether there is enough interest to hold a conference at all, and if so, how large it should be. Right now the dominant attitude in the community seems to be that Science Online was nice while it lasted, but now it's dead and gone and that's all there is to it. If that's really the case, then it's pointless trying to start a new conference series. But I don't think that's the case. You don't sell out registration spots in an hour year after year unless you have a really committed audience.

    • This probably involves getting a message out to all those who would have attended Science Online Together 2015, and others in the science communication community. I intend to ask the board whether they would be willing to pass along a message, or share the contact information that people made public when they registered.
  4. Decide on a time. Moving the conference from the traditional February-March time slot to another time (summer?) might improve people's ability to attend. Besides that, though, does an annual conference make sense? If the cost is prohibitive, moving to every 18 months or every two years might help keep the series strong.

    • This would also be something to ask potential Science Online attendees about.
  5. Decide on a location. The Science Online people already had Atlanta selected, but I heard some complaints about it, so is it really the best choice? Would it be better to rotate between different locations, as a lot of other conference series do?

  6. Check for interested sponsors. Some of the existing Science Online sponsors might be willing to continue funding a new conference series, but I bet that gets less likely the longer we wait to ask them. This is also a prime opportunity to bring new sponsors into the fold. I'm sure there are companies that are involved in online science communication that would love a chance to advertise themselves to an interested and influential audience.

  7. Come up with an awesome name. The obvious choice is to try to get the rights to use the Science Online trademark (it is a trademark, right?). But I think, given the organization's history, it may make more sense to come up with something new to distance the new conference series from the shortcomings of the old one.

    Actually, I've got this one covered. The Science Communication Initiative Online eXchange. It's descriptive and sounds modern and dynamic, and was definitely not just the first thing I could think of that would let us keep the #sciox hashtag.

Originally I had considered trying to take over the conference center booking, the existing event planning, and other preparation that had already been done by Science Online for the 2015 Atlanta conference. But that would have required acting very quickly, and also knowing that the full complement of 400 people would show up to the new conference. That's probably not realistic.

At this point, I'm thinking of planning a small, informal meeting in 2015, perhaps still in March, as a planning session for a full conference in 2016. It could be held on the same days as the original Science Online conference was scheduled, or it could be done in conjunction with the Atlanta Science Festival March 21-28, as discussed on the planning Facebook page.

What do you think?

I've created a Google group (just an email list) for planning the future of this conference series. If you want to help or just want to see how it's going, head to Google and sign up! You do not need a Google account, any email address will do. (Any problems, email me or Tweet at me.)


Science Online for the online

For an organization with "Online" in its very name, you'd think Science Online would have no trouble putting the content of their flagship conference, well, online. Well, guess what: collating and summarizing all that information is hard! So if you weren't at last week's Science Online Together conference, and even if you were, it's all too easy to go a little crazy searching through thousands of tweets, Storify sessions, and blog posts to pick out the parts you'd find useful.

With that in mind, I've spent far too much time over the past three days putting together the following non-attendee's guide to Science Online Together 2014. Each of the individual sessions is listed, in chronological order (because no other order really makes sense), along with

  • the session's facilitator: the person who moderated the session, who is a good contact point for questions
  • the session's Twitter hashtag, where you can find (almost) all tweets about the session, including those from live-tweeters as well as questions contributed by others and further discussion taking place afterwards
  • the session's Storify page(s), if there is one or more than one, which consists of a selection of relevant tweets plus commentary
  • for those sessions I attended, the blog post I wrote containing a brief recap
  • anything else I know of that constitutes a semi-canonical summary of the session

Ideally, whatever information was recorded about the content of each session, you should be able to find through the links here. Several of the sessions were videotaped, and when the recordings go up on the Science Online site in 60 days (well 53 days by now), I'll add them here. If you know of anything I've missed that should be included, such as your own blog posts or Storifies or so on summarizing any of these sessions, let me know! (@ellipsix on Twitter, or contact@ellipsix.net)

And of course, major props to Karyn Traphagen for facilitating everything!

Thursday February 27

Friday February 28

Saturday March 1


Science Online Together: day 1 recap

Science Online in three words: BEST. CONFERENCE. EVER.

Okay so that sounds like I'm overselling, but I really am having a great time here. Even though it's my first time attending a Science Online event, I came in immediately feeling welcomed by the community because the attendees cover such a broad spectrum — from journalists to PR specialists to science grad students — united only by a common passion for science communication. Unlike the physics conferences I've been to, there's no pressure to prove myself to the "experts"; in fact, in some sense there are no experts. Sure, some people have more experience with science communication, or at previous Science Online conferences, but there's definitely a sense that everyone has something to contribute. I had no qualms about speaking up at my very first discussion session. :-)

It has been an intense day though! I had substantive conversations with over 30 people who I had never met as of 24 hours ago. Some of them I already knew through Twitter, though, which was pretty cool — it's exciting to recognize the faces in the profile pictures. I've been building a list of everyone I meet during the conference, which you should definitely check out if you use Twitter at all. (And if you don't, it's time to start! The tweets flying back and forth constitute at least as much of this conference as the in-person discussions do.)

CONVERGE: Welcome and Changing Challenges into Opportunities

Karyn Traphagen, the executive director of Science Online, kicked off the conference by welcoming everyone, thanking our host NCSU, and giving a quick introduction to the "unconference" format. As I mentioned yesterday, most of Science Online is not like a traditional conference where you have individual people giving presentations and everyone else passively listening. Yes, the CONVERGE talks are like that, but most of the time slots are filled with discussion sessions led by a moderator who guides the conversation while calling on the attendees to do most of the talking. From what I've seen today, each discussion session has about 40-70 people, depending on popularity, and because there is no pressure to have prepared remarks, it's a really low-pressure setting in which it's easy for anyone to contribute something to the discussion.

Today's CONVERGE talk was given by Meg Lowman and her former student, Rebecca Tripp. They talked about a program allowing wheelchair-bound students like Rebecca to contribute to science research by climbing ropes into the canopy layer of the rain forest, searching for new and interesting biological processes and undiscovered species. It's a great example of how people who might have difficulty with a traditional scientific career can bypass that difficulty by finding the right opportunity. But they also offered a cautionary tale about how, without significant, conscious support from the scientific community, we drive out people who experience these difficulties. The lesson carries over from students with disabilities to those who have to deal with less obvious difficulties, like subtle racial or gender discrimination.

Discussion: Boundaries, Behavior, and Being an Ally

After the CONVERGE talk, I moved on to the first discussion session, focused on ways to prevent inappropriate behavior within the Science Online community and elsewhere. This session was prompted largely by the revelation last year that Bora Zivkovic, the founder of Science Online, had sexually harassed several women. I was only a passive observer of the reaction to those events, so I won't try to describe them here, instead offering a link to this excellently detailed summary.

In the wake of those events, Bora is of course no longer involved with Science Online, leaving the community at this conference (and the larger online science community) to confront a legacy of suppressed harassment. The overwhelming message from the attendees at this session was that it's important to talk about instances of inappropriate behavior, including but not limited to what Bora did, because to skirt the issue (by saying "in light of recent events blah blah blah" and so on) conveys that the Science Online community is not a safe place to speak up about things that make you uncomfortable, and that's precisely the culture that allows that sort of behavior to continue.

For more on this session — and there is lots more that's worth reading — see the Storify page and follow the #scioBoundaries hashtag on Twitter. I want to thank Kathryn Jepsen in particular for some very enlightening discussions after the session, and all others who contributed to the discussion, because it was a tough topic to work through but it's very important.

Discussion: Helping Science Readers Become Critical Thinkers

The next session was about how science writers can encourage their readers to critically evaluate the science they (the writers) are reporting on, rather than just consuming it and taking it on faith that the reports are correct. This is a constant source of tension between writers and scientists: writers want to gain publicity and sell content, which means it's often in their interest to cast scientific results into a form that will appeal to the general public by simplifying and even sensationalizing them. Scientists, on the other hand, want news articles and other reports not to misrepresent the results and to properly place those results in their larger context.

Although no clear consensus emerged out of this discussion, there were lots of prospective ideas and suggestions for both sides. For writers, it's important to provide the detailed information that will allow your readers to evaluate for themselves both your article and the science you're writing about. Linking to source material and leaving details in the comments, where they don't intrude on the main article, are especially encouraged. Also, it's important not to misrepresent an individual scientific study as representing a groundbreaking advance in the field (unless it is, which is exceptionally rare); instead, show it for what it is, an incremental advance that may be uncertain but plays a small part in leading the field toward the right conclusion. For scientists, on the other hand, it's useful to verify that a reporter interviewing you has correctly understood what you've told them, perhaps by asking the reporter to paraphrase it back to you. (This works for anyone else you're trying to explain your work to.)

For more on this session, see the Storify page and follow the #scioCritSci hashtag on Twitter. You'll be able to watch the video of the session in 60 days (no idea why they wait so long) on the Science Online website. Also stay tuned for the related #scioStandards session on Saturday!

Discussion: Bringing Science to Popular Topics

Definitely the most fun session of the day, this post-lunch discussion was quite skillfully led by Brian Malow, the science comedian (in the sense that he is @sciencecomedian on Twitter). The focus was using everyday activities that non-scientists are already passionate about to pique their interest in science.

This session covered a wide range of ideas, too many to list here, so you should definitely check out the Twitter hashtag where everything is documented. But one of the major points to emerge was that science is involved in everything. Regardless of who you're trying to appeal to, there's going to be something they're passionate about, and you can find the science underlying that and use it as a hook to capture their interest. It doesn't even necessarily need to be recognized as science; the important thing is to get people to critically analyze something, anything. When they inevitably have questions, the scientific process has the answers.

Discussion: Healthy Online Promotion

I rounded out the day with a session led by David Wescott, a public relations specialist based here in Durham. The discussion was guided by a worksheet he uses with clients, and it actually developed into somewhat of an opportunity for self-promotion, with various attendees (not me though) identifying themselves with their names and the websites or organizations they want to promote, and others offering advice.

The #1 rule of self promotion: know your audience. A big question covered at the session was, how can you promote your content without becoming annoying? Knowing your audience is key because when you market content to the right people in the right venues, it's a lot less likely to be considered inappropriate.

In order to find the right venues, it's often necessary to look beyond the standard social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. Those are general-purpose tools, but more subject-specific sites can be better places to share your content because you reach more of your target audience and fewer people who won't be interested in your work. Joanne Manaster offered the helpful 60-30-10 rule: spend 60% of your time online sharing interesting links, 30% interacting with and promoting others, and 10% promoting yourself. When all is said and done, you can roughly measure success in self-promotion by how many other people are resharing your content.

For more on this session, look through the Twitter hashtag #scioSelfPR. Like the other sessions in the video-equipped room, this one will also be available for viewing on the website in 60 days.

Dinner and Game Night

After the discussion sessions wrapped up, we came back to the conference hotel, split into groups, and headed out to dinner. I was in the group at Beasley's Chicken and Honey, which as the name suggests, specializes in various sorts of fried chicken with a hint of honey. It's really delicious. I'm sure I'm going to gain at least 10 pounds on this trip, but hey, who's counting?

Of course, the best part of dinner, and the conference as a whole, is meeting new people. I had a great conversation over dinner with, among others, Ryan Becker, a teacher who has some great ideas about connecting middle school science students with practicing scientists using Twitter. I also met several of the other grad students here, a sign of how far Science Online has come since its origins as a conference for writers and journalists. We're thinking about starting a support group ;-)

After dinner, we came back to the hotel for a night of board games, lengthy discussions, and motion-activated M&M dispensers. Again, this is the best part of the conference, and I stayed out way too late (almost midnight) despite already being sleep deprived. I really like how this conference brings together people from different fields of science and even nonscientists with a wide variety of different perspectives — I could probably amuse myself talking to these people for days. But for now, I'm too tired. Time to go to bed, and rest up for another full day of conferencing tomorrow! (well today, but my definition of "day" is a little fluid) More updates to come....


Science Online is here!

Science Online logo

All the rest of this week I'll be bringing you updates from the Science Online Together conference in beautiful (or at least not snowy) Raleigh. If you haven't heard of it, Science Online Together is an annual conference that brings together all sorts of people involved in promoting and performing science on the internet: bloggers, journalists, creators of educational videos, online course instructors, science popularizers, public relations specialists, and researchers, ranging from grad students to tenured professors. I'm here in my capacity as a blogger, as a moderator of Physics Stack Exchange, and as a contributor to reddit's /r/askscience.

Given the name of the conference, it probably comes as no surprise that it has a significant online presence, even for people who aren't going to be attending. Each day begins with a CONVERGE session: this is like a plenary session in a normal conference, with a speaker addressing all the conference attendees in one room. You can actually watch these sessions live through the Science Online website, and follow along with that part of the conference from the comfort of your home.

The rest of the time is filled with discussion sessions, Q&A sessions, and workshops. I'm sure a number of people will be live-tweeting the whole thing under the #scio14 and #sciox hashtags, and under individual hashtags for each session, which you can find on the forum. (And yes, I'll be contributing to this, but probably not enough to really qualify as live-tweeting.) Fair warning: there will be a lot of tweets. That tends to happen when you put 450 tech-savvy science communication enthusiasts together in the same building.

I feel bad for the wifi :-)

With that, I need to get to sleep and prepare for a full day of conferencing tomorrow. Stay tuned for more updates!


Science Online Together 2014

Good news, everyone! Well, good news for me at least: I've been granted a spot at the 2014 Science Online Together conference!

Science Online Together 2014 logo

Science Online is an organization that, well, like the name suggests, supports people who promote and develop scientific content on the internet. They manage the Science Seeker blog aggregator and hold several annual conferences to bring together people involved in science online in all capacities. The flagship conference is always held near the beginning of the year in Raleigh, NC, and this time I get to go!

This is good news for you too, though. When I'm not busy conferencing I'll be uploading blog posts and tweeting, so that everyone else can share the experience as much as possible. Stay tuned for that as the conference is running, February 27 to March 1. For now, if you're interested in such things, conference news (and griping about the cost) is flowing under the #scio14 tag on Twitter.