Blogging 2.0 Series: Travis Saunders
Welcome to the SciLogs’ Blogging 2.0 series! For the next few weeks, we are interviewing and inviting guest blog posts from renowned science bloggers and science writers, who are giving us their tips and advice on bringing your science blogging to the next level.
This week is Travis Saunders, PhD student researching the relationship between sedentary time and chronic disease risk in children and youth who writes for Plos Blogs. Travis has over 4,500 followers on Twitter, and his blog Obesity Panacea is an award-winning blog that covers the latest research and news related to physical activity, obesity, and health.
SciLogs: You blog at PlosOne. Tell us about that. What do you try to write about, what are your goals with the blog, how did this blog come about, etc.?
Travis: Peter Janiszewski and I began Obesity Panacea while we were lab-mates working on projects related to obesity and exercise physiology at Queen's University. There is a LOT of misinformation on topics related to exercise and obesity, so we initially started our blog as a means of critiquing the many weight loss gimmicks and fad diets that we saw advertised online and on TV. It was also an attempt to bring our research to a larger audience. In the five years since we started, we've moved away from weight loss gimmicks, and now focus mainly on news and research related to obesity, physical activity, and sedentary behaviour. The goal is to bring the latest research in these areas to a lay audience.
Blogging for PLOS has been a great experience. Our blog has moved around a bit - first on our own, then on ScienceBlogs.com, then on our own again, and now on PLOS since 2010. We were one of the initial blogs when PLOS started their blog network, and it's been a very good fit for us. Blogging for a network run by an academic publisher has also helped give us some credibility among those who are still a bit skeptical of blogging more generally.
SciLogs: How have social media tools helped you as a science writer / blogger? (How do you use them effectively to... Share your stories? Gain readership? Get story ideas?
Travis: Social media (mostly Twitter and Facebook) have been especially helpful in spreading our blog posts online. Having a "Tweet This" button on our page has made a huge difference in the number of times that new posts get shared online. We've also used social networks (mostly Twitter) to network with other scientists and bloggers, which has been helpful in increasing the visibility of our blog. As more prominent bloggers and writers became aware of our blog via Twitter they would sometimes link to our posts in their own, or interview us for their print stories, which really helped to grow our audience early on.
SciLogs: You are working on a PhD as well as blogging - tell us about that experience. Do your professors / your graduate program support this endeavor? Has it complemented or helped your PhD research?
Travis: I actually just got my PhD yesterday! Initially a lot of our colleagues were very skeptical about our blogging. It was seen as taking away from our "real" work (e.g. publishing papers). "I don't blog about science, I do science!" was a statement from a colleague that has always stuck with me. That being said, our colleagues all became very [supportive] once they saw that blogging and social media could be a useful tool for knowledge translation. So while some colleagues were skeptical early-on, those same individuals now regularly send us links or topics that they think might be useful for blog topics.
I would say that blogging has absolutely helped with my research. I began blogging while still in my MSc, and blogging about topics really helped me to get my mind around issues and papers related to my area of research. In a way it really served as a sort of personal journal club in that sense. Quite often I've had a random question at conferences or during a thesis defense that I was only able to answer because I had written a blog post on the topic in the past. On a similar note, blogging has forced me to really work on my writing, which is a very valuable exercise as a researcher. Finally, blogging has also been extremely useful for networking with other researchers in my field. I've found that Twitter especially has been a good way to meet other researchers, which makes it much easier to then network with them in person at conferences down the road.
SciLogs: How do you decide what to write about, and where do your story ideas come from?
Travis: I typically blog about papers or news stories that have caught my attention. I have a Google Doc with a list of ideas for different posts, so when I feel like writing I'll skim through it to see if anything catches my eye. If I keep thinking about a topic over and over in my head, then I usually know it's time to write a blog post in order to force me to get my thoughts in order.
SciLogs: What are the most important elements of writing a blog about science that audiences will want to avidly read?
Travis: I will be the first to admit that my blog posts are pretty boring in this regard. I know that things like narrative make for a more interesting and compelling post... but personally I tend to simply give my thoughts on a new study or recent piece of news. I'd like to do more of a narrative style, but I find that when I try it takes so long to write the post that I never actually publish it. So instead, I've just tried to give my thoughts on a topic as concisely as possible, and hope that it will find an audience.
SciLogs: What other advice would you give to science bloggers wishing to grow their readership? How did you at first, and how do you now, attract your audience?
Travis: Try to write as many posts as possible, especially early on in the blogging process. Because of the way that Google search results work, it's really helpful if you can post a lot of content in the early days. When we first began our blog we had the ridiculous idea that we should post 5 days/week. That was not sustainable, but it did help us to grow our audience quite quickly. By way of comparison, we only post a couple times a month now.
I'd urge bloggers to reach out to other bloggers in their area. Comment on their posts, look for relevant blog carnivals, and interact with people on Twitter. Once a few other people start to notice your work, it can make a huge difference in gaining an audience.
SciLogs: Is / how important is online networking in the world of science journalism and in the science blogosphere?
Travis: I've found it to be very useful. Because of Twitter in particular, I know a relatively large number of researchers, science bloggers, and science journalists. That has already come in very useful for me as a researcher, and I expect it to continue to be helpful down the road. The goal as a researcher is to get your research to the people who need it; being acquainted with a large group of scientists and science communicators can only make that job easier.
Thanks Travis, and Congratulations on your PhD!