What is a Science Blog?

A blog is software.

Importantly: a blog is free software.

Everyone can use it in any way they want. If there are 100 million blogs out there, there are 100 million blogging styles and 100 million ideas what blogging "is". And anyone who dares tell others how to do it incurs the wrath of the other 100 million who are NOT going to be told what to do. Blogosphere is democratic - the voice of millions of individuals who finally have the ability to have their voices heard. They will never accept any authority telling them how to do it and what they can or cannot write.

This means that one also cannot define the sub-nodes of the blogosphere. If you say "I am a science blogger", you are. Technorati will not remove your "science" tag if you are spewing creationist crap every day. That's just how it is. But if you do post creationist screeds, don't expect not to get called on it or accepted into the science blogging community. And who is the science blogging community? People who consider each other members of it.

So, what is a science blog? A blog that is written by a scientist OR a blog that more or less regularly covers science-related topics, links to and gets links from other science blogs. It is about perspective. A scientist has a scientific outlook on life. A scientist even does LOLcats differently than others. And every science blogger does it differently which is his/her prerogative.

Which brings us to the most recent upheaval, coming from this post on Bayblab. Greg, Chad, Brian, PZ, Dave, Ian, Larry, PhysioProf, Michael and DrugMonkey give good, useful and, of course, being bloggers, idiosyncratic responses.

Of course, this discussion is nothing new. We had a big one a couple of years ago - if you missed it, I have collected all the links here.

And what came out of that discussion? A bunch of stuff:

1) Two Science Blogging Conferences and some very informative discussions coming out of them - see the blog coverage from the first one and the second one. See the series of post-Conference interviews for a variety of opinions about science blogging.

2) We (and by we I mean science bloggers, not sciencebloggers) collectively edited two Science Blogging Anthologies - see the OpenLab 2006 and OpenLab 2007. Less then half of the chosen entries are from SB bloggers in both books. If you look inside, very few of the chosen posts are comments on the latest paper. They cover some aspect of science, often much broader than a single paper, often from a historical, philosophical, political or personal perspective. They explain something scientific, or some aspect of the business of science, or the life in science, in a personal voice, often with humor, but also always with authority. These are the posts that most people liked and agreed were the best that science blogging has to offer.

3) Scienceblogs.com grew from 14 to 71 blogs. Yes, a few invited bloggers refused to join and a few left, but for the most part, this is the place to be and a great honor. The overall traffic skyrocketed. A number of us commented how much more careful we are about mouthing off on various topics, scientific or not, since we joined as our scienceblogging peers are right here and quick to point out our BS. And yes, we are a community, we are friends, we meet each other in meatspace whenever we can because we have common interests and similar outlook on life. That is good, what blogging is all about, not cliquishness.

4) Others are forming science blogging communities and trying to learn from the success of scienceblogs.com. See how bloggers on Nature Blog Network are using our experience to build a stronger community there. Reading each other, commenting on each others' blogs, linking to each other, and meeting each other in meatspace - all those are important elements of building a community.

Scientificblogging.com is another blogging community. They have a different model. Almost all of it is commentary on the freshest papers. This is fine, but is unlikely to draw much of an audience. Popular magazines, like Wired, are trying to do the same.

What we do is draw people in with things they are interested in, then deliver them to science posts and show them it is exciting, interesting and fun - and they did not even know it before. They came by googling for "Britney Spears" or "naked Harry Potter" or something about creationism or atheism, and they stay to read posts about science. That is one of the services we as science bloggers provide. And once we draw those readers in, we also send them, via links, to other people - both inside and outside our network - to read about even more science, perhaps to bloggers who do not like to blog about LOLcats or politics, but do a good job covering latest research. There is a role for every style.

And, as SB is the most popular such network (The Borg) we are very aware of our responsibility to not let the bloggers outside bite our dust. We consciously link to non-SB bloggers all the time. Scroll through my front page and compare the number of links to Sciblings and a number of links to outside bloggers. Check my blogroll. Do the same exercise on other SB blogs. Don't use postgenomics (great tool, but does not even try to measure the popularity of individual science blogs) to order the blogs - check their traffic, see who links to them using Technorati. Yes, some of the best are here, but also, some of the best are not here. The editors are trying to put together a diverse group - diversity in topics, styles, formats and voices. They often listen to our advice when choosing who to invite next - thus people we read and linked to before, when they were outside, our now SciBlings and we continue to read each other. And meet for beer when we can. That is how a community organically grows. Nobody is snubbed a priori. There is no closed impenetrable circle. Write a good blog, let me know and if I like it I'll link to you and blogroll you - you all know this by now. If I really, really like your new blog and keep liking it for several months, you bet I will be bothering the overlords daily to send you an invite - it worked for several people already.

Another way we support the broader science blogging community is by starting, organizing, hosting, participating in and linking to science/nature/medicine/education blog carnivals (see this, this, this, this and this to see how carnivals build community).

Oh, yes, we get paid. My blog is usually one of the top 10-12 blogs here by traffic and what I get paid on a very, very good month (i.e,. getting slahdotted, dugg, stumbled, reditted, linked from DailyKos, Pharyngula, Pandagon, Shakesville, etc.) pays for a quarter of my rent. When I first moved here, I earned about as much as I did through blogads on the old blog. I forget about it on most months and am surprised when I find the check in the mail. The only thing when signing the contract, I think they pleaded with us not to post porn. We can do with our blogs whatever we want. SB can be considered just a blogging platform for us, with tech support, and the fact that many of us feel like belonging to a community is a definite plus.

It's been a while since I last wrote a post on a recent paper. I post a lot of other stuff and almost all of it is somewhat related to science. My readers include scientists and science bloggers, but also liberal and atheist bloggers, North Carolina and Balkans bloggers, and my Mom. Some of them like my Quotes, others like personal posts, others like a good political rant (rare these days, I know), some use my blog to keep up with what's new in Open Access and PLoS, and others just like me for idisyncratic reasons. So, yes, I am a science blogger but not ONLY a science blogger. I am a more complicated person, and I will let all those complications get revealed on the blog. People like to see that I am a human, not just a pipetter.

My most popular post ever is this one - it combines science, society, sex, personality and even literature in one long post. It mentions several scientific papers, including one that was published right around that time, but it also summarizes the results of decades of research in several areas. And it still gets hits three years later.

About a third of my daily traffic goes to my BIO101 lecture notes - no blogging on recent papers there. Every now and then someone teaches a chronobiology course and my Clock Tutorials get some traffic. The Lysenko post is used in a California class every year. Science posts covering the basics, infused with personality and humor, seem to be the most lasting posts, with the greatest long-term impact. Harry Potter posts, just like posts on the latest scientific papers, come and go fast. Nothing wrong with blogging on both, and I did it a large number of times, but those are peripherals for me. Building and keeping a community, making friends, networking, proselytizing my pet causes (e.g., Open Access) and making good clear explanations of basics easy to find by Google are reasons why I blog. And I will never tell you how and why you should blog yourself. None of my business.


More like this

Yup, I saw that a minute after I posted this. Cool.

Coturnix: I've modified my original post so that includes links back to you and to all the other blogs regarding this issue on scienceblogs.com.

I figure the proper response to the accusation of incestuous behavior is a link-love orgy.

I read your post before reading all the others and so I will leave my comment here.

I was very grateful when ScienceBlogs started - finally there was a centralized place to find other bloggers with similar interests. At first I tried to keep up with what was happening on all of the scienceblogs blogs, but now there are too many. So I am more selective, but I still like to check out "Last 24 hours" just see what other science bloggers are writing about.

I admit to occasionally feeling left out if there was some intraSB event, but that was more of a result of my personal isolation over the last few months and now I am back on my professional track, I could not really care. Next year, I hope to make it back to the Science Blogging Conference.

If I had any criticism of SB, it would be its bio/med-bias, but that is always going to be an issue as these sciences have more direct relevance to nonscientists. Having said that, my most popular post is on beer allergies!

Many of the SBers link to me when I find time to write an interesting science post and I am on many people's blogrolls, which I appreciate.

Finally, keep up the good work with all you do, especially bringing science to a new audience.

Thanks for this post.

You inspired me to comment. Your article is a really nice overview of how ScienceBlogs and science blogs work. As a casual science blogger on the outside of ScienceBlogs, I have sometimes wondered what's so great about 'the borg.' As a trainee, I appreciate SB because it includes a number of individuals I would like to meet in person. They could make good professional role models, if for no other reason that they balance multiple interests (including blogging/writing) and set aside time for thought and conversation.

There are a few times when it feels like I am on the outside of a cabal. In the end, I'm too busy to feel bad about the inside stories and the very rare groupthink. I'll settle for ScienceBlogs as a reliable place to encounter new ideas and uncover good conversations. And I feel privileged to be a member of the larger community of commenters and occasionally linked smaller blogs.

But I hope that there will always be a place for scientific LOLcats like this one.

This is why I read A Blog Around the Clock.

Insightful, thoughtful and useful. (I swear, you could write the history of couch-lint and I'd feel how it intersected my life.)

Being on the outside looking into something like ScienceBlogs is intimidating at first. I even brashly emailed SB once about taking my blog on just after I started it last year. But hey, there's standards; I'm an oil painter, not a biologist. Instead of an invitation to join SB, I received a nice little interview with Virginia Hughes on Page 3.14. Much more appropriate.

So sure; I'm a science blogger. Maybe I don't "do" science but if it wasn't for science my paintings would be filled with winged horsies instead of winged trilobites.

The original post on Bayblab made me angry. As in, I-will-never-understand-people-angry. While "Anonymous Coward" (huh. A most unbloggerly name) accuses SB of cliquishness and exclusivity, he promotes the same behavior for scientists and science bloggers. While blogging can make science easily accessible, understandable, and digestible for the general public, he argues that it should be made less so, more scientific, more close to the data roots. BS. If I want to talk about science with scientists, I will go to seminars, conferences, and read primary literature. If I want to find out how science affects our world, ourselves, and our lives, and about its strengths and weaknesses, I will read a blog about it. It's simple. Gah. Oh! And! I am still in awe and gratitude at the amount of support my teeny blog and Nature Network have received from you, a member of the ginormous and evil SB machine.

Coturnix, I enjoyed reading your reasoned and thoughful post on science blogging; I've learned to count on your blog for a calm, rational outlook on scientific communities, and for links to interesting science. You strike me as a very fair-minded and inclusive individual. But in spite of blogs like yours, and others that I also enjoy reading, I think my view of the whole endeavor is tainted (cynically) a bit by a prior interaction: one whom I knew to be a pompous ass in meatspace, is an even bigger pompous ass in cyberspace. I know, I know, I shouldn't let one individual affect my perception of many others, who are almost certainly not pompous asses.

And yes, we are a community, we are friends, we meet each other in meatspace whenever we can because we have common interests and similar outlook on life. That is good, what blogging is all about, not cliquishness.

If y'all have ever used your Science Blogs "back channel" (or whatever it's called) to beeyatch about or make fun of commenters and readers that you don't like or who disagree with the dominant paradigm, then I think the accusation of "cliquishness" is valid, to some extent.

I have to admit, when I was preparing to attend the blogging conference last month I was worried that not being a SciBling was going to carry some stigma, that there would be some kind of unofficial hierarchy in how bloggers and their blogs were perceived...but I had the complete opposite experience, there was no cliquishness at all, and blogs from all sources were treated with the same interest and respect, it was a great experience!

Interesting post, especially for neophyte bloggers who live largely in "meatspace". (Meatspace. Delightful. That's how neophyte I am.) But one thing about ScienceBlogs (science blogs?) puzzles me. Doesn't the grouping and labeling of blogs as "science" rather undermine the serendipitous discovery of scientific info by people looking for Britney Spears? Don't people see the SB logo and just click straight off?

I'm curious in part because my own blog has a deeply unscientific name, The Wisdom of Whores. A lot of people find me with the predictable key words, whores and sex. And while I do write about whores and sex, I'm not providing what those people are looking for. Even without the SB logo, visitors who search "Indonesian whores" and find a video of a transgender sex worker in Jakarta talking to a scientist about HIV prevention policy are not fooled for long. According to Google Analystics, they stay on the site an average of four seconds. Not really long enough to engage them in a discussion of public health policy...

So I guess I'm just curious, as "science bloggers" how much are we really engaging non-scientists in science, and how much are we writing for one another?

"Scientificblogging.com is another blogging community. They have a different model. Almost all of it is commentary on the freshest papers. This is fine, but is unlikely to draw much of an audience. Popular magazines, like Wired, are trying to do the same."

This is a good article and you wrote it in a moment of passion (and you linked, which was gracious and in line with your other statement about being part of a larger community) so you can be absolved of not doing rigorous fact checking but this statement merits a clarification.

It's true that among bloggers you are the most popular but you instead used the word 'audience' - the vast bulk of the 15 million science readers (the audience) out there do not have blogs so are not linking to you or us.

If by 'audience' we mean 'readers' we're pretty substantial. Technorati provides too limited a picture (and postgenomic, which the article that caused the controversy used, carries precisely 0 of our writers.) 1.9 million articles read this month can hardly be considered not 'much of an audience.'

But you might not know that for reasons you bring up in your last sentence. If you truly are writing for one another, it's easy to seem like a big fish in a smaller pond - or The Borg. We aren't really writing for bloggers, we're writing for the public. And a lot of them.

Beyond that quibbling over a detail, you make terrific points in the agreeable style you always have. The statements made about you were a trifle unfair. Anyone can highlight some extreme work of 70 diverse people and then make a conclusion but it won't be accurate. The work you all do here has to be seen in context.

As a group, you do fight the culture wars more than everyone else but, as we have said many times and others should recognize, you do it which means we don't have to.

LabCat: There are just so many bio/med bloggers out there compared to other disciplines. Finding, inviting, bringing over and keeping blogs from other disciplines is not easy, but the overlords are valiantly trying.

Thomas Robey: Thank you. Come for the LOLcats, stay for the developmental explanation for two-headedness.... ;-)

Glendon Mellow: the Seed motto is "Science Is Culture". That is why a number of sciblings are not scientists, but artists, journalists, writers, programmers, etc. It nicely combines 'writing science' with 'writing about science' with 'writing abot whatever with a scientific mindset'.

~C4Chaos: Thank you.

Anna: one of the things we do is promote science blogging as a whole, wherever it is. And we love what you guys on NN do.

Barn Owl: We rarely ever mention commenters in the backchannels. It may more like "hey guys, help me out here, I am a physicst and I got a biology question in this thread - can you answer it?". We actually have a couple of commenters we adore and those get a mention when they post something cool. Most definitely not a place to bitch and gossip about commenters. See Greg's post for more about the backhannels. And yes, there are individuals of all stripes and demeanors everywhere, including here. Sorry for your bad experience with one of them.

Anne-Marie: Thank you - it took some cat-herding to get the group picture done because we were all over the place talking to all the other bloggers we wanted to meet. If there is a clique, it is ALL science bloggers, not just sciencebloggers.

Elizabeth Pisani: That is an excellent question. If you get seriously dugg or slashdotted and get 60,000 hits in a couple of hours, most of them will look for a second and leave. But if 1% (600!) actually read the whole thing and look around and bookmark your site - that is huge. It is a wide net, but it catches the fish that are mentally prepared to get caught. And of course Google is important - being highly ranked puts your posts high in searches, even for some very old posts. Thus, the information will always be there and easy to find for people who are looking for it.

Campbell: Sorry, I have not paid too much attention to scientificblogging.com lately so I may be wrong - I also do not know how the traffic compares. You managed to attract quite a lot of good people there. What makes some people think you are not serious is the inclusion of some GW denialists there so I have heard people question your site for reliability.

Meeting in person is very important - once you share a meal and a drink, you behave differently online towards that person as well. This is why 35 of us went to NYC last summer to spend time together - and on the last evening invited our readers to join us:


At the Conference last month, 20 sciblings showed up, but mainly wanted to mix up with all the other folks. And now we are trying to get readers to meet each other more:

What a number of comments. I addmit reading all through. Well done as far as I could understand. Mom loves you.