A post up at Bayblab is causing a bit of a stir; ScienceBlogs.com is singled out as an incestuous conclave of hacks* where bloggers are paid substantial sums to turn out tabloid-quality science writing. Alright, maybe such a summary isn’t entirely accurate, but the post by “Anonymous Coward” paints an unfavorable caricature of ScienceBlogs, making it seem like my colleagues and I care more about popularity than about science.
[*Using "hacks" to refer to popular science writers who are looked down upon for not writing how members of the scientific community want them to write.]
AC starts off by listing the top 5 science blogs according to postgenomic, and 4 out of those five are here on ScienceBlogs. This extremely small sampling (ScienceBlogs.com currently is home to about 70 blogs) is not representative of the whole, and this makes the next part more worrying. Furthering the category mistake, AC says that Cognitive Daily is the only blog the consistently writes about peer-reviewed research, thus narrowly defining “true” science blogging to be blogging about peer-reviewed research. Should science blogging be so constrained?
I write plenty of posts about paleontology and zoology items in the news or ideas/concepts I’ve come across that aren’t associated with any new papers, but I wouldn’t say for a moment that those somehow don’t count. Take my recent post about paleontology, art, and violence; I would still say it’s a science post as it involves the history of science and the intermingling of science & art. Likewise, AC doesn’t seem to consider writing about creationism to be entirely legit, but I disagree. A good post identifying and refuting creationist claims is just as much as a “science post” as one about peer-reviewed literature. If the writer is merely saying “Pfft, look at what those crazy fundamentalists are doing now,” that doesn’t do much other than spread the news, but a firm response and deconstruction of creationist claims certainly does count in a more broadly-defined notion of “science blogging.” (Indeed, Talk Origins is an example of a great science resource that refutes AC’s assertion.)
Such posts might be a little tedious for those familiar with the debates (especially since creationists haven’t come up with much new material in about 200 years), but I think it’s still important to write for people who are new to these ideas. Two years ago I had no idea what creationism was or what it said, and the science blogging community provided an excellent starting point for understanding what’s been going on. Just as with any other topic, there’s good and bad writing about creationism but covering the topic doesn’t immediately place such posts outside “true” science writing.
It doesn’t get much better from there. AC writes;
If you examine the elephant in the room, ScienceBlogs, the trend is maintained: politics, religion books, technology, education and music are tagged more often than biology or genetics.
Ah, but tags don’t tell the whole story. I don’t typically tag my posts, and I imagine that many other bloggers here don’t either. (And searching only for “biology” or “genetics” ignores the bloggers here who write about neuroscience, geology, physics, climatology, etc., once again making taking a view that is too-narrow.) There are a number of blogs that are highly visible like those in the top 5, but as I wrote earlier Sb is home to a much wider diversity of less-trafficked bloggers. Rather than examining the Sb community in detail, though, AC seems to have cherry picked the information to best suit a gripe about particular bloggers. Most of this issue seems to center around perceptions that (rightly or wrongly) have developed in reaction to the most popular blogs on this website.
The last part of the post is what really ticked me off, though;
This suggests that their primary motives are entertainment rather than discussing science. Why? Because it pays. Seed Magazine and the bloggers themselves profit from the traffic. That’s right, Seed actually pays these bloggers for their posts. And the whole ScienceBlogs thing is a little incestuous, they really like linking to each other, but not so much to the little blogs. I’m afraid gone is the amateur blogger, and in is the professional gonzo science journalist. Might as well read Seed magazine.
I’ve said before that I do receive some money for blogging here, but not enough to justify a “That’s right…”-type line to the supposedly-shocked reader. I’m not going to divulge the details about how much I get paid other than that it’s governed by traffic (it’s not really anyone’s business by my own), but I will say that for about a month’s worth of blogging I receive approximately enough money to go out to dinner once or have fuel to get to work for a few weeks. I usually forget that I’m even going to get paid anything, and receiving some traffic-based income is merely a little perk that makes no difference in how I blog. Even though I’m on Sb and proud to be here, I still take the same approach to blogging as I did when I was on WordPress. Indeed, the reasoning behind allowing bloggers here on Sb the freedom to write as we see fit is made very clear on the “About Scienceblogs” page;
We believe in providing our bloggers with the freedom to exercise their own editorial and creative instincts. We do not edit their work and we do not tell them what to write about.
I’ve never received a notice from any of my administrations that I can’t blog about something or that I must blog about a particular topic. I have as much freedom as I did when I was on my own, and even though those of us on Sb often share interesting articles/stories/papers with each other (especially if we don’t have time to blog on something cool) I am not somehow constrained or controlled in what I can or can’t say. If I felt that I had lost my freedom I would go elsewhere, and in truth I feel that moving to Sb has tightened up my writing rather than stunted it.
As for Sb being “incestuous” it’s true that we often link to each other and that we try and get together to promote new blogs as they go live. This might be a little irritating when you’re looking at your feed, but I would rather tell readers that another blog they may be interested in has moved here than hope they eventually stumble upon it. Furthermore, what AC doesn’t mention is that various members of the Sb community have created carnivals or accessory sites that allow the best of science blogging to be distilled and links from various sources dispersed throughout the web. PZ created the Tangled Bank and Dave Munger created the peer-reviewed research blogging structure now in place, and there are a number of bloggers who regularly link to science blogs outside of Sb and maintain vast blogrolls.
Maybe PZ doesn’t blog about science narrowly-defined as much as AC likes, but he does link to many, many blogs outside Sb, and Greg Laden works especially hard at aggregating posts on a given topic from throughout the blogosphere as well as posting snippets of his blogroll that include links to a variety of other writers. Speaking for myself, I try to link to other bloggers when I learn about a story or neat area of research from them and have divided my blogroll to promote non-Sb writers, but I admit I could be better about linking to others. Everyone could, though, and I don’t think Sb is nearly as “incestuous” as is proclaimed by AC.
All in all, I think AC has a very narrow (too-narrow) idea of what science blogging is or should be. Peer-reviewed research is only one aspect of it, and if that’s all you’re interested in the researchblogging.org website makes it very easy to only pay attention those posts. For me, though, science blogging is something that is very personal and is going to result in a lot of one-offs with the meatier material dispersed throughout. It takes a long time to effectively and accurately write about a new piece of peer-reviewed research, and no matter how important I think such posts might be there’s always going to be a greater amount of short “Hey, isn’t this neat?” material. That’s fine though, because science blogging involves a large community of writers and getting people to talk about a topic is part of what makes it so wonderful to be a part of. I might not get to see a documentary or write about an article or paper, but maybe someone else will pick it up and do something else with it.
Oddly enough, I was just thinking about how science communication has changed as I finished Ralph O’Connor’s The Earth on Show last night. In the early days of geology, books about geology and paleontology were highly influenced by poetry and theology; some books seemed more like aggregations of Byron and Milton than scientific treatises. Even when poetry was not explicitly cited, geologists gave life to “antediluvian worlds” inhabited by monsters, some of them (most notably William Buckland) engaging in public stunts like having a fellow scientist emerge through the pelvis of a giant ground sloth on stage for a “second birth.” It’s a good thing that science has been severed from natural theology, but theatrics are a part of communicating science, and a balance can be struck between being accurate and not boring everyone into a coma. Indeed, while a number of scientists read this blog, I’m not writing it for them; I write because I enjoy it and I want to share what I’ve been learning with other curious people, many of whom that have little or no background in what I’m interested in. If I just wrote button-down articles about peer-reviewed research I’d have the appreciation of the likes of AC, but then again I’d be a pretty boring blogger and I probably wouldn’t be here in the first place.
To sum things up, AC’s post is little more than a string of loose assertions that try to tell other bloggers how they should be writing. The characterization of Sb is off the mark, and any top 5 you can come up with cannot honestly be extended to this community (which is, of course, part of the larger science blogging community). The post does secondarily raise some interesting questions (What is considered science blogging?), but these remained towards the background. If AC had really dug into the stats, links, content of posts, etc. and come up with something substantial I’d say we would have something to talk about, but as it is one small post has generally pissed everyone off rather than resulted in anything productive. If AC (or someone else at Bayblab) wants to follow up with a more carefully researched post about what science blogging can/should be (i.e. better representation of certain disciplines, doing more about “basic concepts,” etc.) that might lead to some productive discussion. As it is, though, the post is little more than inflammatory, and whatever potential it had to open up a discussion about the present science blogging community is essentially lost.
For more see Chad’s post on Uncertain Principles, Greg’s take on his blog, this well-reasoned reply from researchblogging.org, and PhysiProf’s shorter summation. PZ, the 800-pound gorilla riding a war elephant, beats his chest and demands your attention here, as well (uh-oh, there I go with the incestuous linking again…)