I ended up feeling that my most valuable contribution to the Science Online meeting (other than boosting the income of the Marriott’s bartenders) was providing experienced commentary and advice from a slightly different angle than a lot of the other participants. A bunch of this got tweeted out by other people in the sessions, but the format (both at the conference and on Twitter) necessarily strips a lot of nuance out of what I was trying to say (and not always saying successfully). so I thought I’d revise and expand on my remarks a little bit. In particular, I want to post expanded versions of things I said at a few panels on bloggy stuff: in the how-to-do-outreach session, the blogging long term session, and the what-to-do-when-people-start-taking-you-seriously session. In order to get these out in a timely manner, while catching up on all the work I have to do, I’m splitting these up into individual posts, though really they all kind of fit together.
Helping Scientists Do Outreach
This ended up identifying four areas of outreach venues, then sorting participants into groups claiming expertise in one of those areas, and letting everybody else ask questions related to that area. One of the questions was about how much research people put into blog posts, as opposed to just giving their own opinions. This was first answered by Brian Switek of Laelaps, who said that he often reads a lot of background on a new subject, and will call or email scientists in the area to get their opinions, etc. I followed this up by stepping all over him, saying that I really don’t do any research at all, which I’m a little afraid come off as “you’re doing it wrong.”
What I was trying for was not to say that my method is better than Brian’s, just to give a different experience that sort of brackets the range of possibilities. I’m coming at this from a different perspective than Brian– I’m trained as a scientist, not a journalist, and while I’m consciously doing outreach, I’m not interested in journalism. When I comment on a story– a research paper, a controversial press report, an argument within the field– it’s because I think that my training and experience as a physicist give me a valuable perspective.
My skill set as a physicist does not include interviewing other people for publication, and Physics World and Physics Today employ writers who are far better at that stuff than I am. So I’m more than happy to leave that sort of thing to them, and they do a great job with it.
What I bring to the table that they don’t necessarily have is experience within physics. I understand a lot of the technical points of research papers in more detail than the reporters will, and I have some big-picture knowledge of the field and where stuff fits. So if I’m going to blog about a story, what you’re going to get is my opinion informed by experience, to paraphrase Nero Wolfe. I do ReasearchBlogging write-ups because that’s something I can offer that journalists can’t, and I leave the journalism to them.
I think this is important to say and to clarify, because if the goal is to get scientists to do more outreach type activities, giving them the impression that they need to become or at least imitate journalists is not the way to go. We’re not trained that way, and for a lot of scientists, the idea that you have to be calling up sources and all that sort of thing is going to raise an unnecessary barrier to blogging.
There’s no obligation associated with blogging to become anything you don’t want to be. If anything, I’d sort of prefer the opposite– rather than imitating what other writers with different backgrounds do, focus on what you bring to the discussion that they don’t. That principle is why I started blogging about physics, not just political ranting. Any jackass with a keyboard can rant about politics on the Internet, but not that many people can talk about physics, or what it’s like to be a physicist. I can, so that’s what I try to blog about, and I try to leave the political stuff, and more journalistic pursuits generally, to other people.
So, if you’re a scientist thinking about outreach via blogging, that’s the take-away message: when you’re blogging, focus on what you can do that other people can’t. Don’t try to be Brian Switek or Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer– you’re not going to be as good at what they do as they are, unless you put a huge amount of time into it. But if you focus on what you can do that they can’t, you can contribute to the field without nearly as much effort. And your contribution will be all the more valuable for being based on your unique perspective.