Who Benefits From Science Blogging?

Abstract
Several scientists and science communicators have turned to the Internet to discuss science through weblogs (blogs). An interview with five science bloggers suggests that scientists and non-scientists alike benefit in various ways from reading and writing science blogs.


What is a blog?
According to blog-monitoring website Technorati, there are currently about 48 million blogs on the Internet (1). Blogs, short for weblogs, are websites that are frequently updated with short articles and often allow readers to respond by leaving a comment. Of the almost 50 million blogs out there, quite a lot serve as personal journals, and the ease with which they are updated is an invitation for some people to put their entire private life or work details online. As a result, there are cases in which people have been fired for blogging at work or about work (2,3). This is unfortunate, because when used right, blogs have the capacity to be a valuable part of a person’s work. They are a perfect tool for informal interactive discussions by allowing the authors to post an article about any topic they want and having visitors interact through comments.

Many blogs are written exclusively about very specific topics related to the authors’ hobbies or work. There are blogs about everything: cars, kids, art, food, politics, computers, public transport. Type anything plus the phrase “blog” in Google and you will find a blog about it.

Needless to say, there are also blogs about science. Roughly, there are two types of science bloggers: scientists and science writers (4). How do they relate blogging to their daily work? And who reads their blogs? To find out who benefits from science blogging, I asked five very different science bloggers about their blogs and their readers.

Blogging scientists
Tara Smith is an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa, and regularly updates her biology related blog Aetiology (5). She writes about topics within her field, including bacteria, viruses, disease, and infections, but also uses her blog as an outlet to discuss evolution, science education and parenting (6). Even though she doesn’t write directly about her own research, she does see her blog as an opportunity to meet other scientists: “Blogging has allowed me to ‘meet’ colleagues in fields that complement my own, and certainly has introduced me to people who have expertise that I may draw on for future projects” (6).

Paul Myers, associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, finds his blog, Pharyngula (Figure 1), to help his teaching: “Putting together blog content is a motivator to keep up with a wide range of current topics in biology, and eventually much of it finds its way into my lectures” (7,8). On the other hand, he does not talk about his own research: “There’s the problem of getting scooped, of student confidentiality, and the fact that many journals will not accept anything that has been published previously.” Rather, his blog is “more popularization than advancing actual research” (8). Popular he certainly is: according to Technorati’s data, Pharyngula is currently by far the most read and most linked-to science blog on the Internet (1,9). His many readers include both scientists and non-scientists alike: “I’ve had authors of science papers I’ve reviewed show up, I know I’ve got a fair number of informed science readers, and of course, many, many people who don’t have much of a science background” (8). Aetiology currently ranks number seven on the list of popular science blogs, and attracts a similar mixed audience (6,9).

Figure 1: A post on dinosaur lungs at Pharyngula (http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/). Screencapture taken on August 17, 2006.

Smith’s and Myers’ blogs are two of over forty science blogs currently hosted by SEED Media Group on ScienceBlogs.com (10). SEED publishes SEED Magazine, which relates science to culture and society (11). Their ScienceBlogs site has a similar purpose, and describes their mission as follows: “Our mission is to build a community of like-minded individuals who are passionate about science and its place in our culture, and give them a place to meet” (10). Having several science blogs in one place is convenient for readers: the portal allows you to search for all posts about, for example, biology or physics in all blogs on the site, allowing a quick overview of different perspectives. There are advantages for the hosted bloggers as well. “I’ve been happy with the transition to scienceblogs,” says Tara Smith (6). Both she and Paul Myers often interact with the other bloggers on ScienceBlogs. Myers reveals: “There’s a super-secret backchannel forum for just the ScienceBlogs people to chat away in, and it is a very busy place” (8).

Blogging science writers
Another blog found on ScienceBlogs is The Loom, by science writer Carl Zimmer (12). Zimmer is a regular contributor to The New York Times, and has published several books about science, mainly relating to evolution. “I blog about things that I find very cool but that I won’t be able to turn into an article someone will pay me to write,” Zimmer says (13). But he does use his blog to benefit his job: “Very often, I will mine these posts for my books, and I sometimes even manage to produce articles on topics I first visited on my blog.” Just like his books, Zimmer’s blog attracts a broad range of readers: “My audience seems to cover a very wide range, which is very satisfying. I get scientists commenting on the research I write about (and often catching my errors). Many other readers are non-scientists with a passion for biology. Creationists sometimes visit and leave their remarks. Unless comments are downright insulting or otherwise unacceptable, I am very liberal about moderating them” (13).

Science journalists Anna Gosline, Katie Law, and Anne Casselman created the quirky blog Inky Circus (Figure 2) to help them find out what kind of topics to include in the magazine they are setting up (14). They are working on the production of a science magazine aimed at women, and launched their blog as a playing field and as a medium to document their endeavours. However, Inky Circus soon became a project of its own. “The web is great for laughs, links, and sharing stubby bits of text. Print is great to curl up to on a sofa and carry you through 3,000 words exploring one topic. We want to have as much fun as we can with the different media,” says Anne (15). Even though they write for a general audience, a lot of their readers have a science background: “Some of the most verbose readers are those that comment a lot and they tend to be quite comfy flinging science around. So, I’d say a fair number are scientists or once were. Interestingly, I think a fair number are science communicators as well, or scientists who are keen on communicating.”

Figure 2: A post on drug trial liabilities on Inky Circus (http://www.inkycircus.com). Screen capture taken on August 17, 2006.

Blogging at Nature
Clearly, scientists and science writers alike have each found ways to make blogging a part of their life and work. Their audiences are made up of scientists and laymen, and readers have a chance to communicate and contribute to the discussion by leaving comments. Still, there are many scientists who have never seen a blog at all and are not taking part in this online discussion. Surfing the Internet as a hobby and reading blogs on a regular basis is just not something everyone wants to participate in. But science blogs may be getting closer to the lab bench now that Nature is using them as a tool for reader discussion. Nature has previously published news features in favour of science blogging (16). Now the publishing group has several blogs of their own to complement either their journals or their special features (17). One of their blogs is the Nature Newsblog, which encourages readers to leave comments about articles published on news@nature.com (18). “What we wanted was to find a way to assess the appetite for commenting on our stories, and blogging software offered us a way to hack together a comment function much more easily than we could by building it into the site itself,” explains Oliver Morton, Chief News and Features editor for news@nature.com (19). The editors found that people were more likely to leave a quick blog comment than to send an e-mail to the editor, and are pleased with the success of Nature Newsblog as a communication tool. Besides maintaining their own blog, the Nature news team also actively reads blogs. “We read a lot of blogs, and occasionally get story ideas from them. We actually have a hot blogs list on our site at the moment, and someone in the office probably reads most of those” (9,19).

Benefits of science blogs
So who benefits from science blogging? As the above would suggest…everyone!

Blogging researchers have a chance to expand their casual science-related conversations worldwide, possibly meet other scientists and enhance their teaching skills, while blog reading scientists can informally communicate with their peers through comments. Blog reading non-scientists have access to science stories they might otherwise have missed. Blogging science writers and journalists can use their blogs as a playpen for new ideas, meanwhile giving the rest of the world a well-written piece on an interesting topic. Finally, blogging journal editors can get reader feedback on articles, and read other science blogs for ideas.

So if you’re looking to expand your horizons, read some science blogs! The blogs discussed in here, as well as some of the interviewees’ personal favourites are listed in Note 1.

Notes

1. Selection of science blogs written and/or recommended by interviewees.
Aetiology – http://scienceblogs.com/aetiology/
Pharyngula – http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/
The Loom – http://scienceblogs.com/loom/
Inky Circus – http://www.inkycircus.com
Nature Newsblog – http://blogs.nature.com/news/blog/
The World’s Fair – http://scienceblogs.com/worldsfair/
The Panda’s Thumb – http://www.pandasthumb.org/
Complex Medium – http://complexmedium.blogspot.com/
Declan Butler – http://declanbutler.info/blog/
In the Pipeline – http://www.corante.com/pipeline/
A Blog Around the Clock – http://scienceblogs.com/clock/
Effect Measure – http://www.scienceblogs.com/effectmeasure

References

1. Retrieved from http://www.technorati.com on July 12, 2006

2. Anna Bahney, “Interns? No bloggers need apply”, New York Times, May 25, 2006 Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com on July 12, 2006

3. Todd Wallack, “Beware if your blog is related to work”, San Francisco Chronicle, January 24, 2005. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com on July 12, 2006

4. This distinction is also used in a recent profile of science blogs on news@nature.com Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060703/full/442009a.html on July 12, 2006

5. http://scienceblogs.com/aetiology/

6. Personal communication: e-mail interview with Tara Smith, July 6, 2006

7. http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/

8. Personal communication: e-mail interview with Paul Myers, July 6, 2006

9. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060703/multimedia/50_science_blogs.html

10. Retrieved from http://www.scienceblogs.com on July 12, 2006

11. Retrieved from http://www.seedmagazine.com on July 12, 2006

12. http://scienceblogs.com/loom/

13. Personal communication: e-mail interview with Carl Zimmer, July 7, 2006

14. http://www.inkycircus.com

15. Personal communication: e-mail interview with Inky Circus, answered by Anne Casselman, June 29, 2006

16. D. Butler, Nature 438, 548 (2005).

17. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/blogs/index.html on July 13, 2006

18. http://blogs.nature.com/news/blog/

19. Personal communication: e-mail interview with Oliver Morton, July 7, 2006

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