Field of Science

The demise of ScienceOnline

So it seems that the pioneering science communication conference Science Online is no more. It's a sad piece of news, especially since I attended the conference twice and had registered to attend it again in Atlanta next year.

The news is sad but it's not entirely surprising; in fact I got the first whiff that something might be wrong when I was getting emails asking me to encourage others to register even one week after registration opened (usually registration sells out in minutes). The events from last year undoubtedly tarnished the conference, and I suspect that for a science journalism and writing conference funding is always an issue. The fact that the conference was able to get sponsors and raise funding for a solid seven years is a testament to the abilities of its organizers, volunteers and attendees.

My main issues with the event have been accurately articulated by Chad Orzel on his Uncertain Principles blog; the post is really worth a read if you want to understand what went wrong with this well-meaning and otherwise quite successful gathering. The problem is that during its last few years it seemed like the conference was trying to find its identity, and was stuck in limbo between being a straightforward professional conference and an evening at the bar where the old boys ' and girls' club traded stories and off color jokes. Chad puts it well:
The core issue, I think, is this: Science Online has been trying to split the difference between functioning as a kind of professional society for science communicators and a party of a bunch of like-minded friends... 
It (Science Online) started out as a small gathering of bloggers who happened to be based in North Carolina, and again, my initial impression was that it was basically a party thrown by and for a bunch of people who ran blogs and wanted to hang out with other people who ran blogs. A very informal atmosphere would be totally appropriate... 
In the intervening years, though, roles changed. Science Online moved from being a small get-together for people with blogs to a moderately large conference (around 500 attendees) that’s an important part of the professional life of the people who work in science communication via the Internet.
In other words, ScienceOnline changed rather quickly from being an intimate gathering between friends where certain kinds of jokes, conversations and behaviors were appropriate to a large, professional, straitlaced conference where such behavior would not usually have been considered kosher. However the conference could not quite achieve this transformation and could not let go of its roots, and while these intentions were well-meaning in the sense of embedding both new and old participants in an intimate and highly informal atmosphere, perhaps it did not have a salubrious effect after all, especially on newcomers. Not all newcomers who came to the conference seemed entirely comfortable with an environment that seemed to cross otherwise traditionally set conference boundaries with impunity.
I can attest to this conflicting mix of feelings myself. The first time I attended was in 2010, three years after the conference was inaugurated. I don't remember how many people attended, but it certainly was much less than the 500 or so who have been showing up over the last few years (as an aside, this was also where Carmen Drahl from C&EN encouraged me to start Tweeting, a suggestion for which I have always been grateful to her). I was delighted to put faces to so many names whose achievements and opinions I had only been familiar with until then through their blogs. It did seem like an intimate atmosphere but also one that was very nurturing and welcoming to new people.
The next time I attended was last year, in 2013, when I moderated a discussion on open peer review with Jarrett Byrnes from UMass Boston.  And things seemed to have distinctly changed. The event was much bigger and in one sense it was much more professional. And yet it had acquired a kind of semi-cultish status that I did not sense during my previous attendance. There were clearly some groups of people who had known each other for years and who were privy to a variety of inside jokes and backroom discussions, and they had no problems trading this information among themselves - all of which would have been fine for a group of science-bloggers-turned-friends meeting every Saturday night in a bar, but not really so for a conference that had admittedly turned into the premier conference for all things science online in the country. Unlike 2010, the boundaries between these groups and others seemed to be much more firmly delineated in 2013 and the barriers for inter-group communication seemed higher.
Nobody tried to actively prevent or discourage newcomers from entering this world of inside jokes and longstanding associations, but even I - someone who by then considered myself a fairly well-established member of the science blogging community -  sensed a greater sense of isolation. Part of the reason for this was actually quite positive: While in 2009 the conference had been mainly focused on blogs and websites, by 2013 it had branched into many other diverse and important topics like metrics, general journalistic issues and scientific fraud. All eminently important topics of course, but rather diffuse for people who might have been interested in the original themes of blogs and related topics. However with these positive developments came the negative ones highlighted above.
In one sense ScienceOnline experienced challenges that every conference which quickly grows from a small gathering to a professional event does. In fact one might argue that the very fact that the event grew so quickly and faced these transformational issues is a testament to how popular it became. But it's hard to deny that it could not adapt equally quickly to this transformation. The biggest lesson from this story is that a conference needs to adapt to changing needs and developments without abandoning its core principles, and it needs to do this sooner than later.
In any case, it is also really hard to deny that on balance, ScienceOnline had a huge and mostly positive impact on the science blogging, journalism and research communities. It was really the first and most importance place where like-minded people could finally come together, celebrate their achievements and voice their concerns. Like me, scores of others could put faces to names and interact with people from a variety of disciplines and discuss a variety of issues. We learnt about issues which were quite alien to us before, and we expanded significantly on those which we already knew about.
Ultimately ScienceOnline will serve as a valuable blueprint for everyone interested in the cause of science communication and future such conferences should look at it as a flawed but instructive milestone. This blueprint will benefit immensely from the successes of the event, but also equally from its shortcomings; after all we learn from our mistakes even more than from our triumphs. The organizers of Science Online should derive satisfaction on both these grounds.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS