I was disappointed when it ended in 2009, but it still is a model of what excellence in science blogging is all about.
In this piece today, I interview the co-Founder of the Niche, Dr. Natalie DeWitt.
DeWitt now is part of the team at CIRM as Special Projects Officer to the President. In the piece, the “Monya” who is mentioned is Monya Baker, who did much of the blogging for the Niche. Monya remains one of my favorite science writers.
1. In 2007 scientific social media was not as prevalent so it seems to me that the Niche was way ahead of its time. How did the Niche get started? Whose brainstorm? Did you and Monya have dedicated time to do it? Any naysayers?
Nature employed several publishers who were indeed ahead of their time in terms of finding new ways to use electronic media to communicate science. At the time I was the editor at Nature who handled stem cell papers, so one of these publishers, Beatrice Renault, recruited me to work with her on setting up a stem cell website, which became the Niche. Beatrice and I had many brainstorming sessions, along with others at Nature, about how Nature could best serve the stem cell community and we tossed around ideas like starting a journal. But social media seemed a perfect way to create a topical, nimble product that we could potentially build on. Nature launched similar web sites for Avian Flu and Climate Change at the same time– together these were called Nature Reports. The idea was to establish a presence in “hot” and rapidly evolving areas of science, and potentially eventually launch a journal if made sense financially and there was a demand for it from the scientific community. Nature did end up launching a journal on Climate Change but closed down the Niche and the avian flu website.
I wouldn’t say there was any strong opposition to launching the Niche, but some thought that stem cell research would become less interesting from a scientific and social perspective, and increasingly would be dominated by technical advances like vectorology and cell manufacturing. In fact, I think the field is more socially relevant and important than ever, as stem cell therapies become closer to reality. Now there’s a lot of interest in translating stem cell research and clinical trials, as well as halting medical tourism and informing the public about what stem cell-based procedures are safe and effective. The importance of reporting on these developments will only increase.
2. Did your blog pieces have to go through some kind of internal editorial/legal approval process prior to going live?
No, Monya Baker and I just wrote our pieces and posted them. We would usually edit each other’s work but there was no approval process.
3. What kind of feedback did you get on the blog? As a stem cell blogger I find I get a mixed bag of feedback (mostly positive) so I’m curious what your experience was like. For example, did you ever get scientists giving you heat for a particular post?
The feedback was very positive. At that time, there were few online resources for stem cell research that posted new content regularly, so the Niche was quite popular among a community who was closely following stem cell research. I don’t recall getting heat from any scientists about the Niche— I got much more heat for my editorial decisions on scientific manuscripts than for anything I wrote on the Niche!
4. What were the top issues “way back” in 2007 for the field and the blog? A newly hatched CIRM. hESC. President Bush. A relatively new ISSCR. What else? What was the feeling back then?
At the time there seemed to be much more of a focus on ethical issues surrounding stem cell research, such as the ethics of research using human embryos and oocytes. For instance, I was involved in a Hinxton working group to examine the implications of research on generating human gametes from pluripotent cells. The use of human-animal chimeras in research was another concern that garnered some attention and I imagine will resurface at some point. And of course, the scientific misconduct and fraud case of Woo-suk Hwang was still fresh in our minds, which prompted us at Nature to think of ways that we as editors could validate high profile reports like dog cloning, and to ask scientists to do ensure new pluripotent cell lines were not contaminated with hES cells, and so on. IPS cells had just become a reality and interest in engineering pluripotent cells became intense. Attention started shifting away from nuclear transfer. To some extent, the use of human embryos in research became less politicized once Bush left office and the science also moved on. I and some of my colleagues at Nature were also interested in improving transparency of peer review. To this end, I created a feature called Inside the Paper for the Niche, where we published edited versions of reviewer comments for a number of stem cell papers. Since then, this practice has caught on, and today journals like Embo J. publish referee reports for all their papers.
5. Were you aware at the time that the Niche was a pioneering social media effort? Were there other significant stem cell blogs out there at that time?
Well, living in San Francisco and working for Nature I was fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of innovative people and ideas, so creating an online publication like the Niche seemed right on target for the times. At that time, there was a fair number of websites created for stem cells, but they were usually more static, educational resources, and did not publish daily updated, constantly changing content like the Niche. An exception was a blog published by Attila Csordas that he called Partial Immortalization — he was a really active blogger.
6. How much traffic did the Niche get? Hundreds or thousands of visitors a day? Did you get many comments on blog pieces? Did the comments increase over time?
Monya recalls it was on the order of thousands. There was not much commenting on our posts. At that time, scientists, who were a big component of our readership, tended to be reluctant to comment on blogs, and especially to publicly express skepticism about scientific papers of their colleagues, at least on a blog. But on occasion there would be an interesting discussion, usually about politics or ethics.
7. Did your and Monya’s relative roles evolve over time?
I was given a six month sabbatical by Nature to work on the Niche, and during that time, Monya and I worked together closely with a team of developers in London to design and launch the Niche, and wrote content and populated the website. After my sabbatical ended, I went back to handling manuscripts full time for Nature. I still contributed and helped to develop new kinds of content like Inside the Paper, but at that point Monya was the main driving force.
8. Many of us were puzzled when the Niche ended. Can you provide an insight into why it ended?
Developing good business models for open access, online publications like the Niche can be tricky, and was even more so five years ago. And the Niche was further handicapped when, even before it launched, we lost our founding publisher, Beatrice Renault, who left Nature. So the Niche was left without an important founding member, and one who was strongly invested and had the know-how for turning it into a viable product from a financial perspective. It’s a shame, because stem cell research remains a vibrant and important field, and I only see it becoming more important and interesting, as stem cell therapies start to be developed and tested in humans. So I’m pleased to see that you have taken on the mantle!