Presenting apostilb

Yesterday, neuroamanda and I launched a new project as an exercise in communicating science: apostilb! More details explaining the project and our aims can be found on our about page. I wanted to touch upon a few things about the underlying framework for publishing content to apostilb.

If you’ve read my PhD Starter Kit, you may already be familiar with some of the content-publishing paradigms I mention here. The primary element of our workflow is GitHub; here’s the apostilb website’s GitHub repo. We have each forked the repo into our own GitHub accounts and make all changes to the website locally, including adding new content. Each week, one of us is the writer and the other the editor. When the writer has added a new article (there’s only one so far), a pull request is made and the editor is notified. The editor can then comment on the content within the pull request itself, and any changes the author wishes to implement are added as new git commits to the same pull request. After at least two rounds of back-and-forth, the piece is ready for publication and the pull request is merged. GitHub Flow is great not just for code but also for written content!

The really nice aspect of this workflow is that not only do we host the website on GitHub Pages but we are fully open and transparent about the publishing process: all the edits from the first draft itself are publicly visible. While that may not seem very useful, it is something to go back to and allows others to understand our editing process and the comments we made to each other.

The web page is built using Jekyll and the content is written using Markdown (essentially plaintext); see the raw Markdown for the first post. This simplifies the writing process itself since we can each write articles offline without relying on a web interface, using a slimmed-down syntax on a distraction-free editor.

I’m really excited about apostilb, and not only because of the rather geeky publishing methods we’re using. It’ll be good to get back into the habit of regular writing. Which reminds me, I’ve got to work on my post for next week!

If you’d like to receive the latest stories we publish, follow @apostilb or subscribe to the feed.

I’d also like to give special thanks to my brother, Aditya, for designing the apostilb logo.

Journalists vs Scientists: summarised by an animated GIF



Some context: To advertise the collaborative-editing capabilities of Google Drive, Google ran a campaign two years ago using the Hall & Oates song¬†Maneater, featuring the eponymous musicians simultaneously using a Google Docs file to come up with lyrics to the hit. They also gave us the “Gone Google Story Builder” tool, allowing anyone to make a short clip of their own in similar fashion.

Shortly after the discovery of a new type of particle that we now believe is a Higgs boson, I made the above clip to illustrate the difficulties of communicating science, highlighting the differences between scientists’ need for 100% accuracy and journalists’ need to tell a compelling and understandable story. I shared a link with my friends on Facebook to lukewarm response and forgot all about it.

Today, while going through my Facebook profile looking for something else, I came across the link to the original clip and decided (as you do, these days) to make an animated GIF of it and share it on Google+, a social network that has supported such files for quite some time. I was a little surprised by the reaction. As of writing this entry, the post on Google+ has 53 +1s and 77 re-shares, and has been seen over 27,000 times. That is by far the most successful thing I have ever posted on Google+.

A few people, though, missed my point.

Peter Smalley, for example, said, “This is exactly how media sources get science wrong – except usually scientists don’t get to be involved at all.”

That’s not what I was going for at all. The point isn’t that journalists get science wrong (I’m not saying they don’t), it’s that those on the other side of the fence are rarely receptive to their needs. Scientists regularly give the journalists what they assume will be sufficient: objective facts. This is usually accompanied by an insistence that the wording of the journalistic piece reflect the terminology and caveats that are present in the scientific publication. I’ve also found scientists reacting with shock when journalists ask them questions that seem simple or basic, not accounting for the fact that journalists have to cover a wide range of topics and don’t typically have the luxury of writing about just the field of the scientist in question.

I thought I should clarify that my sympathies, in this case, lie with the journalists!

I welcome your feedback.