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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