A couple of months ago I attended a discussion at the National Press Club titled "What Will We Tell Peoria?" during which a panel of journalists complained that people have become too stupid to realize how essential traditional methods of reporting are and how we'll all be sorry when rigorous newsrooms close and papers die and only TMZ is left standing.
I think that is rubbish. In my work, I believe it is essential to give the gift that people want and not the gift you think they should have. Newspaper magnates are indignantly trying to force feed us their content believing their version of civics is the inoculate we need to prevent us from becoming vile Yahoos.
I believed that papers needed to convert their devoted readership into a devoted community -- transitioning one-way print and broadcasting into conversation and sharing. There are almost no good examples of this.
At least that's what I thought before I received an e-mail from Vikram Savkar, publishing director of Scitable, asking if I might have time to jump on the phone with him to talk about his science social network. "Good Lord, not another social-networking service," I thought.
Well, Scitable is a product of the journal Nature, a respected, peer-reviewed academic journal. Its goal is to offer free scientific knowledge to students, starting with genetics, as well as facilitating the connection between students and senior scientists as mentors, something that is much easier to make happen online.
Mr. Savkar realized that there is a lot of crap, misinformation, outdated info and rubbish online, especially in science. Even the content that is legit is neither guided nor contextual. And content without context is hard to digest. When I think of dodgy content that does a pretty good job of informing but is not cite-worthy, I think of Wikipedia.
Scitable is a direct response to Wikipedia. While Wikipedia a great tool for generalists, faculty of science know that it is not a definitive source. The first goal Mr. Savkar set was to make sure Scitable was as easy to use as Wikipedia while approaching all the content through rigorous editorial processes and review.
I asked Vikram if you could access all of the content on Scitable without ever needing to log in, something that many community developers do to encourage registration, and he told me that locking down the content would have been antithetical to the open-access model for content. When someone searches for "Gene Expression and Regulation," Vikram wants students to find the article on Scitable instead of on Wikipedia.
When students and scientists and professors and teachers do register, they are granted some very cool tools to message, bookmark and submit content to the conversation, "Upload Original Content," which I assume is then placed under the spotlight, making sure it is edited and vetted.
If you haven't heard about the journal Nature, it is part of the Nature Publishing Group, which has been publishing since 1869 and covers 70 science and medical journals -- surely the type of company most likely to fail in this mainstream media-killing economy. That's why I was so excited about this call -- over an hour long -- and why I am sharing it here. Scitable is game-changing -- they're doing what all of the ivory-tower walking dead refuse to do: evolve or perish. I personally don't think it is very noble to go down with the ship when hitting the iceberg is completely preventable.
The reason why Scitable is starting with genetics is because genetics is sexy right now. According to the press info, "Now that President Obama has lifted the ban on stem-cell research, genetics has become a hot topic for students, teachers and scientists. There are few credible resources and brands online that students can easily access and trust." A good enough reason.
Another reason is because genetics research is pretty clean and easy, accessible to newbies and beginners. In D.C., the land of the genome, I attended some classes on the programming language Perl, a simple-to-learn language that is known for its ability to churn through large amounts of data -- and text -- to find patterns and allow "normal people" to mine for genetic findings, something that very well could encourage students to choose science and medicine as their vocation.
One cool tool that Scitable has created to encourage students to pursue science is called Learning Paths, guided lessons that walk students through an entire course on subjects as awesomely arcane as "Chromatin in eukaryotic regulation," "Gene Mapping: Then and Now," "A Brief History of Genetics: Defining Experiments in Genetics" and "Intro Biotechnology: Techniques and Applications." Each of these Learning Paths is developed by an educator who has worked very hard to not throw the student unto the deep end to sink or swim but rather to assist in that student's autodidactic journey. For example, "Chromatin in eukaryotic regulation" was put together by Laura Hoopes. Learning paths allow people to have a streamlined experience, sort of like a mentorship or training program, to break down all of these sundry tools and resources into an easy, accessible learning experience.
Finally, the future of Scitable. Savkar addressed the movement past genetics. Scitable has been designed to scale without breaking or becoming impenetrable. In fact, the bigger Scitable grows, the better. There are no walls between the disciplines in order to be sure there is no siloing going on, and that allows the hyper-textual site content to interact and allow serendipity and coincidence to act out and to allow students to see the connections and the connectivity among all things, something that is too often prevented in the competitive environment of the university.
The plan is to be profitable in five years, by selling advertising through the site. The sponsors must contribute to the site -- there will be no advertisements for products. I am envisioning ads that highlight, say, internships at labs, educational programs or jobs at bio-pharmaceutical companies.
In our busy ADHD world, I know I need executive summaries of the web and of knowledge. Scitable is trying really hard to dig through all of human knowledge and be able to sift all of the content, boil it all down into understandable and trustworthy bits that students and adults alike can fit into their busy lives in a compelling and exciting way without freaking students out or intimidating them out of ever wanting to enter the sciences in college; 40% of students leave the sciences in colleges, often because of an attrition culture in the academy.
To me, Scitable is an elegant interpretation of both "publish or perish" and "evolve or perish," and I believe it's an exemplary model for how stodgy old journals and boring dead-tree newspapers might be able to survive these internet "anti-intellectual" dark ages. Maybe this is a map that more publishers should consider following.
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Chris Abraham, president of the digital-PR firm Abraham Harrison, is a blogger who specializes in social-media marketing with a focus on blogger outreach, blogger engagement and search-reputation management. Chris lives in Berlin and Washington and can be reached via Twitter, Facebook or e-mail.