The independent news organization of Duke University

Futurity.org to facilitate access to scientific research

University faculty publish research on topics such as color blindness in monkeys and asexual fungus-gardening ants—work that is sometimes overlooked by the general public.

In response to what they see as a lack of coverage of research-related news, Duke and 34 other universities have launched a Web site to pool and publicize their latest discoveries.

Futurity.org publishes articles on faculty research written for the general public in four categories: earth and environment, health and medicine, science and design and society and culture. The site’s front page currently features stories on topics such as alcoholism, cow breeding and influenza.

“We have created a place where readers could get access to the latest science and research news information from universities directly, and to have research from up to 40 universities in a single place will be very attractive,” said Futurity co-founder Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations at Duke.

Schoenfeld and fellow Futurity co-founder, Bill Murphy, vice president for communications at the University of Rochester, spoke with representatives of 14 universities at a meeting last winter at Johns Hopkins University’s Washington D.C. center to discuss a solution to the shrinking news coverage of scientific research, Murphy said.

“The number of science sections in major metropolitan newspapers have shrunk drastically,” Murphy said. “All the major networks have now closed their science departments. When they report on science news, they do it with general assignment reporters, not specialty science reporters.”

Murphy said participants at the meeting felt a need to find a collaborative way to publicize their universities’ research.

“One of the things we came up with as a solution was a Web site, but a number of people around the table were skeptical that we could do it ourselves with credibility and that we could actually staff such a thing,” Murphy said. “It seemed like there was a niche, if we added a selectivity process and we didn’t just print everything that everyone turned out.”

Schoenfeld wrote in an e-mail that the Web site was funded by a $2,000 contribution from each member university and will not take advertisements.

“There are a lot of dot-coms who have approached us and want to feature our content on their Web sites. They would sell advertising,” said Lisa Lapin, assistant vice president for university communications at Stanford University and a Futurity co-founder. “[But] our content is really valuable and we didn’t want to just give it to a for-profit business.... We thought it would be better to do it ourselves.”

The group of university representatives worked on prototypes and quietly launched a beta site in May, Murphy said.

“We said, ‘We’ll run this through the summer, learn by doing, not push too hard to publicize it, and wait until the faculties will be back in the Fall when there’s a much greater flow of research,’” Murphy said, “[We wanted to] wait until readers are back from summer vacation.”

University membership has increased from 20 last winter to 35 in September, he added. The main requirement to join is that schools must be members of the Association of American Universities, a nonprofit organization of public and private research universities.

Murphy said each individual university already has a news office that publicizes faculty research. But the top stories from each university are selected and posted by a full-time Futurity editor based at the University of Rochester.

To increase its viewership, Futurity has a presence on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. University representatives are also in talks with Yahoo! and Google for partnerships to publish Futurity news directly on search engines, Schoenfeld said.

“We’re going to be feeding our news to Yahoo so a lot of people who might not ordinarily see news from University of Rochester or University of Colorado or any number of our institutions will actually see it on Yahoo,” Lapin said.

Schoenfeld said Futurity plans to produce its own content in the future.

“For example, there are a number of universities that are doing research on influenza,” he said. “So say, in addition to having primary data on Futurity, we’re going to look at doing a special report on influenza research that would combine and synthesize all the research done.”

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