Sunday, November 04, 2007

Blogging about Science

I promised a follow-up to my previous post on "Who reads blogs anyway - do professional scientific blogs work?"* a long time ago, and while I have been thinking quite a bit about the topic, I haven't followed through and written anything.

I wrote the post after a seminar about public outreach at which I got the impression that no one except for the bloggers themselves really cared about blogs and found them rather boring.

Since then I have been thinking about how I select the blogs I read and which blogs come across as boring to me, because yes, there are lots of blogs that don't interest me at all. My favorite online newspaper has a tendency to attach a blog to anything and everything they are writing about. Upcoming elections - let the politicians blog about their life; book fairs or movie festivals - lets get some live blogging and see what the journalists are up to; armed forces in Iraq - let's show the human side and give the soldiers their own blog; expeditions - let's talk to people while they are struggling towards the peaks of the world or crossing oceans. All good causes for blogging. I find it generally interesting to get a peak into the minds of people who affect my life and my world and that's what good interviews or feature stories are for among other things. However, I don't really follow the newspaper-based blogs and the reasons surprise me, because maybe these are some of the things we need to think about if we want people to engage in our scientific endeavours through blogs.

So what is wrong with those blogs I don't read

1) Often they are not particularly well written. Maybe the young first time soldier in Iraq is not always an exquisite writer. Fair enough, that's not why she's there. But maybe it's also a matter of not spending the time on crafting a good piece of writing because blogging conflicts with the real matter at stake. This is something that's highly relevant to me and others who blog from field work/ expeditions because we just don't have the time to do this properly. My creative juices are as good as gone when I get back to my tent after 12 hours outside in rain and wind and a dinner consisting of something that came out of a can. I have field notes to write up, expedition accounts to take care of, plans to make for tomorrow and blogging is at the very end of my to-do list. When I finally get around to it, it has become a chore I need to get out of the way as quickly as possible and at that point I'm certainly not at my wittiest.

Lesson number 1: Good blogging takes time and brain activity and must be made a priority

2) Often they become private e-mail accounts in a public space with well-wishes from parents and friends and personal comments from people at home. I have seen this in all kinds of travel/ expedition/working abroad blogs and while the occasional comment from a family member doesn't bother me, it puts me off when this is all there is. I get the feeling of entering a personal conversation where I don't belong. I like to read about peoples lives, even the mundane pieces about what they do with their days, because this is something I can relate to. I also do laundry, take my car to the garage and argue with my husband, but when it oversteps the boundary between between the generic and the private, I loose interest, and I don't care whether some blogger is making arrangements with his friends to meet when he gets back from his mountain climbing expedition.

Lesson number 2: Limit exchange of private information and arrangements in comments - use email for God's sake.

3) I lack interest in the topic and don't feel part of the community

This is where I think it becomes crucial for blogging about our own research. I think it takes some extraordinary good writing to get me interested in life behind the scenes at a movie festival or in the holy halls of my government. I think it takes writing at a level the average blogger is just not capable of/ interested in investing the time in, because I'm not all that interested in neither movie making nor national politics. This doesn't mean these blogs shouldn't exist, it just means that I won't read them. The reason I do read academic blogs to name an example, is that here I find a community where I can listen to conversations and speak freely about topics I find that most people in my everyday life don't want to talk about all the time. So why would anyone be interested in a scientific blog if it is not giving the feeling of belonging to some sort of wider community and to some degree triggers interests this person has already. This is where I think mine/ our research blog is failing miserably. There might be people out there who have a penchant for the part of the world where the research is carried out and an interest in the scientific questions, but we do not give our readers any feeling of being invited into a whole new world of cool people who share their interests.

Lesson number 3: Pick your audience, link to other blogs and make an effort to provide access to a wider community than just your own blog.

Kjerstin at PlusUltra who responded to the original post also brings up an important point

"....On the other, I've come across a gazillion science blogs, and most of them just seem to share science news that they pick up from journals and newspapers, which is not what I'm looking for in an academic blog. The science blogs that I read, are the ones that let me see how the research and the thinking is done from the inside, and what the scientist finds interesting about it. Unfortunately, most academics feel compelled to blog pseudonymously, so they can't be specific about their research. That's why I think your blog project sounds interesting".

Lesson number 4: To make a scientific blog interesting one must be able to be share scientific details about the work in progress

The blog project in question is a project blog written together with colleagues, so it is not entirely up to me how it is framed, but I think I am beginning to get some of the mechanics for making that kind of project/research blogging work and to understand some of the reasons why the blog doesn't seem successful to me as it is. I have been toying with the idea of a private research blog under my real name as well for a while, as a way of exploring my own thought process. I think it would be easier to play around with new ideas if I didn't have to confer with a panel of fellow contributors and also if I didn't have to simultaneously market a specific research project to a funding agency (which is also part of the mission for the existing blog). That is also one of the reasons why I'm thinking about what a blog can do that other media can't and how/ if it would be possible to integrate such a blog into teaching activities. Earth scientists are not generally huge on blogging and I have yet to meet someone who has taken blogging into an earth science class room, but that's of course not the same as it can't or shouldn't be done.

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8 Comments:

At 6:04 PM, Blogger ScienceWoman said...

I think you've hit on some really good points in terms of what makes a blog good and why some blogs are successful. I think the last point may have a lot do with why I don't actually read many science blogs, but I do read academia blogs. With the peer-review and publish-or-perish systems, though, I wonder how science-from-the-inside blogs can exist.

 
At 7:26 PM, Blogger saxifraga said...

Thanks and I also suddenly saw the problem from a new angle while I was writing this. It think the last point is probably THE most significant reason why I read some blogs and not others. But I also think that it is not only about having a sense of affinity or belonging to a community, but about being inspired by this community to do one's own thing. In the academia blogosphere I will always find someone who are higher up in the food chain/ more productive/ better teachers who provide inspiration for how I can go about my daily tasks, but reading a scientific blog on molecular biology doesn't necessarily leave me with new inspiration to go on with my own work. I think there needs to be a critical mass for blogosphere to work this way, and I'm not sure the earth science blogosphere is quite there yet. At the moment I have a hard time imagining who would actually want to read, no less comment on, whether I should give the paper a sequence stratigraphical angle or just do a lithological analysis (a lame example from my field).And as you point out, if someone did afterall read, would they copy my ideas and publish them before I got around to it.

 
At 12:22 AM, Anonymous Tara Smith said...

"Unfortunately, most academics feel compelled to blog pseudonymously, so they can't be specific about their research."

Or the opposite problem for those of us who blog under our own name--we can't be as specific about the "behind the scenes" aspects of the job. I've even been reluctant to discuss my own issues dealing with academia as a divorced mother of two, because I'll all too aware that many of my colleagues read my blog, and I don't want to give away too much personal information.

 
At 7:28 AM, Blogger saxifraga said...

Yes, it's a delicate balance. I have decided to open up a bit more about what I actuallu do, because there are many "soft" aspects of my research or the research process that I'd like to be able to discuss here, but at the same time, this is not a research blog per se, and I have way to much personal information here to want to be completely open (my field is not that big, so it wouldn't be to difficult to figure out who I am).

I think eventually the solution for me might be to keep a research blog separate from this one, but then the problem is how on earth does one find the time to keep all these blogs going. I already found it very demanding to blog from the field this year, because it came on top of everything else.

 
At 4:23 AM, Anonymous BrianR said...

saxifraga says: "I think there needs to be a critical mass for blogosphere to work this way, and I'm not sure the earth science blogosphere is quite there yet."

'Yet' is the key word! It's getting there! I'm glad I found your blog through technorati.

As for blogging under your own name, I didn't at first, but have slowly moved that way. My name is not really up front on the blog, but I do have my list of publications, so if someone wants to figure out who I am, it doesn't take that much effort. I'm hoping that it will help my career...who knows, I could be sorely mistaken.

I definitely don't post about my own research details (actual data and results) until it is at least 'in press' ... the chances of someone scoopin' ya off your blog might be slim, but I still think it's a possibility. Maybe I'm paranoid though. And since the peer review process is so dang long compared to the blogging world, it seems I keep saying something along the lines of "I'll post about this project soon" all the time.

Finally...your post and some of the commenters above reminds of the distinction between 'science blogs' and 'blogging scientists'. A lot of us usually play both roles...some posts about research, and some posts about life in academics. Personally, I like a good mix...too much of one or the other gets a little old. But, that's just me.

 
At 7:34 AM, Blogger saxifraga said...

Hi Brian. glad you found the blog.

and yes, I think you're right that the earth science blogosphere will get to the point where there is a community. Maybe it's there already to some degree if you happen to find the right people. You work on some things that are similar to my topic, so I think it is possible to connect with people who share research interests, but generally it is my impression that the earth science community here is small. I don't know how it is in the U.S or elsewhere, but I don't have the impression that any of my colleagues here are into blogs.

I like the distinction you point out between science bloggers and blogging scientists. That's a good one to keep in mind when discussing this issue. But I still think even a decidedly scientific blog with no or limited personal content (like a blog from a research project or a field campaign) would benefit hugely from a more community building attitude. I am thinking about the purely science blogs I am familiar with like the research project blog I am involved in and associated blogs from the same "umbrella" of research activity (IPY), but I am sure lots of these blogs exist nowadays when "the project is going to keep a weblog" seems to be a common sentence in the outreach part of large grant applications. I think one mistake our group has made is that we just keep on reporting our results and field experience like if we were writing for the on-paper media and forget to treat the blog as the particular source of communication and network building it is, or can be.

 
At 10:21 PM, Anonymous BrianR said...

"I don't know how it is in the U.S or elsewhere, but I don't have the impression that any of my colleagues here are into blogs."

I think it's catching on a bit. There seems to be a perception that being a 'blogger' is being immature, or a waste of time. Perhaps being get that impression because they only time they hear about bloggers is when they are rakin' the muck. So, when I explain to my colleagues that i've had people contact me through my blog about interesting scientific aspects, they seem surprised. But, they wouldn't be surprised if they spent a bit of time getting to know the community and what it has to offer.

I think it's coming around. I foresee earth science blogs (or maybe we'll go back to calling them websites, i don't know) getting more popular within the next couple of years.

 
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