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Should scientists be bloggers?

by Eva Amsen

Many congratulations to Shirley Wu and Russ Altman, who won Nature Network’s Science Blogging Challenge and have secured a spot at SciFoo this summer! (They’re also getting all expenses paid from Stanford to Mountain View – just down the Caltrain line – but lest you think Nature is being cheap, they’re using the money they saved by awarding the prize to Google’s next-door neighbours to allow people from developing countries to be able to make the trip.)

But, honestly, other than the prize incentive, why should more senior scientists blog?

That was what was in the back of my mind when I wrote my previous post about Penfield and Cone. One of them would have made a great blogger, but the other one would have certainly refused if asked. I didn’t ask anyone to start a blog as part of the challenge, no matter how badly I would have wanted a chance at the prize, because most of the scientists I know are of the Cone-type. Great at research, but hate writing.

The 1920s didn’t do much active science outreach, but there’s that as well. Most scientists I know hate outreach, and probably wouldn’t like blogging either. Why do they hate outreach? The same reason they hate teaching. I have observed someone go from the most eager student ever to the kind of professor who complains about teaching. Creepy. That’s one reason I don’t ever want to be in that position. I love teaching and writing and talking about science, and do not want a job that could turn me into someone that complains about all these things.

So, why do PI’s hate outreach and teaching? It takes valuable time away from research, and research is what brings in the funding, and funding is what keeps the lab afloat. There is no incentive to do anything on top of that. They reluctantly teach to fill contract requirements. They’ll do outreach to please a higher-up. They write, because they have to. There is no way I’m influential enough to tell someone to sacrifice their valuable spare time to write a blog about science. I can’t tell anyone why it would be good for them to blog, I can only say what good it has brought me, and those things are all in the area of science communication – the thing I love that most PI’s hate. They wouldn’t think my writing gigs and contacts in science communication were anything desirable at all. They’d see them as just more wastes of time!

Most scientists simply aren’t bloggers. In a literal sense, that seems to have been the drive behind the challenge: there are more non-blogging scientists than blogging ones; let’s get more to blog.
But, most scientists simply aren’t bloggers in the sense that they aren’t the blogging type. And is that a bad thing? Should they be bloggers? Or: should they be bloggers, as opposed to the enthusiastic writers who already are?

I’m not asking rhetorically, or even sarcastically. I really would like an answer: Why do (more) senior scientists need to blog?

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Anna Kushnir February 2, 2009 - 10:11 PM

Very interesting question, Eva! I can think of a number of good things that can come out of senior scientists blogging, but I don’t know if any of them are _the_ definitive, killer answer to your query. Firstly, I think that a blog by a senior scientist can humanize scientists and science for the public, it can allow members of the public to ask questions and get answers straight from the horse’s mouth, instead of digested news briefs on TV (not a direct benefit to the scientist, as you mentioned). Blogging can also convince other scientists that the web is a useful, important tool for their work, promoting community annotation tools like GeneWiki, commenting on papers on sites like PLoS ONE, Connotea, Precedings, et al. Blogging can help scientists stay current with the field, especially if unpublished studies are being discussed. They can receive feedback on their work and thought process from other researchers. All of these things are rather nebulous and maybe don’t make too much sense… Am very curious to read what others have to say on the subject.

Neil Saunders February 2, 2009 - 11:49 PM

There was some “discussion”:http://friendfeed.com/e/b852174d-b386-4e9c-e971-4301bcea582e/A-challenge-out-of-Science-Blogging-2008/ of these issues at FriendFeed when the contest was first announced. With myself as devil’s advocate, just for a change 😉
The pro-arguments were that having senior scientists blogging would increase the visibility of science blogs, get people thinking about them, make them more “respectable”. I didn’t agree then and my opinion hasn’t changed.

Eva Amsen February 3, 2009 - 12:05 AM

Ha. I find the fact that that indirectly leads to a link to Shirley’s blog quite telling. It really is always the _same_ people all over the place.
Other than that, I find many of the pro-arguments only leading up to altruism. By blogging, the scientist can help _others_ but doesn’t get much personal benefit from it, it seems. And that’s why the e-mail analogy doesn’t hold up. The personal benefits of e-mail, even to the early adopters, must have been obvious: a faster and cheaper way to contact people, leaving a “paper”-trail that phone messages can’t do, etc.

Caryn Shechtman February 3, 2009 - 1:10 AM

Interesting post Eva. I think a major problem is that senior scientists simply don’t feel the need to communicate with an audience that may or may not be of the same intellectual capacity as them. It’s sad but true. I do, however, think that with time, as younger scientists moving up in the ranks, this feeling will change. Hopefully, science blogging will come to be seen as an intellectual community sharing ideas and criticism on research.
While growing quickly, we have to remember that this is still a newer means of scientific communication.

Cristian Bodo February 3, 2009 - 10:44 AM

We have to remember also that bringing down scientific concepts to the layman’s level (or ever to scientist working in an unrelated field) is not a trivial matter (actually, that’s what science communicators exclusively do for a living!). So, it sounds a bit unrealistic to expect senior PIs to do that, AND go on supervising their own research program at the same time. Granted, some of them have a natural ability to do so, but many others simply don’t, and that’s alright

Frank Norman February 3, 2009 - 11:00 AM

As Neil said, I think the impulse behind it came from the perception that some bloggers feel their blogging activity is not supported by their institution. It’s seen as frivolous somehow, so getting more senior people to blog would give blogging more respectability.
I agree with you Eva that not all scientists enjoy writing and outreach, but some of them do, including senior scientists. Telling them about blogging is giving them a new tool to do these things.

Stephen Curry February 3, 2009 - 11:18 AM

Firstly, many congrats to Shirley and Russ, whose noble gesture almost matches Cath’s “snow-shovelling selflessness”:http://network.nature.com/people/scurry/blog/2009/02/02/snow-stopper#comment-27279
This is a very interesting question and one which I think I’ll be keeping under constant review. Having entered the fray, I have few regrets. I enjoy the freedom to think and write more broadly about science that I was able to do before. That’s good for me. And blogging can help to get you noticed – I got to write “this piece in Nature”:http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/457133e largely as a result of blogging activities.
I am enjoying the sense of _dis-equilibrium_ that the blogosphere has engendered. The landscape is shifting and changing; those of the older generation (in which I guess I have to include myself) who have caught sight of it are perhaps feeling somewhat dis-oriented, so I can understand the hesitation. I wonder if I would have had the nerve to jump in if I wasn’t already a professor.
I hope to do my little bit to offer support. I’ve told our local rag about one of my blog pieces being “picked”:http://network.nature.com/hubs/boston/blog/2009/01/05/six-nn-bloggers-named-as-some-of-the-best-science-bloggers for the Open Laboratory 2008 anthology, anticipating that that might stimulate a few (bemused?) conversations in the corridor. But there is still this nagging feeling that the time would be better spent writing grant applications…

Corie Lok February 3, 2009 - 2:40 PM

I think over time, as more scientists blog or engage in other open communication/info-sharing activities online, stories like Stephen’s will become common and will be taken for granted: being more active online gets you noticed, expands your network of contacts and leads to new ideas/collaborations/publications/etc. No one questions the benefits of going to meetings, attending talks, giving talks/posters/etc. Over time, I think blogging and being ‘out there’ online will be seen as a similar sort of important, career-building activity.

Maxine Clarke February 3, 2009 - 3:19 PM

I think Eva and everyone here raises excellent points. Most scientists (and most people) don’t blog. I took to blogging like a duck to water, but very few of my friends (scientists or no) blog – I’ve made very good new friends via blogging, but I don’t think I’ve persuaded any “old” ones that blogging is something they might want to try. One exception is a senior scientist friend of mine – but she does not blog. She likes the same sort of fiction that I do, and read my blog reviews, which stimulated her to start writing book reviews for the same website for which I write most of mine. My friend’s reviews are very good, but she never comments in online book (or other) discussions.
I know many scientists who don’t know what a blog is and have not the least interest. They feel overwhelmed as it is by information (David Crotty has written well about that aspect). Many of them prefer to think deeply and long, and come up at the end of the process with (say) a review article or scientific research manuscript. Not exactly interactive.
My husband is a senior scientist and over Christmas he told me he had started reading a blog. I was excited (as I did not know he knew what one was, really, though he hears me talking about them, sometimes). It turned out that the blog he reads is by a BBC political economy writer, and the blog was discovered via the BBC website.
As mentioned previously, I think that many scientists (and other people) like blogging about things outside their work. Blogging about your work takes a particular personality type. Blogging about something else is more like writing about a hobby, easier to do “lightly”, in the blogging style, I think?
Just a postscript, some scientists do blog extremely well about science (just as some other people blog well about their professions). I’m not trying to find a blanket one-size-fits-all rule, but rather dissect what I see as a “lack of take-up” of blogging by most scientists.
I suppose the fact that scientists form a highly mobile profession and are always at conferences or doing the rounds of visiting and talking at other people’s institutions, means again that individuals may feel less need to blog? Just a thought.

Kjerstin Gjengedal February 3, 2009 - 3:35 PM

I’d turn the question on its head: I think it would be nice if more blogging types became scientists. At least here in Scandinavia it’s a truth universally acknowledged that scientists are recruited from a frighteningly narrow range of personality types – a pattern which of course keeps reinforcing itself by confirming over and over again all the stereotypes about scientists. If some of the enthusiastic writers would consider becoming scientists, science could only benefit from it. As would blog readers.

Eva Amsen February 3, 2009 - 3:51 PM

Interesting thoughts, everyone.
I should mention that I’m thinking about all of this in preparation of a talk I’m giving in April, concerning obstacles to blogging (among other things) for scientists, so it’s good to see lots of different points of view.

Cameron Neylon February 3, 2009 - 4:22 PM

One of the things I find interesting is the way that most scientists who do blog can point to unexpected benefits that have come their way as a result of that. Stephen mentions writing a piece for Nature, Eva has a (number of) high profile(s) as a result of her various writings, Richard got a job, I’ve certainly benefited a lot out of it. So there are real personal benefits but they don’t seem to map on to what people think of as “proper work” benefits. As Stephen says, the gnawing guilt that you could have written another grant proposal. The thing that strikes me is with the vast majority of people not going into conventional academic research – is blogging actually a better investment of their time than more traditional things?

Eva Amsen February 3, 2009 - 4:26 PM

But all the benefits are only benefits for people who _like writing_

Henry Gee February 3, 2009 - 4:58 PM

Having read Eva’s thoughtful post and the equally thoughtful comments, I feel I should add something but can’t think what, so please excuse this ramble.
Blogging doesn’t suit everyone. It doesn’t suit all _writers_. It requires a knack for condensing a thought into a reasonable piece of prose very quickly, with not necessarily too much worry about tying up all the loose ends. Of course, some blogs are very much the finished piece, but scientists are, I suspect, wary (and rightly) of rehearsing half-baked ideas in public, for fear of giving too much away, or looking stupid.
There is also the aspect of time well-spent. Scientists are busy people and already spend 36 hours a day doing work. There isn’t enough time in the day for yet another activity, particularly one that adds no money or professional kudos.
Having said that, some scientists are also writers, and very good ones, who write the kind of journalism that could well end up as blog posts. However, you could count such scientists on the fingers of one hand – and those who write blogs on the fingers of one thumb. You might think mathematician Ian Stewart had a blog, and he does – “sort of”:http://www.britannica.com/blogs/author/istewart . “Steve Jones”, celebrity geneticist, writes pieces for the Daily Telegraph that are _absolument_ bloggy, but does he blog? Not as far as I can see.
The only benefit that might attract such people is the opportunity for networking, but I guess that many people of a certain age and/or seniority might feel such things unnecessary.

steffi suhr February 3, 2009 - 6:48 PM

_but scientists are, I suspect, wary (and rightly) of rehearsing half-baked ideas in public, for fear of giving too much away, or looking stupid._
Heh, I just did that – because “I could”:http://network.nature.com/people/stuffysour/blog/2009/02/01/i-felt-very-self-satisfied-last-week%E2%80%A6. And it was fun!
It’s ok if we can’t convert non-bloggers to bloggers, but I’d really like to see blogging to be more widely accepted by those who don’t blog. I don’t think it’s ok anymore to do your science in a vacuum – people want to know ‘what’s going on’, and if you don’t tell them, someone else will… tell them rubbish, more than likely.

Maxine Clarke February 3, 2009 - 7:14 PM

Cameron/Eva – yes, I agree – many scientists I know would not really regard those things (job in publishing, etc) as benefits- because they are and want to be scientists. However, for people who like writing and who are interested in science-related careers outside scientific research, I think blogging is an extremely useful tool. I also think it is useful for educational purposes, as Martin Fenner has often and well pointed out, and for librarians (for example, Martin’s friend who translates summaries of other-language articles for his institution’s library patrons). I think a blog can also be used to do things such as attract people to apply for postdocs in your group, showcase your writing so that you might get picked up by the major media to write reviews and features and eventually books (a la J S Jones), that kind of thing.
I am afraid that for me the fact remains that most scientists see it as ephemeral, unless they have one of these communication-based needs. And I write as an enthusiast for blogging.

Maxine Clarke February 3, 2009 - 7:16 PM

_don’t think it’s ok anymore to do your science in a vacuum – people want to know ’what’s going on’, and if you don’t tell them, someone else will… tell them rubbish, more than likely._
Very good point, Steffi. I don’t think that the vast majority of scientists “get” this – unless they learn the hard way, eg by bumping up against some of the rabid pressure groups that exist out there (climate research, animal expts, stem cells, vaccination….et al.)

steffi suhr February 3, 2009 - 7:37 PM

That’s the thing, Maxine: even the formerly relatively (in a media-sense) peaceful world of oceanography is increasingly in the headlines – for example, just check out “this one”:http://www.sciam.com/blog/60-second-science/post.cfm?id=fertilizing-oceans-with-iron-might-2009-01-28, which has nothing to do with the article (not to mention the research paper..). (By the way, I found the “press release from NOCS”:http://www.noc.soton.ac.uk/nocs/news.php?action=display_news&idx=547&PHPSESSID=c16917bc5eed8d4a18b6ed2695345acd also rather feeble). In the case of iron fertilization, not communicating (enough) for 15 years has lead to scientists themselves now being thrown in the “same”:http://www.activistmagazine.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=971&Itemid=143 “category”:http://www.climateark.org/shared/alerts/send.aspx?id=ocean_geo-engineering as for-profit companies (the ‘nasties’).. other disciplines have been through this a few times, but apparently word didn’t get around.

Eva Amsen February 3, 2009 - 8:01 PM

Oh, that’s actually a good one. Everyone generally complains about mis-representations in the media about their field, and the fact that there _is_ a tool out there to get your own version out basically means that you can actively counter that.
I also noticed today that the option to comment on articles in regular media can be useful that way. See the correction by the scientist in a comment on “this Nature news article”:http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090203/full/news.2009.78.html . Much easier than a letter to the editor, and he might not even have bothered with a letter for such a minor thing.

steffi suhr February 3, 2009 - 8:47 PM

I love that he added the comment. Easy as that.

Kristi Vogel February 3, 2009 - 10:42 PM

_It doesn’t suit all writers. It requires a knack for condensing a thought into a reasonable piece of prose very quickly, with not necessarily too much worry about tying up all the loose ends._
Nail. Head.

Eva Amsen February 4, 2009 - 5:29 AM

Hmmm… I’m not entirely sure. Many of my favourite blogs are ones that don’t have _frequent_ updates, but very well-thought-out posts. It doesn’t have to be fast and flimsy and instantaneous. (Or “fast and rough”, as I wrote in the previous draft of this comment, but found too suggestive upon rereading. Case in point, though.)

Richard P. Grant February 4, 2009 - 6:41 AM

I’d rather there were fewer bloggers…

Henry Gee February 4, 2009 - 1:09 PM

Dr Grant, here’s a loaded revolver. Do the decent thing, will you?

Kristi Vogel February 4, 2009 - 2:04 PM

I’d rather that a few prolific bloggers (none of the ones here at NN, btw) write fewer -frothing rants- -whingeing essays- posts on topics about which they know very little, or with which they have little or no experience.
Gimme that revolver.

Henry Gee February 4, 2009 - 2:13 PM

Hang on, you’re a Texan, so you’ll be tooled up already, right?

Kristi Vogel February 4, 2009 - 2:16 PM

I’ve got the horse thing worked out, but I’m afraid of guns. I’d probably jump out of my skin if you actually handed me a revolver.

Eva Amsen February 4, 2009 - 2:28 PM

Please be careful with the loaded revolver. Is the safety thingy on?

Henry Gee February 4, 2009 - 2:41 PM


steffi suhr February 4, 2009 - 6:19 PM

That was Henry’s sandwich-bag.

Cath Ennis February 9, 2009 - 10:18 PM

Happy birthday, Eva!

Eva Amsen February 10, 2009 - 1:00 AM

Thanks! Oh, wow, I haven’t blogged in a week. I was wondering why you’d comment on such an old post, and then noticed it was the most recent one. I really have nothing of value to say.

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