The ten commandments of student science blogging

Yesterday, I wrote about students using science blogging as a way to develop an on-line portfolio and document their skills.  One friend wrote me this morning and asked if my instructions to our students were really as simple as I described.

Well, no.

In fact, it wasn't easy to persuade my colleagues that we should let students blog.  I had to promise them I would scrutinize every post and make sure no one got in trouble.  Luckily, our student bloggers are responsible adults.  Reading their posts has been a pleasure and there have only a couple of cases where I checked with them to make sure they were abiding by my unspoken rules.

Now, that I've been prompted to write the rules down, I'll share them here.  Keep in mind, I'm writing about using your blog as a professional portfolio.  My rules may not apply to other kinds of blogs.

Rule 1. Don't steal.  This rule is so important, it has subcategories!

Rule 1a. Intellectual property

When you're using your blog as a portfolio, or on-line lab notebook, keep your writing focused on your work and your learning experiences.  You can write about this material freely because you own it.

If you're working in a company or in someone's research lab, your lab work and results belong to your employer. When you work for someone else, those results are someone else's intellectual property and you have to respect that.  There are stories of technicians getting fired for asking Facebook friends for help with protocols when they were working on proprietary technology.  Don't make that mistake.

Rule 1b.  Subject matter

Don't plagiarize.  You can quote people or blogs or articles, but include links and references.

Rule 1c.  Photos

Use your own photos wherever possible.  You can use copyright-free photos, but be aware they're not yours and depending on your source, the owner can change their mind and their licensing.  In a couple of cases, I had used photos from Flickr where the owners changed their license.  If you really want to use a photo from someone else, ask their permission.

If you're writing about a publication and want to use a figure or graph, check on the journal's policies.  You may also be able to get permission from the Copyright Clearance Center.

 Rule 1d.  Photos of classmates

Do not use photos of classmates without getting their permission.  These are people that you want to stay connected to for several years, treat those relationships with respect.

Rule 2.  Don't make things up. Do write about what you know.

Someone might ask a question about a blog post in an interview.  You'll be better off if you wrote about something you really did.

Rule 3.  Give credit where credit is due.

If you write about someone else's idea, give them credit.  If you write about a paper, add a reference.

Rule 4.  Be respectful.

Many times your class will have guest speakers talk about their work.  Don't write about their talk or post their photos without asking their permission.  They may be speaking more freely with your class than they might with a public audience.  Respect their right to privacy.

If your class tours a lab or other kind of science facility, don't take photos without asking permission and again, respect their right to decide whether information can be shared.

Rule 5.  When in doubt, ask your instructors.  It's okay to ask for help.

Another pair of eyes can be a good thing.  You may even want to ask for help from other bloggers.

Rule 6.  If you make a mistake, admit it and move on.

Blog posts can be updated and fixed.

Rule 7.  Don't get too obsessed with commenters

Your blog is your blog and commenters do not a have a right to post comments on your blog.  You may choose to close commenting altogether.

Rule 8.  Don't get too obsessed with statistics.

Checking Statcounter every hour is not a good habit.

Rule 9.  Don't rant

Life science companies tend to be on the careful side.  If they hire you, you will represent the company.  They're not going to want to hire someone who might be seen as a liability.  Rant all you like in private, but keep it out of your professional persona.

A classic comic from xkcd.

Yes, there is always something wrong on the internet.  Let it go.  If you're not sure that a topic is appropriate, use the Grandmother test.  If you wouldn't want your grandmother reading it, you wouldn't want a prospective employer reading it either.

Rule 10.  Don't be too hard on yourself, but do pay some attention to spelling and punctuation.

Some employers obsess over punctuation, especially those who work in Quality Control or job areas where attention to detail is important.  They won't fault you over every misspelling or forgotten word unless it looks like a pattern.  It's a good thing to use the dictionary.


Readers - what rules would you suggest?



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10a. After you've paid some attention to spelling and punctuation, pay some more attention. Misspelled words and bad punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence.

11. Decide who your audience is, and write for them - level of technical information, choice of formal or informal style, and shared context all matter. An explicit description of your intended audience might make a useful part of a first post.

12. Provide enough background so that the reader can see where you're coming from, as well as where you're going.

13. Make it personal - inject your own personality into what you write. Imagine that you're talking to someone who is interested in your field, and be enthusiastic.

14. Be explicit about the times when a post is part of a series.

15. Don't be afraid to report failures (though your prof will get worried if every post signals a failure, right?). But don't just leave it as a statement of failure - include analysis of possible sources of error, and the steps you are going to take to isolate and fix the problem(s).

15a. Even reports of success might usefully include analysis of possible sources of error, and steps you could take to reduce errors.

16. Beware of ambiguity in what you write. Inadvertent waffling may mean that you don't understand what you're writing about. Deliberate waffling may mean that you're trying to conceal ignorance, or poor results. Your prof has a keenly honed waffle detector.

So presumably you got permission for that XKCD comic....

The xkcd author uses a Creative Commons license for attribution, non-commercial, which certainly fits here. If he changes it, he'll probably tell me to take it down. And, of course I would.

Be regular. You don't need to publish every day or every week, but once per year definitely isn't enough.

By Aleksandra Bog… (not verified) on 03 Mar 2013 #permalink

Part of "Be regular" and "Don't obsess" is "Just post something already!". Blog posts don't have to be complete, formal writeups of an entire experiment or experience, they can be a little more spontaneous. Yes, include as much detail as you have, but sometimes waiting until the "whole" post is "complete" means you don't post things in a timely manner.

By Dr. Bodwin (not verified) on 04 Mar 2013 #permalink

Posting becomes a little easier when you're blogging to develop a portfolio. Treat your blog like an on-line lab notebook. Write a description and post some photos every time you learn a new lab technique or do an experiment.

If your students are serious about science communication, accurate spelling and punctuation are not optional. Many journalism professors give two grades on a paper. One is for content and the other for spelling and punctuation. An error in spelling and/or punctuation earns you a failing grade because in the field of journalism it is that important. And it has nothing to do with obsession. If a communicator can't get the basics right consumers of the information will legitimately also want to know how careless the writer is with facts as well. If your students end up wanting to work as a science journalist they must be competitive with people who are very well trained in all aspects of the profession.

By Kate Benson (not verified) on 04 Mar 2013 #permalink

I think most of our students want jobs as lab technicians, not journalists, but I agree. Spelling is important.


If someone is lazy enough to dismiss an article's content on the basis of a spelling error, that's on them, not on the person writing the article.

If someone is careless with facts, occasional errors in spelling, grammar, syntax or punctuation won't be a reliable signal. (I include occasional because widespread errors often can be a reliable signal that there are genuine problems with the content - but even then it's not a safe presumption to make.)

Correct spelling, grammar, punctuation and syntax are laudable goals for what I assume are self-evident reasons. Nevertheless, dismissing content on the basis of even slight faults in these attributes is intellectual laziness, pure and simple.

By Composer99 (not verified) on 04 Mar 2013 #permalink