Giving a voice to early-career researchers

Here at the Research Whisperer, we’re fans of crowdfunding and Open Access. When we heard about Lateral’s campaign to crowdfund so that it could continue publication and pay its contributors, we invited them to tell us more. Thanks, Andrew and Tessa, for filling us in on your wonderful project. 

Andrew Katsis is a behavioural ecologist and third-year PhD candidate at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia. He has been Life Science editor for Lateral magazine since 2015.

Andrew tweets from @andrew_katsis.

Tessa Evans is a chemist who now works at the New Zealand Science Media Centre. She has been involved with Lateral magazine since 2015, and has been its editor-in-chief since 2017. Tessa tweets from @tessaeevans.

If you’d like to support emerging science writers and engaging science writing, you can still contribute to the Lateral campaign. If we all chipped in the money we’d spend on a couple of coffees, their target would be met! 

Cover of Lateral magazine for "Slow" (#12) - illustration by Olivia Baenziger
Cover of Lateral magazine for “Slow” (#12) – illustration by Olivia Baenziger

Scientific research is an important pursuit, but all your hard work may be for nothing if your results and insights don’t find their way beyond the lab bench to policymakers and the public. Because of this, researchers are increasingly encouraged to communicate their work to non-scientists, through media appearances, blogs, podcasts and other forms of public engagement.

At the same time, we have also seen the rise of professional science communicators—non-researchers who specialise in converting jargon into easily digestible language. But you can’t rely solely on science communicators to do your job for you; people also want to hear directly from the source.

How else will the public (or your family) know what you’ve been working so hard on, if you can’t explain it to them?

Learning how to communicate research doesn’t come easily to many people, and most graduates simply aren’t trained in how to talk to a general audience. In Australia, for example, there are only a handful of standalone courses in science communication, and just two degrees that specialise in this skill: the Master of Science Communication at the Australian National University, and the newly-minted course of the same name at the University of Western Australia, which starts this year.

Since there are so few opportunities within institutions, we wanted to help researchers develop these science communication skills.

In 2015, a small group of emerging researchers — mostly recent graduates from the University of Melbourne — came together to create Lateral, an online magazine written and edited by early-career scientists.

Our goal was to provide a platform for emerging researchers and writers to take their first steps into science communication. Lateral doesn’t just publish writing from super-confident, super-talented science writers, although we do have plenty of those.

For many of our writers, this is the first time that they have written for any publication, big or small. It can be daunting to venture outside your comfort zone and explain why we need to continue killing animals for museum collections or how we can harness animal venom to develop new medicines. This is why our editors work hard to give detailed, structured feedback, allowing new writers to become familiar with the editorial process and tailor their writing towards a general audience. At the end of it all, we have a thoughtful article about science, illustrated with stunning original artwork by our network of freelance artists, which hopefully excites our readers.

And we’ve published a lot of them! Since our launch in August 2015, we have released 25 issues of Lateral, encompassing over 230 articles from 120 authors. Our articles have been viewed over 150,000 times, and three of our pieces were republished in the annual Best Australian Science Writing anthologies by NewSouth Books (2016 and 2017). Although our editorial team is still largely Australia-based, and our content certainly has an Aussie skew, we have published writing from across the world, on a diverse range of topics.

When we launched the magazine, we were bolstered by a crowdfunding campaign that raised $11,000 to cover website design costs and contributor payments. Our modest eight-person editorial team has since expanded into a community of more than 20 editors and managers, who volunteer their time to keep the magazine running smoothly.

Don’t be fooled, though, because working on Lateral has been a learning experience for us, too. We’ve come a long way since 2015, when most of our editors had only limited editorial experience. Now, we have a training program set up for volunteers who join the team so that we can pass on editing and writing skills.

We weren’t content with just that, and also wanted to prepare researchers for interviews on the airwaves. So, this year, we are launching a podcast, Collateral, as a companion to the magazine. We’re hoping this will give a voice to emerging scientists, and help early-career producers gain experience conducting interviews and editing audio.

For nearly three years, Lateral has been a labour of love for us, consuming our weekends and weeknights as we hurry to meet the next deadline. Seeing the final published articles, replete with gorgeous artwork, is always compensation enough.

Many of our early contributors have already gone on to bigger and better things, writing for The Conversation, Australian Geographic, New Zealand Geographic, Cosmos, Hakai Magazine, Nautilus, and the like. We get a kick every time a familiar name pops up in our newsfeeds.

That’s what we want Lateral to be: an incubator. Your first published work. Your first paid gig.

Yes, paid. Unlike many online publications where first-time writers must contribute their time for free, we pay our contributors and believe strongly in the practice. It’s something that we’d like to continue doing for many years to come. Scientists have so much knowledge locked up in their brains, and it’d be a shame if we couldn’t help them share it around!

If you’ve never read Lateral before, check out our latest issue.  

If we’ve piqued your interest, send us an article idea. If you’re keen to write but not sure where to start, contact our editor-in-chief.

Lateral magazine covers – stunning original artwork for each issue!


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