The Current Immaturity of Science Blogging

science blogging London 2008 I have just returned from Europe’s first conference on science blogging. Held at the Royal Institution in London and organised by Nature Network, the conference was attended by science bloggers from all over the world.

The conference kicked off with a keynote speech from ‘Britain’s leading science blogger’, Ben Goldacre, who talked about the superiority of bloggers to be first to important science stories, to report them more accurately and cover them in far more detail than any paper ever could. Bloggers in the UK had spotted the imminent financial collapse of the dyslexia ‘miracle cure’, Dore, whilst the TV and papers were still singing its praises. Blogs questioned the science behind the claims of Dore, whilst the traditional media swallowed it whole. Blogs have another advantage over paper media in the way that their authority is transparent and can easily be evaluated. Newspapers never reference or link to their sources – we have to take what they say at face value. Good blogs, in contrast, can and do link to primary scientific sources. We can check they are being honest in their appraisal of the evidence. We can ignore blogs that are shown to be dishonest in what they do. Comments sections invite a form of critical peer-review. Honesty and transparency are rewarded. The daft and dishonest blogs are quickly and mercilessly punished.

The day was followed by more sessions of the role of science blogs in engaging the public with science, the reasons why science bloggers blog and the use of technologies such as twitter and Second Life.

What struck me quite strongly is how unsophisticated the use of blogs within science is right now and that is what I want to explore. Science blogging was largely portrayed at the conference as single act with a common purpose – almost exclusively an act of self-expression with the intention of ‘doing good’ in educating the public. This is a rather one dimensional use of the technology and is far behind how other blogging groups use the technology – particularly business.

There may be number of good reasons for the shyness and shallowness of current science blogging. A surprising number of individuals described how they blogged anonymously. The principle reason for this was to ensure their academic superiors did not find out about their activities. Blogging is not perceived to be done by ‘real scientists’. You should be at the lab bench or writing papers. Blogging is not seen to fulfil a valuable role in science. Many saw blogging as a threat to their careers – a few saw this a way of enhancing it.

And yet, the bloggers here obviously feel that their writing does fulfil a role. One University stood out in its progressive attitude to blogging. The University of Sydney paid for one of its bloggers to attend the conference in London. This fact drew gasps of amazement from the audience when it was revealed. The University actively encourages blogging. Blogs dot USYD is their showcase for their staff blogs and blogs are encouraged to help support research and projects. Even so, the initiative appears to have a much bigger take up amongst humanities faculty members than scientists.

I made the remark, during the closing session, that science appears to be lagging behind in its thinking about blogging. In contrast, many areas of commerce and industry are exploring and embracing blogging as a tool to aid communication, collaboration and innovation in ways that were not obvious at this conference . The businesses that are embracing blogs are explored in Tapscott and Williams Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (Amazon). Wikis and blogs are becoming common business tools to aid the creation of new ideas and value both within companies and across company boundaries into networks of suppliers and partners.

Recently, I attended a three day conference held by one of the world’s largest banks about the latest ideas in risk management. The conference was dominated by talks on how blogs and wikis can create collaborating communities. People who work in banking risk are traditionally seen as being very conservative. The fact that large banks, working with blue chip partners, such as Sun, IBM and Cisco, can solve the issues associated with such new thinking should be a wake up call to science communities.

What these developments recognise is that the best ideas and solutions to problems are the valuable thing and it is a lesser concern where these ideas come from. Companies used to see themselves as being closed environments with good internal people coming up with new ‘Intellectual Property’ that the company can then exploit to make a profit. Rather than being the owners of the creative people, this new collaborative model sees companies being facilitators of the creative process. In the past, the companies that created and owned the most valuable patents would be the winners. Now, some companies are seeing the winners as being those that can best facilitate and manage the best networks of collaborators and Web 2.0 technologies are a great way to achieve that.

Of course, IP is a big issue. Collaborating companies have to have contracts to understand how they will share ownership of new ideas emerging from their mutual network of blogs and wikis. Scientific research too will have similar issues. Where research is commercially funded, there will be concerns about how ideas coming from that funding are disclosed and shared.

These are not insolvable problems. The first realisation is that blogs need not be public. Blogs can be contained within communities with appropriate access control. On the wall of the new Royal Institution canteen is a quote from Earl Wilson which says,

Science may never come up with a better office communication medium than the coffee break.

That may well be so, but today’s research collaborators or office workers need not be two minutes from a shared coffee pot. Often continents divide them. Closed community blogs allow the ‘thinking out loud’ and the discussion of ideas that might normally take place over a dripping filter, without the risks and embarrassments of those thoughts being too free. It is possible to see a continuum of types of access to blogs, from fully public, to small intimate teams. Blogs can become one more tool for the testing and sharing of ideas, like a poster at a conference, rather than the full exposure of a paper in a journal.

This is the trick to using blogs. Much talk at the conference was about issues such as how citable blogs can be and even how they might challenge traditional peer-reviewed publishing. Henry Gee, a Senior Editor of Nature, put forward the argument that the defining feature of blogs was that they were provisional. They were there to be changed and updated and grow. Their provisionality fits well with the nature of science thinking. They can test ideas, often deliberately half-baked ideas – the best grow and flourish, the poor ones slide into history.

Blogs may not be necessarily the best medium for public science communication; they may not ever replace traditional peer-review. But they can become an excellent space for the exploration of ideas, both publicly and within closed communities. Lab work will not just be about notebooks and coffee breaks, but ‘thinking out loud’ on your blog and mercilessly critiquing your colleagues daft ideas.

Maybe there are science communities out there that already do this. Places like CERN must do: they invented the web just so they could share documents and create collaborating communities. Perhaps, Science Blogging 2008 was a self-selected audience of people from blogging communities such as ScienceBlogs, Nature Network, and BadScienceBlogs that blogged in a particular way. However, I saw little evidence at the event of more diverse ways of blogging than just ‘for the Good’.

There was evidence of diversity of blogging within science, but this was more along the lines of differences between US and UK bloggers, or between scientists reporting their field and others attacking the abuses of science within society. I hope to be able to make it to the next blogging conference next year. Will there be more diverse uses of blogs? Will Universities be more encouraging of blogging activities amongst academics? Will networks of science communities be using blogs to collaborate in more interesting ways?

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12 comments for “The Current Immaturity of Science Blogging

  1. gimpyblog
    September 1, 2008 at 7:29 am

    Interesting post but…..

    As somebody doing basic science I wouldn’t dream of blogging my research. I already have colleagues in my workplace to discuss ideas with and I correspond with contemporaries in other institutions when necessary. I also regularly present my work in formal seminars and at conferences where I can rely on other people in my field, some of them with decades of experience, to discuss it with me and to disabuse me of erroneous arguments. This method of communication allows me to control what data I share, it is common to show some people one set of data and others a different set depending on what I want to get from the discussion. By blogging, even in a closed forum, it would be harder to be selective in the presentation of data unless I had topic specific posts with restrictions which would create additional work for negligible benefit.

    Also, although I assume this was raised at the conference, there is the problem with copyright. Journals want copyright over submissions and if figures have already been presented in a public space (conferences aren’t considered public) then it might create problems in submitting.

    Besides you can get drunk at conferences, you can’t at blogs.

    I would welcome counterarguments though.

  2. Robert Saunders
    September 1, 2008 at 9:02 am

    Well, I too am a researcher (in Drosophila genetics), and I would be very cautious if I were to blog about my own research, certainly before publication (there’s always the possibility of beign scooped).
    Further to that, I agree with gimpyblog’s points about choice in data sharing.

    Robert

  3. alison
    September 1, 2008 at 9:35 am

    I was really interested to read this blog – thank you! I write a blog that’s hosted on my employer’s website (I teach at an NZ university). My initial intent was to do something that supported secondary school students preparing for their Scholarship exams, but it fairly quickly morphed into something wider.

    I agree that there are issues associated with blogging on your own research. But blogging about research (practices, other people's publications, applications…) is rather different, I think, & it's also an excellent way to communicate with people about the nature of science as well as the science itself. (It's one reason a number of my favourite blogs are in the ScienceBlogs stable.) If I were to blog on my own work, it would certainly be post-publication :-)

    I hadn't actually thought about using blogs as a collaborative tool; I'm used to wikis for that. But I suppose that just reflects my own experiences & mindset.

  4. Muscleguy
    September 1, 2008 at 10:19 am

    I think that what PZ Myers periodically does at Pharyngula in which he explains a recent paper is perhaps what scientists can blog about. I certainly take the point about the difficulties of blogging about your research and being scooped. My PhD supervisor once wrote to another scientist asking for a reagent (an antibody iirc) but made the mistake of describing what he wanted to do with it a bit too well. He never heard back, didn’t get the antibody and some months later the research he was going to do was published…

    So use your blog to occasionally do a public journal club, or encourage your people to do it as an adjunct to normal journal club. Being able to write for lay people is a useful skill when doing that summary in grant applications after all.

  5. LeeT
    September 1, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    How does an uninformed lay person distinguish between good and bad science. See, for example, the latest post on Dr Briffa’s blog:

    http://www.drbriffa.com/blog/2008/09/01/homeopathic-arnica-found-to-be-an-effective-post-operative-aid/

  6. dr kill
    September 1, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    Regarding science blogging. I see most science bloggers at scienceblogs as entertainers, not scientists. Too often their posts and the following comments veer into the Progresssive fringe. I understand they are entitled to their personal views, but damn, I tire of being beaten about the head and neck with the Lefty talking points. Politics have no place in scientific inquiry.

  7. Le Canard Noir
    September 1, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    Well dr kill, one of things that is noticeable about American Science Blogging is how the politics of the right have made it necessary to mix politics and science. From a European perspective, it is amazing how many of the key issues in American politics have distorted science at their heart – usually driven by right wing ideology and its dances with religion.

  8. Ken
    September 2, 2008 at 3:24 am

    I also wonder at the use of blogging within the process of science itself. I guess this is evolving and it is too early to see what form it takes.

    Blogging in the defense of science, and the popularisation of science, seems to be working fairly well currently.

    However, one use seems to get no mention. That is the use of blogging to communicate with ones “clients” – with the industry. Many fields of science have an extension role. My example is agricultural science where research scientists must regularly communicate with “stakeholders” via field days, farmers’ days, seminars, conferences, etc. The client may be the more savvy farmer. Certainly they could be agricultural consultants and advisors. They could be representatives of fertiliser and agricultural chemical companies.

    I am sure that there are similar requirements in other scientific areas and blogging could be a useful form of this communication in today’s world. Clients would welcome the opportunity to also ask questions, seek clarification, etc.

    This seems to me a form of science blogging which would fill a niche and actually could take off if it got a chance. The main problem I see is the corporate suspicion of employing institutes.

  9. Peter in Dundee
    September 3, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    Lee well firstly when it comes to anything to do with *homeopathy* remember that it is just water. So all the study is doing is testing diclofenac with a placebo.

    I would also ask what is the use of lowered swelling if it hurts more?

    In addition look where the paper is published, Nature or Science or The Lancet or the BMJ it isn’t. Not guaranteed but anything outside of an eminent journal should be treated as distinctly ‘to be confirmed’. Ditto with those others of course but less distinctly.

  10. maxine
    September 9, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    I think many “science blogs” are not about the research the blogger is currently doing. As mentioned in some of these comments, and other purposes involving eg education, communication.

    Gimpyplog mentions concerns about priority and scooping, which are real. Many journals, though, allow sharing of research results between scientists via conferences, meetings abstracts, preprints, blogs, etc. Nature journals certainly do. What we aren’t happy about is scientists announcing their results to the media and then submitting them to us.

  11. DBH
    October 7, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    That would have been an interesting conference to attend. And I agree that the current climate of scientific research does not allow too much for “research sharing”. Being scooped would just be too high a price to pay. But blogging should be about fun, poking fun at (or being grumpy about) stuff. Pseudoscience just makes it so easy to poke fun at. There is the peer-reviewed journal world for discussing serious research.
    Shame I started science blogging and quack busting a bit too late for that. Any tips for a new comer to get a blog noticed, aside from leaving comments on other blogs everywhere? Its fun to write, but it would be even more fun if people are reading it!

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