Sergio Lainez Vicente catches up with science writer and former developmental neurobiologist Mo Costandi, author of the Guardian blog Neurophilosophy.
How did you decide to start a career as science writer?
I’ve been a full-time freelance science writer for about five years. It all happened by accident. I got kicked off my Ph.D. and started working as a security guard where I was doing long shifts. It was very boring and so I set up a neuroscience blog to pass the time. People started reading it and eventually I started getting occasional emails from magazine editors, saying that they liked my blog and asking if I’d like to write something for them. I started getting more and more work, up to a point where I was earning two salaries, so I quit the security job. It was partly about being in the right place at the right time, because I set up the blog when the Internet was really beginning to transform journalism.
Which skills do you consider to be essential to become a successful science writer?
There’s a tendency to think that you have to use very simple language with not much technical terminology, but that’s not necessarily true. I do think it’s very important to enjoy what you’re doing, and of course, it’s important to have some understanding of what you’re writing about.
Do you prefer long posts where you have to do research or rather like shorter ones on a more direct way?
Most of my blog posts are on average around one thousand words. I do quite a lot of reading around each post and usually include some background information. I like to go into a lot of detail and link to as many sources as I can. I also write news stories for Nature, Science and others, and I do enjoy that. Lately, though, I’ve started to enjoy it less and less, because it usually involves working to a tight deadline, and the stories are very short, so you haven’t got enough space to go into any detail. Now I’m focusing more on feature articles, which are much longer. There’s more room to go into detail.
As a writer you get to have a broader view of science compared to people doing research who tend to focus on extremely specific areas.
That’s one of the reasons I got kicked of my PhD. I wasn’t really enjoying it because I was too worried about the technical details of my experiments. I lost track of the bigger picture and forgot why I had become interested in studying the brain in the first place. Writing the blog helped me rediscover my passion for the subject. I would say that I’m a thinker first and then a writer. I still want to understand how the brain works, and I have ideas that can be tested. In fact, I might be going back in the lab to collaborate on some experiments related to a book I’m researching.
Which post has been the most important to your career?
When I started my blog around eight years ago, I’d write short posts every day and then once a year I would spend a month or two researching and writing a much longer blog post. In my first year of blogging, I wrote a long article called The discovery of the neuron, about Camillo Golgi and Santiago Ramón y Cajal and how throughout the 19th century there was controversy about the fine structure of the nervous system. This debate went on for around fifty years until Cajal, and various others, finally established that the neuron is the functional and structural unit that makes up the nervous system. I really enjoyed writing that article. Around that time, [former Scientific American blogger] Bora Zivcovic came up with the idea of publishing a book of the 50 best science blog posts of the year, which eventually became an annual collection of the best blog posts, known as The Open Laboratory. I submitted the post and it was selected for publication in the first of these books in 2006. Some of my favourite writers also had blog posts in the book, and I was very pleased to have the post published in a book alongside theirs. That was a big deal for me, and although I didn’t realize at the time, it probably made me subconsciously think that I could actually be a professional science writer.
Would you say that rigorous science blogs like yours are getting more influential and being considered as a part of the peer review process by scientific publication groups?
That’s not something I really think about very much. I certainly don’t think blogs can replace the peer review process, but they can make very important contributions to the discussion. This is what some people are calling post publication peer review. A perfect example of this is what happened in 2010 with a Science paper published by NASA researchers, who claimed to have isolated a bacterium that substitutes arsenic for phosphorus to synthesize their DNA. Right after the NASA press release, people immediately started discussing it on their blogs and Twitter, saying that it looked suspicious. The microbiologist Rosie Redfield wrote a post on her blog RRResearch a week after the paper was published, saying that it didn’t present any convincing evidence that arsenic had been incorporated into DNA she wasn’t convinced by the findings. One and a half years later, two papers back to back got published in Science (one from Redfield herself) refuting the claims from the original article. It can take a year or more for scientific research to be published in the traditional way, but the Internet allows this kind of thing to happen far more quickly.
Which peer review journal would you say is your favourite one?
I wouldn’t say I have a favourite journal, but I always thought Cell is probably the best peer review journal there is, because the papers are so detailed. Going back to news stories versus features, a Science or a Nature paper only skims the surface of the subject, while a Cell paper gives you the whole story, including all the background. They describe every single experiment step by step, and it gives you the whole picture whereas a Nature or Science paper doesn’t do that.
Is there a good match between posts you think are interesting and the ones that become popular?
There’s no way to predict what’s going to be popular. I can spend days or weeks researching a long article and it won’t even get noticed, or I could find a cool picture and spend a couple of minutes putting it on the blog, and it’ll get tens of thousands of hits. My most popular posts have been about very morbid subjects, like trepanation, or unusual penetrating brain injuries. People seem to have a real fascination with these gruesome things. Of course, I want all my posts to be popular, but they’re not. It’s almost impossible to predict which ones will be. The Internet is a very funny place.
Do you think blogs will eventually replace traditional print journalism?
No, I don’t think blogs will ever completely replace traditional media. I think we’re in a very uncertain transition period, and the two have been merging for a long time. People will keep on finding new ways of combining different media to produce good science content.
Dr Sergio Lainez Vicente is a research associate at the Department of Pharmacology