Oops

Oops. My last post was in January. Crap! I was supposed to keep this thing up, but like most other good intentions, life got in the way. Much like dieting (which I actually have managed to keep up with this year) I think it’s probably best to just put the past behind me and, rather than lament the fact that I haven’t been doing what I should, just jump in and start again. Here I go…

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Utilizing Social Media

A while ago I did a presentation for the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance on utilization of traditional and social media as it relates to media relations professionals.  Since then, I’ve received a few requests for the slides, so I decided to post them here:

If you have questions, feel free to submit them via the comments.

Wordless Wednesday: Be Back Soon

The Science Writers 2009 conference was awesome, but now I’ve come back to a mountain of writing assignments at work.  Yikes.  So, in honor of Wordless Wednesday, here is the view outside my office…which I have been locked in all day.  🙂

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Science Writers: Day 2

The second day of the Science Writers 2009 conference began the New Horizons briefings, hosted by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), a 501(c)3 non-profit organization devoted to improving the quality of science writing. My favorite sessions on day 2 were a session on Information Technology that focused on catching plagiarism, and a Statistics session that highlighted some Florida election troubles (not the election you’re thinking of).

Informatics and Plagiarism Scandal

Starting out the day, Harold “Skip” Garner, PhD of the Univ of Texas and his team created a web-based software program, called eTBLAST, to scan databases, like Medline (online database of biomedical research papers), to look for instances of duplication that may indicate plagiarism.  As someone who works a research agency that is also the single-largest source of funding for medical research, I found his research interesting, and just a little bit frightening.

The modern research environment is extremely competitive.  The cost of doing medical research is increasing, while the dollars available for that research has been in steady decline.  Academic researchers are judged, in large part, by the number of publications bearing their name, and the number of research dollars they bring into the institution.  A common mantra among scientists, in both public and private settings, is “publish, or perish.”  Perhaps it is this pressure to publish the next big paper, so that you can bring in the big research dollars so that you can publish the next paper, that drives some toward unethical behavior.

Previous studies cited by Dr. Garner have attempted to quantify instances of unethical behavior and found that 0.3% of researchers admitted to faking data, 1.4% admitted to some form of plagiarism, 4.7% published the same data more than once, and as many as 10% included authors that shouldn’t have been included.

Using their text analysis software, the researchers created a searchable database, called Deja Vu, which lists “highly-similar” publications found in Medline.  They currently list over 79,000 papers that are strikingly similar to other papers in the database.  The papers must be verified by hand, and currently only 6372 have been verified.  Mixed in that 6372 in that number are papers that were reprinted with permission, papers that are corrections of previous publications, papers from authors that republish after expanding upon their original work, etc.

The team follow-up on 206 papers, which had, on average, 86% of the same text and 73% of the same references as an earlier paper.  They sent surveys to the authors of the duplicate papers, and to the authors of the original papers.  Ninety-three percent of the authors of the original papers had no idea that their work had been copied.  As for the authors of the latter papers, 25% denied any wrongdoing, while 35% admitted and apologized.  So far, over 90 investigations have been initiated, and there have been over 50 retractions. I’m thinking that, in the “publish or perish” world, imitation is NOT considered flattering!

Nobody Does an Election like Florida

The second speaker was Arlene Ash, Ph.D., a statistician with Boston University whose recent work has focused on what she calls vote theft.  Dr. Ash shared data from the 2006 Congressional election in Florida’s district 13, where Republican Vern Buchanan earned a very narrow, 369 vote victory over Democrat Christine Jennings.

The problem, according to Ash, lies in the missing votes.  In Sarasota county, one of the four counties that make up the district, there were 18,000 people (15 percent) who voted for other elections, but didn’t vote for the Congressional race.  Other counties only had three-percent missing votes, indicating a clear anomaly.  Adjusting for the norm, there were 15,000 excess missing votes in Sarasota county.

If the 15,000 people voted in a similar pattern to the rest of the voters, then the missing votes would not matter.  However,  according to Ash, these votes were not lost at random, and therefore one cannot assume that the votes would be distributed as the non-lost votes.  Polls that showed the Democratic candidate having a strong lead prior to the election seem to confirm this suspicion.

It is speculated that many of the votes were lost due to the design of the ballot in that Florida county (wait, this feels familiar).  On the Sarasota ballot, the congressional race did not get its own page, as many of the other votes did.  It was squished at the top of a page, occupying about a quarter to a fifth of the page, while the rest of the page was occupied by one other election.  Also, for some reason, the headers of the  sections with for the other elections were highlighted with bright colors, while this one was just white.

Ash believes that this constitutes vote theft, which, according to her, occurs when the choices of eligible voters who make reasonable efforts to vote are not counted.  In other words, disenfranchisement.

Vote THEFT seems kind of harsh, but it does seem awfully fishy.  Considering the high potential for error when different places have different ballots, why don’t we just have standardized ballots in this country.  If we have standard passports, and are moving toward standardized ID’s, why not standard ballots?

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Science Writers 2009: Day 3

The third day of the Science Writers 2009 conference was hosted by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), a 501(c)3 non-profit organization devoted to improving the quality of science writing. Each year, as part of the annual Science Writers conference, CASW’s New Horizons sessions, which are hosted by a different university each year, showcase emerging research in multiple areas of science.   My favorite session on day 3 was a session on personality by a professor of psychiatry.

Personality: What you stuff says about you

George Carlin once quipped, “That’s the whole meaning of life…trying to find a place for your stuff.” In his presentation, UT-Austin’s Dr. Sam Gosling discussed his research about personal belongings and what they reveal about personality. 

If you’ve ever seen a set of door rooms, or a row of office cubicles, you know that different people will do very different things with identical spaces.  The frat boy’s dorm room will look no more similar to the room of goth chick, than my many post-it laden desk looks next to that of an OCD-suffering, super neat colleague.  The way we organize our spaces, the items we keep in it, and the type of mood we try to portray in that space say a lot about our personality, even if we don’t intend it to do so.

  • On of the first processes that links us to our spaces is the “identity claim” — those things we do that declare ownership.  From the type of plaque we put on our desk, to the stickers that someone puts on their dorm room door, these are things that we put in our space that are purposely meant to let others know that this is our space.
  • The second process, which is not necessarily a conscious form of communication, involves changes we make to our space that affect how we feel — wall colors, music choices, photos, etc.  Although these things are more private, they tell people entering our space a lot about us.
  • The third is what Gosling called “behavioral residue.”  When we occupy a space, we leave marks behind, such as making marks in the books we read a lot, or leaving things in a certain place.  These are the unintended consequences of our actions.

To conduct his experiments, Gosling sent a team of researchers into a space and asked them to take notes about the space, and their impressions of the person’s personality on five dimensions.  Not wanting to bias the results by allowing the note-takers to see what the person looked like, he considered removing any visible photos of the person prior to the experiment.  However, the photos that someone chooses to display are an important part of the second level of interaction listed above.  To overcome this issue, he placed post-it notes over the faces of the owners of the space in any visible photos, so that the note takers could make unbiased observations about the person’s personality.

There were five personality dimensions included in their observations:

  1. Openness to Experience (intellect, imagination, curiosity, creativity)
  2. Conscientiousness (order, duty, deliberation, self-discipline)
  3. Extraversion (sociability, assertiveness, activity, positive emotions)
  4. Agreeableness (trust, nurturance, kindness, cooperation)
  5. Neuroticism (anxiety, depression, moodiness, vulnerability to stress)

He had a separate team go in and physically record (through notes, videos and still photos) the space being examined, and asked people who personally knew the owner of the space to fill out a questionnaire about the owner of the space.

Gosling’s team also examined other types of spaces, such as personal websites and Facebook pages, and compared their results to data collected during short meetings, info collected on the questionnaires completed by social acquaintances, and information on the person’s ten favorite songs.

Of the personality dimensions being examined, Facebook pages and Social behavior (via questionnaire) were the best indicators of extraversion, while personal websites, dorm rooms, offices and favorite music were best suited to indicate openness.  Conscientiousness was best demonstrated through personal websites, followed by dorm rooms, and neuroticism was evenly distributed between personal websites, dorm rooms and social behavior.

Gosling cautioned that there is a danger in putting too much emphasis on any one object within a person’s space.  He provided an example of a straight-A student, well known for her conscientiousness, who had an emasculate door room.  As the note-takers went through the room, they found drug paraphernalia packed away neatly in a box in the corner of her room.  The researchers were convinced that this was a sign of a deep routed secret in this person’s life, and that the outward portrayal of conscientiousness was an attempt to cover drug use.  As it turned out, the student’s roommate was going away for a semester, and ask her to look after her things.  So, being the conscientious person she is, the student collected all the belongs, filed them in a box, and put them in the corner so they wouldn’t be disturbed.  Gosling’s stressed is that it is important to look for themes among the belongs, and not analyze the belongings individually.  One object can have multiple meanings, and by watching for patterns you can get the best indication of personality.

A person’s space, and the stuff they put in it, reveal a lot about a person’s personality.  This had me thinking that I really need to clean my office.  Of course, Gosling also said that, unlike things we do to try to shape how people think about us, spaces don’t lie (which is why they make such good indicators).  If that’s true, and spaces can’t lie, then maybe cleaning my office would be futile.  After all, maybe I’m just a post-it over-using, messy office kinda gal.

Note: the slides from Dr. Gosling’s presentation are available on the CASW New Horizons website (with free registration).

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Science Writers 2009: Day 1

The first full day of the Science Writers 2009 conference will be hard to top.  I’m exhausted, but I feel like I am taking a lot of really excellent information away from the sessions I attended today.  After the morning plenary, which I missed because I was unpacking my previously-lost-by-United-Airlines bag, I attended two sessions on using video (one was a hands-on workshop) and a third on social media and journalism.

Using Video:

During the first session, “Why Science Writers Should Embrace Cheap Video Cameras, YouTube, and Final Cut Pro,” speaker, Andrew Revkin of the New York Time’s DotEarth blog, spoke about the value of adding video to print media.  He couldn’t attend the conference in person, so he gave his presentation via skype, standing in front of a chalkboard featuring some rather impressive looking calculations, which some audience members saw as reminiscent of CBS’s Big Bang Theory. Revkin said that, with video, you can reach people who might not read the article, but would search YouTube for information.  On his DotEarth blog, Revkin not only uses video to tell his stories, but also encourages readers to share their videos, and he incorporates them on the blog. Revkin feels that the fear of video journalism hurting traditional journalism is unfounded, in that video can sometimes tell a story much more vividly.  Revkin encouraged the audience to increase their video utilization, even going so far as to suggest that since videocameras are so small these days, there is really no reason not to keep one with you whenever you go out to work on a story (the Sanyo xacti and the Cannon G10, which is technically a still camera but shoots video, were offered as examples).  He encouraged the audience not to be afraid to get close to people when filming so you can get good sound and a better image.  Fellow Panelist, Craig Duff, director of Multimedia for TIME.com concurred adding that he sometimes he wishes he could break the zoom on people’s cameras so that they would stop relying on it.

In Duff’s presentation, he shared his personal mantra for web videos, “Webby, Wiki, Sticky.”  He says all videos need to be webby, in that they need to be short and web appropriate, wiki, in that they should teach/inform the viewer, and sticky, in that the videos need to keep people engaged and not bore them.  He added that while going viral isn’t the goal, if something funny happens while you are filming a science story, by all means, put it up on YouTube. It is important to remember that there are multiple audiences out there, so not everything has to be cool/funny/etc.

Examples of how video can be used to make science seem cool came from Brian Manlow, the science comedian.

Marc Airhart, a science writer for the University of Texas, discussed the value of creating slideshows, with audio, for telling stories.  He uses a program called Soundslides, which is very easy to use.  In the next session, I went to a workshop on slideshows, where they taught us how to use Soundslides (via the free demo).  I didn’t love this program — I felt it had too many limitations for being a paid application.  However, the session was still valuable in its discussion of slideshows.  During the session, I made this one using Final Cut Express:

It really only took half an hour, and that included choosing pictures, figuring out what I was going to say, and recording the audio.

At the end of the session on using video, the presenters each shared a bit of parting advice, for those about to venture into the world of video journalism:

  • Have fun. It can be a lot of fun to present stories in different ways.
  • Pick something you are passionate about.
  • Show the audience something. If you can’t explain it, don’t shoot it.
  • Don’t be afraid — the more comfortable you get with the tools, the better your work will be.
  • When using zoom, remember that everything is amplified, including the shake of your hands. If you must use zoom, use a tripod.

Using Social Media:

The next big session I attended was called “The Secret Life of Social Media.”  In this session, David Harris, editor-in-chief of symmetry magazine and deputy communications director at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, provided an excellent breakdown of social bookmarking sites.  These sites, such as digg, slashdot, reddit and stumbleupon, are intended to crowd-source the selecting of good stories.  Theoretically, votes from users drive an article to the top of the list, and to the attention of other users.  However, it doesn’t always work that way.  Harris explained it thusly:

  • Digg is like a gang — it has a strong hierarchy, and the dominance of an idea depends on who it comes from. If you want success here, you must partner with the powerful.
  • Slashdot is like organized crime — a small, tight group controls the information. The key here is to post good stuff and get attention (working your way up).
  • Reddit is like an ADHD direct democracy — any story can get to the top, but to stay there, lots of people have to like it. You have to get people’s attention quickly here.
  • StumbleUpon is like a book club — the ideas don’t have to be fresh, and success is more closely linked to the quality of the work.

Harris shared his slides, which can be found here:

Alexis Madrigal, writer at wired.com, also talked about crowd sourcing of content selection, and the importance of being a “useful node in the network.”  This fits well with my personal mantra for social media, “Be Useful.” Alexis’ slides are available here:

Science Writers 2009: Day 0.5

I must, once again, give props to the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center. United Airlines delivered by bag sometime in the middle of the night, and when I woke up, Omar from the front desk personally brought it up for me.  Not only that, but he refused the tip I tried to give him.  This hotel is awesome.  I highly recommend.

And I’m thrilled to have my bag back!

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