Journalism 2.0 on Science 2.0

How the Web is shaping next-generation reporting

Web 2.0 - the “second generation” Internet of user-oriented social networks, wikis, blogs, and information-tagging devices - has spawned at least two progeny since Tim O’Reilly coined the term in 2004: Journalism 2.0 and Science 2.0.

Scientific American made conjoined twins out of them last week with its latest experiment in networked journalism: an article about networked science. Last Wednesday, the magazine’s Web site published a 2,700-word story by veteran freelancer Mitch Waldrop titled, “Science 2.0: Great New Tool, or Great Risk?” An introduction explains, however, that the piece is a work in progress, and invites readers to post comments and questions that will be incorporated into a final version, which will be published in the May issue of the magazine.

Science 2.0 is not actually the progeny of Web 2.0-it belongs more appropriately, as Waldrop points out, to the Open Access and Open Data movements in scientific publishing. Its proponents, members of the public and scientists alike, argue that scientific and other scholarly research should be free and permanently accessible to anyone online. The justification is twofold: that taxpayers fund roughly half of the research published in peer-reviewed journals, and that open access will generally improve science because data and ideas will circulate (and germinate) more freely. A number of open-access journals, such as the Public Library of Science (PloS), have sprung up in recent years, in opposition to subscription-based journals like Science and Nature. The National Institutes of Health announced last week, however, that starting in April, scientists it funds must turn in their peer-reviewed papers to NIH to be posted in a free, online archive. Trade groups such as Association of American Publishers have opposed open access, arguing that it could hurt both profitability and the quality of research.

Science 2.0, however, has less to do with the ideological side of the open access movement than it does with the technical side and how information is actually shared (wikis, blogs, online journals, etc.). Of course, many of the criticisms and defenses of Science 2.0 are the same as those for open access in general. As Waldrop notes:

Many scientists remain highly skeptical of such openness-especially in the hyper-competitive biomedical fields, where patents, promotion and tenure can hinge on being the first to publish a new discovery. From that perspective, Science 2.0 seems dangerous: using blogs and social networks for your serious work feels like an open invitation to have your online lab notebooks vandalized-or worse, have your best ideas stolen and published by a rival…

The acceptance of any such measure would require a big change in the culture of academic science. But for Science 2.0 advocates, the real significance of Web technologies is their potential to move researchers away from an obsessive focus on priority and publication, toward the kind of openness and community that were supposed to be the hallmark of science in the first place.

What’s really interesting about Waldrop’s article, however, is that versions of these same criticisms and defenses apply to the Journalism 2.0 experiment he is conducting. As the media adjust to a more dynamic (and fast-paced) platform, some have worried about issues like irrelevant or hostile posting and quality control of information. The technique that Waldrop uses, “networked” reporting, is relatively hassle-free-it asks readers to submit comments and questions in traditional blog style, which may or may not be used in the final, print edition. This is much less risky than using a wiki, for example, which allows readers to actively edit the work in progress-a lesson that the Los Angeles Times learned the hard way in 2005. Waldrop’s piece is at least Scientific American’s third experiment in networked reporting. The results of the first, which involved a story about paleoanthropology and Lucy’s Baby, were published in December 2006. The novelty of the terminology surrounding such endeavors led me to inappropriately refer to the article as “wiki-reporting.”

Whatever the proper term may be, such efforts are not the only variety of Journalism 2.0. Scientific American has, in fact, been a leader in trailblazing various other techniques, from blogs and podcasts to Web tags in the magazine. The publication’s 60-Second Science podcasts, launched in 2006, became so popular that they transitioned into their own Web site last November during a major redesign of During that redesign, Scientific American also launched a new suite of “community” pages on its regular site. As of December, the community (a more sophisticated version of old Web 1.0 chat rooms) comprised over twenty “consistently active” blogs (there are 105 in all), in addition to discussions groups, videos, pictures, and a variety of topic pages from chemistry to the environment to space exploration. Anyone can join and the welcome note urges readers to:

Uncover cool stories and news and participate in lively discussion that will force you to think. Be inspired, launch a blog, and stake your place in the realm of the new, new media.

The Scientific American community now has 2,460 registered users. Christie Nicholson, the community editor, says that she is very pleased by the rapid proliferation of individual blogs on the site as well as the high quality of material presented there, something she says differentiates SciAm from other nascent online communities. “We’ve clearly got a highly educated, sophisticated audience,” Nicholson says, but “highlighting, rewarding and engaging with your top participators is absolutely crucial” to getting such a community off the ground. Nicholson has spent a significant amount of time on the “back end,” sending e-mails to the most active readers, copying quotes from discussion leaders onto the homepage, and otherwise working to reinforce the sense of community. But after just two and a half months, she says, the momentum has become self-sustaining.

Scientific American’s editor, John Rennie, concurs that as other news outlets struggle to nurture similar communities, active engagement on the part of editors and staffs is key: “It would be a fatal mistake to just scratch out an area on the ground and say, ‘Here’s where the community is,’ and then just expect people to jump in.” Those who have jumped in to SciAm have been very responsible participants, Nicholson says, and the publication has had few difficulties with hostile or irrelevant posting. When it comes to experiments like Waldrop’s article on Science 2.0, the fact that the site doesn’t allow readers to live-edit the draft guards against irresponsible tampering. But if all goes well with this article, Nicholson would like to see the platform evolve into something “not quite wiki, but more than commenting.”

Scientific American is not the only pioneer of what can now be called, because of its growing momentum, Science Journalism 2.0. In January 2006, Seed Media Group, which publishes Seed magazine, launched the resoundingly successful community. The site features a running ticker, which as of Wednesday counted sixty-seven blogs, over 56,000 posts, and over 626,000 comments. There are also links back into the magazine, as well as to Seed online’s “Daily Zeitgeist,” a collection of links to timely takes on science issues from throughout the Web. It all supports Seed’s creed that “science is culture.”

Wired magazine’s science team has patched together a more external Science Journalism 2.0 community. Rather than keeping it in-house, as Scientific American and Seed do, Wired Science relies on a Facebook page, a Twitter account, Google Reader items, and a feed. The community appears to be the result of the Wired Science blogging unit’s effort to give its “loyal readers complete access to the fermenting vat of journalistic juices from which our posts bubble daily,” according to a post last week by Brandon Keim. “It might not ever be truly complete, which in some ways is a Platonic ideal attainable only through real-time links to our gray matter-something you’d probably enjoy even less than us. But we can give you access to a rough cut of this chapter of science journalism, as well as a chance to shape it yourself.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.