The Thoughtful Animal

[Below is a longer, less edited version of an article I wrote for my department newsletter this month.]

Is science blogging something that belongs to Science or to Journalism? Clearly more and more scientists are communicating online. In a time when mainstream media are obliterating their science departments, science blogging is growing, and the few science journalists left are increasingly turning to science blogs for story ideas. And so is the general public. A recent press release from ScienceBlogs indicated that the network, the top social media network in the science category, had received 25 million pageviews in the first quarter of 2010 alone.

When mainstream media does write about science, it is often (not always) unnecessarily over-simplified, and it often (not always) contains serious mistakes or misleading conclusions. Mainstream science journalists are not always the most qualified people to place a new research finding in its proper context. And even the most responsible reader will have a hard time getting access to the original research papers covered by mainstream media. Many articles do not provide even the article’s title or the journal in which it was published, and even if they did, the original research papers are usually stuck behind paywalls.

This is where science blogs come in. But how can someone pick out which blogs might be interesting or credible?

One important tool is ResearchBlogging.org (also owned by Seed Media Group). Each participating blog is carefully reviewed by a team of 24 other science bloggers, in a form of blog-based peer-review. There are over 1200 blogs registered with ResearchBlogging, averaging about 180 new posts per week, with over 11,000 total blog posts aggregated. In the News area, the editors share the best in research blogging that week. Travis Saunders, who blogs at Obesity Panacea selects posts in health and clinical research. Jarret Byrnes and Vincent Racaniello select posts covering various aspects of biology. I pick the best in Psychology and Neuroscience each week, and Dr. Skyskull rounds it out by picking posts from the rest of the research blogosphere that the rest of us hadn’t selected.

Another good way to find interesting blogs is though blog carnivals. Each week or month, bloggers compile a set of blog posts all centering around a common theme, and each time the carnival is hosted on a different blog. Sort of like a traveling magazine. Some carnivals I have recently submitted to include the Carnival of the Blue, covering all things wet and salty (May edition at Observations of a Nerd) and the Carnival of Evolution (May edition at Springer’s Evolution: Education and Outreach blog).

Whereas the best scientific writing is decidedly impersonal and detached, some of the best blogging is hyper-personal. For example, Ambivalent Academic has just defended her dissertation, and begun her postdoc, and shares the ups and downs of the transition (with great humor!) on her blog. FemaleScienceProfessor shares insights into the life of the full professor at a large research university. Dr. Isis writes about negotiating the balance between being an awesome scientist, and wife and mother of a three year old child, and about the transition from industry back to academia. (And shoes. Lots of shoes.) Drugmonkey is a biomedical research scientist who writes about his favorite area of science (drugs), and also about navigating the maze of NIH funding. Christie Wilcox of Observations of a Nerd is a fellow graduate student in Hawaii, who writes about marine biology, plus whatever else she finds amusing. Like every other blogger, they also post pictures of cute animals. Though instead of the typical cats or puppies, you might find more interesting animals, like squids or lionfish or the Tunisian desert ant. When a blogger chooses to blog about his or her own research, then the reader is afforded unique insight into the process of doing science. Recently, Dr. Zen Faulkes shared background information about his recent PLoS ONE paper across several different posts at his blog, Neurodojo.

Why do scientists blog, when they already spend so much time in research activities or teaching? Especially considering that most science bloggers do so in the little free time they have?

I asked some fellow bloggers. Zen Faulkes, an associate professor of biology at the University of Texas-Pan American said: “I blog because I take the job of being a public intellectual seriously. And that means writing more than journal articles.” Ed Yong, a professional science writer, who also blogs at Not Exactly Rocket Science said, “I love it & blogging gives me the best opportunity to infect other people with the same enthusiasm, which, ultimately, I think will benefit them.”

For me, I think of blogging as good practice for writing about science in an accessible way. In the few short months since I began blogging, I’ve seen my casual writing, as well as my scientific writing, and even my classroom teaching, improve dramatically. When writing on a blog you have to stand behind your thoughts and defend your position in a very different way than in more formal scientific discourse.

Blogging has also afforded me professional development opportunities that I never would have gotten if not for blogging, such as serving as a ResearchBlogging editor. It also provides me with unique access to other researchers, who could be valuable contacts as I move through my career. For example, I had an email conversation with Dr. Lucy King, about a recent PLoS ONE paper that she published, because I wanted to verify a few things before blogging about it. Dr. Anna Wilkinson, a cognition researcher at the University of Vienna, commented on a post I wrote about her research. I have been added to Frans de Waal‘s email list, and have received preprints of his papers. I regularly receive requests from book authors or publishers to write book reviews, and recently had an email conversation with Dr. Daniel Simons about his upcoming book. You might remember Dr. Simons as the creator of the invisible gorilla experiment, included in every Intro Psych course.

Most of all, I think of my blog as the electronic version of me jumping up and down pointing at things that I think are interesting (someone else said this, and I liked it. I wish I could remember who said it). And if I can make someone else interested in science along the way, I consider my job to be done (and if I made a dollar or two, or got a free book here and there, that’s not bad either).

For more reading (with thanks to Bora and Sci for some of these sources):

This post at A Blog Around The Clock.

Editorial (2009). It’s good to blog. Nature, 457 (7233). PMID: 19242426

Editorial (2009). Lines of communication Nature Methods, 6 (3), 181-181. DOI: 10.1038/nmeth0309-181

WILKINS, J. (2008). The roles, reasons and restrictions of science blogs Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23 (8), 411-413. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2008.05.004

Brumfiel, G. (2009). Science journalism: Supplanting the old media? Nature, 458 (7236), 274-277. DOI: 10.1038/458274a

BONETTA, L. (2007). Scientists Enter the Blogosphere Cell, 129 (3), 443-445. DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2007.04.032

Comments

  1. really long :) I see that blogging is fashionable topic again…

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