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Communicating Science and Connecting people: An interview with Bora Zivkovic, the Scientific American editor

Photo credits: Travis Dove, The New York Times

Jean Cocteau once said that the art is science made clear, but what he didn’t indicate is that the science is creating different forms of art including the art of connecting people and communicating science. Bora Zivkovic is a unique, energetic, technologically-savvy, and multidisciplinary scientist, connector, and blogger. I met Bora twice: during the Science Online 2009 and Science Online 2010 conference in Raleigh NC, USA, and on many other occasions online, and he would always motivate me with incredible energy and passion for science and people. I would say that Bora is the real science connector, not only communicating and articulating science in its many forms but also connecting people, networks, and the scientific communities world wide.

Born in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia (now Serbia), Bora’s studies of veterinary medicine were interrupted by the 1990s war in the Balkans, when he arrived in the USA. He went to graduate school at North Carolina State University where he studied how bird brains measure time of day (circadian rhythms) and time of year (photoperiodism). He started A Blog Around the Clock in 2004 as a prolific science blogger. He was the online Community Manager for the open access journal PLoS ONE. He is now the editor of Scientific American’s blog network, organizes the annual ScienceOnline conference, and is the editor of The Open Laboratory, an annual collection of the best writing from science blogs.

He even interviewed me once, as a host of a series of interviews with various scientists, bloggers, educators, and journalists; and now is my turn to ask Bora questions I always wanted to ask him. I had an opportunity to interview him and here are the questions and perceptive, knowledgeable, and fun responses.

Welcome to Australian Science! Recently the Science Online 2012, #scio12 has finished, and impressions are still spreading online among scientists, bloggers, journalists by sharing blog posts, videos, tweets. How do you feel after this year’s conference? Do you think that some things and social dynamics during this conference have changed comparing to previous conferences? I’ve seen familiar names tweeting online, people I met in person in 2009 and 2010. What has changed in the conference dynamics since then?

We were very aware that growing a meeting by 50% can change the dynamics. We spent the entire year discussing strategies for ensuring that the intimate atmosphere of the meeting does not vanish. I wrote quite a lot about this in my long blog post after the event, especially about the need to make sure that so many new people feel welcome and instantly included into the community – including all the fun parts of the event. We completely changed the daily schedule in order to foster more informal interractions, we (really, Karyn Traphagen) designed the Cafe Room with this in mind, and we put quite a lot of effort in our communications on the blogs (including my post which was recommended to all to read beforehand), emails and social media, to prepare everybody for the unconference format and for the unique blend of serious discussions and crazy fun of ScienceOnline. For the most part, judging from what people are saying on their blogs and in our feedback forms, we were successful.

You are an influential leader of the scientific blogging network community – I may say – worldwide. You have a lot of experience in the curating, managing, coordinating scientific events, scientific blogs, and online communities. You’ve been organizing the ScienceOnline conference for the past 6 years and also serve as series editor for The Open Laboratory anthology. You’ve worked as PLoS online community manager and now work in the role of Editor at the Scientific American blogs. What are the best strategies for building and maintaining blog network (out of scratch)?

Building a blog network from scratch is actually a wonderful experience – one gets to turn one’s vision into reality. Of course, building a network hosted on the Scientific American website is not exactly “from scratch”, as the power of the brand (as well as the resources of the organization) almost guarantee visibility and traffic from the start. I spent several years as a blogger at Scienceblogs.com so I could experience (and later analyze) many aspects of the community building at that site – definitely insights I used in building the SA network later on. Also, just before Scientific American hired me, I was briefly involved in the planning and early organization of the PLoS Blogs and Scientopia blogs. In both of these, my voice was one of several. At Scientific American I was hired specifically to do this, so I had more freedom to build exactly the kind of network I wanted to.

The key to the success of a network are its people. I had the luxury of having nine long months to think about it. I dug through the archives and started following literally thousands of science blogs. I used Twitter to ask for suggestions for even more blogs, especially blogs that do a particular ‘thing’, e.g,. writing about a particular topic in a particular style. What I was looking for was to assemble a team, rather than produce a “best of” list. I wanted a group of people who will be joy to work with, who will have fun communicating with each other in the backforums and in their blogs’ comment sections, and who will be naturally inclined to feel as members of a community, not just writers for hire.

Of course, there are many people like that, so I also made sure that, within the limits of size and budget, I include quite a lot of diversity. When I say ‘diversity’ I am not talking just about coverage of as many topics and scientific disciplines as we can accommodate, but also diversity in voices. I wanted to have people on the network who can speak to different audiences, so I wanted to find people of varied backgrounds (geography, career path, age, gender, race/ethnicity, etc.), with different writing styles, writing at different “reading levels”, etc, in order to capture as broad and varied audience for the network as a whole. Inclusion of several bloggers who communicate well using media other than text was also very important to me, as art, illustration, video, music, photography, cartoons, animations, infographics and other ways of communicating science are just as important as good text writing for extending our reach and capture new audiences.

It is also important to understand that a blog network is not static. Bloggers come and go. It is OK – life and career sometimes force people to take different directions, which may entail stopping blogging temporarily or permanently, or taking one’s blog in a completely different direction. It is important to make these transitions smoothly without disrupting the community and the overall tone of the network.

As a science blogger and network community manager, what’s the one piece of advice you would give to people who want to curate and manage their local and national blogging communities? And what is your advice to bloggers, scholars, scientists, educators, and journalists who want to write for those scientific online networks? I have noticed that relationships, people and linking matter the most, I would like to hear your thoughts. 

Analyze the audience. Make a vision that fits it (and expands to other audiences you want to attract). Then – ignore personal friendships! Both you and I have thousands of friends in the science blogging circles. Many of them are fantastic bloggers whose blogs I read religiously. Yet I did not invite them to the network because their blogging topics and styles do not fit the vision I have for the network. Some of the bloggers who ended up on the network happen to be my friends, but they are here because of what they do and how they do it. Other bloggers on the network I only first encountered when I started looking around really hard – I liked their writing, I started communicating with them online, perhaps “tested” them on the Guest Blog, and decided they were a good fit. I also deliberately chose a few bloggers who are veterans, people who have experience, reputation and authority, people who can help on a bad day when trolls are all over a bloggers’ comment section, or if there are uncertainties in the troops (and of course, they already have many regular readers who will follow their blogs onto the new hosting network). But most are relatively new or young bloggers who I thought had great talent and potential. Most have more than repaid my trust in them and grew into tremendous forces of high-quality blogging.

You are an avid twitterer and I remember you used FriendFeed a lot. What social web tools are you using these days the most besides Twitter? What social media tools help you now for promoting the work and networking and which one do you use for professional development?

Twitter is still my main social network where I spend the most time and do most of the interraction – this is where I discover stuff, promote stuff, and talk with people. I also post links to most of my bloggers’ posts on my Facebook and Google Plus pages. If interraction there happens, and it often does, I am happy to go there as well to reply, but these are definitely not taking up much of my time. I am only very superficially exploring the worlds of Tumblr, Posterous, Quora and Pinterest, am studiously avoiding LinkedIn (though I have a profile there – and probably everywhere), have pretty much abandoned FriendFeed since it was bought by Facebook, and use other sites (e.g., YouTube and Flickr) mainly as repositories rather than places where I expect to get much interraction. I see quite a lot of potential in Google Plus which, I sometimes joke, is how FriendFeed would look like if it continued developing.

I have a feeling that the new social web paradigm in science, technology and education cannot sustain without building relationships and links. Do you find the human factor and the power of community prevailing over machines and tools we are using? Are we finally getting to the point that despite McLuhan’s “that tools will be using us”, is rather the other way around? 

Yes, of course. It is all about the people. Sure the medium affects the message – different mediums are best for different types of communication – but it is always the people who are doing the communicating. Improvement of the tools over time makes the communication easier and clearer, allowing more and more people to use the tools with technical ease, and with better use of their communications instincts – in some way making that communication more and more honest and “real”.

Many universities and departments worldwide (MIT, Open University UK, Stanford, etc.) as well as publishers (Sage, JSTOR, etc.) are opening themselves more and more to the scientists and scholars enabling them to publish directly their research and work and also let the public to some previously locked archives available online. How do you see the impact of open access on the science, education, and communication online? 

Open Science (including, but not limited to, Open Access publishing) is a necessity. It will happen no matter what we do or don’t do. The business realities, the technological capabilities, the will of the people, the habits of media use by next generation, all of those are conspiring to make Open Science a reality in the near future. The question is, how near is that “near future”? We – the Open Science advocates – push for the transition to happen faster. Why? Because every day that medical information is hidden or expensive is a day someone dies. Every day that climate information is not easily available is another day that politically motivated obstructionists can keep swindling people into believing incredible conspiracy theories, and thus another day we postpone action that is needed to protect the planet so it is still inhabitable for our children and grandchildren. Thus, understandable urgency.

Some people may not know but you are also a chronobiologist. So according to you what are the best times for scholars, bloggers, and scientists to write? When is the best time for writing based on our biological rhythms? Many writers say it is very early morning they do the most of their writing, while others swear to late night writing sessions. What do the science and chronobiology say? 

The beauty of biology is the endless variation. Add culture and ingrained habits into the mix and variation of human experience becomes almost endless. There is a continuum of genetically influenced types, ranging from extreme morning people (larks) to extreme night people (owls) and everything in-between, with some people more forcefully affected by their genetics, while others being able to be more flexible with their daily routines. So each person has to discover his/her own best daily schedule. As for publishing? Morning and noon EST seem to work best for the traffic to blog posts regardless of the actual geographical location of the author, and Tuesday seems to be the best day of the week. Tweets apparently do best i.e., most retweets, after 5pm and on Friday night! Who knows why?!

Also, as an editor and manager of The Scientific American blogging network, do you find a time to write?  How much time a day/week do you spend on your blog? 

I have much less time to write now than before. I only get to write 2-3 lengthy, detailed posts per month now, though I post a lot of updates, linkfests etc. on various blogs on our network (The Network Central, The SA Incubator, etc). Scheduling, managing and editing Guest Blog (and Expeditions blog during the field season) takes up much more of my time. Promoting the network posts everywhere is also a part of the job, as well as behind-the-scenes communications, planning for updates and improvements for the future, etc. I wish I had more time to write, and I am trying to figure out my own daily schedule so that happens.

Do you think that web is one big serendipity machine, from the scientific point of view? 

Ha! Of course. I experience it several times a day. Chance encounters with amazing people I never heard of before. Links to informative or thought-provoking articles on platforms I do not monitor daily. Ability I use as much as I can to connect two or more people who should know each other because they can do something together – including a scientific project – that is worth doing. Pairing a reporter and a source. Pointing a person to the advertisment for their dream job. Examples are endless.

You have an extensive, rich experience in the scientific blogging community. How do you think blogs have changed the scientific landscape? What is the way to activate scholars and scientists to start blogging and join the scientific blogging communities?  How to make them more interested? 

Blog is software. One can do many different things with it. One can discuss research details with peers, or educate new generations, or promote science to lay audiences, or actively push against various kinds of anti-science, pseudoscience or nonsense that originates from political, religious, or financial interests, or from sheer lack of information. Many science bloggers are really good at, through criticism, educating science reporters and teaching them how to do a better job – this is important as those professional reporters tend to have much bigger megaphones and tend to write under the banners of media organizations that have some respect and klout.

Science selects for good research, not for good communications skills and savvy. Thus, world of science contains a broad spectrum of people in regard to their ability or willingness to communicate to the public. Contrary to stereotypes, many scientists are excellent communicatiors – some are absolutely amazing at it – but some scientists are just not.

Both in regard to public communication, and in online activity, and in acceptance of various forms of Open Science (including Open Access publishing), there are scientists who quickly discover they are good at it and they just dive in and swim like fish. They should be encouraged (certainly not punished by their departments or colleagues for “wasting their time” or being “media whores”) and helped to reach wider audiences.

On the other end of the spectrum are people who are either resistant to change, or are truly not good at communication. We should help them by doing the communication for them. And we should try to inform them and persuade them to at least not hinder the progress of Open Science even if they are too set in their ways to try it themselves.

But most people are somewhere in the middle. Perhaps they don’t know enough about the way Open Science is taking over, and how to take advantage of it. Perhaps they are not very good communicators but can be taught and are willing to learn and practice and try to do it. This is really the target audience for us – people who need some help in navigating these new waters.

Do you have your favorite blogs and scientific magazines/blog networks in Australia, New Zealand to point out? Have you discovered any cool blogs that you can share with us? 

I should start with James Byrne, the lone Australian blogger on the Scientific American network. There are good reasons why I picked him and invited him to join – you’ll see for yourself, just read some of his posts.

One of the first science bloggers I ever discovered and read, and still admire greatly, is Tim Lambert of the Deltoid blog.

The SciBlogsNZ network is an amazing collective of excellent science bloggers – I seriously considered “stealing” some of them for my network, but decided that good relationships with the NZ science blogging community was more important ;-)

COSMOS has recently launched a small but excellent blog network, led by probably my most favourite Australian blogger of all time – Becky Crew.

The skeptic blogging community is very strong in Australia and New Zealand, led (at least in my mind – I am not aware of the hierarchies in that group, really) by the amazing Kylie Sturgess, who recently published the first edition of The Young Australian Skeptics’ Skeptical Blog Anthology.

Last, but most certainly not least, is my old friend John Wilkins, with one of the best philosophy of science blogs ever:

Thank you Bora for taking your time to talk with me!

Banner image of the quail credited to Claire Fahrbach

Cite this article:
Radovanovic D (2012-02-28 09:56:59). Communicating Science and Connecting people: An interview with Bora Zivkovic, the Scientific American editor. Australian Science. Retrieved: Jul 17, 2014, from http://www.australianscience.com.au/interviews/communicating-science-and-connecting-people-an-interview-with-bora/

Danica Radovanovic

AUTHOR: Danica Radovanovic

Danica Radovanovic is an internet researcher and social media consultant. She is an academic and analyst in digital media. Danica provides consulting and training to both the government and non-government sectors. Follow her on Twitter: @DanicaR or read more from her at ‘Digital Serendipities’.
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