Wednesday, June 25, 2014

High time for an Indian science journalists' association

I sat quietly watching my UK-based counterparts mull over what they do and how to get better at it. The UK Conference of Science Journalists (UKCSJ) 2014, which I was following from a remote location via twitter, had kicked off with a panel discussion on sexism in science journalism. It went on to share the secrets of the science journalism trade – things like how to find your voice and run a successful freelance business. It highlighted new ways of doing journalism, and held skills training on data journalism.

The thought that science journalists in India have no such forum kept coming back to me through the day. With it the nagging feeling that science journalism in India is not what it should be grew stronger. I had the perfect opportunity to voice these concerns at a two-day science communication-themed conference later last week in Bangalore, close on the heels of the UKCSJ. There I flagged the need to have an Indian science journalists’ association that could host networking and training events, and conferences. A forum where we could meet, argue the role of existing or upcoming outlets covering science, learn from the veterans, and hopefully, come up with solutions to the crisis we are in, on this side of the world.

Science in the Indian media

The number of venues for science reporters is so small in the country that it leaves little scope for someone aiming for a full-time science reporting job. Those who choose to freelance have to chase highly competitive international publications that pay much better rates (at times relatively quicker), and more importantly, cover more science than our own publications. There is no one place that lists opportunities to cover the science beat in India, probably because there are none. Our newspapers do not give much space to science and on top of that whatever little coverage there is, it is mainly sourced from other, mostly international, publications or newswires. Some of the few “original” science news pieces they run have quotes or paragraphs copy-pasted from press releases. 

Besides, Indian science journalism suffers a demand and supply problem. Not many opportunities and not many journalists, feeding each other in a vicious circle. The country has barely 20–25 “science” journalists, T. V. Jayan (science editor of The Telegraph India) noted at the meeting in Bangalore. He wonders how many care to look at research journals on a daily basis to find stories.

Friction between scientists or science policy-makers and journalists

Lack of access to information, unwillingness of scientists to open up about their work, shortage of science press officers at institutions, poorly maintained institutional websites, scientists not trained or even allowed to speak with media ... are issues seasoned science journalists like Jayan and T. V. Padma (SciDevNet’s South Asia coordinator), have been battling ever since. Pallava Bagla (science editor of NDTV) laments, “There is a catharsis post-publication” of research papers among scientists. They should be using the time as a “golden period” to promote their work, but they don’t, Bagla says.  

Far-removed from the rest

Orthodox and sexist comments of the kind “you can afford to freelance because you’re married” or “we want writers who write well, not just pretty faces” are thrown at women journalists to suppress their voice. While our UK-based counterparts kicked off their 2014 conference with a panel on sexism in science journalism and came up with a manifesto to deal with it, and our US-based counterparts hosted ‘The Women in Science Writing: Solutions Summit’ the week before, India seems far-removed from dealing with the issue, and the ones I mentioned earlier. I know it’s easy to be swayed by the West but why not if its only to better our standard? 

Science communication conferences, such as the one I attended this weekend, see all sorts of science communicators coming together. They are doing their bit but there’s no forum exclusively for journalists, except maybe a two-hour session at these conferences. 

Role of an Indian science journalists’ association

You might already know that an Indian Science Writers’ Association (ISWA) already exists in the country. According to its membership application, the ISWA is a “Professional body of writers / journalists / scientists / communicators of India interested in science communication.” As you can see, it is open to a broad range of science communicators. India needs a new organization – not to compete with the existing one – but to cater to the niche that science journalism is. It should be run by actively-working science journalists for science journalists. When it is successful it can embrace other kinds of science communicators. 

Such a professional body can
- organize an annual or a biennial science journalists’ conference
- run a mentorship programme for young journalists
- create an online database of science journalists with short profiles of each
- help bring the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) to India for the first time 
- institute travel fellowships for cash-strapped freelance journalists to attend key international events
- have awards for excellence in science journalism to give journalists the much-needed impetus 

What according to you should it aim for? You can leave your comments below or on twitter, or e-mail me. My hope is that a carefully crafted science journalists association would help resolve problems we are all grappling with. But the initiative has to come from journalists.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

How not to answer media queries

Journalists stick to some unsaid rules and there are certain responses that are not acceptable to us when we raise a media query. One of these responses is our sources sending us material that's been passed on to other journalists or is published elsewhere. 

Recently, science communication experts and science journalists/editors lamented about churnalism by PR. I agree that PR may be somewhat damaging to science journalism, more so to the careers of science journalists. But PR alone doesn't instigate churnalism; it is also fed by sources themselves. 

When a journalist requests a source for an interview, be it a face-to-face, skype, telephone or e-mail interview (in order of preference), the source must know that the journalist is looking for fresh answers and not those that have been posted to other journalists. No journalist likes to run a quote that has already been run.

I have generally been opposed to the idea of e-mail interviews, but there are a few scenarios when they cannot be avoided. For instance, when the source is travelling or is too busy to speak or doesn't have a good  internet connection or access to telephone (which is rare in the digital era that we live in!) It's rather easy for some sources to resort to churnalism if the interview is being conducted over e-mail. It saves enormous time for sources if they copy and paste from a website or a published document to answer a journalist's queries.

Other than such answers coming as unnatural and unsuitable for use as quotes in our stories, the problem with e-mail interviews is that they are not conversational. 

In a recent incidence of the unavailability of a source for anything other than an e-mail interview, the source copied, what he claims to have written himself on the website, to fit as answers to my questions. It was fairly easy for me to figure out where these were coming from, because I had read all that was available on the web before approaching him for an interview. [Most journalists do their background research prior to an interview (because it's beneficial for both parties  the interviewer and the interviewee), and so had I.]

This kind of copy-paste strategy is not acceptable to journalists, or their editors. All credible journalists are aware of the copyright issues involved in claiming quotes published elsewhere as their own. This has the potential to damage the readership and credibility of a journalist and her publication. But why should then a source be wary of churnalism if there's no obvious damage done to them? Well, I am left with no reason to trust what they say the next time I want to (or have to) interview them to write about their work. And I think that's enough reason.

When I discussed this with my editor, he reassured that such things happen frequently, which goes to re-emphasize the point that I made earlier  churnalism fed by sources is a concern and it needs to be looked into, while we pin the blame on PR.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Royal Society Book Prize

On 26th November night, a hall full of audience gathered to attend the award ceremony of the Royal Society Winton Prize 2012 for Science Books. There were little over a 100 submissions this year for the prize. A longlist was first released with 12 titles and a shortlist of 6 was announced a wee bit later. But before you get it wrong, I wasn't there at the award ceremony despite being in London. I was sitting on my couch (down with a cold) with ear phones plugged in, watching the live telecast of the award ceremony and sulking for not being able to make it. 

Ever since the date for the prize ceremony was announced, it was etched in my memory. (No, I didn't use any of the mnemonic techniques mentioned in one of the shortlisted books to remember the date!) I was simply keen on meeting the characters I read about over the past couple of weeks. If you are a religious follower of this blog, you'd recall I reviewed two of the shortlisted books  Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein (about memory) and Lone Frank's My Beautiful Genome (about personalised and behavioural genomics)  on this blog. These were discussed in the book club I joined not too long ago. Both have authors themselves as the lead characters and they were present at the Royal Society event. Another character from Foer's book  Ed Cooke, a memory champ ("savant") who enticed Foer into the memory championship and coached him through  had accompanied Foer to the event. 

Foer's book didn't win the prize but it's definitely worth a read. I'd particularly like to recommend it (I repeat its title, Moonwalking with Einstein) to those who give an excuse every year that they "cannot" remember anyone's birthdays, except their own (thank goodness for that!) Forgetting is one thing, but considering yourself incapable of remembering something is another. And here I quote from the book: "It is forgetting, not remembering, that is the essence of what makes us human." So, folks, please can you finish the book before my next birthday? 

Apart from the two books I reviewed, I had not read the other four on the shortlist. So, I wasn't in a position to place any bets on the award winning title. But before your patience wears thin, let me tell you that the book that won is The Information by James Gleick. It certainly is the next book on my reading list (it has been decided to be the read for our next book club). The sub-title of the book says it is about the history, theory and flood of information. I am indeed interested, not much in the history or theory but the 'flood' part of it, as I find myself trapped in the "information deluge", sometimes.

Previous winners of the highly coveted science book prize include A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, The Emperor's New Mind by Sir Roger Penrose, Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould, The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking, The Man who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman, and some others. How many have you read?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Train your brain

I, and am sure you too, have a list of unfinished or half-read books. Books you find interesting but do not get down to finishing as other chores take priority. We do hope to pick those up some day and get rid of the guilt that we live with. Book clubs that way are useful in inculcating a habit of reading. And not just a habit of reading for pleasure  reading critically.

In an earlier post, I mentioned why and how I joined a book club in London. We meet every two months. Even if reading one book in two months doesn't sound like, or is, a great achievement, because I open the chosen book a week (or two) before we meet, I happen to use the remaining weeks to target reading a few other books from end to end. 

At the book club yesterday we discussed Moonwalking with Einstein, whose last page I had managed to reach a couple of hours before the meeting! The title Moonwalking with Einstein by itself might conjure up a weird image of Micheal Jackson's moonwalking being performed with Einstein. If you knew that it's a popular science book, you could get thinking that the book recalls the history of science (going backwards just like the dance step). None of this holds true. The sub-title comes to the rescue as it reads, "The art and science of remembering everything." Though I like that the secret to the book's title is revealed only in the last chapter (I made guesses throughout the read), the strange thing is that the phrase is mentioned just once in nearly 300 pages, and the image was actually used by the author as a memory trick to remember a sequence of three cards in a deck.

The author is a science journalist whose interest was piqued by a memory contest. While reporting on such events, he got interested to know if he could improve his memory. A year later he turned out to be the winner of the US memory championship. It is though very ironic that after winning the memory contest, he doesn't forget where he parked his car but that he drove one to a dinner! To me the narrative seems similar to the book we did for the previous (and my first) book club - My Beautiful Genome, which is built around personal accounts of genetic testing. Both books are on this year's Royal Society's Winton  Prize Shortlist.

Moonwalking with Einstein mentions techniques that are deployed by memory champs to remember a list of numbers, names, faces, historical dates, etc. What disappointed me when I got to the last page was that I was not convinced to use these techniques in registering events or things that I tend to forget in my everyday life. Creating a "memory palace" to put all the things (for better recall) is a more complicated and time consuming task than making a to-do list on a device or notebook. (Not that the author claims it to be a self-help book. In fact, he makes it very clear it is not.) If there's one thing that you and me could use from the techniques that are listed to be better at a task, it is "deliberate practice". "Deliberate practice", the author writes in American English, "must be hard... When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend... Regular practice simply isn't enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes."

Everyone in the book club (this time everyone included me and just two other clubbers!) agreed that the book is well-structured and well-written, and it makes a neat transition from one topic to another, from one paragraph to another. The titles of chapters are catchy. Overall, it makes for an enjoyable read and you can read it for revelations such as the one about Chess, which as regarded, is not the "ultimate test of cognitive ability". It is practise and experience that prepares a chess player to relate to previous games and plan his next move. Rather, experience is what makes an expert, an expert, be it chess or any other field. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Binders full of clippings

It kicked off in July 2010. An urge to interview this adept science writerjourno whose work I have admired since I forayed into science writing. My first meeting with R. Ramachadran was at the Indian Institute of Science, when preparation for the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) was at its zenith, as the big event was to be held next month in Hyderabad. Until then I had heard about Ramachandran, and read his columns in the Frontline magazine and The Hindu newspaper, which gave him his first break in journalism back in 1984. It took me a while in getting Ramachandran take time off his typical journalistic, full-of-deadlines schedule, to speak at length about his experiences. I used the opportunity when he visited Bangalore to train a group of scientists, on one of those rare occasions when an effort is made to invite practising journalists to brief scientists on communicating with the media.

These weren't the only instances I interacted with Ramachandran. I worked with this award-winning journalist for the duration of the ICM (nine days), for the preceding International Congress of Women Mathematicians (two days), side events and while gearing up for the conference. Post-ICM, I met him at other events of journalistic interest. I may have been smitten by his analytical and writing skills, and was determined to profile him; perhaps a bit too much to be keen on knowing how he got to be called 'Bajji'. Eventually, (though I didn't find the secret to his pet name) I interviewed him. The three-page conversation is published today in Current Science. I still have some unpublished snippets from the interview. I am adding one such in this blogpost (you can read the entire interview here). 

The following snippet that I am quoting shows Ramachandran's modesty with regard to contributions made by journalists:  

"There can be science journalists who have produced commendable books and other works, who have become great science editors, and so on, but by and large what we write is quite mundane. We are like hack writers. That's what we [journalists] do. I am not producing anything new in what I write [in terms of content]. All I am doing is collating information that is available all round and putting it in some cogent manner; only an attempt to convey something in a manner that is understandable to the public. It may have value up to a time when somebody is looking for a reference to a topic. It may have relevance for a year or two and be used as reference material if the reporting is accurate enough. But after a couple of years it is useless for anybody, except for myself. I can cut the clippings and keep them in my files, which also I don’t do now, by the way! (laughs)" 

Well, I'd say even if it's meant to be stacked and become useless after a couple of years, these binders full of clippings are not easy to produce! 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

To co-author or not

During the three years I spent working in the editorial office of a peer-reviewed science journal, I studied a few cases of plagiarism, all of a different nature. In one of these, the co-author was not aware that she is the co-author until she read her name on the published paper. She claimed to have conducted the research that was published but alleged that the corresponding author did not seek her consent before submitting the paper to the journal. Clearly, this was a case of ethical misconduct falling under the large umbrella of plagiarism. 

Plagiarism cases need to be handled meticulously. Often mired in denials, and two, or more, conflicting versions of the story, these issues do require time and attention to arrive at a fair judgement. An article about authorship on Naturejobs.com got me reflecting on my stint as a science writer and later as an editorial assistant at Current Science, where I juggled with everything from writing, editing, proof-reading, press relations, peer-review, handling plagiarism issues, commissioning articles, to other editorial processes that constitute the functioning of a journal.

Since the journal office shared campus with a research institute, I had the advantage of interacting with researchers on an everyday basis. I read what was available in the campus library on authorship, flip side of writing unsigned columns... or anything concerning publishing. A piece published in The Telegraph last month drew my attention for its focus on the nature and scale of scientific collaborations. With a catchy title, "How many scientists does it take to make a discovery?" the piece asserts that "The era of the lone genius, as epitomised by Albert Einstein, has long gone."

So, it's no coincidence that when asked to review a book revolving around academia and academiaindustry partnerships, I jumped at the opportunity. The book, titled Genentech (for genetic engineering technology), does hint how collaborations materialize, among other interesting things. While perusing the book, I suspected I would come across arguments over authorship. I wasn't even mid-way through the book, that the following paragraph appeared:

"Then a heated dispute over authorship broke out. Heyneker, claiming he had done much of the research, asserted that he rather than Itakura should have the honored place of first author. His native competitiveness fanned by the winner-take-all culture of UCSF molecular biology, he made a special trip to Los Angeles to discuss the matter with Itakurato no avail. When the paper appeared in Science in December 1977, the names of the City of Hope chemists came first, with Itakura as lead author."

As some of you working in the labs may have guessed, the next question to pop up in such a situation would be, "whom to designate as inventors on the patent applications." Here, I quote from the book, again: "In patent law, those originating the concept for the invention are deemed inventors, and only their names appear on the patent application. Convention in scientific publication, on the other hand, is to acknowledge every contributor to an experiment by listing them all as authors. Patenting protocol tends to reduce the many to the few, while scientific publication protocol tends to expand the few to the many."

While this expansion from a few to the many is bound to occur as researchers continue to collaborate, why don't you go read the article that appeared on Naturejobs? Perhaps, you could use some tips it offers to avoid the friction resulting from an expanding authorship.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Extremely employable

Photography is a rather new interest that I have nurtured. Just like a writer who always looks at her work as unfinished and "could have been better", photographers are (at times, infamously) known to release the camera shutter repeatedly to capture that one best shot. Yet, "it could have been better" continues to linger. This afternoon I was at the Press Association, London, attending a seminar organized by the National Council for the Training of Journalists. The seminar was led by established photojournalists who shared stories behind their photographs of royal weddings, Olympics, riots, wars, tsunamis, and other news-making events. 

So, what did I learn at the seminar?

-- That you can start a (paid) career in photojournalism even if you are in your early 30s or late 40s. Age doesn't count; passion does.

-- If "you are all about money" photojournalism is not the career for you. (I think, journalism on the whole isn't if you are all about money.) There are no fixed salaries, either. 

-- Forge local contacts while reporting from an unknown land.

-- Approach your subjects to get across the human element in your photos. 

-- Use natural light (instead of flash) for taking good pictures; if situation is under your control shoot during early morning and/or late evening hours. 

-- Know a bit about the law. Try not to break it.

-- If you are a citizen reporter, then send in the photos of an event early. Do not send run-of-the-mill photos. 

-- Photos taken with smart phones won't make it to the press unless the picture quality is really good, and only if stories behind these photos can be verified without much effort on part of the editorial team.  

-- If you freelance, send photos that can be immediately put to print; leave minimal work for the photo editor.

-- Practise writing captions for your photos.

-- If you cannot pause on your way to work to take that one shot of something you have found interesting, QUIT. It isn't a career for you.

-- No one is born with a camera in hand. 

-- "It is the best career there is." 

-- If you can write/report as well as take photos (and even make videos), that makes you "extremely employable". 

Well then Happy Clicking!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

One book at a time

I always wanted to join a book club, but could not find a suitable one in India. So, even before my tickets to fly to London arrived, I requested for a membership to the London Science Book Club (started a year ago by science journalist Angela Saini). The title chosen for the book club’s 10th meeting, which happened to be my 1st, was “My Beautiful Genome: Exposing Our Genetic Future, One Quirk At A Time” by Lone Frank.

When I grabbed a copy of the book from the nearest library last week, I opened flat both covers  back and forth  to see its cover design, which is that of a tattooed girl. I just happened to look at the bottom left of the back cover and was puzzled by its dual category; I knew the book was “Popular Science” but started to wonder why “Biography”? Through the prologue and I knew why. The “brutally honest” author reveals loads of personal information and weaves it with the science in her quest for answers to a repertoire of questions about the future of genetics.

The quest begins with the authors attempt to answer “Who am I?” She undergoes one genetic test after another, and volunteers as a research subject for scientific studies. Towards the end of each chapter, she keeps a thread hanging about her next test, and that makes it as much a page-turner as the science, humour and sarcasm that are put in the book. Some sections seem poignant while others would leave you rolling on the floor with laughter. The latter seems more evident for the last chapter, which begins with the mention of a piece of art that was inspired by a science project and gifted to the author by a colleague. There are also things like: “A paternity check...is relatively pain-free – depending on the results.” Yet there are sections that would baffle you. 

The book fails in convincing me to undergo a genetic test to determine my pre-dispositions towards a disease, but does encourage me to think more about what I have and have not inherited from my parents. Not that I didnt resort to such a thing before. In our society, when a child is born and as (s)he grows, parents, grandparents, and/or extended family look for any signs of resemblance to themselves or to the child's siblings ... But as I read, little more thought goes in. Until relatively recently, I did not resemble my parents, or siblings, and a joke that circulated around in my family was I may have been accidentally exchanged in the maternity ward. 

One of the studies that the author refers to and piques my interest is the genetic underpinning for the collectivist culture in the East and individualist in the West. But I wish there was more. The book also deals with concepts that seem feasible now, those of designer babies and match-fixing. Here, I quote what Francis S. Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project, said during his lecture at the Indian Institute of Science, when someone from the audience asked for his views on match-fixing based on genes: Commercial opportunity is everywhere you look, here. ... There is some effort to try to identify ways of which you could predict which couples are going to be compatible...but probably not enough that you should change your current romantic plans. 

My Beautiful Genome suffers from overuse of metaphors (most despised example: Inside [a gene chip] ...small pieces of DNA are placed, which flutter like sea grass on the ocean floor). Some fundamentals of genetics mentioned in the book are already outdated (with findings published under project ENCODE, the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements). I also fail to understand why the author decided to use only two illustrations that are no good either. But I have to admit that the author has done a superb job with her interviews. I particularly like how she got the Nobel Laureate, James D. Watson, talking.