Science Blogging for Scientists: Planting the Seed

The blogosphere, which is that part of the internet occupied by blogs, is experiencing explosive growth. According to Technorati, one of the major blog tracking services on the internet, the number of new blogs created increased from 75,000 to 175,000 per day from April 2007 to April 2008. Currently, there are at least an estimated 112 million active blogs.

These blogs discuss virtually everything from politics to dating, but there is one topic area that lags far behind in this public scrutiny: science. Even though many millions of active blogs exist, it is estimated that only 1500-2500 English language blogs focus specifically one or more areas of science [1]. Further, most science blogs are written by undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, science teachers and science writers, while very few are written by either senior-level academic or industrial scientists. Why?

This cultural resistance to science blog writing among scientists stems from several factors. For a start, most scientists have either never heard of blogs or they misunderstand what a blog is and what it can do for them. They seem to fail to appreciate that the typical blog is very versatile, and ranges from a personal diary to an amateur magazine or newscast that is updated as often and as consistently as the author wishes.

Thus, a blog provides scientists with a highly effective multimedia tool to communicate rapidly with the public. Furthermore, because they have the potential to attract many thousands of visitors every day, blogs can be used to educate and influence a wider audience than is possible either through teaching or by publishing in the primary literature.

On a more practical level, a blog can be used to rapidly correct errors in mainstream media reporting, and to highlight the value of one's findings while doing so. But perhaps most important, a blog provides scientists with a public platform where they can defend their research from misuse or misrepresentation by politicians and corporations that seek to abuse scientific data to bolster their agendas. The added benefit is that, because blogs are interactive, a scientist can respond to questions from the public without having to deal with an intermediary (a reporter) who might not understand (or care about) the research and its integrity. As an added bonus, a blog is a powerful multimedia tool for communicating rapidly with colleagues around the world. Since specific blog entries can be password protected, a blog can be used to communicate with a small and very specific audience of one's colleagues while other entries can be published for the public.

So, in view of these benefits, why are scientists still reluctant to embrace blogs as a mechanism for communication and public outreach? In my experience, the most pervasive challenge to overcome is the pervasive belief that good scientists don't have time for outside interests; that having any interests outside of one's research indicates that a person is not serious about her science. Even graduate students are routinely pressured into believing this, and are often asked silly questions such as "how do you find time to read a real book?" Yet strangely, these same scientists who are doing the asking are unconcerned by the amount of time spent in front of the television or at the local pub.

What can be done to encourage senior level academic and industrial scientists to start writing a blog? First, established blog authors should increase the familiarity with blogs among the scientific community by sending the "address" for their reviews of the primary literature to the scientists who published that paper. If the review is thoughtful and well-written, most scientists will not only be interested to read them, but they often respond to the blog writer and her readers, either through email or via comments. That scientist's colleagues will likely also become aware of these blog essays and will quickly realize the value of a blog for promoting one's research.

Second, the science blog community can actively encourage and assist senior level scientists to start their own blog. This can take the form of asking them to be a "special guest blogger" where they write blog essays for a specific length of time; by inviting them to contribute regularly to a science blog that is written by a group of authors (such as a lab blog or a topic blog); or helping them start their own blog by providing advice, technical assistance and continuing support after the blogs have gone live.

Writing a blog about science requires a consistent investment of time and intellect, but it is a good investment. Providing the scientific community with first-hand experience with the value of blogs will encourage them to rethink their attitudes towards blogs and begin to actively encourage its members to pursue this activity and reward them for doing so.


[1] How Many (Science) Blogs are there?

NOTE: This article was written by me and published today under the title of "I Blog, Therefore My Research Exists" in the journal, Research Fortnight.

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Those Technorati stats are probably technically ratty. I rather suspect that the vast majority of new "blogs" being created are scrapers and aggregators, splogs and Made4Adsense sites, rather than dozens of bright new things bringing us their world view in pithy daily bytes. But, even if that's toooo cynical a view, then the vast majority of those 175,000 new blogs created every day will remain invisible to the vast majority of internet users. Now, if there were some way of validating the worthiness of a given blog through some kind of voting system or social media type network...