Academic blogging: addressing criticisms

Thanks again to those who blogged, commented or emailed regarding our PLoS Biology manuscript. Nick already has his own response here, highlighting posts such as Larry's, Blake's, Drug Monkey's, Thomas', and Carlo's. Several criticisms ran along the same lines: that, as Nick notes, "that further institutionalizing blogs risks compromising their inherent spontaneous and independent 'blogginess'". I agree with much of what he says in response:

We by no means argue that all blogs should be more institutionalized. In fact, I would argue that institutionalized blogs will and should remain a niche area of science blogging. However, the science blogosphere is a big tent, and we have blogs of all different sorts--each offering its own unique contribution. Our central argument is that the contribution of these more academic science blogs has often been overlooked (as they are often overshadowed by their often more popular and boisterous counterparts)--especially considering the impact they have already made in advancing particular bloggers' careers and scientific work. We believe that entities--both academic institutions and potential academic bloggers--should pay attention to these success stories and think about how they could harness this potential to help advance their own academic missions.

DrugMonkey notes specifically that "...Unfortunately I think this is one domain where too much additional formality and institutional approval fights against the outreach mission." On a similar theme, Larry Moran writes:

We all know that strictly science blogs aren't nearly as entertaining as those that branch off into religion, politics, and other non-science topics. All three of the authors know this because their own blogs are an interesting mix of real science and other things. The authors propose that institutions, such as universities, encourage more science blogging but that will only work for the strictly science blogs and we know that those kind of blogs aren't very popular. Institutions are reluctant to be directly associated with the more popular science blogs, like Pharyngula, because they don't want to be seen as endorsing the private views of faculty members.

And true enough, but as Nick notes, no one is suggesting that all blogs would or should be included. I also disagree that "strictly science blogs" can't be entertaining or popular. Sure, they won't receive PZ-like page views, but one can do pretty well talking mostly science (look at Carl Zimmer or John Hawks for two popular blogs that rarely deviate from science).

Both DrugMonkey and Larry also mention review and institutional "seal of approval." I admit this was the part of the paper I had the most difficulty with, and I'm still not sure what the best idea is. I agree with both of them that, even if granted this kind of "stamp of approval," that doesn't necessarily mean there won't be crap on any particular blog, and I wouldn't want any such badge to amount to an argument from authority. I'm just not sure what else to do about it--if indeed anything needs to be placed to confer such a "seal of approval" in the first place (and not all the models we put forth would need one).

Thomas Soderqvist of "Biomedicine on Display" comments that

The authors seem oblivious of a crucial aspect of the relationship between individual science bloggers and institutions engaged in science communicating, namely the power dynamics involved. True, they are aware of the fact that the science blogosphere is a bottom-up driven network. But they don't expand this observation into an analysis of the conflict patterns involved.

For a thorough understanding of how blogs and institutions relate to each other in a science communication network, however, one has to take such potential and actual conflict patterns into account. After all, institutional actors have quite different set of political and economic agendas than singular science actors...[snip]...most commentators on blogging as a genre of science communication are pushing for the medium with their critical mindset on standby, even disabled. In other words, there is too much technological optimism, and too little critical analysis involved in the current discourse on science blogging.

I'm not sure I agree with this, and heading to his linked post unfortunately didn't help me much.

Several criticisms are about issues we didn't discuss--fair, but unfortunately even with open access, there are still word limits. I do agree that an analysis of the power dynamics would be interesting, but I don't think it's anything that's insurmountable when it comes to some kind of integration of blogs into a university framework. As we noted in our paper, there already exist a number of examples that appear to be working well, showing not only that any such limitations can be overcome, but also that they can be overcome successfully in multiple different ways.

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DrugMonkey notes specifically that "...Unfortunately I think this is one domain where too much additional formality and institutional approval fights against the outreach mission."

To clarify slightly, I was trying to speak specifically to one of my blog beats which is the discussion of drug abuse science. In this specific domain there is a LOT of suspicion of anything that has a whiff of officialdom about it. Admittedly in part for cause but also because drug fans are often in denial about drug risks simply because they want to put on a defense of what is illegal personal activity.

There are many other science-blog beats for which this would not be a concern, I would think.