To write or not to write

One question that keeps popping up in conversations on and off the internet is the question of what is a blog? As bloggers, what rights do we have? How should we be treated? When do we keep our information private? What should we write about, and what is off limits?

I was talking to someone at Cell about an upcoming article in that journal about science bloggers and we talked quite a bit on this subject. Personally I feel that science publications have a lot to gain when bloggers write about articles that are copyright protected by these journals. By including a couple of key figures, as I've done in many posts, journals benefit though my advertising of these new discoveries, I benefit by being able to discuss the relevant data with ease, and my readers benefit by being able to see the key points and hopefully by obtaining some insight. OK may be us bloggers will be critical - but this activity is called discussion. If I am able to reach the reader, they may even take the trouble of getting the original article.

We all win.

For the most part publishers have been keeping silent about the reproduction of clearly attributed data on blogs and I interpret this silence as their endorsement. In other words, I think that publishers have the opinion that I stated above. But recent events, notably on Shelly Batt's blog have displayed that certain publishers don't always agree with the idea that data should be shared on blogs, even within the confines of fair use.

In my opinion I think that publishers should lay off a bit on this case. And I'm guessing that most publishers/editors of these journals (even an editor of the very same journal that published the paper that Shelly commented on) would agree with me.

Now as for unpublished work, that is a very different matter. In my mind a blog is a form of publishing.

I have no problem posting little bits of interesting data as I've done on multiple occasions. But the amount of competition and the level of animosity within certain circles has prevented me from fully exposing my ideas and key results on my blog. Now if you showed up in the lab I would gladly tell you everything, but a personal conversation where there is some level of trust and respect is different from throwing everything on the web where it is fully searchable on Google. That scares me. Anyone and everyone can read it. Blogging = publishing.

And when it comes to other people's research, especially those that give talks at Harvard Medical School, I often refrain from spewing out their unpublished data. There is a level of confidentiality that comes with attending a talk. Not that I would refraining from discussing these matters in person, but once they're on my blog I've basically published these ideas. That's not fair to the individuals who performed the work and to those who came up with the ideas. In fact right now there is an amazingly mind boggling result that is floating around MIT and HMS, something that will blow open an entire field and have major impacts on science funding and policy decisions. But should I spill the beans? Although I may have the right to do so, that line of action would be unfair to those who worked on the project. Blogging = publishing.

But once data has been published, why fight? Why be so controlling? Why is the discussion and reproduction of attributed data unfair in any way?


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AP, this is a very interesting issue. I often censor myself on my blog when talking about my research or the unpublished work of others, but I'm not always easy on where to draw that line.
On a very related note, I'm asking you and your readers to check out
this post on my blog as part of community scientific collaboration!

PS: Now I am dying to know what you are talking about. Hint? Email me?

Alex, you've very lucidly stated what a lot of us think about science blogging. When I started blogging, I first took a decision not to blog about any of my own data or experiments. I then decided to write only about published stuff (with a clear reference), and not unpublished stuff that I heard about. That was for precisely the reasons you mentioned. Blogging=publishing. No question about that.

I think journals should actually openly embrace bloggers who publicize their published work. It's good for them.

First, as for including figures in a blog; its free publicity for God's sake. The publishing Czars should lay off.

As for the idea that if you have a conversation with someone about your unpublished results and there being some sort of trust behind that I have to say in my recent experience that is unfortunately not true anymore. I have had 3 seperate individuals come to my university to give a talk. During their day here my PI has given me time to sit in my office with them and show them my unpublished data and see what they thought. Granted, they were all experts in the field and I was looking for help in explaining a somewhat confusing result although I had several different lines of evidence all saying the same thing. All 3 have now gone back to their lab reproduced their results and published them before I have. We didnt publish because we have no conclusion, no mechanism, just data so we thought it wasnt very interesting. Now, these 3 unscroupulous researchers have taken my data, repeated it and published as their own without any mechanism either! Just data, same experiments I had done, to the figure! I love being a postdoc, really I do. But this type of this really pisses me off. They are taking first author publications out of my CV, right from under my nose when I was trusting them to look at the unpublished data and help not hurt me. Burned thrice unforfunately but never again. I have turned into one of those boring researchers who only talks about their published data.

By newly cranky p… (not verified) on 27 Apr 2007 #permalink

"Why is the discussion and reproduction of attributed data unfair in any way?"

because it comes down to money for copyright lawyers?

at its core, science is quite communalistic - collectively, we wouldn't be able to accomplish near as much without sharing ideas and resources. we're not talking about instances of scooping, or misrepresentation, or letting the cat out of the bag on someone's unfinished work. we're talking about dissemination of information in a reasonable (well-cited) way.

"There is a level of confidentiality that comes with attending a talk."

If the talk is open to the public, then I strenuously disagree. If the talk is to a closed audience who has agreed up front to maintain confidentiality--such as at Gordon Research Conferences--then it's a different story. And your average departmental seminar should be considered open to the public.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 28 Apr 2007 #permalink


There is a difference between talking and publishing. If I were to spew everyone's unpublished ideas on the net, no one would tell me anything. There is enough secrecy and that hurts collaborative efforts and such, other scientists don't need me to hurt them even more.

"There is a difference between talking and publishing."

Of course. My point is that there are different kinds of "talking", with different implications as to the confidentiality of what is said.

There should be absolutely no expectation of confidentiality for things said during a formal seminar that is open to the public.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 06 May 2007 #permalink