The Next New Thing
Our conversation is about to get a lot more interesting.
Way before Facebook, scientists and readers of science—pioneers by nature—were establishing their own brand of participatory media. Twenty-two years ago, when Fred Ausubel and colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School were formulating the lab manual Current Protocols in Molecular Biology with me, we knew its success hinged on constant correction, updating, and improvement. The publishing process had to mirror the process of experimentation. Freud’s (not Fred’s) dictum, “from error to error, one discovers the truth” was our mantra, and we recognized that traditional print media could not accommodate the accelerating pace of change in methodologies. In those pre–World Wide Web days, we developed quarterly protocol updates, with our own web of reader feedback: postage-paid response cards tucked into every supplement, encouraging researchers to send in corrections and ideas for improvement.
What would induce the busy scientist to help out? Augmenting the natural human impetus to point out mistakes and demonstrate superior strategies, we offered a free t-shirt for every idea sent in. In no time, a sort of cult was built around our “Never Clone Alone” shirts (who can name the origin of that quote?*), which couldn’t be obtained by any means other than helping to improve the “Red Book.” Not cloning alone was also a draw; the cards flowed in and the manuals evolved.
A few years later, in the early days of the Web, I founded the online magazine HMS Beagle, this time in partnership with Vitek Tracz (CEO of this magazine and “chief innovation officer” of open access) as an offshoot of BioMedNet. It was based on CP Snow’s “two cultures” concept, whereby he bemoaned the lack of communication between science and humanities: The magazine presented the larger life of biology in society, whereby researchers could participate in “the freewheeling exchange of ideas that makes science so exciting” (according to Scientific American’s review of Beagle). Here the slogan was “Adapt or Die,” depicted by the artistic wizardry of Andrzej Krauze (whose illustration now appears in "Dry out, put away"). Debates, art, poetry, career advice, games, feature articles, and selective hyperlinking—all geared to the practicing biologist—struck a chord and another community emerged. By the late ‘90s, with over half a million readers (mostly biologists), there was little doubt that one could beat information overload and still expand one’s horizons, with smart filtering of content.
This magazine, under the tutelage of Vitek’s Science Navigation Group and spearheaded by outgoing editor Richard Gallagher, has continued to foster the exchange of ideas with original reporting and conversational, investigative features on the culture and content of the life scientist. But before we get too comfortable with the conversation, is it time to take another adaptive leap? Now that we’re more agile and collaborative, can we employ tools, apps, and new media to delve deeper into the process of investigation? Can we accommodate and even accelerate a new era of transparency in science—surfacing data, questions, insights, opinions, and trends that heretofore remained behind closed lab doors? Can we invigorate science through greater interactive behavior?
We’ll begin the process by integrating this magazine and Science Navigation’s Faculty of 1000. The Scientist will take cues from evaluations and ratings of the published literature by over 5,000 of the world’s top biology and medical researchers (yes, the Faculty grew!). If Sturgeon’s Law that “ninety percent of anything is crap” is correct, then who is better equipped than the Faculty to deliver the 10% of deep insight? This, combined with the magazine’s investigative reporting and your continued input, will be the foundation for further services and tools that track ideas and discourse: from question to experiment to publication to peer review to the next question and the next new thing.
Whether this is a formula for community building may depend on getting the t-shirt right. In any case, send me your thoughts at email@example.com. You are The Scientist.
* “Never Clone Alone” from Woody Allen’s Sleeper .