The Science Blogging Conference, held this past weekend at UNC-Chapel Hill, wasn’t just for bloggers. Many of the attendees, particularly science students and educators, came to learn how they could use blogs, and some of them launched their own blogs over the course of the weekend. The journalists in attendance seemed to be immersed in the blogosphere already: some were blogging as part of their jobs, some relied on bloggers as sources, and some were both bloggers and journalists.
During the conference, I found it particularly interesting to hear different conversations about how blogging and more traditional forms of science journalism complement and conflict with one another.
In her excellent talk, Janet Stemwedel of the blog Adventures in Ethics and Science laid out the usual channels of scientific communication and the alternatives that blogs offer. For instance, formal conversations occur via peer-reviewed journals over the course of many months, and informal conversations take place at conferences, but are more ephemeral because they’re usually not recorded. In the blogosphere, conversations can occur over the course of hours rather than months, and the words are there to be re-read and referred to later on. Scientists can ask for feedback on a theory or study while it’s in the early stages, rather than waiting until they’ve already devoted countless hours to it and spent months waiting to see it in print. Plus, it’s easier to involve people from different backgrounds and places who might not be hooked into the more traditional avenues for communication.
Adding blogging onto established modes of scientific communication has a lot of benefits, but it’s not a seamless process.
Tradition and Tenure
Under the traditional system, scientists earn legitimacy, prestige, and tenure by publishing studies in peer-reviewed journals. The publication of a new study also counts as news, and journalists who agree not to publish anything about the new study until it’s officially released can receive advance copies and have time to do background research before the news breaks. People who read the news story and want to check out the study will generally need to have a subscription to the journal that published it.
I don’t think anyone was ignoring the fact that running a prestigious journal is an expensive operation and the money has to come from somewhere, but scientists at the conference seemed to favor wider access as something that allows for greater participation in scientific exchanges. Several of them hailed the Public Library of Science, a nonprofit organization dedicated to publishing new scientific and medical literature under an open access license that allows unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. (I should disclose here that PLoS was a conference sponsor, but I don’t think that was a big factor in the praise.)
A few bloggers raised the issue of employers, particularly tenure committees, not considering blogging to be a worthwhile contribution to the scientific field. I heard multiple mentions of professors who’d been denied tenure and suspected that it was due to their blogging activities, and one graduate student said she feared her advisor would consider her blog posts a waste of time. Some participants were optimistic that within the next decade or so, academia would come to realize that blogging benefits the scientific community and start to view it favorably.
Breaking the (News) Cycle
In an open afternoon session I attended, participants also discussed the tensions between blogging and the traditional science news cycle, in which a study is newsworthy on the day it’s published and then drops off the agenda. Bloggers there seemed to agree that this system does a disservice to science and to the public, and that it’s worth blogging about new research even if weeks have passed since its release; science blog readers will still be interested, especially if the blogger can add some extra context or insight that the mainstream media didn’t provide. One participant even suggested using the blogosphere to wean people from the traditional news cycle.
Huntington Willard, Director of Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy, gave an interesting talk on promoting public understanding of science, and suggested that there’s a conflict between the scientific process and the news cycle: the scientific process is ongoing and gradual, but the news wants to report on major moments.
It seems that science, in which participants build structures of knowledge gradually and cooperatively, is particularly well suited to the blog form.
The New Tradition
On a more personal note, I’ll say that I had a great time and am grateful to the organizers (Bora, Anton, and their tireless crew) for putting together such a wonderful event. (Bora provides a recap of the process here.) I was thrilled to get to meet some of my favorite Science Bloggers in person, and happy to see so many non-bloggers catch the blog spirit. Everyone was thoughtful and friendly, and I left with lots of new ideas and connections.
The organizers have hinted that this could become an annual event, so you can consider this my early pitch to get in on the fun next time.