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In conversation with The Conversation

Yesterday I had a real pleasure to meet the Editors of The Conversation as well as some fellow authors. The 10th-anniversary celebration was a great occasion to talk about our past work and to make new connections.

Prizes were given, drinks and refreshments were served, and we also heard a very interesting talk about false media news. It was also great to meet in person two editors I had worked with, Clint Witchalls and Phoebe Roth.

My journey with The Conversation started in March 2020 with a request from Clint, a health editor, to contribute a piece on COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, I had never even considered writing a popular science article.

But, having already done some blog posts – and getting positive comments from friends about the articles – I embarked on the task of writing about the ways in which the pandemic could unfold. 

Throughout the process of writing this piece – and many others that followed – Clint was very helpful and supportive. He was critical but also encouraging, checking all details and improving the style, making it more accessible. It quickly got over 100,000 reads and 33 comments – and a request for more articles.

Over the last three years, I have worked with three editors, Clint, Rob Reddick and Phoebe. Each of them prefers to work in a different way, but they have all been professional, efficient, and friendly.

Without their help and attention to detail, I could not have written 19 articles (plus 2 translations for Spanish and Indonesian The Conversation outlets). 

Gathering 1.8 million reads demonstrates that we have managed to struck a balance between scientific accuracy and accessibility to the general public. The engagement with the readers has gone even deeper, with 402 – both positive and negative comments – placed online. The articles have also been reprinted in many outlays worldwide and I am still the most-read The Conversation author at my University, with nearly four times more reads (1.8m) than the next person. 

I do not really have any particular favourite in the list of the 19 articles. Some were more difficult to write than others and some were written at very short time scales. Some were read very widely (both the June 2020 and the December 2020 pieces were read nearly 400,000 times), and some less so (the October 2021 piece on the Autumn spike with 15,000 reads). 

But, I have enjoyed writing each of them and I stand by the accuracy of all that I have written. For two articles, the time has invalidated the points I originally made there, but I still think that at that time of writing, they captured what had been known.

In my December 2020 piece (read nearly 400,000 times), I was sceptical about the rate at which the UK vaccination programme would unfold. Assuming it would largely be run by GPs, I expressed my concerns about the speed of the operation. The events of the next few months proved me wrong – the vaccination programme was a huge success, primarily because of the scale of the operation and the involvement of many people beyond the doctors.

More recently, in my January 2023 piece on China, I predicted another wave to follow the Lunar New Year. I was wrong, as it turned out that China was in fact much closer to the “herd immunity” than I had originally assumed. Given the notorious secrecy of COVID-19 reporting in China, I feel at least partially excused for overestimating the course of the epidemic there.

On the positive side, in my first The Conversation article, Four graphs that show how the coronavirus pandemic could now unfold, we included a scenario that actually represented the future (although the relative size of the peaks was not correct…)

I am also proud of having seen very early that herd immunity is not likely to be achieved and instead is a bogus idea that has serious public health consequences. I am also proud of continuously advocating the need for the governments and the public working together, building trust and taking into account both population and individual needs.

The public interest in COVID-19 is now slowly receding, although the pandemic is still continuing. I hope to continue publishing articles on this topic, but maybe there is now time to switch to other areas. But, having so much enjoyed writing popular science articles, I would very much want to continue my journey with The Conversation. 

Thank you, @CWitchalls @Phoebe_Roth @redique and the whole The Conversation team for making it possible. 

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