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Reflections of a Science Borealis subject editor

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Robert Gooding-Townsend, Science in Society editor

I started at Science Borealis in winter 2016, when I was four months into my Masters program. There was a call for subject editors; I looked at several positions, and ended up in the Science in Society role, where I’ve been for more than three years. Here, I’ll try to recap my experiences – highlights and challenges – and describe how they compared with my expectations.

To start with, it may help to understand where I was coming from. I was starting my Masters in ecological modelling at the University of Waterloo, and I was grappling with a growing realization that ecological modelling is pretty useless without engaging, or at least informing, policy makers and the general public. I’d become vaguely aware of SciBor (as insiders call it) towards the end of my undergrad, through the Scientist Sees Squirrel and the Theory, Evolution, and Games blogs. I hopped on Twitter, followed some links and was soon in a pleasant rabbit hole following the various science-adjacent thoughts of people in the broader Canadian ecology community I had just joined.

The subject editor role was quite a bit different from my expectations. I thought it would involve working with Science Borealis syndicated bloggers in my subject area to improve their content, with occasional small contributions to the Borealis blog. Instead, the role involves very little editorial work with member bloggers – due to privacy restrictions such as Canada’s anti-spam law, we are limited in our interactions with Science Borealis’ syndicated bloggers — and the editorial review consists of a quick skim over their content. By contrast, the contributions to the Borealis blog are substantial. The core requirement is to write a post about something in your subject area every few months, preferably with a Canadian connection (science done by Canadians or done in Canada). The process involves pitching a story, writing it, and several rounds of revision under the guidance of experienced editors.

Pitching and revising a story was a major new skill for me. And writing in a more conversational manner, which is crucial for communicating with the public, is very foreign to most academics. Besides my own pitch sessions, I enjoyed contributing feedback to others’ ideas and looking through professional science writers’ pitches like those found on The Open Notebook. Unlike pitching, I had quite a bit of previous exposure revising drafts, but I still found I learned a lot about this particular writing style from the editors. Compared to my earlier pieces, I now write from a more focused and defensible position with clear relevance, as opposed to gesturing at a sprawling network of fun ideas.

A highlight of my time at SciBor was interviewing Ed Yong, one of today’s leading science communicators and a regular contributor to The Atlantic magazine. He gave a keynote speech at the Canadian Society for Microbiology in Waterloo, which my colleague and then-fellow Science-in-Society editor Erin Zimmerman and I covered with a write-up and a follow-up interview. I would never have had this opportunity without being part of Science Borealis. It was gratifying to be able to analyze his method and to have a large audience for my piece. It was a learning experience too: I interviewed him badly because I was new to it and a bit star-struck – I’m glad Erin took the lead on that part.

 

Thanks to Science Borealis, I also got my hands on an advance reader’s copy of a book for the first time – Britt Wray’s Rise of the Necrofauna. Greystone Books, a Vancouver-based science and nature imprint, published the book and included Science Borealis in its promotion strategy. I was a bit uncomfortable with my writing being explicitly used for publicity, but the blog editors helped me navigate my misapprehension, and it was exciting for me to take that step behind the curtain and peak into the publishing industry.

One of my favourite parts of the experience has been the people I’ve worked with. They come from diverse backgrounds and have been involved in many cool projects, from writing books about dinosaurs to creating microbial art. They’re full to bursting with cool facts, on everything from the history of chemistry to freaky animal sex. But unlike other geeky communities, science communicators don’t just competitively info-dump; they deliberately work to contextualize this information for their audience. They tend to be humble, open about the challenges they’re facing, informed about the world, and welcoming to new members. From what I’ve seen, these traits are true not just of people at Science Borealis, but the broader science writing community I’ve found through Twitter and the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada conference.

I’ve also faced some challenges. A recurring one is time management, which impacts not only me but also my poor editors. Writing these pieces always takes much longer than I hope it will. Usually my first draft takes 6–10 hours, with another 4 or more for revisions. It’s difficult to fit this irregular commitment into my regular schedule. Still, one of the things I’ve learned from the process is that the time for revisions (including emotionally processing the feedback!) is substantial, and I need to plan for it accordingly.

Another frustration I’ve run into is the limitations of the role. There were quite a few times I had a recent scientific development that I wanted to write about, but no clear Canadian connection to it, so I faced a choice between shoehorning in some Canadian content or abandoning the topic. More substantially, a lot of the ideas that I think would make entertaining blog posts are quite speculative – I find this fun, but it’s not tonally appropriate for Science Borealis. Perhaps this is an unfair complaint, as posts can be in a variety of formats (reporting, top-10 lists, personal reflection, videos, comics and more) and nothing was stopping me from posting this content on my own neglected blog. But since I left academia, I find it much harder to participate in the broader conversation on academic ideas.

I find it hard to tell if this is an issue with me and where I’m at right now, or if this is a bigger limitation facing academic blogging more generally. I’m also finding that my Science Borealis experience hasn’t fitted as neatly as I’d hoped into any career context – I have learned some useful skills, but I feel like the role has been too small to seriously prepare me for any science communication career and it’s not directly relevant in other contexts.

Finally, another painful realization has been the fragility of online communities. Since Science Borealis is a remote team, all our communication is by email or on Slack. When I started, our Slack channel was a flurry of discussion, with talk about work and fun social interactions such as weekly picture challenges. This naturally changed over time as the mix of personalities involved changed, but I suspect much of that initial energy was driven by the recent influx of volunteers. As people became busy (myself included) or moved on, I found my experience of the community was not what it was.

So, while I am moving on from Science Borealis, there’s a lot I have gained from the experience. It was very helpful for developing specific writing skills and for participating in the extended Canadian science communication community, with unique opportunities that are hard to acquire elsewhere. I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in branching out into science communication. At the same time, aspiring science communicators may want to look for additional experiences that can provide more regularity and experience with different audiences and media types.

I hope my fellow SciBorgs benefit from this summary of my perspective on my time here, and I wish the organization all the best.

~30~

After 3.5 years as a Science Borealis Science-in-Society editor, Robert has moved on from Science Borealis to devote more time to work and other hobbies. He compiled these reflections as his last post in that role.

Read all of Robert’s Science Borealis posts>

Science Borealis is a volunteer-driven organization. Find more information on volunteering as a Science Borealis subject editor> or in another capacity>

Banner image: I had to learn to conduct reporting interviews as part of my role at Science Borealis, but there’s still a lot further I could go in developing them. Image source: Pixabay.

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