The Best Science Writing Online 2012 edited by Jennifer Ouellette and Bora Zivkovic is decended from the old Open Laboratory series of anthologies which featured the fifty best science blog posts (and a poem and a cartoon) from the year in question. The series as a whole was organized by Bora Zivkovic and each year he would chose someone to actually edit that particular year’s edition. As well, each year they would select a bunch of science-bloggy types to help out with the pre-reading of the literally hundreds of blog posts that would be submitted, including my turn as a pre-reader for the 2007 collection.

So it went for a number of years until this past year, what with Bora going to work for Scientific American Blogs and all, the series went big time. The 2012 edition is published by a major New York publisher (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux) rather than indy self-publishing outfit Lulu.com.

The last time I reviewed a book in the series was way back for the 2006 edition, comparing the mainstream best science writing series with Open Lab. And coming to the conclusion that they were clearly on par, quality-wise.

And that is still true. Although I’ve flagged a little in my reading of the various science writing anthologies, I have read a few of them and I can say very definitively that The Best Science Writing Online 2012 is at least as good as any of the mainstream ones and should continue to be on a yearly basis. Blogging came of age a long time ago but maybe we’re only really noticing now.

Now a few words about the particular anthology in question. As disclosure, due to my own involvement in the world of science blogging I’m friends with one or two of the authors here and have met in person or interacted online with more than a few of the others at least once or twice at various events.

One of the things this book does best is diversity. Twenty-four of the 51 authors are women, far more than you would get in one of the mainstream collections. Not to mention that a decent number are not from the USA, a failure of the other Best this or that collections. There’s also a nice balance between people who are professional journalists and those who are professional scientists while the more mainstream ones tended to favour the journalists.

On the other hand, one thing that could be improved on the diversity front would be to lessen somewhat the emphasis on the life sciences and maybe include a bit more from math, computing and even some that edge a bit more on the technology side of the science spectrum. The physical sciences have some representation but even that could be bumped up a bit. I would also have liked to see more like David Dobbs’ wonderful story about Jonathan Eisen trying to free his father’s old articles from the paywalls of traditional publishing — things that are more stories about how science gets done and what kind of people scientists are rather than explanations of this or that scientific point.

Which brings me to another odd point. A lot of the items really just to that: take some sort of scientific idea and explain it in language that is broadly accessible. Which is great. But outside the context of the body of work on the author’s blog, sometimes the explanation seems a bit out of the blue. Especially since there is a bit of a tendency to start the post with a vaguely relevant personal story and then launch into the explanation. Which of course is the kind of thing you notice when you read a bunch of these stories in a fairly short time frame. I think sometimes that wider context to why the story is getting written comes out better in mainstream publications. Part of this must be some kind of chicken-and-egg thing about which comes first, the explanation itself or the story written around the explanation. I think maybe the bloggers sometimes think to themselves, “Hey, I feel like explaining X today on my blog. I guess I have to come up with some sort of personal connection/story to introduce the explanation on the blog otherwise it’ll look too out of the blue.” Like I said, in the context of a blog where that’s mostly what the author does or in terms of a reader finding a post via a search engine query, that probably works just fine. When it’s all collected together in a book, it’s still fine on most levels. But it does stick out a bit.

Another thing inevitably missing from the collection is the in-depth reporting you would see in the NYT or New Yorker, where an obviously large initial investment allows the writer to follow a story from city to city or continent to content, to visit a bunch of labs or go out on the field with the subject. Of course, that’s not the fault of the bloggers, but rather that the science writing ecosystem hasn’t adjusted yet to the way these types of stories need to be funded. And hopefully that adjustment will come as it would be a shame to lose that kind of reporting. (It’s not hard to imagine some sort of combination of Kickstarter/Indiegogo-style funding and foundation/non-profit funding. Stuff like this scares the crap out of me. Pepsigate, anyone?)

That being said, overall this is an excellent collection with not one single clunker. And several really excellent pieces too, literally from Amsen to Zimmer.

I sincerely hope this project continues on a yearly basis, all the better to showcase the fine writing on science blogs, writing that is often different from what we see in more tradition outlets, but in no way inferior. I would recommend this book to any library, public or academic, that maintains a popular science reading collection. It would also make a fine gift to any science-loving friend or family member.

Ouelette, Jennifer and Bora Zivkovic, editors, The Best Science Writing Online 2012. New York: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. 328pp. ISBN-13: 978-0374533342

(Electronic advanced reading copy provided by publisher.)

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