Feedback on "Advancing Science Through Conversations"

ResearchBlogging.orgSince our paper on the role of blogs in academia was published earlier this week, we've received quite a bit of feedback from the across blogosphere. Befittingly, the authors of the paper have contributed to this, as Tara gave her thoughts on her blog, I gave mine on my blog (Shelley has been busy traveling for interviews, so she hasn't had a chance to weigh in yet), and we published a list of acknowledgments. (I'd also like to thank our respective universities' press offices for their outreach efforts. I found Oxford particularly pleasant to work with, and they even put up something on their website--although it's a bit overly focused on me, as one might expect coming from my university).

Of course, we already knew what we thought, so let's see what others had to say. I'll start with some of the more favorable posts. In particular, Brian Switek of Laelaps, John Dennehy of The Evilutionary Biologist, and Dave Munger of ResearchBlogging all gave positive reviews, each from a different perspective. Munger focused on the role of ResearchBlogging, Dennehy draws on his own experiences, saying "blogging has been one of the best academic decisions I have ever made" and addressing those not convinced by pointing out that "back in 1994, hardly any labs had a web page, but now it seems obligatory". Switek gave his own case for the value of blogs in academia, one that runs parallel to the arguments we make in our paper. In particularly, I'd like to quote the following paragraph from Switek, because it is relevant to addressing some of the criticisms discussed below:

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.

A handful of blogs also wrote posts that, while generally supportive, offered specific (and very reasonable) criticisms of particular aspects of the paper. A common thread running through these critiques is that further institutionalizing blogs risks compromising their inherent spontaneous and independent "blogginess". At least, that's the gist of a post by Larry Moran of Sandwalk, who notes that the more popular and entertaining blogs are "those that branch off into religion, politics, and other non-science topics." Carlo Artieri of Musings of the Mad Biologist agrees with Moran's criticism that these sorts of blogs could never be institutionalized. Alternatively, he argues that there is a role for "official" blogs associated with a university--basically acting as an extension of the press office--and his argument implies that this is the only type of institutionalized blog he sees a role for. Oxford, like many other universities has one. In fact, Pete Wilton of Oxford Science Blog has a post up on our paper in which he offers his own case for the importance of the institutional science blog.

DrugMonkey offers what is probably the most detailed set of criticisms, and he also touches upon these worries about formalizing blogging. In response to his--and the others'--criticisms of this nature, I'll firstly say that I understand where they're coming from, and I actually share many of their reservations. However, I'll go back to what Switek touched on in his entry and something that we probably could have emphasized more in our paper: we by no means argue that all blogs should be more institutionalized. In fact, I would argue that institutionalized blogs will and should remain a niche area of science blogging. However, the science blogosphere is a big tent, and we have blogs of all different sorts--each offering its own unique contribution. Our central argument is that the contribution of these more academic science blogs has often been overlooked (as they are often overshadowed by their often more popular and boisterous counterparts)--especially considering the impact they have already made in advancing particular bloggers' careers and scientific work. We believe that entities--both academic institutions and potential academic bloggers--should pay attention to these success stories and think about how they could harness this potential to help advance their own academic missions. To that end, we provide suggestions for how this might be accomplished based on currently available examples. I disagree, though, with the idea that the only types of blogs that can be institutionalized are official press office related blogs. In fact, we provide several examples in our paper of blogs or blog networks associated with various research institutes. Each of these appears to function quite well and none appear overly constrained. Take a look at Prometheus, Rudd Sound Bites, and the Oxford Internet Institute, for example. You'll also notice that each is organized quite differently, indicating that there are a variety of paths one could take in bringing blogs and academia closer together.

DrugMonkey also offers some additional criticisms. One is of the use of awards and sites such as ResearchBlogging for quality control. I will offer that such measures have a limited role--and the blogosphere itself is quite effective at quality control in its own way--but that I think the true value of a system such as ResearchBlogging is that it allows a blogger to blog about whatever he or she pleases but still self-identify more "serious" academic blogging. I could certainly envision how such a system could be used to allow a blogger to more closely interact with an academic institution while still maintaining full independence to write about all of the non-science that he or she pleases. In fact, if one combined this with a concept like the Stanford Blog Directory, one could create a much more dynamic institutional blogging hub without constraining the participating bloggers in any way. DrugMonkey was also disappointed that the results of a survey we conducted last year were not included in the paper. That's a bit of a long story, but in the end it didn't really fit in with the targeted nature of the final paper we produced. He goes on to say:

To wrap up, I applaud this effort. It is, admittedly, little more than a brief commentary but it does contain several citable bulletpoints. I imagine that if people really want to mainstream blogging into the Academy, this is a critical contribution. There must be traditional hard-media (or close enough, as is PLoS Biology) citable, preferably peer-reviewed articles available to advance an incremental argument. It is getting very close to the point where the commentary should give way to data articles- surveys of bloggers, data-heavy accountings of the blogosphere, etc but this is a needed contribution at this point.

I couldn't agree more, and I hope to see much more quantitative writing about the blogosphere in the future.

A final criticism, offered by Thomas Soderqvist of Biomedicine on Display (and also posted in the comments of my earlier post) contends that we don't understand the "power dynamics" and "conflict patterns" between bloggers and institutions. I'm not sure what exactly he means by this, but apparently it's explained in an earlier post by Soderqvist.

We had a couple of other responses that didn't fit into the above categories. Blake Stacey of Science After Sunclipse addressed the paper by pondering a list of occasions when blogging didn't make an impact. Jordan Lite of 60-Second Science interviewed me about the paper, but she was more interested in the role of blogs associated with mainstream media outlets (not surprising, since her blog is part of Scientific American). Still, we had a good conversation on the subject, and you can read about it in her entry.

So, in the end, I'm really excited about all of the feedback we received, and I truly appreciate so many people taking the time to read the paper and detail their thoughts for the web-going public. I'm also heartened by what was generally a positive reaction. Despite that, I think that the many constructive criticisms that have been published are particularly valuable, and hopefully all of this together will help advance the academic study of blogging and help move academic blogging more in the direction that we encourage in our paper.

Update: Tara also gives her response.

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


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Hi, thanks for the synthesis of the various comments about the paper. I've re-read it a few times and mulled over the issues therein - I think that many of the criticisms in my post (and some others) were based on a reactionary fear that institutionalizing many blogs would 'tone down' the free-form debate that many bloggers enjoy. Obviously, the article advocates for more than this, and I heartily agree with several of the points therein - especially those regarding the benefits of aggregators and the methods by which the scientific community could legitimize blogs that successfully upheld scientific standards - these topics have been raised in the comments to my original post. Regardless of our individual praises and criticisms, I do commend you and your co-authors for getting the conversation started! Perhaps the world is not so glum as my jaded impression suggests, and institutions will encourage full-academic freedom in public discussion rather than stifling it.

Thanks for the hat tip, Nick.

For the record, I see no problem with "institutionalizing" blogs. As you write, "...the science blogosphere is a big tent, and we have blogs of all different sorts--each offering its own unique contribution."

I couldn't agree more!

Thanks for the link and the excerpt, Nick!

Every now and then the science blogosphere breaks out into a frenzy of navel gazing (which provides one of the most absurd mental images that has come to my mind as of late) in which we debate what a science blog "should be." The trick is there isn't any one answer, and I think the paper you co-authored with our colleagues covers just one aspect of the potential science blogs have as a tool.

I will be very curious to see how science blogging continues to develop, especially as high-quality bloggers are snapped up and conglomerated into larger sites already associated with science like Discover magazine and the Discovery Channel. I have seen a number of museums start up blogs in order to quickly and effectively keep interested people updated on what is going on there and provide additional content, and I'm sure more folks in academia will jump in as well.

Basically, I guess, blogs are tools that can be used to any number of ends. That is what makes it so great, and I think that (at least for now) science blogging is going to continue to grow and diversify.