One neat feature of the ACI Scholarly Blog Index is the Most Popular Articles section on the homepage, which allows you to see an ever-changing snapshot of those blog posts people are reading now. It’s always an interesting browse, because it gives you a glimpse into what matters in that moment in time – what people are reading, or searching for, or tweeting to their followers. Although that list updates as articles are accessed and shared, sometimes you notice topical patterns that help us to learn about what matters to blog readers: from new archaeological discoveries to the recent college ratings update – and basically anytime there’s a Pew report – you get to see what people are currently interested in.
So you do see recurring topics of interest, but sometimes you’ll even catch a recurring blog or blog author… no small feat considering the 15,000-some blogs indexed so far. And such is the case with the Science and Enterprise blog. Founded and published by Alan Kotok, its posts on biotechnology and breakthrough scientific studies are definitely popular with readers. Given that popularity, it wasn’t surprising to find that his ACI Community Activity Score – the percentile calculation based on the community activity of all articles an author has written – is 90. A score of 90 means that he is in the top 10% of all authors indexed in ACI. Given that this metric was just introduced and implemented this spring, we think that’s a pretty impressive metric… so we decided to find out more about the blog, its author, and the ideas or impetus driving its content mission.
Read on for our interview with Science & Enterprise founder Alan Kotok.
Science & Enterprise Visit the Blog | View in ACI
ACI Interview with Alan Kotok
How did Science & Enterprise come about?
Science & Enterprise started in July 2010, after I retired from Science magazine as managing editor of its Science Careers section. During my work before joining Science, I started up an international software marketing company and wrote freelance about business and technology, including three books as sole or co-author. While at Science Careers, I authored and contributed to a number of articles and blog posts on business and entrepreneurship as alternatives to the traditional academic science career path, and developed a keen interest in the overlap and interaction between business and science. Once I reached retirement age, I decided to take the plunge and start a news publication that focused on that interaction.
From a BA in Journalism from the University of Iowa, you moved on to Boston University for a master’s in Public Communications and then postgraduate work in Technology of Management at American University. When or where did your interest in science and/or technology enter the picture?
A latent interest in science and technology goes back to my college days in the 1960s, when computers started entering the business world. In journalism school at University of Iowa, I got interested in market research and polling — George Gallup is one of the journalism school’s distinguished alumni — and developed that interest further in graduate school at Boston University, where its Masters-degree communications research program went into statistics and research methods in a big way. At BU, we had to write our own statistical analysis routines on punch-cards (yes, I’m that old), so whether we liked it or not, we had to learn about computers and how they work. As important was a concentration on research design and hypothesis testing, which of course are central principles of scientific conduct.
My first job out of grad school was as a research analyst, a fancy name for number-cruncher, at the old U.S. Information Agency, or USIA, now part of Department of State. By the 1970s I started paying more attention to developments in information technology that affected our work, and became more interested in the technology we used to crunch the numbers. USIA, and other foreign affairs agencies at the time, were led by some very smart people who knew and cared a great deal about international relations, but knew and cared very little about technology. As a result, they were more than happy to let those of us with at least a passing knowledge of the field be responsible for bringing in that technology to USIA. I ended up as chief of technology planning for the agency in the early 1980s.
While Science & Enterprise covers many fields, genetics and pharma seem to be among the top (if not the top) fields. Is that because of the amount of research & new discoveries coming out, or is that due to consumer (reader) demand?
Both. I feel deeply privileged and fortunate to be writing about the biotechnology field during the past few years. We’re seeing an enormous payoff for this country’s investment in academic research in biology and medicine, both in scientific discovery and economic value.
Two years ago, for example, my former colleagues at Science magazine declared cancer immunotherapy as the breakthrough of the year. Yesterday (29 June 2015), the biotech company Juno Therapeutics and biopharmaceutical maker Celgene announced a $1 billion — with a “b” — immunotherapy licensing deal, which of course is reported on Science & Enterprise. By reporting on biomedical developments more than others, I’m probably attracting more readers interested in these fields, and losing readers with interests in other disciplines. I try whenever possible to vary the topics on Science & Enterprise, but in the past 2 to 3 years or so, the agenda has been weighted much more toward biomedical topics.
Numerous blogging scientists in ACI note consulting ventures on top of their university positions, but there are also quite a few who have left – or who reflect on leaving – academia for scientist positions outside the ivory tower. Which, in your experience, is the bigger (or faster-growing) group – those doing both, or those leaving academia altogether when venturing out?
From what I can tell, based on personal observations, more researchers in academic positions are taking advantage of opportunities to branch out in business without leaving their academic posts. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 that grants universities the rights to federally-funded research discoveries, Small Business Innovation Research grants, and NSF’s Innovation Corps all encourage academic researchers to become entrepreneurs while keeping their university connections.
However, with the future of federal science funding uncertain at best, I would not be surprised to see more graduate students and postdocs taking jobs in industry, if not venturing off independently as entrepreneurs.
From your website, it looks like your first post was on July 6, 2010. Considering how social media adoption has grown, have you noticed any changes in your readership since those earlier days?
Social media make a difference in the Science & Enterprise readership, but not as much as perhaps for other sites. From the outset in July 2010, I made a decision to emphasize substance over style, aiming for an audience that wants solid answers in readable form rather than quick laughs. As our tagline implies, we aim for scientists who become or are interested in becoming business people, and business people interested in science, for investment or whatever.
As a result, I stay away — far away — from social media-inspired techniques like clickbait headlines, listicles, speculation, and hype. All that means about 85 percent our readership comes from search engines, direct links (e.g., RSS and e-mail), and referrals, with 12 percent from social media. That social media readership, however, is the source of interaction on the site’s content. I rarely get comments directly on the blog, but social media readers make comments and do the sharing.
This isn’t your only gig; you’re also editor for PDAA’s website publicdiplomacy.org. Is that another personal interest area? How did that come about?
Earlier I mentioned that my first job out of grad school was with the old U.S. Information Agency. I left USIA in early 1985, and went into the private and not-for-profit sectors, leaving public diplomacy, the work of USIA, behind. Or so I thought. After 9/11 and the questions of “Why do they hate us?” that came out at the time, I reconnected with my old colleagues at USIA in what is now Public Diplomacy Alumni Association or PDAA. I edit PDAA’s newsletter and manage its Web site, PublicDiplomacy.org. Given that most if not all of my employable skills were developed during my USIA years, it’s the least I can do.
Your Science & Enterprise posts are heavily-referenced and always leave readers with a referenced link list. (Readers: see examples here & here.) Do you have any advice or lessons learned for those who want to write more substantial posts but struggle with the time factor?
Thanks for noticing all of the links and references in Science & Enterprise. I want readers to be assured that news reported in the blog is for real and that I have at least an inkling of what I’m talking about. I also want to be comfortable enough with the content to write 500 words about the subject, without passing myself off as an expert, which means doing some homework on each post. Does that take some time? Of course it does. On the other hand, out of about 3,500 posts in Science & Enterprise since July 2010, I’ve had to do corrections in only 5 or 6. Look at all the time I save from not doing corrections.