Another controversy, another round of blaming preprints

On February 1, Anand Ranganathan, the molecular biologist more popular as a columnist for Swarajya, amplified a new preprint paper from scientists at IIT Delhi that (purportedly) claims the Wuhan coronavirus’s (2019 nCoV’s) DNA appears to contain some genes also found in the human immunodeficiency virus but not in any other coronaviruses. Ranganathan also chose to magnify the preprint paper’s claim that the sequences’ presence was “non-fortuitous”.

To be fair, the IIT Delhi group did not properly qualify what they meant by the use of this term, but this wouldn’t exculpate Ranganathan and others who followed him: to first amplify with alarmist language a claim that did not deserve such treatment, and then, once he discovered his mistake, to wonder out loud about whether such “non-peer reviewed studies” about “fast-moving, in-public-eye domains” should be published before scientific journals have subjected them to peer-review.

The more conservative scientist is likely to find ample room here to revive the claim that preprint papers only promote shoddy journalism, and that preprint papers that are part of the biomedical literature should be abolished entirely. This is bullshit.

The ‘print’ in ‘preprint’ refers to the act of a traditional journal printing a paper for publication after peer-review. A paper is designated ‘preprint’ if it hasn’t undergone peer-review yet, even though it may or may not have been submitted to a scientific journal for consideration. To quote from an article championing the use of preprints during a medical emergency, by three of the six cofounders of medRxiv, the preprints repository for the biomedical literature:

The advantages of preprints are that scientists can post them rapidly and receive feedback from their peers quickly, sometimes almost instantaneously. They also keep other scientists informed about what their colleagues are doing and build on that work. Preprints are archived in a way that they can be referenced and will always be available online. As the science evolves, newer versions of the paper can be posted, with older historical versions remaining available, including any associated comments made on them.

In this regard, Ranganathan’s ringing the alarm bells (with language like “oh my god”) the first time he tweeted the link to the preprint paper without sufficiently evaluating the attendant science was his decision, and not prompted by the paper’s status as a preprint. Second, the bioRxiv preprint repository where the IIT Delhi document showed up has a comments section, and it was brimming with discussion within minutes of the paper being uploaded. More broadly, preprint repositories are equipped to accommodate peer-review. So if anyone had looked in the comments section before tweeting, they wouldn’t have had reason to jump the gun.

Third, and most important: peer-review is not fool-proof. Instead, it is a legacy method employed by scientific journals to filter legitimate from illegitimate research and, more recently, higher quality from lower quality research (using ‘quality’ from the journals’ oft-twisted points of view, not as an objective standard of any kind).

This framing supports three important takeaways from this little scandal.

A. Much like preprint repositories, peer-reviewed journals also regularly publish rubbish. (Axiomatically, just as conventional journals also regularly publish the outcomes of good science, so do preprint repositories; in the case of 2019 nCoV alone, bioRxiv, medRxiv and SSRN together published at least 30 legitimate and noteworthy research articles.) It is just that conventional scientific journals conduct the peer-review before publication and preprint repositories (and research-discussion platforms like PubPeer), after. And, in fact, conducting the review after allows it to be continuous process able to respond to new information, and not a one-time event that culminates with the act of printing the paper.

But notably, preprint repositories can recreate journals’ ability to closely control the review process and ensure only experts’ comments are in the fray by enrolling a team of voluntary curators. The arXiv preprint server has been successfully using a similar team to carefully eliminate manuscripts advancing pseudoscientific claims. So as such, it is easier to make sure people are familiar with the preprint and post-publication review paradigm than to take advantage of their confusion and call for preprint papers to be eliminated altogether.

B. Those who support the idea that preprint papers are dangerous, and argue that peer-review is a better way to protect against unsupported claims, are by proxy advocating for the persistence of a knowledge hegemony. Peer-review is opaque, sustained by unpaid and overworked labour, and dispenses the same function that an open discussion often does at larger scale and with greater transparency. Indeed, the transparency represents the most important difference: since peer-review has traditionally been the demesne of journals, supporting peer-review is tantamount to designating journals as the sole and unquestionable arbiters of what knowledge enters the public domain and what doesn’t.

(Here’s one example of how such gatekeeping can have tragic consequences for society.)

C. Given these safeguards and perspectives, and as I have written before, bad journalists and bad comments will be bad irrespective of the window through which an idea has presented itself in the public domain. There is a way to cover different types of stories, and the decision to abdicate one’s responsibility to think carefully about the implications of what one is writing can never have a causal relationship with the subject matter. The Times of India and the Daily Mail will continue to publicise every new paper discussing whatever coffee, chocolate and/or wine does to the heart, and The Hindu and The Wire Science will publicise research published in preprint papers because we know how to be careful and of the risks to protect ourselves against.

By extension, ‘reputable’ scientific journals that use pre-publication peer-review will continue to publish many papers that will someday be retracted.

An ongoing scandal concerning spider biologist Jonathan Pruitt offers a useful parable – that journals don’t always publish bad science due to wilful negligence or poor peer-review alone but that such failures still do well to highlight the shortcomings of the latter. A string of papers the work on which Pruitt led were found to contain implausible data in support of some significant conclusions. Dan Bolnick, the editor of The American Naturalist, which became the first journal to retract Pruitt’s papers that it had published, wrote on his blog on January 30:

I want to emphasise that regardless of the root cause of the data problems (error or intent), these people are victims who have been harmed by trusting data that they themselves did not generate. Having spent days sifting through these data files I can also attest to the fact that the suspect patterns are often non-obvious, so we should not be blaming these victims for failing to see something that requires significant effort to uncover by examining the data in ways that are not standard for any of this. … The associate editor [who Bolnick tasked with checking more of Pruitt’s papers] went as far back as digging into some of Pruitt’s PhD work, when he was a student with Susan Riechert at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Similar problems were identified in those data… Seeking an explanation, I [emailed and then called] his PhD mentor, Susan Riechert, to discuss the biology of the spiders, his data collection habits, and his integrity. She was shocked, and disturbed, and surprised. That someone who knew him so well for many years could be unaware of this problem (and its extent), highlights for me how reasonable it is that the rest of us could be caught unaware.

Why should we expect peer-review – or any kind of review, for that matter – to be better? The only thing we can do is be honest, transparent and reflexive.

Retrospective: The Wire Science in 2019

At the start of 2019, The Wire Science decided to focus more on issues of science and society, and this is reflected in the year-end list of our best stories (in terms of traffic and engagement; listed below). Most of our hits don’t belong to this genre, but quite a few do – enough for us to believe that these issues aren’t as esoteric as they appear to be in day-to-day conversations.

Science communication is becoming more important in India and more people are taking to it as a career. As a result, the visibility of science stories in the press has increased. Scientists are also using Facebook and Twitter to voice their views, whether on the news of the day or to engage in debates about their field of work. If you are an English-speaker with access to the internet and a smartphone, you are quite unlikely to have missed these conversations.

Most popular articles of 2019

The Sciences

  1. Poor Albert Einstein, His Wrong Theories and Post-Truths
  2. What Is Quantum Biology?
  3. If Scientists Don’t Speak out Today, Who Will Be Left to Defend Science Tomorrow?
  4. Why Scientists Are Confused About How Fast the Universe Is Expanding
  5. CSIR Lab? Work on Applied Research or Make do With Small Share of Funds

Health

  1. Why Everyone Around You Seems to Be Getting Cancer
  2. MCI Finally Updates MBBS Curriculum to Include Disability Rights and Dignity
  3. PM Modi is Worried About Population Explosion, a Problem Set to Go Away in 2021
  4. Bihar: Who is Responsible for the Death of 100 Children?
  5. What’s NEXT for the NMC Bill? Confusion.

Environment

  1. Extreme Events in the Himalayan Region: Are We Prepared for the Big One?
  2. A Twist in the Tale: Electric Vehicles Will Worsen India’s Pollution Crisis
  3. How Tamil Nadu Is Fighting in the First Attempt to Save a Sinking Island
  4. Why NGT Thinks Allahabad Is on the Verge of an Epidemic After Kumbh Mela
  5. But Why Is the Cauvery Calling?

Space

  1. NASA Briefly Stopped Working With ISRO on One Count After ASAT Test
  2. Senior ISRO Scientist Criticises Sivan’s Approach After Moon Mission Setback
  3. ISRO Doesn’t Have a Satisfactory Answer to Why It Wants to Put Indians in Space
  4. Chandrayaan 2 in Limbo as ISRO Loses Contact With Lander, History on Hold
  5. ISRO Delays Chandrayaan 2 Launch Again – But How Is Beresheet Involved?

Education

  1. NCERT to Drop Chapters on Caste Struggles, Colonialism From Class 9 History Book
  2. JNU: The Story of the Fall of a Great University
  3. Dear Students, Here’s How You Could Have Reacted to Modi’s Mockery of Dyslexia
  4. Can a Student’s Suicide Note Make Us Rethink the IIT Dream?
  5. NET Now Mandatory for Scheduled Caste Students to Avail Research Scholarship

Our choice

The state has become more involved with the R&D establishment, although these engagements have been frequently controversial. In such a time, with so many public institutions teetering on the brink, it is important we ensure science doesn’t become passively pressed into legitimising actions of the state but rather maintains a mutually beneficial relationship that also strengthens the democracy. It is not the prerogative of scientists alone to do this; we must all get involved because the outcomes of science belong to all of us.

To this end, we must critique science, scientists, their practices, our teachers and research administrators, forest officers, conservationists and environmental activists, doctors, nurses, surgeons and other staff, members of the medical industry, spaceflight engineers and space lawyers, rules that control prices and access, examinations and examiners, and so forth. We must question the actions and policies of everyone involved in this knowledge economy. Ultimately, we must ask if our own aspirations are in line with what we as a people expect of the world around us, and science is a part of that.

It would be remiss to not mention the commendable job some other publications have been doing vis-à-vis covering science in India, including The Hindu, The Telegraph, The Print, Mongabay, Indian Express, Dinamalar, etc. Their efforts have given us the opportunity to disengage once in a while from the more important events of the day to focus on stories that might otherwise have never been read.

This year, The Wire Science published stories that interrogated what duties academic and research institutions have towards the people whose tax-money funds them, that discussed more inclusivity and transparency because only a more diverse group of practitioners can ask more diverse questions, and that examined how, though science offers a useful way to make sense of the natural order, it doesn’t automatically justify itself nor is it entitled to the moral higher-ground.

The overarching idea was to ask questions about the natural universe without forgetting that the process of answering those questions is embedded in a wider social context that both supports and informs scientists’ practices and beliefs. There is no science without the scientists that practice it – yet most of us are not prepared to consider that science is as messy as every other human endeavour and isn’t the single-minded pursuit of truth its exponents often say it is.

In these fraught times, we shouldn’t forget that science guided only by the light of logic produces many of the reasons of state. The simplest way science communication can participate in this exercise, and not just be a mute spectator, is by injecting the scientist back into the science. This isn’t an abdication of the ideal of objectivity, even though objectivity itself has been outmoded by the advent of the irrational, majoritarian and xenophobic politics of nationalism. Instead, it is a reaffirmation that you can take science out of politics but that you can’t take politics out of science.

At the same time, the stories that emerge from this premise aren’t entirely immune to the incremental nature of scientific progress. We often have to march in step with the gentle rate at which scientists invent and/or discover things, and the similar pace at which the improvements among them are available to everyone everywhere. This fact offers one downside and one up: it is harder for our output to be noticed in the din of the news, but by staying alert to how little pieces of information from diverse lines of inquiry – both scientific and otherwise, especially from social science – can team up with significant consequence, we are better able to anticipate how stories will evolve and affect the world around them.

We hope you will continue to read, share and comment on the content published by The Wire Science. We have also been publicising articles from other publications and by bloggers we found interesting and have been reproducing (if available) on our website and on our social media platforms in an effort to create an appreciation of science stories beyond the ones we have been able to afford.

On this note: please also donate a sum comfortable to you to support our work. Even an amount as little as Rs 200 will go a long way.

The Wire
December 26, 2019

A shorter article about short gamma ray bursts lights up little

  • Identify a simple and well-defined question
  • Describe the question and answer it
  • Get the fuck out

Writing with these three rules in mind makes for a good science article. You stick to the point, you know what details to include and what to leave out and, most importantly, you set straightforward expectations and meet them. The overall effect is for the reader to walk away feeling not disappointed. That’s always a happy ending.

Sadly, not everyone writes like this – rather, more broadly, not all news publishers think of science articles this way. For example, The Hindu regularly publishes science articles so packed with information – about the study as much as its authors – that you’re left confused about what you just read. Was it a profile or was it an explainer? It doesn’t matter because it failed either way.

The latest example of this kind of writing is an article about short gamma ray bursts. The binary neutron star merger known by the gravitational-wave event designation GW170817 was expected by astrophysicists to have unleashed a short gamma ray burst at the moment of collision – but data obtained of the event shows no signs of the expected radio signature. A group of scientists led by Kunal Mooley from Oxford University suggested this could be because GW170817 released a new kind of gamma ray burst.

BusinessLine (a business newspaper with the same publisher and top management as The Hindu) carried an article attempting to discuss all this. Sample the opening para, a mulch of facts and inaccuracies:

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 09.18.40

“The one located on the outskirts of Pune”? Sounds like everyone must know about it even if they don’t. “First-ever detection of gravitation waves”? Not really: gravitation waves, a.k.a. gravity waves and unlike gravitational waves, can be observed in Earth’s atmosphere. Also, the first-ever detection of gravitational waves came last year; what came in August was the first-ever detection of a neutron star merger. The three US scientists won the award for building LIGO, not detecting GW170817.

The rest of the article tries to simultaneously explain Mooley and co.’s interpretation of the data and also provide a glimpse of his educational trajectory. Why would I want to know he studied in Pune and Mumbai? Unless this is because the author wanted to drive home the India connection – which is all the more troubling because it plays up an aspect of the researcher’s identity that is irrelevant to their professional accomplishment. I’ve noticed many publications succumbing to this kind of thinking: if researcher is Indian, cover the paper/study/whatever irrespective of the legitimacy, strength and/or novelty of what they’re saying.

The science ought to take precedent, not the researcher’s identity. But when it doesn’t, you typically end up writing something that’s definitely not news and likely trash. You end up wrapping your national pride around a core of stupidity. I recommend the pages of ScoopwhoopThe QuintThe Better IndiaDailyOThe Times of India and The New Indian Express, among others, for examples. It’s also possible that the author was conscious about providing an India connection so readers in India took the article more seriously. I’ve made noise about such behaviour many times before, such as here: science shouldn’t be assessed, or enjoyed, solely according to what it can do for humankind.

Finally, it’s possible that the newspaper itself wanted to establish all details on record for posterity – but AFAIK, the BusinessLine is not a newspaper of record. This of course is a minor point.

By ditching the extraneous details, the author and the editor could’ve had the space to focus on the science more, using better language and without the painful economy of words it’s currently striving to. They could even have devoted some words to discussing whether other astronomers have disputed Mooley’s interpretation (they have), an exercise that would’ve made the article more reliable than it is. And to those who’re saying the article was probably kept short because there might not have been space in the newspaper, I’ve a bigger complaint: why wasn’t a short version published in print and a longer version online?

In all, I don’t think BusinessLine is taking its science journalism seriously. The time is past when they could’ve gotten ahead simply by being one of the few publications in the country to write articles about short gamma ray bursts. But given the complacency with which the article seems to have been composed and edited, maybe that time shouldn’t have existed in the first place. It surely doesn’t now.

Featured image: An artist’s illustration of a bright gamma-ray burst. Caption and credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

Featured image credit: Hans/pixabay

Do your bit, broaden your science menu

If you think a story was not covered by the media, it’s quite likely that that story didn’t feature in your limited news menu, and that it was actually covered by an outlet you haven’t discovered yet. In the same vein, saying the entirety of India’s science media is crap is in itself crap. I’ve heard this say from two people today (and some others on Twitter). I’ll concede that the bulk of it is useless but there are still quite a few good players. And not reading what they are writing is a travesty on your part if you consider yourself interested in science news. Why I think so is a long story; to cut it short: given what the prevailing distribution mechanisms as well as business models are, newsrooms can only do so much to ensure they’re visible to the right people. You’ve got to do your bit as well. So if you haven’t found the better players, shame on you. You don’t get to judge the best of us after having read only the worst of us.

And I like to think The Wire is among the best of us (but I can’t be the final judge). Here are some of the others:

  1. The Telegraph – Among the best in the country. They seldom undertake longer pieces but what they publish is crisp and authoritative. Watch out for G.S. Mudur.
  2. Scroll – Doesn’t cover a lot of sciencey science but what they do cover, they tend to get right.
  3. The Hindu – The Big Daddy. Has been covering science for a long time. My only issue with it is that many of its pieces, in an effort to come across as being unafraid of the technicalities, are flush with jargon.
  4. Fountain Ink – Only long-form and does a fab job of the science + society stories.
  5. Reuters India – Plain Jane non-partisan reportage all round.

I’m sure there are other publishers of good science journalism in India. The five I’ve listed here are the ones that came quickest to mind and I just wanted illustrate my point and quickly get this post out.

Note: This is the article the reactions to which prompted this post.

Featured image credit: Hans/pixabay.

TIFR's superconductor discovery: Where are the reports?

Featured image: The Meissner effect: a magnet levitating above a superconductor. Credit: Mai-Linh Doan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

On December 2, physicists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) announced an exciting discovery: that the metal bismuth becomes a superconductor at a higher temperature than predicted by a popular theory. Granted the theory has had its fair share of exceptions, the research community is excited about this finding because of the unique opportunities it presents in terms of learning more, doing more. But yeah, even without the nuance, the following is true: that TIFR physicists have discovered a new form of superconductivity, in the metal bismuth. I say this as such because not one news outlet in India, apart from The Wire, reported the discovery, and it’s difficult to say it’s because the topic was too hard to understand.

This was, and is, just odd. The mainstream as well as non-mainstream media in the country are usually quick to pick up on the slightest shred of legitimate scientific work and report it widely. Heck, many news organisations are also eager to report on illegitimate research – such as those on finding gold in cow urine. After the embargo on the journal paper lifted at 0030 hrs, I (the author of the article on The Wire) remained awake to check if the story had turned out okay – specifically, to check if anyone had any immediate complaints about its contents (there were two tweets about the headline and they were quickly dealt with). But then I ended up staying awake until 4 am because, as much as I looked on Google News and on other news websites, I couldn’t find anyone else who had written about it.

Journal embargoes aren’t new, nor is it the case that journalists in India haven’t signed up to receive embargoed material. For example, the multiple water-on-Mars announcements and the two monumental gravitational-waves discoveries were all announced via papers in the journal Science, and were covered by The Hindu, The Telegraph, Times of India, Indian Express, etc. And Science also published the TIFR paper. Moreover, the TIFR paper wasn’t suppressed or buried in the embargoed press releases that the press team at Science sends out to journalists a few days before the embargo lifts. Third, the significance of the finding was evident from the start; these were the first two lines of the embargoed press release:

Scientists from India report that pure Bismuth – a semimetal with a very low number of electrons per given volume, or carrier concentration – is superconducting at ultralow temperatures. The observation makes Bismuth one of the two lowest carrier density superconductors to date.

All a journalist had to do was get in touch with Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the lead author of the paper as well as the corresponding author, to get a better idea of the discovery’s significance. From my article on The Wire:

“People have been searching for superconductivity in bismuth for 50 years,” Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the leader of the TIFR group, told The Wire. “The last work done in bismuth found that it is not superconducting down to 0.01 kelvin. This was done 20 years ago and people gave up.”

So, I’m very curious to know what happened. And since no outlets apart from The Wire have picked the story up, we circle back to the question of media coverage for science news in India. As my editor pointed out, the major publications are mostly interested in stuff like an ISRO launch, a nuclear reactor going critical or an encephalitis outbreak going berserker when it comes to covering science, and even then the science of the story itself is muted while the overlying policy issues are played up. This is not to say the policies are receiving undeserving coverage – they’re important, too – but only that the underlying science, which informs policy in crucial ways, isn’t coming through.

And over time this disregard blinds us to an entire layer of enterprise that involves hundreds of thousands of our most educated people and close to Rs 2 lakh crore of our national expenditure (total R&D, 2013).

TIFR’s superconductor discovery: Where are the reports?

Featured image: The Meissner effect: a magnet levitating above a superconductor. Credit: Mai-Linh Doan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

On December 2, physicists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) announced an exciting discovery: that the metal bismuth becomes a superconductor at a higher temperature than predicted by a popular theory. Granted the theory has had its fair share of exceptions, the research community is excited about this finding because of the unique opportunities it presents in terms of learning more, doing more. But yeah, even without the nuance, the following is true: that TIFR physicists have discovered a new form of superconductivity, in the metal bismuth. I say this as such because not one news outlet in India, apart from The Wire, reported the discovery, and it’s difficult to say it’s because the topic was too hard to understand.

This was, and is, just odd. The mainstream as well as non-mainstream media in the country are usually quick to pick up on the slightest shred of legitimate scientific work and report it widely. Heck, many news organisations are also eager to report on illegitimate research – such as those on finding gold in cow urine. After the embargo on the journal paper lifted at 0030 hrs, I (the author of the article on The Wire) remained awake to check if the story had turned out okay – specifically, to check if anyone had any immediate complaints about its contents (there were two tweets about the headline and they were quickly dealt with). But then I ended up staying awake until 4 am because, as much as I looked on Google News and on other news websites, I couldn’t find anyone else who had written about it.

Journal embargoes aren’t new, nor is it the case that journalists in India haven’t signed up to receive embargoed material. For example, the multiple water-on-Mars announcements and the two monumental gravitational-waves discoveries were all announced via papers in the journal Science, and were covered by The Hindu, The Telegraph, Times of India, Indian Express, etc. And Science also published the TIFR paper. Moreover, the TIFR paper wasn’t suppressed or buried in the embargoed press releases that the press team at Science sends out to journalists a few days before the embargo lifts. Third, the significance of the finding was evident from the start; these were the first two lines of the embargoed press release:

Scientists from India report that pure Bismuth – a semimetal with a very low number of electrons per given volume, or carrier concentration – is superconducting at ultralow temperatures. The observation makes Bismuth one of the two lowest carrier density superconductors to date.

All a journalist had to do was get in touch with Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the lead author of the paper as well as the corresponding author, to get a better idea of the discovery’s significance. From my article on The Wire:

“People have been searching for superconductivity in bismuth for 50 years,” Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, the leader of the TIFR group, told The Wire. “The last work done in bismuth found that it is not superconducting down to 0.01 kelvin. This was done 20 years ago and people gave up.”

So, I’m very curious to know what happened. And since no outlets apart from The Wire have picked the story up, we circle back to the question of media coverage for science news in India. As my editor pointed out, the major publications are mostly interested in stuff like an ISRO launch, a nuclear reactor going critical or an encephalitis outbreak going berserker when it comes to covering science, and even then the science of the story itself is muted while the overlying policy issues are played up. This is not to say the policies are receiving undeserving coverage – they’re important, too – but only that the underlying science, which informs policy in crucial ways, isn’t coming through.

And over time this disregard blinds us to an entire layer of enterprise that involves hundreds of thousands of our most educated people and close to Rs 2 lakh crore of our national expenditure (total R&D, 2013).

No country for new journalism

(Formatting issues fixed.)

TwitterNgoodThrough an oped in Nieman Lab, Ken Doctor makes a timely case for explanatory – or explainer – journalism being far from a passing fad. Across the many factors that he argues contribute to its rise and persistence in western markets, there is evidence that he believes explainer journalism’s historical basis is more relevant than its technological one, most simply by virtue of having been necessitated by traditional journalism no longer connecting the dots well enough.

Second, his argument that explainer journalism is helped by the success of digital journalism takes for granted the resources that have helped it succeed in the west and not so much in countries like India.

So these points make me wonder if explainer journalism can expect to be adopted with similar enthusiasm here – where, unsurprisingly, it is most relevant. Thinking of journalism as an “imported” enterprise in the country, differences both cultural and historical become apparent between mainstream English-language journalism and regional local-language journalism. They cater to different interests and are shaped by different forces. For example, English-language establishments cater to an audience whose news sources are worldwide, who can always switch channels or newspapers and not be worried about running out of options. For such establishments, How/Why journalism is a way to differentiate itself.

Local v. regional

On the other hand, local-language establishments cater to an audience that is not spoiled for options and that is dependent profoundly on Who/What/When/Where journalism no matter where its ‘reading diaspora’. For them, How/Why journalism is an add-on. In this sense, the localism that Ken Doctor probes in his piece has no counterpart. It is substituted with a more fragmented regionalism whose players are interested in an expanding readership over that of their own scope. In this context, let’s revisit one of his statements:

Local daily newspapers have traditionally been disproportionately in the Who/What/When/Where column, but some of that now-lost local knowledge edged its ways into How/Why stories, or at least How/Why explanations within stories. Understanding of local policy and local news players has been lost; lots of local b.s. detection has vanished almost overnight.

Because of explainer journalism’s reliance on digital and digital’s compliance with the economics of scale (especially in a market where purchasing power is low), what Doctor calls small, local players are not in a position to adopt explainer journalism as an exclusive storytelling mode. As a result of this exclusion, Doctor argues that what digital makes accessible – i.e. what is found online – often lacks the local angle. But it remains to be seen if this issue’s Indian counterpart – digital vs. the unique regional as opposed to digital vs. the small local – is even likely to be relevant. In other words, do smaller regional players see the need to take the explainer route?

Local-level journalism (not to be confused with what is practiced by local establishments) in India is bifocal. On the one hand, there are regional players who cover the Who/What/When/Where thoroughly. On the other, there are the bigger English-language mainstreamers who don’t each have enough reporters to cover a region like India thanks, of course, to its profuse fragmentation, compensating instead by covering local stories in two distinct ways:

as single-column 150-word pieces that report a minor story (Who/What/When/Where) or

as six-column 1,500-word pieces where the regional story informs a national plot (How/Why),

—as if regional connect-the-dots journalism surfaces as a result of mainstream failures to bridge an acknowledged gap between conventional and contextualizing journalism. Where academicians, scholars and other experts do what journalists should have done – rather, in fact, they help journalists do what they must do. Therefore, readers of the mainstream publications have access to How/Why journalism because, counter-intuitively, it is made available in order to repair its unavailability. This is an unavailability that many mainstreamers believe they have license to further because they think the ‘profuse fragmentation’ is an insurmountable barrier.

There’s no history

The Hindu and The Indian Express are two Indian newspapers that have carved a space for themselves by being outstanding purveyors of such How/Why journalism, and in the same vein can’t be thought of as having succumbed to the historical basis that makes the case for its revival—“Why fix something that ain’t broken?”. And the “top-drawer” publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post that Doctor mentions that find a need to conspicuously assert this renewal are doing so on the back of the technology that they think has finally made the renewal economically feasible. And that the Times stands to be able to charge a premium for packaging Upshot and its other offerings together is not something Hindu or Express can also do now because, for the latter couple, How/Why isn’t new, hasn’t been for some time.

Therefore, whereupon the time has come in the western mainstream media to “readopt” explainer journalism, its Indian counterpart can’t claim to do that any time soon because it has neither the west’s historical nor technological bases. Our motivation has to come from elsewhere.

Blogging at NYTimes and The Hindu

I’m going to draw some parallels here between the The New York Times and The Hindu in the context of Times’s decision to shut or merge up to half of its blogs (Disclosure: I launched The Hindu Blogs in December 2012 and coordinated the network until May 2014). This is not about money-making, at least not directly, as much as about two newspapers faced with similar economic problems at vastly different scales confronting the challenges of multi-modal publishing. Times’ decision to move away from blogs, which was brought to wider attention when Green went offline in March 2013, is not to be confused with its rejection of blogging. In fact, it’s the opposite, as Andrew Beaujon wrote for Poynter:

Assistant Managing Editor Ian Fisher told Poynter in a phone call: “We’re going to continue to provide bloggy content with a more conversational tone,” he said. “We’re just not going to do them as much in standard reverse-chronological blogs.”

This is mixed news for blogs. The experimental quality in the early days of blogging – which blogs both fed and fed off – is what inspired many post formats to emerge over the years and compete with each other. This competition was intensified as more news-publishers came online and, sometime in the late 2000s, digital journalism knew it was time for itself to take shape. The blog may have been fluidly defined but its many mutations weren’t and they were able to take root – most recognizably in the form of Facebook, whose integrated support for a variety of publishing modes and forums made the fluidity of blogging look cumbersome.

The stage was set for blogs to die but in a very specific sense: It is the container that is dying. This is good for blogs because the styles and practices of blogging live on, just the name doesn’t. This isn’t only a conceptual but also a technical redefinition because what killed blogs is also what might keep the digital news-publishing industry alive. It’s called modularization.

The modular newsroom

While I was at The Hindu, I sometimes found it difficult to think like the reader because it was not easy to forget the production process. The CMS is necessarily convoluted because if it aspires to make the journalist’s life easier, it has to be ‘department’-agnostic: print, online, design and production have to work seamlessly on it, and each of those departments has a markedly distinguished workflow. There is that obvious downside of ponderousness but on such issues you have to take a side.

One reason Beaujon cites for Times’ decision is their blogs’ CMS’s reluctance to play along with the rest of the site’s (which recently received a big redesign). I can’t say the problem is very different at The Hindu. In either institution, the management’s call will be to focus the CMS on whichever product/department/service is making the biggest profits (assuming one of them does that by a large margin) – and blogs, despite often being the scene of “cool” content, are not prioritized. The Schulzbergers have already done this by choosing to focus on one product while, at The Hindu, Editor Malini Parthasarathy has in the last two months ramped up her commitment to its digital platform with the same urgency as could have been asked of Siddharth Varadarajan had he been around.

The reason I said the demise of the container was also technical because, in order to keep a department-agnostic CMS both lightweight and seamless (not to mention affordable), larger organizations must ensure they eliminate redundant tasks by, say, getting a “print” journalist to publish his/her story online as well. Second, the org. must also build a CMS focused on interoperability as much as intra-operability. Technically speaking, each department should be an island that communicates with another by exchanging information formatted in a particular way or according to some standards.

Fragmenting the news

This is similar to blogs because the fragmentation that helped make it popular is also what has helped establish its biggest competitors, like tumblelogs, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, etc., and each of these modes in turn are inspiring new ways to tell stories. A more modularized newsroom in the same vein will be able to tell different kinds of stories and be more adaptive to change and shock, not to mention better positioned to serve the fragmenting news. Better yet, this will also give journalists the opportunity to develop unique workflows and ethos to deal specifically with their work. That’s one thing that doesn’t bode well for the unfortunate blogs at the Times: “reintegration” is always accompanied by some losses.

Through all of this, anyway, the good name of “news-site” might become lost but we mustn’t underestimate our readers to not be able to spot the news under any other name.

However, this is where the similarities between the two organizations do end because they operate in drastically different markets. While traffic on both sites mostly entered ‘sideways’, i.e. from a link shared on the social media or on the site homepage instead of from the blogs landing page, what it did for the site itself is different. For one, among the people The Hindu calls its audience, purchasing power is way lower, so the symmetry that the Times might enjoy in terms of ad rates in print and on the web is just almost-impossible to achieve in India. This makes the battle to optimize UX with income grittier within Indian publications. The quality of the news is also nothing to write home about, although there is reason to believe that is changing as it’s less shackled by infrastructural considerations. Consider Scroll.in or Homegrown.

These are, of course, nascent thoughts, the knee-jerk inspired by learning that the Times was shutting The Lede. But let’s not lament the passing of the blog, it was meant to happen. On the other hand, the blog’s ability to preserve its legacy by killing itself could have many lessons for the newsroom.

Weekly science quiz

My weekly science quiz debuted in The Hindu today, in its In School edition. Here’s the first installment.

Questions

  1. Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon on July 21, 1969, passed away on August 25 this year. Who was the second man to step on the moon?
  2. When the car-sized robotic rover Curiosity landed on Mars on August 6, 2012, it was only the fourth rover to achieve the feat. Can you name the other three rovers, two of which are considered “twins” of each other?
  3. This installation, when it went live in April 2012, reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 80 lakh tonnes, saved 9 lakh tonnes of coal and natural gas per year, and smashed a Chinese record held since October, 2011. What are we talking about?
  4. This “vehicle” was designed in Switzerland, built in Italy, owned by USA, and crewed by a Belgian on January 23, 1960, when it became the first vessel to descend into Mariana Trench, the deepest point in Earth’s crust. The Belgian’s father himself once held the world record for the highest altitude reached in a hot-air balloon. Name the vessel.
  5. Horizontal slickwater hydraulic fracturing is a technique, common in the USA since the 2000’s, which releases natural gas locked under sub-surface rock formations by cracking up rock under the pressure of large quantities of water. What is the method’s common name?
  6. Last week, Michael Roukes and his team at Caltech built a highly sensitive weighing scale that uses a vibrating arm that is sensitive to small changes in its frequency. Called a nanoelectromechanical resonator, what can it measure?
  7. Netscape Navigator was the dominant web-browser of the 1990s, and its only competitor at the time was another browser named Mosaic. Since Netscape was being developed to beat Mosaic, its codename was a portmanteau of “Mosaic” and “killer”. What is the name?
  8. The ___________ lay their eggs in the months of February and March, and the hatchlings emerge after a 45-55 day incubation period, just before the hotter days of summer set in. Their nesting grounds include the coasts of Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Orissa and Tamil Nadu, while each nesting batch is called an arribada. Fill in the blank.
  9. In the exosphere, highly energetic particles collide with atoms in the earth’s atmosphere and release a shower of less energetic particles. What are the highly energetic particles collectively called? Hint: 2012 is being celebrated as the 100th year of their discovery.
  10. The fictitious version of this contraption is a modified street-bike with a liquid-cooled V-4 engine. Its real version has a water-cooled single-cylinder engine, is made of steel, aluminium and magnesium, and is steered by the shoulders. What are we talking about?

Answers

  1. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin
  2. Spirit & Opportunity, Sojourner
  3. The 214-MW Gujarat Solar Power Field, Patan district
  4. Trieste
  5. Fracking
  6. The weight of individual molecules
  7. Mozilla, the creator of Firefox
  8. Olive Ridley turtles
  9. Cosmic rays
  10. Batman’s Batpod