What should science blogging be?

Opinion 24 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?

24 Responses to “What should science blogging be?”

  1. Mary Says:
    February 27th, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    I like the hybrid blogs. Some science, some politics, some humor, some personal. I think it takes all of it.

    The lighter stuff provides a human face on what might otherwise be some dry stuff that isn’t accessible to everyone.

    And if the goal is conversation–which I think blogs can be great at–personality is required.

    If you want to be just a journal club blog, fine. There may be a niche for that. But I like it mixed up.


  2. Christian Sinclair Says:
    February 27th, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    There is a role for all types of science blogs. In the medical blogs, you can find rants, health care policy issue, personal anecdotes, opinions, patient view points, health care professional viewpoints, and critical analysis of peer reviewed journals.

    The one thing that frustrates me are the semi-critical analysis based on media reports of journal articles, instead of the actual articles. That strikes me as somewhat lazy if you are a health care professional. It doesn’t take much to read a single journal article so if you are going to go off on one post about it, read the original not the media coverage only.

    The other thing I have enjoyed about the BPR3 RSS feed, is that I am being exposed to research in other fields that is helping me think outside the box in medicine. Like one recently on mapping uncertainty in demographics, it helped me think about the uncertainty about medical prognosis in a new light.

  3. barn owl Says:
    March 2nd, 2008 at 10:05 pm

    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?

    Yes, and I agree with what Christian Sinclair wrote above, about being exposed to research in other fields by the BPR3 site. The creative (and often funny) titles that BPR3 participants write for their posts make it worth glancing at the site every morning, even if one can’t read the actual posts until later in the day.

    I also agree that if you’re a health care professional and/or a scientist, you should be reading and referring to the primary journal articles, and not to media coverage. Yes we’re all busy people (and some are both capital B-usy and Extremely Important, apparently), but weren’t we supposed to develop skills to read and assimilate complex information efficiently and accurately in graduate school and/or medical school? Aren’t we supposed to continue to reinforce and improve this skill throughout our professional lives? For me, writing rant after rant on creationists, politicians, religious leaders, etc. would not improve or facilitate my professional writing skills, so blogging about science instead seems a better strategy.

    Two of the people whom I respect most in my field are productive scientists, compassionate clinicians, and prolific writers with NIH biosketch “selected publications” lists alone that are to die for. That’s only a subset of their professional publications, the vast majority of which are in peer-reviewed journals. Both of these individuals write every day, often for several hours at a time. Not a day goes by that they’re not writing something science-related: manuscripts, review articles, grant proposals, center renewal grants, clinical summaries, etc. From this observation, and from talking with these two scientists about their habits, I decided that writing about science in a blog almost every day would facilitate my own professional writing, and so far that seems to be the case.

    I think most of the writing on Science Blogs is excellent, and most bloggers in the group seem to have a unique voice that adds something to the community. The problems I see are not the same ones mentioned in the bayblab “incident” and fallout thereof, though. It’s unreasonable to expect all the posts to be about science all the time, but at least the “Buzz in the Blogosphere” function on the Home page could aggregate science-related posts most of the time. For cripes’ sake, it’s had the same old crap posts about Texas all freakin’ weekend…like I give a glowing green transgenic rat’s a$$ about Science Bloggers’ saliva-flecked pontifications on politics in my state. Which brings me to my other gripe about ScienceBlogs…it’s extremely lopsided in its representation of science and scientists, on several levels (e.g. specialty, geography, career path, professional experience).

    I suppose anyone reading this could dismiss my opinions as those of someone who is envious of the Science Bloggers; I don’t think this is the case, but then of course I’m biased. I do think that several of the Science Bloggers overreacted to the bayblab criticisms, to an extent that makes me wonder how they respond to triage of their NIH grant proposals. Suicide threats? Firebombs? Temper tantrums? Anyway, my experience with ResearchBlogging so far has been great. It gave me the courage to submit my posts for blog carnivals, and I believe that participation in this site also landed me the science writing project of my dreams-exciting and intimidating at the same time!

  4. mr. gunn Says:
    March 4th, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    Dave, you’re doing a great thing. More action and less talk is probably a good thing for all concerned, and you probably don’t hear enough appreciation for what you’ve done.

    Hopefully, now that Bayblab has gotten that off their chest, and the scienceblogs.com bloggers have each said their piece, we can understand that each person had a little bit of the truth. It is, of course, very hard to not be self-referential when you keep a prominently-displayed running list of the most popular articles or blogs, because the list itself will feed into the popularity, and I think that’s part of the culprit as far as pharyngula is concerned, at least, which I think is the worst offender in the “science blog that doesn’t talk about science” category.

    BTW, everything Bayblab said mirrors what I’ve heard in conversations with colleagues who read the scienceblogs.com blogs, so protest as they might, there’s certainly a kernel of truth.

  5. Michael Says:
    April 9th, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    Recently on Nature’s Peer-to-peer: “Role of blogs in communicating scientific knowledge”,

  6. Amiya Sarkar Says:
    June 4th, 2008 at 11:49 am

    A research blogging platform is a great innovative idea. Quietly working on it to improve and maintain the standards, is an even greater one.

    Blogs should ideally call forth (discuss) the interactive approach among various basic sciences that seem pertinent to the relevant article, when necessary.

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