Bridging the blogging gap

How do the conversations that occur on science blogs foster the development of science in academia? While conferences and papers are certainly an important part of the current scientific infrastructure, conversations about those more formal sources of information have always played a pivotal role in the development of science, and according a new paper published by my fellow ScienceBloggers Shelley Batts, Nick Anthis, and Tara Smith in PLoS, science blogs are a good way to extend those dialogs.

The paper starts out with two well-known success stories; the rapid rise of Pharyngula to prominence and Reed Cartwright's critique of a Nature paper that ended up getting him co-authorship on a rebuttal to that paper. In the same vein, I would not have been able to write my first "real" academic paper had I not been blogging for some time about paleontology. My work here had a direct academic benefit that I otherwise would probably not have been able to obtain.

Not all science blogs are meant to plug directly into academia or provide the writer with some more formal benefit; part of the strength of science blogs is that they are informal. Rather than being the internet equivalent of lecture halls they are more like bars, where ideas are shared quickly and without much pretension (and, occasionally, in an intoxicated state). Given that many in academia are concerned with the public understanding of science, blogs provide platforms for researchers to share what they know in a more informal setting.

Even institutions themselves can benefit from blogging technology. Blogs are easy to set up and update, and they generally look better than the cumbersome webpages of the 1990's that required extensive knowledge of HTML code. Now just about anyone can pop a few pictures into a template and write updates about what their class, museum, lab, etc. is doing. Even beyond publicity, such blogs can put researchers in touch with others who have similar interests, providing a great potential for collaboration (and in some cases, publication).

The authors provide some examples of "top down" and "bottom up" strategies for bridging the gap between science blogs and academic, but the main point of the paper is summed up in the last line;

By initiating frank and open-minded conversations about shared goals, blogs and institutions can work together to advance the quality and scope of the ongoing global conversation about science we all participate in and depend upon.

Should all science blogs strive to somehow become tied to academia? Certainly not. Not all writers active in the science blogosphere have the same general goals or ambitions, and what a science blog "should be" is highly dependent on the person writing it. There is no standard template for science blogging, and that really is part of the fun. Under this larger umbrella of "science blogs," then, there is room for academic institutions to run their own science blogs and join in ongoing discussions. Some of these institution-run blogs are used for PR while others are written by people who are more interested in engaging in scientific conversation, but either way supporting and setting up science blogs can provide important benefits to both institutions and the people writing those blogs.

The science blogosphere is changing every day, with new voices constantly being added to the mix and new tools like influencing what we write and how we write about it. As more people become involved the different potentials of what a science blog can be are realized, and I think we've really just begun to appreciate the potential science blogs have.


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Thanks for your post, Brian. I think your point about only some science blogs benefiting from a closer association with academia is key. Anyway, I've now responded to some of the feedback we've read on the blogosphere.