Interview with Martin Robbins

News, Opinion 17 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?

Robbins: We tried to keep numbers even, but at the moment we only have 4 bloggers who we had to recruit at pretty short notice , and the make-up is more due to random chance than anything else – who of our targets happened to be available and willing.

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?

Robbins: I don’t think we should get too hung up on the precise numbers of bloggers of each gender, sexuality, race, and so on – all that should really matter is that the good writers get the attention they deserve, whoever they are. The question is whether that’s possible at the moment, or whether something in the culture or structure of the science blogging community is holding certain groups back.

Munger: Do you think women face unique difficulties in blogging?

Robbins: At the moment, the evidence would seem to suggest they do. What exactly those problems are is difficult to pin down, and I think somebody needs to go out and really properly research the problem – until they do we’re really just guessing.

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?

Robbins: Going by my recent survey at The Guardian, there are hundreds of women science bloggers, so I’m not sure I’m willing to accept that the bias at ResearchBlogging is because they’re somehow particularly rare. There are some key questions to answer. Does ResearchBlogging have much visibility to women? Are women less likely to be interested in joining aggregators in the first place? Are women science bloggers less likely to write directly about peer reviewed research?

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

Robbins: I don’t know. There are some interesting experiments people could do using sites like Twitter – somebody should follow 100 male and 100 female science bloggers on Twitter, and measure the amount of links provided to their own articles – that would be a very interesting experiment.

Munger: Any additional comments?

Robbins: We need more data. Nobody has done proper research into this yet, but it’s an important question which real implications for science communication.

Note: Yesterday I posted my interview with Jennifer Rohn, and I’ll follow up on Tuesday with Janet Stemwedel. 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.

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