How do stories get chosen for The Week in Botany?

I sometimes get complaints "Why have you shared this instead of that that?"
Just a picture of some email
Image: Canva.

We have a weekly email TWiB, The Week in Botany, that goes out Mondays. In it, we share links to various web pages, news articles and scientific papers. Generally, I don’t get much feedback beyond “Joe Bloggs is out of the office until…” Occasionally we do get a comment, asking why we have shared this or that story. I say we, but the email is 99% my work, so I should explain.

There are three sections to the email. The first is the stories from Botany One, as it’s for a bit of self-promotion. Currently, everything from the week gets listed. If we move to 15 articles a week here, I might look at changing that.

The other two sections are News and Views and Scientific Papers. What I do is look at what has been shared by people following @BotanyOne on Twitter on a Monday, and pick the top two papers, for the Scientific Papers section and the top two other links, for News and Views. That means News and Views can include all sorts of items, including podcasts and sometimes Twitter threads. I then do the same for Tuesday and so on to Friday.

So if, somehow, a top journal published a paper claiming plants were all a kind of fish, that would be shared and in the email – even if it’s obvious nonsense. That’s because it would reflect what our followers were interested in. If it were published at the end of the week, then you’d only see a few links, because it wouldn’t have been shared in the first three or four days. This way, you get a mix of stories instead of one event dominating the week and then seeing the same news stories sharing more or less the same thing in a slightly different font.

Reality can be a bit messier than that as there are often stories with a similar number of shares, so I make some choices.

In the Scientific papers section, it’s quite common for three or four papers to get the same number of shares on a given day. I usually just pick two, and here’s how I do it. I look at where the paper has been published. So if papers from Science and bioRxiv have twenty shares, then I’ll pick the one from bioRxiv. This is because an article from Science will have news coverage and they tend to get shared a lot anyway. BioRxiv doesn’t often get picked up by the media, so if a paper from there gets a lot of shares, it must be getting plenty of interest without any help. Our readers are also more likely to miss a paper in bioRxiv than one published in Science, so it’s more helpful to list that in the email.

In News and Views, I’ll quite often cut the most shared story. Automatic sharing worked quite well up to summer 2016. Since then, our followers have become much more likely to share political stories. I think that’s good on the whole. . Here’s an example.

Without checking the counts, I know for a fact that the most shared link this week will include the word Parliament. That’s because in the UK there’s a divide in opinion over how necessary Parliament is for parliamentary democracy. I can see why it’s an issue, but I’m also thinking that anyone keen to read about UK politics will already be visiting a site like Politics.co.uk. You don’t need to reread a link in TWiB.

Sometimes politics can push its way in because some people make botanical work political. A couple of weeks ago there was a lot of sharing at the end of the week about the Amazon fires, because of the news coverage of the G7 conference and the fires. By including links to these stories upset some people. I included the stories, as they were the most shared, and they have botanical relevance. Botanists do a lot of work in the Amazon, and they might find it more difficult to work there if the patch they’re working in goes up in flames. I didn’t share stories on the Siberian fires, another serious issue, because our followers hadn’t picked up on it.

So if a story you don’t like gets in, then now you know why. Likewise, if I’m not mentioning a story you think is significant, even with a high Altmetric score, it might be because it’s not been particularly shared by people following @BotanyOne. If you want to get a story in TWiB, get your friends who follow @BotanyOne to share it. Or, if it’s a political story, remind the politician to blame the economic downturn on broccoli or similar.

If you’d like to see what I’m including next week, then you can sign up to receive the email here.