In 1981, Mary Ann Liebert, publisher and founder of the eponymously named company, who is a science buff, realized that genetic engineering was a growing field and that there wasn’t a trade magazine covering it. So she quickly launched Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, otherwise known as GEN. Liebert went on to start more than 75 publications covering a broad range of disciplines, including Applied In Vitro Toxicology, Journal of Neurotrauma and Violence and Gender. GEN is widely read by scientists and continues to expand in ways its founder couldn’t have imagined 33 years ago. In this Q&A, GEN’s Managing Editor Tamlyn Oliver shares with Eureka readers the publication’s take on industry trends, who GEN’s primary audience is and the blogs and publications GEN staff read regularly. This is the first in an occasional series with editors, writers and bloggers from the science field.
Who is your core readership and how has it changed since the publication was launched in 1981?
Our core readers are research scientists working in industry and academia. The bulk of our audience is on the drug discovery/development side, but we also have a not insignificant number of readers from the bioprocessing arena. Initially, GEN was more focused on bioprocessing and over the years evolved to have broader coverage—from bench to bedside we like to say.
From CRISPR technology and cancer immunology to breakthroughs in stem cell therapy and vaccine design, there have been a lot of significant developments to write about in recent months. What research developments get you most excited and which ones do you think are way overhyped? Why?
In more than 30 years we have seen many technologies come and go and enumerable breakthroughs languish. We are excited right now about the latest successes of gene therapy. It was not that long ago when we thought the field had suffered a hard to recover from failure. We are also thrilled to see ‘omics’ technologies find a place in the clinic and become more mainstream. Ten years ago, did anyone know what genomics was? Current hot topics we are closely following include extracellular vesicles (exosomes), as well as gene editing, 3D printing, and the microbiome. A year ago, I might have said gene therapy was overhyped, but with so many reported successes lately, that seems not to be the case. So often with the new technologies in our space, their promise is not immediately recognized and perhaps we all get discouraged and feel they were overhyped when we don’t have results immediately.
The long-term forecast for Big Pharma is a bit unsettling, to say the least. What are pharmaceutical executives telling you about where they think the industry is headed?
I hear that the industry’s changing yet staying the same: Big Pharmas say they will continue to cut back further on internal R&D, and pursue more partnerships and collaborations, not only with smaller companies but with academic and independent research institutions as well. This continues the trend of the past decade, yet the companies also expect to stay big and even grow—but grow differently, by focusing on more offerings in fewer, more clearly defined therapeutic areas. And they generally promise to do better at embracing diagnostics and at marketing therapeutics in China and other “emerging” nations.
Who is one person you would love to interview for GEN? And where would you conduct the interview?
I would love to interview Marc Casper, CEO of Thermo Fisher Scientific. It has been interesting to watch the growth of that company. If I could go back in time I would be interested in interviewing Rosalind Franklin [a British biophysicist and crystallographer whose photograph of a DNA molecule helped lead Watson and Crick to publish the double-helix structure].
We noticed that your recent story about a new way of shocking cells into a pluripotent state got a tremendous amount of attention from readers. What commonalities do you see among the stories that receive significant interest and excitement from your readers?
The most popular stories with our readers are generally significant scientific advances, major acquisitions, or pronouncements from major players (like James Watson or Craig Venter). Other features that do well revolve around new enabling technologies (like CRISPRs). Of course those weird science stories do really well, too. Most people like to be entertained and amused…Edutainment!
There are many new scientific developments that are potentially worthy of media attention each week. What advice would you give to a scientist who is trying to break through the noise to get attention for their research?
Lately I am a big fan of Twitter for getting breaking news or finding out about things that are not promoted via press releases. There are some genius folks out there who promote their expertise, business, interests aggressively on Twitter and it seems to be working. I am also a big believer in timely issuance of press releases on Eureka Alerts for scientific papers. These press releases MUST be issued immediately upon the paper being published. We ignore all Eureka Alert PR when paper is more than 24 hours old.
Which publications/media outlets do you follow? How about blogs?
I like John Carroll on Fierce Biotech and am very impressed with their solid business coverage. We regularly check Reuters and the Wall Street Journal for business news. We don’t follow too many blogs specifically but do follow many bloggers on Twitter and will check out a blog if I see an interesting tweet about it. We also have several GEN “ambassadors” who are our eyes on ears in the industry, alerting us to significant advances and news.
What impact has the significant contraction among mainstream science media had on biotech coverage, and is it having any influence on how or what you write about?
I don’t think the contraction of mainstream media has impacted how we cover the tools and technologies that enable life science research, other than that we cover far fewer companies than we did even 10 years ago. What has changed for us is the complexity of the technologies we cover. And increasingly all of our writers are Ph.D.s with experience in the lab. That was not the case 10 years ago.
The digital age has had a tremendous influence on how we communicate. Are most of your readers online readers and how do your readers communicate with you? I notice that you don’t, for instance, include a comments section on your online stories.
We used to allow commenting on our site but had to stop due to technical problems with our app. They are supposed to be corrected and we should allow commenting again soon. People email us and call us typically. We no longer get letters. We are also communicating with readers through social media. Personally I find Twitter most useful. I love Twitter.
Are you looking to expand your readership base? If so, which groups do you covet?
We are always trying to increase our reach. A main focus for us now is Asia and building our audience there. We are also building our bioprocessing audience. Finally, not surprisingly we are looking to expand our younger audience—hence our Facebook efforts. Our name is confusing to younger researchers who equate genetic engineering with ag bio. Hence you will be seeing more GEN in the future.