Jan 13 • 1HR 2M

William Gunn: from the bench to tech

A former molecular biologist discusses his adventures in science communication and publishing

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Have you ever wondered how academic publishing works? If you’re not in academia, probably not, but you might be surprised by how much intrigue and politics it entails. If you are an academic, you probably don’t want to think about it any more than you have to because it’s a mess. Nearly a decade ago, Razib co-authored a paper, Dragging scientific publishing into the 21st century, that sketched out a map of a possible future. That future isn’t here yet, but things are changing with the emergence of preprint culture.

In this episode of Unsupervised Learning, Razib talks to Dr. William Gunn, Head of Communications at Quora. Before Quora, William worked in communications at the massive publishing house Elsevier, which purchased Mendeley, a reference management startup where he had a senior position. Despite his current roles, William’s original training was at Tulane in molecular biology. William and Razib talk about how he navigated the career path that took him from academic science to tech and publishing (or, more precisely, how he stumbled onto a career transition). They also address the contingent role of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, a storm that scattered the laboratory where he was conducting his research.

Then they discuss the current state of academic publishing and its path forward. Though many academics have ideas about how platforms can drive change, William points out that these endeavors consistently flail and fade due to the natural conservatism of science and scientists. He argues that though scientists often demonize Elsevier and the publishing houses, the role of editors in shaping peer review is often underappreciated.

William addresses the future of online information exchange more generally, focusing on Quora. They then discuss the peculiarity that for Indians, Quora has become a social media platform, while Americans continue to use it as a Q & A clearinghouse. Willam recalls his involvement in metascience, open science, and the reproducibility crisis during his time at Elsevier. He argues that institutional resistance to improving the methods within science is due to fear that admitting room for improvement feeds skepticism of science.

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Finally, they close by reviewing how COVID-19 has illustrated the strengths and weaknesses of the American information ecosystem, in particular the positive and negative role of preprints.

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