Science Blogging

September 3, 2011 — Leave a comment

I’ve been at Science Online 2011 in London this weekend. One hot topic of conversation during Day One was science blogging and how it relates to science publishing in the form of journals.

There was much hand-wringing yesterday, during a panel discussion on the ‘Arsenic Life’ story (see these links), where science bloggers seemed exasperated by the fact that what they write in blogs is not linked with the research they discuss. After all they write some great stuff and it would be great if anyone reading the paper could read their dire warnings about the reliability of the conclusions*. At moments some on the the panel and in the audience even seemed to get close to suggesting that their blog posts should be placed on a level with peer-reviewed publications. 

The ‘Arsenic Life’ tale is one where several things than could go wrong, did go wrong. The results were over-hyped, the scientists were unresponsive to criticism and the peer-review system broke down. However the vast majority of scientific results are reported pretty well and without such catastrophic failures of the system. Did blogging help? Yes and it may have been instrumental in bringing the issues to light. The scientists who wrote about the story on their blogs, did so in a journalistic act, not a scientific one. They are free to publish rebuttal papers and get a peer-reviewed response into the literature in due course. I’d be keen to know if anyone is doing this.

I think what many science bloggers forget is that they represent the very thin end of the science-blogging wedge. There are many research scientists out there writing blogs about their work and that of others. They share that part of the blogosphere with many more science bloggers who are non-scientists. Many interested amateurs and members of the public are writing about science and some are doing a very good job of it. (Some researchers do a bad job it too, by the way).

Whilst I agree with many that we should move to a more open and transparent publication process in academia, I don’t believe that blogging should be part of it – certainly not in its current form. Blogging represents a free and liberating way to share ideas and thoughts. It is unencumbered by regulation and this is exactly why I think many scientists enjoy it and find it useful. Perhaps one tantalising aspect of science blogging is that it feels like scientific lab reporting for many people – but it isn’t. You may chose to write your blog with all the rigour and finesse of a publishable work but it is still a blog. I suppose it comes down to trust and verifiability.

One can imagine ways to legitimise and promote blogging into a state closer to the academic model (without turning it into journalism). Something more akin to social networking than peer-review seems like a good idea. I would point anyone thinking about these ideas to the Research Blogging network which is collecting blogs about peer-reviewed research. Perhaps a blog journal, with editors and peer-review would be viable – does such a thing exist?   

Science blogging is growing but the credibility of the few should not be used to elevate the many non-professional science blogs to a recognised, academic status. Science bloggers are doing something great: they are providing insight into the way science works and telling a more narrative story about their results and their field of work.

Another of yesterday’s sessions was about storytelling (It was hosted by @BoraZ and @mistersugar) – one theme emerging was that more scientists need to tell stories to help engage people and this is a crucial point. The science bloggers are acting outside of the scientific process and telling their own stories. This is a great thing to do and it doesn’t need to get incorporated into that process. It is great because it is distinct and unrestrained. I say let the science blogging continue on all sides, and in all forms and leave it separate from the process of peer-review and publication. there is no need to further muddy those waters.

*The idea of using trackbacks to allow bloggers to connect with things they discuss is not new, and you can in fact trackback to papers (e.g. on the arXiv: http://arxiv.org/help/trackback) if you blog about them. 

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