Blogging and academic research.


As I emerge from my fever, I ponder the latest "Ask a ScienceBlogger" question:

There are many, many academic bloggers out there feverishly blogging about their areas of interest. Still, there are many, many more academics who don't. So, why do you blog and how does blogging help with your research?

I started this blog as a way to remind my students (and myself) how my subject, the ethical conduct of science, is relevant to lots of things happening in the world right now. Some of those things involve scientists caught misbehaving, or scientific communities trying to figure out what sorts of behavior are productive or destructive. Some of the connections are less obvious, spilling over to issues around education, politics, or the marketplace.

Once it really got going, this blog turned into a conversation involving a lot of actual scientists at various career stages. That means my intrepid readers keep pointing me toward new stories, and that they push me to think harder about how ethical ideals play out given the reality of circumstances on the ground.

Among the ways writing this blog helps with my academic research:

  1. Keeps me in the habit of writing regularly about the issues I research.
  2. Keeps me in the habit of writing carefully about the issues I research; since I'm writing for an audience, I have to be able to explain myself clearly rather than dumping a jumble of poorly expressed (poorly formed) ideas.
  3. Keeps me in the habit of tracking down recent developments (breaking news), as well as what other people are discussing in other corners of blogtopia, rather than letting my world shrink to the papers published in the handful of peer reviewed journals in my area.
  4. Helps me break my big arguments into smaller, more digestible (blog-post-sized) pieces.
  5. Helps me keep my view at a particular point in time from becoming prematurely ossified, since follow-up is a normal part of blogging for me.
  6. Gets me rapid feedback from an audience that knows an awful lot about the lived reality of various scientific communities.
  7. Gets my ideas out to an audience they would be unlikely to reach if I relied on the peer reviewed literature in philosophy as the sole outlet for my writing.
  8. Gets me the occasional speaking gig.
  9. Keeps me excited about my area of research while reinforcing that the work I'm doing could make a real difference in the world of science.

I'm sure there are others. But these nine seem like reasons a-plenty for me to keep going.

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You say that the "ethical conduct of science" is your subject. While you have not explicitly proclaimed yourself an "ethicist" it would appear that you are concerned with the same set of issues. As a scientist (physicist) I have long cast a jaundiced eye on these self-appointed morality police of science.

Perhaps the issue that captures the most public attention, as far as science and ethics are concerned, is human cloning. I don't see why human cloning is such a taboo.

Often it is claimed that 95% to 97% of cloning attempts are failures and that this is an "ethical" issue. This is largely a technical problem connected to the current technique, somatic cell nuclear transfer, rather than a truly ethical one.

Next it is claimed that since human eggs must come from a donor that this will lead to the "exploitation" of women. Hmmm no one seems to see sperm donation as "exploitation" of men.

Granted egg donation is currently a more invasive procedure than sperm donation but that again is a technical issue that is likely to be resolved with advances in the field, not one of a truly ethical nature.

Also these same objections can be raised about in vitro fertilization, and indeed were and continue to be an issue especially with certain religious groups and individuals. In vitro fertilization was very dicey at first and continues to have an over-all success rate of less than 50%. It uses harvested eggs, often not from the eventual birth mother, so it raises the same issues about "exploitation" of women for their eggs.

It would seem that the cherubic faces of the many children now born every year by this technique have largely quieted these objections or at least prevented much public outcry or legislation against the procedure.

Since successful human cloning would essentially produce a younger "twin" of the genetic donor I see little difference ethically between cloning for offspring and IVF.

What say you, oh ethical one?

This blog entry of yours is cited as related to ScienceBlogs lead item under "The Buzz in the Blogosphere" today featuring the movie The Happening. It seems the their "Latest Related Entries" is akin to Groucho's "Say the magic word and collect $200!" of yore.

Since the opening 'graph of your answer happens to use the word "happening" you get cited, and should thereby get a bit more traffic, although probably not $200 worth.

But hey, since you aren't scheduled to be a contestant on "You Bet Your Life" (which would involve travel in a time machine), this is the next best thing. But where's the duck?

Hope you're feeling better.

By Super Sally (not verified) on 17 Jun 2008 #permalink

What research?

By Ian Findlay (not verified) on 17 Jun 2008 #permalink


Of all the science blogs I visit and read, yours is the most enjoyable and thought-provoking one. I also like the reasons you have provided for your blogging much better than the ones (2) physioprof has provided for his.

Keep up the good work!

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 17 Jun 2008 #permalink