Telum Talks To... Joanna Chao, Deputy Editor-in-Chief / Executive Director, Science Monthly
Deputy Editor-in-Chief and Executive Director of Science Monthly Joanna Chao shared with Telum about how they translate complicated science issues to understandable language for the general public in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.
The editorial team of Science Monthly consists of full-time university professors, which sets it apart from other mass media. How is this related to the magazine's positioning?
Over five decades, Science Monthly has featured an editorial board and a consultant group composed of university professors and secondary school teachers in fields related to science, education and communication, as well as professional science editors. The former checks on the scientificity and accuracy, and the latter takes charge of the readability and entertainment of content. Science is advancing rapidly, and developments in each field are so different that it is difficult to rely on a few editors to keep up with the frontiers of science. But our editorial team made of scientists in varied fields offer suggestions, which helps the magazine track the development in the science community.
What are your criteria for selecting topics? How do you make sure that your content is accessible to the readers?
Our editorial board conducts a monthly-based discussion on recent important science news and developments, to decide the topic selection direction of the cover story, and makes adjustments according to current issues and major events at any time. We also put a spotlight on the memorable years in the history of science. For example, last year marked the 50th anniversary of human landing on the moon and also the 150th anniversary of the periodic table of chemical elements, so we cover them accordingly.
We usually told our writers to write in such a way that high school students can understand, but it is still difficult for professors and experts who have been writing professional scientific papers for a long time. Therefore, our editors have to constantly communicate with writers for revision in order to produce articles that are approved by writers and interesting to readers. We require evidence-based articles, which is also an important spirit in scientific research.
What are the difficulties and key points in reporting the recent COVID-19 outbreak? How is your focus different from reporting on common diseases?
We have had a series of articles on COVID-19 outbreak since the March issue. It focuses on the scientific knowledge of personal protection such as wearing masks and disinfection. In the April issue, we sort out the entanglements between the “coronavirus” and human beings, covering the discovery history, the basic characteristics of the virus, the immune response in human body, and how to develop antiviral drugs and vaccines.
Amid the spread of COVID-19 outbreak and the rising number of confirmed cases worldwide, related research is still ongoing. In the previous disease-related reports, there may have been years of research data for reference, and most of the authors are experts with a lot of data available. However, in the face of this novel infectious disease, as a scientific magazine, we are more cautious in dealing with it. Therefore, we choose to start with the known coronavirus and analyse it step by step, so as to enable readers to understand from the basic knowledge that “Why is coronavirus so difficult to deal with?”, “Why can’t the vaccine be ready right away?” and “How can we know whether the patient is infected in Europe or Taiwan?” etc. We hope that readers can learn from such current issues that how scientists act on behind the epidemic and how they can make use of the technology and knowledge at hand to contribute to epidemic prevention.
Facing the changes in online media in recent years and the competition with different kinds of media, what are the advantages of Science Monthly?
At present, our readers are not only students above secondary school, but also the general public. In addition to the monthly print issues, we also work with digital magazine platforms such as TAAZE and Readmoo to launch digital versions. In recent years, schools and parents have noticed that students’ reading ability is declining due to the short and light readings on mobile phones, so they hope to re-cultivate students’ reading habits. Science Monthly has successively launched in-class courses on science reading at the end of last year, which is well-received. We hope that through the in-class courses, students who have not had the opportunity to get to know this magazine in the past can understand our characteristics and find that science reading is not difficult. We are also evaluating the use of platforms, such as YouTube or Podcast, to make Science Monthly known to more different audiences. We hope that will be launched as soon as possible.
Any change after Taiwan's presidential election?
The result of presidential elections has no impact on our reporting. The most important demand for us is how much scientific evidence we can provide regardless of issues. Facing politics-related issues, we try our best to balance the report based on science and also welcome contributions from readers to share their views.
Is science-related background necessary for science communications?
It is not necessary to have an academic background to do a good job in science communication. For those who have a relevant background, it is easier to understand what scientists intend to express. But due to the nature of science, which is vast and develops fast, even professionals may not know everything. Therefore, I think that students from other fields who want to engage in this job need to read more, listen more, ask more, train themselves to read science-related books, articles, dissertations and listen to lectures and interviews. And if they encounter any problems, they need to ask experts. Curiosity and learning ability are essential for science communication.