Will blogs reshape the scientific process?

Shelley Batts, Nick Anthis, and Tara Smith authored an article on science blogging which appeared yesterday in PLoS Biology. In their words,

We propose a roadmap for turning blogs into institutional educational tools and present examples of successful collaborations that can serve as a model for such efforts.

The article gives solid examples of how blogging has facilitated scientific collaboration, in fields from plant genetics to science policy. I don't think anyone disputes that blogs can open the lines of communication and enable interactions across research groups, institutions, and scientific fields. The question is whether blogs lend themselves to codification as part of the educational infrastructure - whether they should be turned into "institutional educational tools."

A fundamental problem in writing about blogs is that any generalizations fall ludicrously short of capturing the diversity of voices in the blogosphere. However, in general blogs are:

1) Interactive. Usually readers have the chance to comment and engage in the conversation. On some blogs - generally the very large ones - comments are restricted, but the bloggers clearly engage in dialogue with other bloggers through links and posts, and with their readers through email. A successful blog is always surrounded by a community of readers, contributors, and critics.

2) Individual. Blogs exist because individuals are driven to spend personal time sharing, thinking about, and discussing issues of importance to them. In this respect, science bloggers geeking out about phages are exactly like grandmothers obsessing over their grandkids. However, the individual interests driving bloggers make it hard to generalize about blogs, even within a narrow field.

3) Idiosyncratic. Unlike the peer-reviewed journals or traditional media outlets, individual blogs are informal creations that develop individual flavors. Comments, links, categories, posts, references, citations, frequency of posts, the difficulty of the writing, the tone of the community, the audience - within the basic blog framework, all of these things differ profoundly. There is no "typical" blog that can be used as a model.

To be successful, not only does a blog need an individual voice, it needs a unique niche - a reason for readers to seek it out among the estimated 112 million active blogs on the internet (which is probably a big overestimate). With all due respect to academia, trying to codify blogs as part of the standard academic infrastructure could have a homogenizing, diluting effect. Do we really need several thousand more biology blogs? There are already so many biology journals, not even a full-time reader could keep abreast of them all!

Other science bloggers have explored some important reasons for science blogs to become an integral part of the scientific community. John Wilkins wants scientists to see blogs as "core outreach for their science," and "an effective way for scientists to counter the misunderstandings, deliberate and otherwise, of popular culture." Grrlscientist takes this a step further:

a blog provides scientists with a public platform where they can defend their research from misuse or misrepresentation by politicians and corporations that seek to abuse scientific data to bolster their agendas. The added benefit is that, because blogs are interactive, a scientist can respond to questions from the public without having to deal with an intermediary.

These uses of blogs explicitly embrace interactivity, individualism, and idiosyncrasy. It's easy for me to see how academics could be drawn to blogging for these reasons, given the kind of confusion and distortion we so often see in the media. But this kind of blogging is an extension of an individual persona (public or pseudonymous); the scientific views of the individual blogger are, by definition, the default message of the blog. It's interactive, yes, but not democratic. While this is usually just fine for public outreach, education, and networking, a blog managed by a single researcher isn't an unbiased viewpoint, and it's certainly not a level playing field for debate - especially on that researcher's work! In other words, it's not a good venue for peer review. But if you try to address this by making the blog formal and institutional, you lose the immediate connection between scientist and readers that makes a blog so appealing.

Like conversations at happy hour, blog conversations can and do generate ideas that move science forward in important ways. Blogs facilitate interdisciplinary, intercontinental, intercultural cross-pollination events that would have been vanishingly unlikely just a few years ago, and this, I think, is where blogs' biggest potential to contribute to scientific discourse lies. On the other hand, blogs - ephemeral, informal, and idiosyncratic - are not necessarily a good way to publish, critique, document, or validate science.

Now, Batts, Anthis and Smith don't claim that they are those things. But last week's Economist article, and the Nature Networks competition to encourage senior faculty to blog, are examples of a growing "rah rah" mentality in which blogging is seen as the next transformative "academic medium". Maybe - but I'd argue that before we encourage universities to exploit that medium, they need to understand the limitations and benefits of blogging, and study the various facets of science where blogs can be best used. I'd like to move beyond anecdotes and see some science on blogging - exactly how many "real" science blogs there are (as opposed to automatic aggregators, ad parasites, and the like, which inflate Technorati's numbers), who science blog readers are, what scientific communities are represented and underrepresented in blogging, how bloggers support their efforts and manage their blogs. And let's consider another key question: why do many science bloggers choose to be pseudonymous? What would have to change in academia to alter that situation?

Science blogging is an incredible boon to the scientific community. But it isn't something every institution, department, or scientist should try to do - especially not if the motivation is simply to keep up with the competition, to be "cool" (or "hot," or your generational idiom of choice). Generic blogs driven by motives other than genuine enthusiasm on the part of a dedicated writer are arguably inviable. And while interactive technology - "Web 2.0" - is already transforming the way scientific datasharing, publishing, and collaboration take place, blogs may not be the fulcrum of that transformation.


Many of my Sciblings, and other science bloggers, have already weighed in on this. DrugMonkey has a long response that's quite good. Nick Anthis responds to the criticism here. And Tara Smith promises to develop their ideas further.

Batts SA, Anthis NJ, Smith TC (2008) Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy. PLoS Biol 6(9)

John S. Wilkins (2008) The roles, reasons and restrictions of science blogs. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Volume 23, Issue 8, August 2008, Pages 411-413

Grrlscientist. Science Blogging for Scientists: Planting the Seed.

User-generated science. The Economist, Sep 18th 2008.

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Fantastic analysis, BioE!

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 25 Sep 2008 #permalink

I do have a post up today with some further discussion also.

Like the other critiques, I agree with a lot of what you say. I wish this could have been a set of 3 papers or so, and I wish I had time, support (and funding!) to do a lot more research and analysis. Additionally, we do have some of the data you request (and that DrugMonkey mentioned as well) from our survey last year; however, the editors didn't want it for this publication, and I'm not sure what to do about it.

Thanks for that addition, Tara! I'm sorry I missed it.

My comments weren't a critique so much of your paper as of a growing mentality that blogs can somehow serve all purposes for all people - they are incredibly diverse, but like any other medium, they have strengths and weaknesses. You call attention to some of the strengths in your paper, and I look forward to seeing more of your data, hopefully in future publications.

I love blogs and blogging. Through blogs and blogging, I have made very close friends and colleagues. I have even made personal connections that have--to some extent--possibly led to opportunities that could have some minor effect on the course of my career as a biomedical scientist.

But will blogs reshape the scientific process? No fucking way. Not gonna happen. Sorry.

Thanks for pointing out that PLoS article!

My general take is that, until folk start regularly blogging about their current research, having open discussions about ongoing projects, etc., it's not really going to happen. And given concerns about getting scooped/problems with peer-review, etc. this is less likely that one would think.

That, or until someone comes up with a no-holds-barred anonymous paper discussion site. That might be interesting....