The world can change overnight due to research and discoveries in medicine, global warming, stem cell development or DNA research. While select newspapers publish a weekly science section and monthlies Discover, Scientific American, and Nature flourish, keeping track of science on a day-to-day basis isn't easy.
To provide science that is current, in 1995 a married couple, Dan and Michele Hogan, launched Science Daily (www.sciencedaily.com). The site publishes the latest scientific news submitted by university researchers and their public affairs offices.
In 1995, Dan Hogan was working in public affairs at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, writing press releases, which were picked up by major newspapers and rewritten by journalists. Often those writers used "journalistic license" to simplify and sometimes distort or sensationalize the research to make it more palatable to readers, he said.
Why not create a website that relies more factually and accurately on university research, without having to adulterate it, Hogan thought? He circulated a request for science new releases on Prof Net, a service used by journalist and public relations specialists. Quickly public affairs staff started sending him info on research studies. The site started out as a labor of love and part-time effort after his day job. When advertising picked up, the duo launched full-time in 2004. Now in 2010 he receives news updates from 2,000 universities.
New DNA techniques leading to a breakthrough in cancer research, ice shelves disappearing in Antarctica, and how certain cells avoid turning cancerous typify stories published in Science Daily. The site is organized into News, Articles, Videos, Images, and Books. Within the news section, readers can zero in on Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain, Space & Time, Earth & Climate, Matters & Energy and Computers & Math. Readers can delve into Mind & Brain and find articles about Alzheimer's disease, autism, epilepsy, depression, insomnia, and Parkinson's disease.
Though the news updates published on the site are universally technical and serious in tone, it can occasionally publish an offbeat research project. "Right-Handed and Left-Handed People Do Not See the Same Bright Side of Things" certainly comes under the idiosyncratic heading.
Readers come to Science Daily for different reasons. Some want to read about the earth, some about computers, and others about a particular disease, such as what is the latest research regarding breast cancer support groups. The target audience varies from researchers, physicians, college and high schools students, and almost anyone interested in research. Hogan calls many users "science buffs" who may also read Popular Science and Scientific American. "The research community is seeking validation of their research, not just peer review," Hogan notes.
To determine whether a news release warrants being turned into a news update on the site, Hogan asks these questions: Is the update from a reputable university, journal, or research organization? Did the research earn a grant, or was it presented at a conference? Are there images to accompany the story? Most press releases are published intact, though Hogan makes occasional stylistic changes. Most articles identify the researchers and the writer and offer links to other abstracts and related published news stories.
Researchers can use Science Daily as a resource for the latest in scientific discovery. Its archive includes 65,00 research articles, 15,000 images, 2,500 encyclopedia entries, 1,500 book reviews, and hundreds of scientific videos.
Science Daily is free to all readers and has no subscription fees. The site is easily searchable so readers can write in "Alzheimer's" and receive numerous articles on the latest scientific research. Half of the site's traffic comes from readers doing Google searches--no surprise there.
While Science Daily isn't focused on creating buzz, it responds to readers' tastes. Articles on global warming, for example, often make the lead story of the day because readers have a never-ending craving for updates on this controversial topic. Though Hogan acknowledges that global warming has been proven as a scientific fact, the site is nonpartisan and also publishes factual articles that debunk it.
Most Science Daily articles are very technical and jargon-filled. One article on Parkinson's disease research, for example, started with, "Both genetic and pathologic data indicate a role for the neuronal protein alpha-synuclien in Parkinson's Disease. Previous studies indicated that alpha-synuclien is a key event in nerve cell toxicity." Who could read this but a scientific researcher or Parkinson's specialist?
Hogan first quips that the article is something "Only a doctor could love." But when he was working at the National Institutes of Health, its cancer research department published two types of releases, one aimed at laymen and the other at researchers. Feedback from readers revealed that patients were bypassing the updates written for laymen and choosing the news targeting researchers and specialists. "They felt the good stuff was written for physicians. We learned to not exclude very much information," Hogan says.
Science Daily has partnerships with two companies: Reuters, the international news services, and Ivanhoe Broadcast news service, which licenses scientific videos to the site.
Even a serious site like Science Daily can be prone to hyperbole. The site claims to have grown "from a two-person operation to a full-fledged news business with worldwide contributors," which gives the impression that it has reporters posted globally. In fact it has no reporters and only reprints press releases sent by international universities.
Though the site maintains a Rockville, Md., mailing address, the Hogans recently moved to central New Hampshire, where they produce the website in their home, sharing the work. The site derives revenue from display ads, administered by Google AdSense. Advertisements range from pharmaceutical companies, health services, and food companies. Ads for El Monterrey burritos were prominently displayed on the home page recently, suggesting that even science buffs may opt for a Mexican lunch every now and then.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.