The Loom

Jennifer Jacquet at SB blog Shifting Baselines just returned from the Galapagos, where she got the feeling that blogging has not made much of an impact, even among the scientists at the research stations. It left her wondering if science blogging is mainly restricted to the so-called “First World”–i.e., affluent places such as the US, Europe, Australia, and Japan. If true, that would be a shame, since it is potentially such a powerful tool for getting scientific information, no matter where you are in the world.

It’s a fair question, but an answer really demands more data than one trip by one person. The only information I can offer is what comes through my own blog. I’d say most readers come from the “First World” (I hate that phrase), but some also visit from South America, India, Southeast Asia, etc. I only know of a few science blogs beyond the US, Europe, and Australia–Brazil comes to mind at the moment.

So there’s at least some connection, but it may actually be a rather tiny one. I don’t have many connections in the blogosphere to the parts of the world where much of the most interesting biological research is carried out in the field–places like Tanzania, Indonesia, Ecuador. It’s not as if there aren’t some scientists who live and work in those regions…They’re just not blogging, as far as I can tell. But the view from outer Connecticut is very blurry.

So–are there any readers out there who can help answer this question? And given all the other pressures on science in the developing world, does the question even matter all that much?


  1. #1 Deepak
    May 21, 2007

    From a third worlder with a first world blog, I can safely say that my blog does generate significant traffic from India, not in the least due to the fact that I am in the blog roll for nOnoscience, which to my knowledge gets a fair degree of traffic.

    In general though, you are right on the button. Outside of nOnoscience and BioHacking, pretty much every science blog I read is either based in North America or Europe, with one notable exception from Down Under.

    Topics of scientific blogging come up quite a bit in Indian blogs. The general feeling I get is that scientists, especially academics, do not think blogging is a worthwhile exercise, and is some form of narcissistic delusion. I might be jumping into hyperbole here, but its not that far from reality.

  2. #2 Sheril Kirshenbaum
    May 21, 2007

    Blogs are an extremely useful vehicle for sharing new information quickly and provide a limitless virtual venue for thought-provoking dialog and debate. Speed is a huge asset as compared to wading through the tedious peer-review process (although like much on the internet, accuracy can be questionable).

    That said, blogging is definitely a leisure activity for those with the time and resources to engage. I have been involved in research in developing countries where field stations were without a convenient source of running water – let alone internet access.

    One of my favorite things about blogs is that they expose all of us to ideas we may not otherwise encounter and therefore, my hope is that they continue to become more accessible throughout the world. I expect they will. Jennifer raises a good point by reminding us that many peoples’ day to day realities are ‘world’s’ different from our own.

  3. #3 Chris
    May 21, 2007

    Have you ever used (just for example) blogger over a slow internet connection? Even on 56k dial-up it’s fairly painful. And, just quietly, looking around this site, I don’t think I’d come here if I was on an old slow computer on the end of a slow, baulky internet connection. No offense meant…

    How much of this is just an access issue? Blogging is very much a online activity, if you’ve got limited access it takes quite a lot of enthusiasm to run your own blog, let alone keep up with others.

  4. #4 John Dennehy
    May 21, 2007

    I can only comment that my sparsely viewed blog sees visitors from mainly the “first world”. Occasionally I’ll see a visitor from Kuala Lumpur, Delhi or Rio de Janeiro, but they seem to be quite rare. I find it somewhat disappointing.

    Oh by the way, Casey Luskin’s throwing down the gauntlet. Again.

    Watch out, he’s got those goofy hourglass figures again!

  5. #5 Janne
    May 21, 2007

    How sure are you that you’re getting an accurate count if you can’t read the language? And on what basis do you assume that a blogger in, say, Indonesia would set their blog up on Blogger, not on some service in Indonesia which you may be unaware of?

    Here in Japan there’s lots of people blogging, but just about all is in Japanese, and on Japanese blog sites. Looking for Japanese blogs on Blogger would skew the results quite profoundly, as would looking at English-language blogs.

  6. #6 Jennifer Jacquet
    May 22, 2007

    I’m sure there are great blogs in Japan (and their graphics probably put ours to shame). Being that Japan is First World, though, this is not exactly pertinent. I would even imagine Hong Kong and some of the urban centers in India have some sassy blogging going on. Any center of technology with, like Chris said, good access, would get a blog population. But are any these science oriented? Moreover, is there any way to challenge the use of blogs to further science news in the developing world? In other words, are we overlooking some potential or is blogging simply a “leisurely activity”? (I think there is a lot of evidence to the latter…I am waiting for GWB to outlaw blogging as a drain on U.S. productivity!)

  7. #7 Janne
    May 22, 2007

    Jennifer, I had two points: first, Japan (and Asia) was specifically not listed as a place with any substantial number of science blogs, and that is demonstrably not true, unless you define “science blog” as having to be posted in English, on sites well-known to a US audience.

    Visitor counts to English-lanugage blogs aren’t going to be accurate either, as people will gravitate towards blogs that write about more locally interesting aspects of science (funding developments in Japan rather than in the US, for instance; a lot of the scienceblogs blogs aren’t terribly interesting outside the US) and in a language you know well, rather than one you are barely conversant in.

    But my second point has nothing to do with Japan. It was just an illustration that if you get a very inaccurate perception of science blog activity in a very well-connected, Western-oriented country like Japan, it’s overwhelmingly likely that your assessments of other societies are similarly heavily skewed.

  8. #8 Thanos
    May 22, 2007

    There is this nagging question about blogging – does it actually do any good? – but we have to remember that in many countries the atmosphere of all debate (not just scientific) is stifling. Whether it’s because of religion, authoritarian tradition, or geriatric cliques running things, the free exchange of ideas is muted. Leaving aside the scholars and specialists, for a young person the sight of a good blog is immensely encouraging – it’s like watching a live, ongoing, unrepressed dialogue. Blogging may not feel very important to bored, blase, Western eyes, but for lots of people it’s a window on another world.

  9. #9 dearkitty
    May 22, 2007

    Interesting blog in Singapore here.

    I don’t have accurate figures now where my visitors come from. When I had, more or less, it varied. When I had an item on the Mekong giant catfish, suddenly many Asian readers came.

  10. #10 Eduardo Santos
    May 22, 2007

    You can add me to the list of foreign visitors to your blog! I live and conduct my research in Brazil. Since blogging came around, I visit four to ten science blogs per week. And as you probably already know, all of them are in English and put together by American scientists.

    I am pretty sure that if you search hard enough you will find science blogs in other languages, such as Portuguese. However, very much like scientific publishing, if the information is not in English it will probably never hit most of the public.

    As I see it, here in Brazil most scientists are still more interested in what they can get by reading other blogs than by starting their own. I hope that this picture will change as time goes by and more researchers from developing countries begin to blog, especially because a lot of interesting research just doesn’t become science because it is unknown to other scientists!

  11. #11 Dave Munger
    May 22, 2007

    I get a fair number of links from blogs in languages I don’t understand. Some of them use character sets I don’t understand. Arabic? Russian? I’m not sure…

    I wonder if Jennifer’s observation applies to scienceblogging in general, not just scienceblogging in the “third world.” After all, there’s only one scienceblogger that I know of at Davidson College — my wife.

  12. #12 xebecs
    May 22, 2007

    There is this nagging question about blogging – does it actually do any good?

    Isn’t it too soon to tell?

    The internet infrastructure supports blogging. People like to write blogs. People like to read blogs. Blogs aren’t going away any time soon, and when they do, they will be replaced with something more rather than something different.

    Let’s give it some time.

  13. #13 Luigi Guarino
    May 22, 2007

    I live in Italy now (a borderline Third World country), but during the past year I have resided in Fiji and Kenya and posted on our Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog ( quite a lot from both of those places. While most of our visitors are from the US and Europe, we do get a lot from other parts of the world, as the little map thingie on our front page shows, and some of our comments have come from Kenyan farmers!

  14. #14 Arunn
    May 22, 2007

    I am the third worlder (an academician) who owns the third world science blog nOnoscience, mentioned in the first comment by Deepak.

    I wouldn’t call my science blog exactly “popular” in India or elsewhere, but it has about 400 to 500 unique visitors and about 200 “feed” readers everyday. The blog does generate traffic – ever increasing – but mostly from third-worlders from within and/or without India.

    Recently I wrote on the lack of enthusiasm on science blogging in India and I cannot totally disagree with what Deepak writes in his comment about this.

    I do think science blogging definitely is more active in the first world now and it will continue to be that way for enough years. Spread of high speed internet in the academic campuses here is relatively new (started about 5 years back). Lack of familiarity with the medium is very much a factor for the lack of blogging from relatively senior scientists.

    The spread of science blogging in India can accelerate only if some concrete professional incentive is attached to it for the practicing scientists. 🙂

    BTW, there is another side to this. I shall put it this way. I have been blogging on science for an year or so. From India, I know about and follow The Loom, for instance, everyday for the past six months at least. Is the converse equally true? I mean, how many of the first world science bloggers, in general, are aware of nOnoscience until now or even now? (Carl here may not know it because I seldom talk about biology, as my expertise is elsewhere 🙂

    I shall end here. It already looks like I am using your comments section to sell my blog. Sorry.

  15. #15 Carl Zimmer
    May 22, 2007

    To Arunn: I didn’t know about nOnoscience, but I do now. It looks very interesting. Thanks for joining the conversation.

  16. #16 Ford Denison
    May 22, 2007

    The infrastructure requirements for blogging are certainly less than those for cutting-edge research in many areas. For example, I can get a tank of argon delivered to my lab in 24 h for $18, while students in once-great African universities are using broken graduated cylinders (recent article in NYT). You can think like a scientist without using fancy equipment, however. I would be interested in a third-world perspective on which problems are caused by lack of scientific progress and which by failing to apply the scientific knowledge we already have. This question certainly applies to the US as well.

  17. #17 Kaushik
    May 22, 2007

    I think blogging is VERY popular in India. At least its a place I can comment about with some authority. I think the primary subjects of blogging are of a different vein and are usually political, general or pertain to personal views. I could agree to some extent that science is not the most popular topic of blogging but otherwise blogging byt itself is a resource that has been put to great use.

    I wont agree that the speed of internet connections is a problem as most people in urban areas possibly have access to a decent internet connection.

    As far as biases in number goes, I have a bias in the way I read. If its scientific reading, scienceblogs is a popular destination for me, simply because its convenient and has variety but I read bloggers from India on all other matters. I wonder if the biases on statisitc also arise with the way we decide what we are reading.

  18. #18 Italo M. R. Guedes
    May 23, 2007

    Yes, there are scientific bloggers outside the US and other developed countries, but as somebody else put it, the language thing is really a problem, besides other things. I’m a Brazilian grad student and blogger and write in Portuguese and most of my readers are from my own country and Portugal but I really believe that the few Brazilian scientists who read blogs favor the English-written ones. My readers, at least the ones who contact me, are mostly laymen or highschool students. Up to now, only one scientist from my own area of expertise (Soil Science) has contacted me about the blog. To conclude, it’s really not easy to be a Third World grad student and blogger at the same time for both activities present extreme challenges and, so far, very few rewards.

  19. #19 Keith Robison
    May 23, 2007

    A blog which fits what you are looking for: the Gombe Chimpanzee Blog, though the title might mislead you as to who does the writing 🙂

  20. #20 Igor Zolnerkevic
    May 23, 2007

    I didn’t know Italo’s blog (comment #18). The fact I found his excellent blog only while browsing the comments of a North American science writer blog is an example of the problem of the sparse portuguese scientific blogosphere.

    English is the “lingua franca” of Internet and Science, and to write a blog in Portuguese about science for a large audience involves “double effort”: to tranlate from English to Portuguese, then to Science jargon to a more clear and simple language.

    As a Brazilian science writer, I would like to see more Brazilian scientists blogging. Today with all this press releases from USA and European institutions is more easy to a Brazilian newspaper cover international science than the works of our researchers.

    An interesting case of science blogger is my friend, the cosmologist Urbano Fran�a. He started his blog ( writing every post both in English and Portuguese. Now, for time economy, he translates to portuguese only the posts that not link to websites in English.

  21. #21 German Bonilla-Rosso
    May 25, 2007


    Well, count me as another foreign reader. I’m reading you from Mexico, where there are few blogs on science and advisors often refer to blogging as a waste of time… and as of writing, there’re some blogs from latin america in spanish, and y’know, language is always a barrier…

  22. #22 Arun
    May 25, 2007

    I work in India and am a fairly “senior Scientist”. Science in India is still carried out very traditional(?) way and somewhere the mold must break. I personally am fascinated by many blogs that I read, especially The LOOM , Aetiology, Daily Transcript etc. However there are very few blogging sites from India on Biological and Medical issues which are very Important. There is still the reek of a bogey that somebody is going to restrict your interaction. Most Indian scientists would write and read in English. I do hope there can occur a slow gathering and that a discussion of the problems and joys of doing science ensues.

  23. #23 Jennifer Jacquet
    June 1, 2007

    Dear Arunn,
    Your blogpost on science blogging in India is excellent and a great contribution to this discussion.

  24. I’m a lowly medical student and most of what I write is regurgitating what I read. Even so, I’m proud to say I try to blog on science, technology, religion and politics (and a bunch of other stuff, partly to try and entice my classmates to read the blog) here in Ecuador. I’m still aeons away from publishing any original research done in my country, but I try to share interesting snippets of information I catch from blogs and elsewhere (such as what I read here on Toxoplasma gondii) with my Ecuadorian peers. There are great science blogs in Spanish (MedTempus is the first that comes to mind), but they’re mainly based in Spain. I do have hopes for the blog though and for more student participation…

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