n00b Science Blogging 101: Part 1

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Earlier today, I had the pleasure of speaking via Skype with Dan Simons's graduate-level science writing class. We talked about the ins and outs of academic blogging, and the nature and ecosystem of science communication online, and the students asked some terrific questions.

I had asked Dan to ask his students to compile some questions in advance, so that I might at least pretend to be prepared, and the questions they sent were so good, that I've decided to commit my answers to the relative permanence of the sciblogosphere. (Also, there was good feedback to a similar post that I wrote following #scio11) Perhaps these questions and answers will be useful for n00b bloggers more generally.

In general, the questions that I received can be broken into five broad categories: personal, purpose/goal/audience, career/academia, mechanics, and dealing with the commentariat.

Here, then, is part 1, addressing the personal questions. I think that if I describe my own experiences with science blogging, then my answers to the remaining sections can be understood in context.

How long have you been blogging? And how did you get into it?
I've been reading science blogs (and Scienceblogs) since almost the beginning (for a better history of the science blogosphere, read Bora's epic farewell address. Also, if you are a n00b blogger, follow Bora on twitter. You are on twitter, right?) And I've also been blogging, in one form or another, almost as long as blogging as existed, and in former blogs and other online properties, I have indeed written about science, broadly construed. But it wasn't until a little over a year ago that I decided to take the plunge into science blogging proper.

The impetus for starting a "proper" science blog was varied. First, I noticed a particular hole in the science blogosphere: there weren't many good blogs (that I was aware of, at least) that covered animal cognition. Sure, there were plenty of good primate behavior blogs, and almost any bio-related blog will write about behavior or cognition at some point, but not in a systematic or predictable way, and not necessarily from the theoretical perspective that I take in my research. Second, while there were some fantastic psychology/cognition/cognitive neuroscience bloggers out there (an incredibly incomplete list would include Dave Munger, Scicurious, Vaughan Bell, and Chris Chatham), many many other psychology-related blogs were crappy. Third, I had begun to shift my research interests and shift myself into an animal cognition lab, and blogging is a great way to become familiar with literature. Finally, I've always felt that writing up your research in peer-reviewed academic journals (while obviously, totally important) is not enough. Part of my role as an academic researcher is to communicate science more broadly, to inspire and educate others, and to excite people about science more generally, about about psychology more specifically. (In case you hadn't noticed, some people don't even consider psychological science to be a science! It's even worse if you take an evolutionary approach.) Doctor Zen once said (somewhere?) that he blogs because he thinks that part of his job as academic scientist is to be a "public intellectual." I always liked that phrase.

That said, there is no real way to "get into" blogging. You just have to do it. I started a blog on Wordpress after deciding on a suitable blog name, and just started going. I look back at some of my earliest posts, and weep. And then I realize how much my writing has improved in just one year, and my tears of sadness turn into tears of joy. Once I became confident in my posts, I sent links to bloggers I admired. Sometimes they tweeted them, or linked to them. Even if they didn't, at least they were aware of my existence. I started leaving my URL in comment forms on other blogs. I remember being terrified upon leaving my URL in a comment at Ed Yong's blog (back when NERS was here at Sb). Looking back, I see how silly that was, now that I can count Ed among my friends and colleagues (perhaps the turning point, Ed, was when you violated my face with a lemur hand-puppet?). The moral of this anecdote is: don't be shy about getting your URL out there. (And don't ever let Ed near your face, puppet notwithstanding.)

In the end, my ascension out of Wordpress obscurity and into relative visibility is all Dave Munger's fault. He selected two old posts of mine as Research Blogging Editor's selections. Then he wrote them up in a column for SEED Magazine. Then one of those two posts (as well as my blog, as a whole) was nominated for a Research Blogging Award, for Best Post of the Year, just two months after I started my blog. Not long after that, due in no small part to the prodding of the goddess Dr. Isis, blog bff Scicurious, and my blogfather Bora, I was invited to Scienceblogs (which, at the time - remember this was before #Pepsigate - was the place you wanted to be, if you aspired to be on a network at all). The same week that I moved to Scienceblogs, Dave Munger asked me if I would serve as psychology and neuroscience editor for ResearchBlogging.org, and I have since posted my editor's selections (just about) every Tuesday (once, in haiku format).

Do you discuss your blog with your labmates, advisor, and friends?

Oh, you wanted more?

Everybody knows about it. My advisors, department chair, and other faculty have been incredibly supportive from the beginning. I know this might not be the case with everyone, but it has been with me, and therefore my responses to the questions in subsequent posts in this series will be colored by this fact.

Some of my friends didn't know what a blog was (!! wut? are they living under a rock?) before I started blogging, but they've been incredibly supportive as well.

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You cannot prove that my hand was in that puppet. I deny everything.

Thanks for writing this Jason!

I wish the attitude toward blogging (or anything non-traditional for that matter) in my department was different. I recently started a blog and have only told my fellow grad students about it. I almost fear the backlash that may occur from the faculty finding out about it, even though the topic of it might make them appreciate me writing it.

I honestly can't imagine any one of the faculty here doing something as untraditional as blogging. They probably fear it would jeopardize their chance for tenure.

I hope to bring my blog to legitimacy by getting my own domain name and design going, but I'm focusing on the content and my writing first. Then maybe will I unleash my blog to the faculty. Thank you for inspiring me and others to take up/continue blogging!