Laelaps

Link love and long tails

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…)

Comments

  1. #1 Elisabeth
    February 27, 2008

    Oh dear. Sounds like you run into one of the (I think) more serious problems in science–the denigration of anyone who attempts to discuss science in a way that the lay person can actually understand. Can’t be real science if you are trying to make it understandable for the average person! Can’t be real science if you are talking about what the news media is reporting!

    No wonder the public thinks scientists are a bunch of elitist snobs.

    *sigh*

  2. #2 ERV
    February 27, 2008

    1. ‘Creationism’ posts dont count? Says ‘AC’ in Canada, not Oklahoma, where we *have* to guard the gates of Mordor to keep jerks like him safe from Creationism. Come to OK, buddy! See how ‘annoying’ Creationism is in real life! Ever felt afraid for your personal safety talking about science? Common AC! I got a futon you can sleep on!

    2. I got my first big link from PZ when I was just a pre-grad kid ranting on the intrawebs. He spelled my name wrong.

    3. Why is a group of people sponsored by Invitrogen bitching about other people getting paid to blog?

    Jerks.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    February 27, 2008

    We already have places for talking about peer-reviewed research in technical ways for specialized audiences. They’re called journals. Then, too, it’s absurd to think that people can really understand the science currently being done without knowing about the established science which new discoveries build upon. As I said in an earlier rant,

    The idea that popularized science has to be about “the news” is completely mistaken, even though it seems to drive the publication model of too many media outlets.

    If you only blog about peer-reviewed research, you run the risk of narrowing your horizons — and, as I discovered, missing opportunities to engage your audience.

    In that earlier rant, I was unhappy that the physics blogosphere seemed to be floundering, with our one and only carnival flopping and dying. (Hey, once I’m off the pain medication, maybe I should host one of those.) I also vented my own complaint about ScienceBlogs.com: it doesn’t have math support! Every time we want to write an equation, we have to fake it with HTML entities, and the results are ugly and cumbersome, when they work at all. Thus, dedicated and enthusiastic popularizers of science can’t talk about science the way scientists do; nor can they popularize the mathematics and bring outsiders into that area of excitement.

    Ah, well. I’m less unhappy than I could be, since I finally got my ScienceBlogs coffee mug in the mail! (I’ve only been waiting since October — hopefully your paycheck, pocket-change though it may be, isn’t that late.)

    Incidentally, I do have a question about the ScienceBlogs collective (if it’s against your contract to answer or something like that, never mind — I’m just curious). What control does SEED have over your writing once you’ve written it? If, say, you wanted to make a book out of your blog posts, would you have to deal with their legal department? The “Terms and Conditions” linked at the bottom of this page says the following about what I say in comments:

    Any Submissions submitted by you to the Site through the Venues or otherwise will be deemed non-proprietary and non-confidential, and may be used by Seed Media without restriction. Without limiting the foregoing, by offering any Submissions through the Site, you grant to Seed Media the worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free, irrevocable, nonexclusive right and license to reproduce, modify, edit, publish, display, perform, adapt, distribute, sublicense and otherwise use and exploit such Submissions (and any and all proprietary rights therein that you may have) in any and all forms and media, now or hereafter discovered, without compensation or attribution to you.

    Since I’m posting this comment here, it’s apparent that I don’t mind these conditions too much (and, hey, I don’t flatter myself: most of what I write in these comment boxes is worth the paper it’s printed on). Still, I figure such rules might be a headache for somebody trying to turn bloggy content into something weightier.

    I don’t recall anybody mentioning this when we were judging OpenLab 2007, but I didn’t have anything to do with the editorial process other than reading and commenting on the submissions. If there were legal questions, I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea about them.

  4. #4 Nimravid
    February 27, 2008

    I get the impression that they do not think you’re blogging about science unless you’re giving a detailed breakdown of a recent paper. Yes, that is science blogging, and yes, it is important, but it’s not the only way. Some of the better posts I’ve read pull together information from multiple sources and throw in some opinion for a synthesis that’s much more interesting than a dry report would be.

    I agree surveying two tags is a lousy way to determine a blog’s content. I don’t use such broad tags as “biology” or “genetics”. I could tag almost every single post with those. By their ranking I’d come up with zero for science content, but that’s because I tag with more specific labels like “Muller’s ratchet” or “recombination” (I’ve started tagging with “science” and “evolution” to pick up some WordPress Tag Surfer traffic, though). Bayblab would probably be shocked to find out one of my recent tags is “sex”–I must be pandering to the unwashed masses!

    I can testify personally that you link to places outside Science Blogs, since you just added me to your blogroll! I’m about as amateur a blogger as you’ll get, still trying to sort out how it’s best to present material and what WordPress’ capabilities are. Who knows, maybe some day I’ll be a “professional gonzo science journalist”, whatever that is.

    Thanks for the link!

  5. #5 Lewis
    February 27, 2008

    In general, I concur with the response to Anonymous Coward’s charcterization of ScienceBlogs. His position does appear to be overstated and misplaced. Overall, I have greatly enjoyed and learned from many of the posts on ScienceBlogs. The vast majority of ScienceBlog authors do appear to be knowledgeable, ethical and fair.

    However, there ARE examples of tabloid-quality science writing on ScienceBlogs. What reputable scientist would write in a SCIENCE blog that religious people stupid and “tards”? What reputable scientist would state that persons with an IQ below 100 are “conversational tards”?

    As a life-long atheist and a retired scientist, I continue to be dismayed that such behavior can continue to exist on a science related blog site. If Seed Magazine and the reputable science writers that constitute the vast majority of blogger’s at ScienceBlogs are actually sincere in a desire to be viewed as representative of the science community as a whole, they should first focus their attention within their own ranks.

  6. #6 IanR
    February 27, 2008

    Why is a group of people sponsored by Invitrogen bitching about other people getting paid to blog?

    Yeah, I noticed that. I was amused.

  7. #7 Matt Penfold
    February 27, 2008

    The problem I have with the criticism is that assumes scientists should only blog about science, suggesting that their view of scientists is one of the stereotypical geek with no interests outside of science. Why shouldn’t a scientist feel free to comment on politics, music, literature, society, sport ….. ?

  8. #8 bayman
    February 27, 2008

    Brian,

    I like your blog. You probably don’t care.

    Interestingly, the ScienceBloggers who are most up in arms about AC’s categorization are mostly the ones with the best science blogs. Not really the intended targets.

    Thanks for taking time to respond. I think some great points have been made.

  9. #9 Laelaps
    February 27, 2008

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Bayman; Thank you for the comment and I’m glad that you like this blog. For what it’s worth, I think AC’s piece was a bit short and overgeneralized, and that was what I had a problem with. It could have been a really interesting post on what science blogging is, what it should be, etc., but I think it came off on ragging on ScienceBlogs for reasons that weren’t very well-founded. Like anything involving herding cats, though, Sb is an experiment and not everything is going to be perfect, so if nothing else I appreciate that the piece got me to think about what science blogging is and what my role in it is. If AC (or you or someone else) goes back and writes something a little more detailed about this general topic I think it’d be a great topic to discuss, but until then I still feel AC’s post was a bit of a miss.

  10. #10 gwangung
    February 27, 2008

    Bayman; Thank you for the comment and I’m glad that you like this blog. For what it’s worth, I think AC’s piece was a bit short and overgeneralized, and that was what I had a problem with. It could have been a really interesting post on what science blogging is, what it should be, etc., but I think it came off on ragging on ScienceBlogs for reasons that weren’t very well-founded

    I dunno. I just get the feeling if you don’t like the way science blogging is on Scienceblogs, why not build a better science blog? It’s not THAT hard to set up a blog site.

  11. #11 Laelaps
    February 28, 2008

    Just as a follow=up to Blake’s earlier question, I’m entirely free to create a “blook” or publish material I’ve written here elsewhere without owing Sb royalties. I haven’t had any bad experiences here finding my work reproduced without attribution, either, so all I can say on that front is that the issue has never come up.

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