Division of Labor in Science Communication

Paige Brown Jarreau, who blogs at From the Lab Bench is in the throes of writing her dissertation about science blogging, and plowing through a lot of interview data. She's sharing some of the process on the blog, and a lot more on Twitter, where it's prompted a good deal of discussion.

One of the big things she's brought up recently is the question of why scientists seem to blog about their own research only on rare occasions (Storify link). My own answer is in there somewhere: blogging about something you're actively working on doesn't feel like a departure from doing work. If you're going to be writing about your own work, it might as well be in the form of a paper or proposal, or one of the many other forms of writing that are officially part of the job. Blogging about somebody else's work, on the other hand, is both an escape from the daily grind of your own work, and arguably sort of useful in that it helps you to keep on top of what other people in the field are doing.

In a similar sort of vein, another tweet of Jarreau's kicked off a bit of an exchange yesterday between me and the Twitter account for the National Society of Black Physicists (I know the name of the person who runs it, but not whether that's public, so I'll refer to him as "NSBP"). My part was kicked off by this tweet, and I think you can see the whole conversation there, but since Twitter kind of sucks, I'll expand on it here.

Her comment that started things was the observation that most science blogging seems to be aimed at outreach rather than at doing science. I remarked that this isn't such a bad thing, as it's always seemed to me to be kind of a waste of an open global communications channel to use a public blog to communicate with only a handful of other scientists. If you want to share results with a handful of collaborators, email is great; if you're going to post on the World Wide Web, it makes more sense to me to do it in a way that's accessible to the whole wide world. This is, of course, an old argument-- I got into this with Cameron Neylon several times six or seven years ago, and we basically agreed to disagree.

NSBP responded to my comment by suggesting that blog posts (or podcasts, or videos) should be made an integral part of scientific publishing. I'm really not in favor of that, and tried to explain why, but I can probably do a better job via the blog than in Twitter-friendly chunks.

So, on the one hand, I agree that communicating scientific results is an essential part of the scientific process-- it's the fourth step in that book you're probably sick of me talking about. I don't think, though, that it's necessarily an important part of the responsibility of individual scientists to communicate with a broader audience. Rather, communicating results to the public is a responsibility of the scientific community as a whole.

There are a couple of reasons why I wouldn't push for making blogs/videos/podcasts a formal part of publication, starting with the fact that we already dump an enormous amount of stuff on scientists, particularly in academia. Doing this kind of work would inevitably fall on younger scientists, who already have more than enough stress in their lives.

More than that, though, communicating results effectively to a broad audience requires a fairly specialized set of skills (feel free to read this paragraph in a Liam Neeson tough-guy voice, by the way), skills that some people develop over many years. Skills that are not all that widely shared, or selected for in the scientific training process.

As it is, the requirement that scientists write papers for other scientists is only partially successful in producing effective communication. Anybody who's tried to dig into the literature knows that there are a lot of papers out there that seem to have been written only grudgingly, with minimal concern for the eventual reader. The better journals and referees weed the worst of this out, but there's a ton of it in print.

Now imagine what those people would do if forced to generate a blog write-up. It's not pretty.

So, while I'm generally in favor of doing more to bring research results to a wider audience, I'm not in favor of making that a universal process. I'm happy to have some element of selection involved, and some division of labor, so this valuable work is done by people who have the right skills to do it, and for papers that generally deserve in.

What we need isn't a requirement for more blogging, but a recognition of the value blogging has to the general scientific community, and a way to reward those who are good at it for doing that work. Which is why I specifically mentioned Physics from the American Physical Society, which is sort of a cross between a science blog and a journal. They pick papers from forthcoming issues of APS journals, and get other researchers from the field to write up more general descriptions of the papers. The resulting articles are basically what you get in the better class of research-blogging posts, but they're published on an APS site, with DOI's and all the other hallmarks of an official publication that you might list on a CV.

That strikes me as a really nice balance between the various goals here. It's not forced on the authors of a particular paper, but invited from other people, presumably with some selection for communication skills on the part of the editors who commission these write-ups. The results are generally good, informative, and reasonably readable (not quite general-public level, but probably college-physics-student level, and on a good day science-blog-reader level). And the end result is something that lets a scientist with an interest in broader communication add a line to their CV.

So, on the whole, I like this model, and would like to see it used more widely. (Science and Nature have similar features in the magazine parts of their journals, though these tend to be much shorter than the good "Viewpoints" pieces from Physics. They're also paywalled, which Physics is not.) Let people who are good at and enjoy communication to a broader audience do that, and reward them for it.

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I agree with pretty much everything you wrote in this post, just some thoughts

I have tried and I know several others who have tried to use blogging for scientific exchange within, say, a group or small community, and it's plainly not working, period. I don't see the point of complaining about this, it is how it is.

I don't blog about my current research mostly because I don't like sharing immature ideas. I typically write a summary once the paper is out. It adds to my discomfort that I have some crackpot commenters who have been complaining that I "steal" their ideas. (I have probably sometimes used a word that they also used in their comments.) I can just about see that suddenly I'd have a dozen idiots in my mailbox who want to be listed as coauthors because they once sent me a link to their homepage or something like this.

The one point I disagree on is that we don't need more science blogging. I don't actually think that the number is too small, but that the distribution isn't too great. There are for example many blogs covering particle physics, quantum things, and esp. astrophysics/cosmology, but hardly any covering quantum gravity.

hardly any [blogs] covering quantum gravity

There's a good reason for that. I'm sure that, once we get a coherent, self-consistent, and viable theory of quantum gravity, we'll see more blogging on that subject.

I don't have a good answer for how to deal with cranks and crackpots, but there are a lot of them out there in cyberspace. Medicine and climate research have it especially bad when it comes to cranks, but there are plenty of physics cranks out there. I had the dubious pleasure of encountering the one and only Archimedes Plutonium before he discovered the internet--in those days he published his "results" in the form of full page ads in the student newspaper of my Ph.D. alma mater. I've also had more recent meatspace dealings with a possible physics crackpot (he actually does publish, but usually in Physics Essays, which is not a good sign). I don't run a blog, so I don't often encounter them in cyberspace, but I know they're out there.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 25 Feb 2015 #permalink

I think there's already an experiment taking place along the lines of the NSBP suggestion. Since the economic stimulus in 2009, everyone getting an NSF grant has been required to submit a "non-technical", "for public consumption" and completely unedited by the agency "Project Outcomes Report" to explain to the public what the grant accomplished. They're viewable at Research.gov under "Research Spending and Results".

I would definitely agree that there should be a different distribution of topics than what we have, but I suspect there are approximately as many different preferred areas of emphasis as there are blog readers...

I looked at a few "Project Outcomes Reports" in my field, and I'm not really impressed by the quality and accessibility of most of them. I won't name names, though.

I think the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) should appoint a new director of communications.
Brian Williams is available and could be a perfect fit.

By See Noevo (not verified) on 25 Feb 2015 #permalink

Although I'm not really a scientist anymore, I do agree that communicating your science and results to the public is a more specialised endeavour and that therefore it should not be mandatory to all scientists.
On the other hand I think I see a tendency for science communication to become very much its own thing, somewhat divorced from the practise of science. Which is okay up to a point but people need to be clear about what they are trying to communicate.

I don't know how to even begin this thing that I saw, but here goes. I had a dream the other day or maybe it might have been a glimpse into the future, I don't know. But in this "dream" I was in a Mall shopping like everyone else. I forgot where this particular store was, they had this thin, clear see through kiosks type thing that listed every department store in this mall. They also had these blue circles on the floor that when you stepped onto it, it immediately transported you to another area of the store you wanted to go to. They were about probably 20 feet in diameter and the floor emmitted a blue light. There was a center circle in the middle of these "transporters" that you had to step on. So a clircle that glowed blue light with a center circle in the middle of that circle. The center circle was about maybe 3-5 feet maybe. Anyways in the time it takes you to blink your eyes I was transported to the second floor of this Mall. I didn't feel anything, I didn't see anything. All I remember is I stepped on it and it was like I blinked my eyes and I was there on the second floor. Now I know it was just a dream or whatever, but I'm wondering how far are we as a scientific community are from possibly coming up with this type of technology? Probabaly, maybe another 100-200 years? Either way I just wanted to share what I "dreamed/experienced" to see if there could be any possible truth to the devolopment of this kind of technology.. Maybe I'm just and idiot, either way it was pretty friggin cool.. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. Sincerely T.C.Covar

By Timothy Curtis Covar (not verified) on 07 Mar 2015 #permalink