Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy

ResearchBlogging.orgJust over a year ago, I joined fellow science bloggers Shelley Batts (Of Two Minds) and Tara Smith (Aetiology) in setting out to catalogue the accomplishments--and pitfalls--of the scientific blogosphere and to explain why people should pay attention. In a sense, we wanted to say "We are the science bloggers; hear us roar!" And, in order to make our case, we drew from the collective experience of our fellow science bloggers, far and wide, asking how blogging had affected their work, their careers, and their lives--both positively and negatively.

The results were astounding. Across the blogosphere, scientists had started new collaborations, enhanced their scientific work, advanced their careers, been able to communicate science as never before, and had been offered a whole array of new and unique experiences and opportunities in part or in full due to their blogs. In fact, the stories we heard were so compelling that instead of just communicating them we asked ourselves another question: why has this phenomenon gone so underreported and unappreciated within academic circles? And, more pointedly, how can we most effectively communicate this potential to an academic audience--in hopes of catalyzing even more of these wonderful successes?

I'm not sure if this is the answer, but our best effort at addressing this gulf between academia and the blogosphere was published today in PLoS Biology. In our paper, we address various instances of efforts to bring academia and blogging closer together, and we offer a series of suggestions for how academic institutions--and bloggers--might carry this forward to the next level. We believe that when bloggers and academic institutions work together, the result can be mutually beneficial for both parties, and can be carried out in a way that advances the institution's mission without destroying the independence that makes the blogosphere so powerful. By no means are we saying that all science bloggers would want to be more closely associated with an academic institution--far from it, actually--but we give suggestions for how this might be accomplished when deemed desirable. I won't say much more here--instead encouraging you to take a look at the paper yourself--except for offering you the take-home message of the paper in the form of its final paragraph:

Nearly all existing blogging initiatives have started from the bottom up, rather than under the guidance and authority of the institution. This may be reflective of the free-flowing, decentralized nature of blogs themselves. But if groups of bloggers were to create their own initiatives and then seek institutional recognition, they might be able to engage in conversations about science on their own terms while continually proving to the institution--as they already strive to prove to their readers and peers--that the conversations they are engaging in are worthwhile. As part of a thriving online scientific community sustained by unprecedented connectivity, immediacy, interactivity, and reach, bloggers can help academic institutions take advantage of a powerful tool for the dissemination of scientific information and facilitation of conversations about science. In addition to providing a bridge between science communication and the public, institutional blogs could facilitate collaborations of scientists separated by distances as small as a few buildings or as large as the Pacific Ocean. We believe that the ideal relationship, be it blogger- or institution-initiated, is one where blogs are used as forges for developing ideas and forums for the discussion of accurate, interesting, and up-to-date scientific information, with the institution creating links between blogs while conferring authority. 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.

We aren't the first to write about scientific blogging, of course. John Wilkins of Evolving Thoughts recently had a paper on the topic published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution entitled "The Roles, Reasons and Restrictions of Science Blogs". His paper serves as a more general overview of the phenomenon of science blogging, and it certainly serves as a better introduction than our paper. Last year, Laura Bonetta wrote an article for Cell entitled "Scientists Enter the Blogosphere" that also offers a nice overview of science blogging. GrrlScientist of Living the Scientific Life also recently published an article in Research Fortnight entitled "Science Blogs can Advance the Academic Process", and you can see the full article reproduced on her blog. Like our article, hers is more about expanding academic blogging. Back in 2006, Alison Ashlin and Richard J. Ladle of the University of Oxford published a paper in Science entitled "Environmental Science Adrift in the Blogosphere" that is notable for taking a more quantitative approach (unlike the other articles that--like ours--are more qualitative in nature). I blogged about it when it came out. However, I doubt anyone has done more to catalogue the science blogosphere than Bora Zivkovic of A Blog Around the Clock.

Beyond writing about blogging, some others are taking more direct measures to try to expand academic science blogging. For example, in the wake of the London Blogging Conference, a Science Blogging Challenge was announced earlier this month. Click on the link for details, but, in short, the goal is to bring more senior scientists into blogging. The winner of the challenge will be the person who scores the highest on a rubric that includes the seniority of the scientist brought into blogging and the quality and quantity of this blogger's posts. The contest ends on 5 January 2009.

Getting back to the current paper, we are of course greatly indebted to a long list of people who contributed to this work and made the final product possible. Many of these contributors offered us compelling anecdotes. Although due to the constraints of the more targeted nature of our paper we were barely able to include any of these, all of them informed our thinking on the topic in some way. Instead, we focused primarily on some successful instances of blogging in an academic framework, including the Stanford Blog Directory, MIT Technology Review, Prometheus, Rudd Sound Bites, and the Oxford Internet Institute. We also discussed ResearchBlogging as an example of how simple technology can be used to allow bloggers to self-select just their posts relevant to an academic setting. And, it is of course my pleasure to now be able to write this blog post about our paper, and--just by including a few snippets of code generated by ResearchBlogging--be able to see it aggregated on the ResearchBlogging site. How meta.

Shelley A. Batts, Nicholas J. Anthis, Tara C. Smith (2008). Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy PLoS Biology, 6 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060240

J Wilkins (2008). The Roles, Reasons and Restrictions of science blogs Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23 (8), 411-413 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2008.05.004

L Bonetta (2007). Scientists Enter the Blogosphere Cell, 129 (3), 443-445 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2007.04.032

A. Ashlin and R.J. Ladle (2006). Environmental Science Adrift in the Blogosphere Science, 312 (5771), 201-201 DOI: 10.1126/science.1124197


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Congratulations! I know how many hours have gone into this, and I can only imagine how proud you are to see it out. Hooray for science blogging!

By Meredith M. Clancy (not verified) on 22 Sep 2008 #permalink

In many respects, the PloS-paper is commendable. Many academics (and not only scientists) interested in public engagement with science and other forms of scholarship could learn a lot from this paper.

One important critical point though. The authors seem oblivious of a crucial aspect of the relationship between individual science bloggers and institutions engaged in science communicating, namely the power dynamics involved.

True, they are aware of the fact that the science blogosphere is a bottom-up driven network. But they don't expand this observation into an analysis of the conflict patterns involved.

For a thorough understanding of how blogs and institutions relate to each other in a science communication network, however, one has to take such potential and actual conflict patterns into account. After all, institutional actors have quite different set of political and economic agendas than singular science actors.

This was in fact one of the themes we discussed in the 'The Public Engagement of Science and Web 2.0â² session at the 10th Public Communication of Science and Technology conference in June (see oral presentation here).

Generally speaking, I'm afraid the growing literature on science blogging reflects a rather widely spread naive view of the medium. Like the authors of the PLoS-article, most commentators on blogging as a genre of science communication are pushing for the medium with their critical mindset on standby, even disabled.

In other words, I believe there is too much technological optimism, and too little critical analysis involved in the current discourse on science blogging.

Dear Nick and all other science bloggers out there, I couldn't agree more that we should be able to find intelligent ways to bridge the gap between blogs and the academy so they become more reciprocally rewarding for each. Why not take a look at the recent videoarchives of WKD 2008 on (an international initiative for interdisciplinary bridge building) and let us know if you have practical suggestions of how WKD might provide a stepping stone in the process of connecting the blogosphere with mainstream scientific institutions.
PS Does anyone have an explanation for why so many senior Japanese scientists (at least in my field of life sciences) seem to have taken to blogging before the senior scientists in other geographically distinct areas of the world? Or is my non-systematic sample misleading me?