Why (and How) Nature and Reddit Science Are Teaming Up

11 December 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo credit: Biswarup Ganguly

On December 6, Reddit’s Science “Subreddit” announced a partnership with the venerable science news source Nature. Why did they team up?

I wanted to know what Reddit, essentially an online bulletin board with an active community of users, would get out of partnering with Nature. I also wanted to know what Nature would get out of partnering with Reddit, which – though nicknamed “the front page of the internet” – has occasionally come under fire for the unsavory nature of some of the material posted there.

Here’s the bare bones of what the partnership entails. Reporters and editors associated with Nature will receive “flair” from Reddit Science. Flair is subreddit-specific text that tells other users about an individual’s qualifications to comment on a subject. In this case, the flair will indicate the reporter or editor’s affiliation with Nature. Nature staff cannot submit their own material to Reddit (a longstanding Reddit rule designed to hinder efforts at self-promotion), but can comment on relevant material submitted by other users. Similarly, the partnership’s announcement makes clear that Nature staff “will comply with…[Nature’s] long-standing policies: no commenting on Nature editorials (as they are stand-alone and anonymous), on retractions or corrections, or on why particular papers were accepted/rejected from publication.”

To learn more, I approached both Nature and Reddit Science. Below, you’ll find two  Q&As. The first is with Ananyo Bhattacharya, the chief online editor of Nature. The second is with the moderators of the Science Subreddit. My questions were relayed through Victoria Taylor, Reddit’s director of communications, and the moderators are anonymous.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to note that this blog is part of the SciLogs blog network, which is associated with Nature.com.

Interview with Ananyo Bhattacharya

Ananyo Bhattacharya

Ananyo Bhattacharya (Image courtesy of Bhattacharya.)

Communication Breakdown: Did Nature reach out to Reddit, or did Reddit reach out to you?

Bhattacharya: Both. I asked Reddit Science if journalists could be flagged on the site a year or two ago and at the time they didn't see the need for it. Instead they suggested that I just identify myself in the comment threads if it was relevant. In June though it seemed like they had a change of heart (though of course I have no idea if my suggestion had any part at all to play in their decision). [Editor’s note: In June, Reddit Science announced a partnership with National Geographic.]

They contacted me shortly after that announcement to ask if Nature were interested in something similar.

CB: What was the impetus for developing the agreement?

Bhattacharya: We were impressed at the level of debate on Reddit Science and noticed that scientists would frequently weigh in on threads. Sometimes one person would post a story to Reddit Science, then suddenly, a grad student or postdoc that worked on the project would jump in and start answering questions and providing further background on the work. I felt that these conversations were not something we could afford to ignore.

It’s an opportunity for our journalists and editors to contribute some of the knowledge they have but couldn't share anywhere else (for example – not within the context of a 500 word news story).

CB: What does Nature hope that the partnership will accomplish, and how will it benefit Nature?

Bhattacharya: We think it’s something we should be doing. We certainly don’t expect any financial benefit and we can’t post our own material using the flaired accounts. Perhaps some good will from Redditors? A further incentive to read our news stories? And of course the constructive conversations about our research or news stories are their own reward too.

CB: I’ve read a description of the partnership on Reddit’s site, but can you explain to me how you see this partnership working?

Bhattacharya: There’s no great mystery here. The half-dozen or so Nature journalists involved will from time to time check Reddit Science and see if there are any submissions from Nature.com. If there are, and they feel they can contribute in some way, they will. It’s entirely voluntary. These folk are doing it because they want to.

CB: Is the partnership limited to Nature’s flagship journal and news arm, or does it extend to the entire family of Nature Publishing Group journals?

Bhattacharya: For now it’s largely limited to Nature itself – though one flaired user is a journalist from Nature Medicine. I imagine that if editors from other Nature branded journals were on Reddit and wanted flair, Reddit Science would probably be fine with that.

CB: Many in the science community are somewhat uneasy about Reddit, due to the nature of some of the material posted on the site and the behavior of some members of the Reddit community. Did Nature take that into consideration when deciding to partner with Reddit?

Bhattacharya: The agreement is just with Reddit Science and I’m not aware of any such behaviour on that subreddit. The moderators for the subreddit are well-informed and they police the site well. I don’t foresee any problems.

CB: Does Nature have plans in place for how to deal with “trolls” or others who attempt to engage with Nature staff inappropriately on Reddit?

Bhattacharya: Don’t feed the trolls? We’re there to interact with people that are contributing constructively with the site and are genuinely interested in the science.

CB: One last question: How will you determine whether the partnership with Reddit is successful?

Bhattacharya: Largely on the popularity of our contributions to threads!

Interview with Reddit Science Moderators

Logo courtesy of Reddit.

Logo courtesy of Reddit.

CB: Did Reddit reach out to Nature, or vice versa?

Moderators: A journalist from Nature reached out to us shortly after we announced a similar partnership with National Geographic. These were not haphazard arrangements and people needn’t worry about preferential treatment. We spent weeks exchanging messages on Reddit, had a video conference, and thoroughly explained what each party expects from this relationship.

CB: What was the impetus for developing the agreement?

Moderators: Getting here was a pretty organic process. About two years ago, we “buckled down” on /r/science [Editor’s note: “/r/science” refers to Reddit Science] and decided to make it more about recent scientific research and publications. Prior to this, /r/science allowed anything science related, which meant a lot of the content consisted of popular youtube videos, Carl Sagan quotes, and infographics. While we appreciate all of these things we felt like we had a unique opportunity to make a space to really celebrate good, unsensationalized, reference-packed scientific journalism. As a result, all submissions to /r/science after this change were direct links to or provided direct references to recent scientific research.

About a year into this we noticed that, on occasion, the scientist referenced in a news piece or the journalist responsible for the piece would show up to answer our users’ questions about the submission (like Garret Stuber showing up in a submission to discuss neuroscience and hunger). These impromptu Q&A sessions received incredibly positive feedback, and a few months ago we made it active policy to identify and provide flair for paper authors and journalists on an ad hoc basis hoping to encourage this exact behavior. We even hosted AMA [Ask Me Anything] sessions like this one with Steve Ramirez to talk about a recent popular submission. Eventually a handful of outlets (most prominently National Geographic and Nature) reached out to us and asked for flair for a number of their employees so they could also participate in a similar capacity.

CB: What does Reddit, or the Science Subreddit, hope that the partnership will accomplish, and how will it benefit the site?

Moderators: All we expect from these partners is a loose commitment to scanning /r/science for articles from their outlets and answering questions (or addressing concerns) our readers may have. We’ve had situations where readers were able to directly confront journalists about misleading headlines, or where credentialed scientists were able to provide perspective that then informed further reporting. The key element we want to provide to all our readers is access to the people doing science and the people reporting it. We believe this will contribute to transparency in comments, higher quality interactions with readers, and eventually, better written science journalism.

CB: I’ve read a description of the partnership on Reddit’s site, but can you explain to me how you see this partnership working? Maybe give an example?

Moderators: Sure. Say someone posts a news article from Nature, such as this article about endocytosis in neurons. A Nature editor who specializes in neuroscience saw the article and jumped into the thread to answer questions about the research results. The partnership is merely a recognition of the journalists from Nature.com so that our readers know when they are discussing a Nature.com submission. There is no favoritism or other special benefits.

CB: Is the partnership limited to Nature’s flagship journal and news arm, or does it extend to the entire family of Nature Publishing Group journals?

Moderators: For now our Nature partnership consists of two Nature editors (who actually edit the research manuscripts) and a dozen or so journalists who write articles for Nature News. We’re open to expanding that if our community responds well. We aren’t restricting any of this to anyone in particular, this is merely an announcement to help bring visibility to the Nature.com people. Any organization that would like flair in /r/science is welcome to request it, and after verification it will be provided.

CB: In the past, many in the science community have been somewhat uneasy about interacting on Reddit, due to the nature of some of the material posted on the site and the behavior of some members of the Reddit community. Do you think the partnership with Nature will help improve Reddit’s reputation as a reputable source for online science news?

Moderators: /r/science is one of the most strictly moderated sections of Reddit. We go out of way to eliminate abusive comments, jokes, and off-topic discussions. We also have a system to verify scientific credentials so users can get a sense of the level of expertise informing a comment. We hope that adding quality interactions both with organizations and individuals (look for science related AMAs on /r/science after the new year) will bring a recognition of this. Certainly the “image” of Reddit has not limited the use of /r/IAmA, and we hope that scientists and science journalist will come to recognize /r/science as an important meeting point between the science establishment and the general public.

CB: How will you determine whether the partnership with Nature is successful?

Moderators: With upvotes and downvotes.

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