Interview with Janet Stemwedel

News, Opinion 9 Comments
By Dave Munger

Last week’s column on Seed attracted a lot of attention — but for space reasons I had to leave a lot out. I conducted several extended interviews, so I thought I’d post their transcripts here.

Janet Stemwedel is Associate Professor of Philosophy at San Jose State University, who blogs about issues of ethics in science, science careers, and science education at Adventures in Ethics and Science.

Dave Munger: What are the implications of the apparent gender disparity in science blogging? If you see it as a problem, do you have any examples of the negative effects?

Janet Stemwedel: It strikes me that there are implications on the producer side (for the people blogging, whether in networks or as independent agents in the scientific quarter of blogtopia) and on the consumer side (for readers).

For the woman who’s blogging science, being so outnumbered by male bloggers can mean that you spend a lot more time considering whether you want to blog about a particular issue that your male brethren are likely to ignore (or plow into without necessarily thinking through the complexities that you’ve thought to death, because they’re part of your daily experience). Or whether you can *not* blog about those issues this time (even though you have other things you’d rather be blogging), because if a woman in the science blogosphere doesn’t blog them, they might not get blogged at all. I suspect that women also have to spend more time defending their experience of their own lives when they share it on-blog than men do — because this weird thing happens when male commenters and other bloggers who are male will respond to your posts with, “It couldn’t possibly have been that way!” or “Well, I’ve never noticed anything like that where I am, so it can’t have happened.”

For readers, one of the implications is simply that there aren’t as many voices and views represented in what there is to read as there might be. Given the size of the blogosphere as a whole, that might not seem like a serious problem, but for the woman toiling away in a male dominated scientific field without a female support network in her three-dimensional world, finding the blogs of women in her field (or a field that sounds a lot like hers), going through the same struggles — that makes a difference. For the mom looking for information about the health impact of vaccinations, who doesn’t want snake oil but doesn’t want to be made to feel like an idiot, finding the blogs of scientists and doctors and other rational folks who are also moms makes a difference. The flash of recognition, that the people blogging about stuff that may be beyond your area of expertise are still like you in ways that make you feel able to related and invited to read more — that matters.

Munger: Ideally, should women be represented by equal numbers of bloggers as men? Or should gender balance match the actual gender balance in the fields they cover? Or would it be adequate merely to have improved numbers?

Stemwedel: I think my vision of an ideal situation would be for everyone who has something to say on a blog to find a place in blogtopia — including finding his or her natural audience and bloggy peer group. Not everyone wants to blog, and I’d hate to have people feel like they have to, whether to improve gender balance, or coverage of a particular subject or discipline, or anything else.

Also, since most of us have a little something called a life offline, it’s not obvious that you could easily recruit the “missing” female blogging representatives even for a field with equal gender representation in the 3-dimensional world.

Still, I think it would be good for blogging networks especially to try harder and find more women who are blogging (because they are out there, and many of them are fabulous). Indeed, I suspect the women who are blogging in fields where women are extremely underrepresented may be writing some of the most interesting stuff — so being content with a bloggy representative of the majority practitioner of that field is opting out of lots of good stories that a blog network’s readers might want to read.

Munger: Do you think women face unique difficulties in science blogging? If so, what are they?

Stemwedel: We seem to have to spend a lot of time reminding our readers (including our lay readers) that we actually know what the heck we’re talking about — including when we’re blogging very basic knowledge from our field. I don’t know if this is a unique problem for women science bloggers, but the activation energy for readers (and other bloggers) to assume that we’re confused, mistaken, or just plain dumb is a lot lower.

Also, I reckon we get a lot more sexualized (and threatening) comments and private emails from blog readers.

Munger: Do women blog differently from men? Is this a feature or a bug?

Stemwedel: I don’t think they necessarily do, but rather are perceived as doing so.

For about a year I was blogging pseudonymously (as Dr. Free-Ride), and I was routinely gendered as male by my readers. I don’t think my blogging voice, or the subject matter I took on, was markedly different then, but people seemed to take me more seriously. But then, when I started blogging under my own name (with my academic rank and institutional affiliation in the open, available for anyone to verify), it seemed as if some readers were more comfortable dismissing my blog as not serious, not scientific enough (even though I was blogging more straight science than I had before). It’s funny how a feminine name and a profile picture can make that big of a difference.

So, it’s really not the blogging style that I think is at issue — it’s the range of experiences that are being represented by the women and men blogging in their multitude of styles.

Munger: My analysis of the ResearchBlogging database suggests that many fewer women than men sign up for our service. Do you think there are fewer female science bloggers than males? Any guesses as to why?

Stemwedel: I have no good census data from the blogosphere as a whole or the scientific sector of it, so your guess is as good as mine.

I do have some hunches about the representation skew at ResearchBlogging.

One is that a lot of women who blog science are specifically blogging about their daily experiences as a women in a field that isn’t necessarily brimming with women at every level of the power structure. In other words, their blogging focus is being a scientist rather than on cool scientific findings that have been announced in the literature.

For related reasons, lots of the women science bloggers use pseudonyms (the better to process their experience without having that processing come back to bite them at work). Blogging cool new papers in your field seems like it has the potential to blow one’s cover.

Munger: Do you think there is a difference in how men and women promote their blogs? If so, what’s the difference?

Stemwedel: Could be. Part of it may be that fewer women are blogging to seek attention than to seek community — either intellectual community, or people who will help them strategize the next career step, or what have you. Another part may be that they just have more stuff to do in their offline lives. (Goodness knows there are plenty of university and professional committees that seem always to want another woman on them.)

Note: Last week I posted interviews with Jennifer Rohn and Martin Robbins. I don’t have a complete transcript for my interview with Kathryn Clancy, conducted by telephone, but she has written a blog post here that covers most of the issues we discussed.

Interview with Martin Robbins

News, Opinion 3 Comments
By Dave Munger

Wednesday’s column on Seed attracted a lot of attention — but for space reasons I had to leave a lot out. I conducted several extended interviews, so I thought I’d post their transcripts here.

I posted Jennifer Rohn’s interview yesterday, and today the series continues with Martin Robbins. Robbins is a science writer with The Guardian and edits the community blog, The Lay Scientist. His post last week identified over 130 women science bloggers, demonstrating that there are plenty of high-quality blogs written by women.

Dave Munger: What do you think is the most important implication of the fact that in the highest-profile science blogging networks, women are dramatically outnumbered by men?

Martin Robbins: I think there’s a danger that we may not have a particularly diverse range of voices in the more prominent end of the science writing community, and if that’s the case then it could limit the ability of science bloggers (and by extension scientist) to have an impact in the wider world, or even add to the image of science and science writing as male pursuits. And we have to consider the possibility that the science blogosphere is not a particularly friendly or welcoming place for certain groups of people. If so, then regardless of the pragmatic concerns about science outreach, we have a moral duty to address the problem.

Munger: What do you know of the Guardian’s efforts to recruit women to its network? Do you think they could / should have done more?

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Interview with Jennifer Rohn

News, Opinion 46 Comments
By Dave Munger

Yesterday’s column on Seed attracted a lot of attention — but for space reasons I had to leave a lot out. I conducted several extended interviews, so I thought I’d post their transcripts here.

First, Jennifer Rohn. Her post inspired the column and generated dozens of comments and tweets. Rohn is a post-doctoral fellow at the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, University College London. In her spare time she is also a novelist, science journalist, and broadcaster. She blogs about the scientific life at Mind The Gap.

Dave Munger: What inspired you to make your post about the representation of women in high-profile science blogs? Did you expect the kind of response your post received?

Jennifer Rohn: High-profile blogging networks — in other words, the assemblage of “top” bloggers into exclusive groups on established media outlets such as newspaper and magazine websites — are suddenly all the rage in the wake of the Pepsico scandal at ScienceBlogs. I noticed that many of the bloggers poached for these new networks were male, but it wasn’t until Wired network went live that it occurred to me that the ratios might actually be quite skewed. I tallied a few of them in a graph and there did seem to be a striking trend. Curious what others would make of it — indeed, curious if anyone else had even noticed — I posted the graph on my blog without any commentary, as the observation seemed to speak for itself. I merely included a one-liner inviting discussion about the trend. I was very surprised by the attention it got, but pleased with the resulting debate, which on the whole was reasoned and civilized. And I was especially happy that Martin Robbins (one of those high-profile male bloggers) highlighted the post on his own Guardian blog, which resulted in a great crowd-sourced list of female bloggers, and yet more insightful discussion.
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Where will science blogging go from here?

News, Opinion 58 Comments
By Dave Munger

ResearchBlogging.orgIn 2007, Bora Zivkovic estimated the number of science blogs at 1,000 – 1,200. Now, over a year later, I suspect that figure is outdated. We have over 450 blogs registered for ResearchBlogging.org, but only half of the blogs at scienceblogs.com are registered. Nature Network, with its hundred or so blogs, is not represented at all because their blogging software isn’t compatible with our system. Scientific Blogging, larger than the Nature Network, barely has a presence here. There are whole disciplines, like economics, history, and mathematics, with large numbers of bloggers, but which don’t typically fit into our “peer-review” requirement. And then there are science blogs written in non-English languages. If I had to venture a guess today, I’d put the number between 3,000 and 10,000 science blogs worldwide.

In their article published today in PLoS Biology, Shelley Batts, Nicholas Anthis, and Tara Smith discuss the current impact of science blogging. They point to examples of science bloggers leading to corrections in the peer-reviewed literature, to researchers from institutions like Stanford and Oxford keeping in touch with their colleagues via blogs, and bloggers providing science information in language that laypeople can understand.

But how will bloggers and readers be able to distinguish scientific fact from fiction? Batts and her colleagues place a lot of the burden for that on ResearchBlogging.org:

To be included on the site, a blog must demonstrate to the site’s organizers via a submitted form that it regularly produces posts that would meet the criteria for use of the icon. Once included, it’s then up to the blogger to decide which posts meet a set of detailed guidelines for use of the icon. Dave Munger, the initiative’s cofounder and president, describes the project as largely self-regulating. Readers are encouraged to report abuses of the icon, which may lead to the permanent removal of a blog. This happened in the case of an anti-evolution blog that had coopted the system, attempting to use the icon while posting non-peer-reviewed “studies” about creationism. A reader reported the abuse, and after a review by the moderators, the blog was denied future use of ResearchBlogging.org. This system illustrates that with a bit of technical savvy, a few guidelines, and an involved readership, the self-regulating style of the blogosphere can be harnessed in new ways that could prove useful for institutional science outreach.

As Batts et al. point out, the goal of scientific accuracy can only be met with the participation of readers. While the administrators of ResearchBlogging.org are on the lookout for abuses, we aren’t experts in every field, and we rely on reader input to locate posts that violate our guidelines. If you spot a post that you believe doesn’t accurately and thoughtfully report on peer-reviewed research, please use the “flag post” button to report it. Administrators can easily see all the posts that have been flagged, then make a decision on how to proceed.

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

What should science blogging be?

Opinion 11 Comments
By Dave Munger

There’s an interesting discussion going on over at Bayblab about what science blogging should be. The basic complaint is this:

Now there are thousands of blogs dedicated to science, yet only a few are popular. And strangely the popular ones are only loosely related to science. Just take a look at the top 5 science blogs (according to postgenomic):

1 Pharyngula (mostly about creationism)
2 Cognitive Daily (psychology research)
3 Living the Scientific Life (personal journal)
4 Sandwalk (some evolutionary genetics, and creationism)
5 Aetiology (pop science)

Of those only Cognitive daily is consistently talking about peer-reviewed research. Why is that? Perhaps there is less appeal in discussing recent papers than bashing creationists. But bashing creationists is almost too easy, and not very constructive.

I’m pretty sure PostGenomic’s stats are off — I happen to know, for example, that Cognitive Daily is not one of the five most popular science blogs, since it’s not usually one of the top five on ScienceBlogs.com. Some huge science blogs, like Cosmic Variance, Real Climate, Bad Astronomy, and Cocktail Party Physics, aren’t even on the list. But taking the list as it’s printed, all of the blogs do discuss science quite regularly. They just happen to talk about lots of other stuff too.

For most bloggers, that’s what blogging is supposed to be. A blog is a very personal space, where a poster might put pictures of her trip to Valencia in one post and an analysis of a paper appearing in a peer-reviewed journal in the next.

ScienceBlogs.com could have exerted much more editorial control over the bloggers it recruited, for example demanding that all their posts be about peer-reviewed research. It chose not to take that approach for a couple reasons. First, they probably would have had a difficult time recruiting bloggers. Second, they probably would have had to pay the bloggers substantially more, because instead of blogging for themselves, the bloggers would be writing to meet the standards of the organization. Third, and possibly most importantly, they might have compromised the scientific content of what the bloggers were posting. Once you’re monitoring the content of an entire blog, you’re encouraging bloggers to play it safe. With an editor looking over her shoulder, maybe a blogger will decide not to cover an issue for fear it’s not “sciencey” enough.

But if that’s the case, then why should there be any attempt to control the content of blogs? Isn’t that what ResearchBlogging.org does? I’d submit that there’s a critical difference: Bloggers are under no obligation to write posts that meet our guidelines. They are free to submit posts that they believe do meet the guidelines, but they aren’t required to. You can sign up for an account at ResearchBlogging.org and never write a post that meets our standards. As long as you don’t attempt to get your post aggregated, you can maintain your account indefinitely.

ScienceBloggers are actually required to produce a certain number of posts per week, and ScienceBlogs has the (rarely invoked) right to shut down blogs that don’t meet that requirement. But ScienceBlogs has no restrictions on the type of posts its members write, which makes the first requirement less onerous

I think both commercial sites like ScienceBlogs and independent blogs are critical to the online dissemination of science. Independent bloggers are free from the restrictions of a commercial site, but they might not attract as large an audience. A large audience for science blogging is important not only because of the potential for bloggers to make money, but also because of the public service the science blogging represents. If commercial blogs can expand the readership of science on the internet (even if it also increases the number of political/religious rants), isn’t that, on the balance, a good thing?

And isn’t it also good that we have sites like ResearchBlogging.org, where readers who are only interested in science can find what they’re looking for as well?

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