Science Blogging as… (fill in the blank)


In science writing, there’s always something new to learn, some new adventure to try. Keep a beginner’s mind, look for new adventures, and have fun. — Dan Ferber (danferber.com, @DanFerber)

Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/zATtB

Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/zATtB

Today, I decided to collect science writers’ thoughts on blogging from Ed Yong’s 2010 round-up of stories on the Origins of Science Writers. I thought it would be interesting to see how the 100+ science writers who commented on Ed’s post – many now professional science writers, journalists and editors – perceive the roles and strengths of blogging. How do they approach blogging differently than writing for more formal publications? What roles do they see blogging playing?

Keep in mind, most of these comments (many of which I quote below) are from mid-2010. Blogging, in style, content and motivation, has certainly changed since then.

Science blogging as practice.

Many science writers commenting on Ed’s piece seem to see blogging as vital practice in becoming a better writer. For example, Jonathan Gitlin engaged in research writing “before the Research Blogging movement got underway.” He advises aspiring writers to “get out there and do it” – which includes starting your own blog. “Think of your audience, try and find an interesting angle,” he writes.

Sean Carrol, now blogging here, writes in another comment: “Blogging was and is great preparation for all kinds of writing.”

Dave Mosher offers this advice in his comment on Ed’s piece: “blog on your own if no one will pay you.” Dave writes that tweeting and blogging are “becoming an increasingly powerful way to network, get story ideas, find sources on the fly and improve your writing. Even if you don’t get paid for it, start a blog.”

Another key aspect to blogging seems to be reading others’ blogs. This seems to be a key way for science writers to 1) find out what is already being covered, 2) learn better writing approaches and 3) build a unique or signature writing style, theme or beat.

Science blogging as a way of learning on a new level, and becoming a better scientist.

Now a psycho/neuro blogger at Psychology Today, Sandeep Gautam writes of his blogging in a comment on Ed’s post: “[I]n a science blog I found the perfect outlet for my new found passion for science – till I started blogging, I had this feeling that I was consuming and assimilating a lot of scientific knowledge and methodology, but to little avail. Blogging seemed to come as a boon, giving me opportunities to put that knowledge to new uses and learn on a whole new level by interacting with the science blogging and reading community (which was very welcoming to say the least).”

Stephen Curry, a Professor of Structural Biology at Imperial College, London, credits his blog [also here] for making him a better scientist, “forcing me to think more broadly about my work and my role in society as a scientist.”

Blogging for a book…

Dave Munger writes that once he and his wife, an expert in psychology, had decided to write a book, they decided to “keep notes for it on a blog. That blog was Cognitive Daily [which led to the idea for ResearchBlogging.org], which ended up being one of the most popular psychology blogs on the net. We never did write that book.”

Among his many other goals and forms of writing, Brian Switek knew he wanted to write a book about evolution before he even started blogging. He used his blog as a way to fine-tune his online writing skills, moving from there into freelance writing, blogging for prestigious science magazines, etc. He now blogs at National Geographic.

Jennifer Ouellette also had a series of blog posts turn into a book, a progression many other science bloggers have mentioned online and in interview with me. Perhaps blogging and writing a book require similar degrees of pouring yourself into the writing.

Blogging for a broader audience? Who knew!

Andy Extance comments on Ed’s blog post that he set up his blog Simple Climate to bring specialized knowledge to a broader audience than his writing in Physics World and Chemistry World reached. This is an interesting (and newer?) motivation and role for science blogging – that some blogs might actually reach a broader audience than some specialized science publications do. Andy, chemist by training, is now a freelance science writer and editor.

Sheril Kirshenbaum also writes in a comment that she quickly realized “blogging could serve as a constructive way to engage non-scientists in important science and policy conversations.”

Once Emil Viktor Nilsson decided that his quest in life was making science more accessible for the general public, he decided to write a blog for a Swedish science magazine that had awarded him a science writing contest prize. He writes in a comment on Ed Yong’s piece: “I think my best ability as a writer is to put new scientific discoveries into perspective, into context. Reading philosophy has really helped me in understanding the importance of the broad perspective, and that scientific discovery is not (only) about finding out cool stuff and publishing articles in high rated magazines.” Putting science into context certainly appears to be a larger theme, and a strength, among science bloggers.

Blogging as a “break” from academic writing, a way to get accurate information “out there” and a place for combining diverse interests.

Eoin Lettice is author of the blog Communicate Science. As a plant scientist, Eoin writes in a comment on Ed’s post: “[w]riting in general terms about science is a nice break from the more focused scientific writing that takes up most of my time. It’s fun and a distraction as well as being highly rewarding. Feedback from readers is a big bonus and helps to push you on to improve your posts and try to innovate.”

Many scientists and academics seem to blog as a “break” from academic writing – a little something different. In this style of blogging, they often blog about cool research papers that are tangential to their primary field, about issues they face in academia, and about what it’s like to be a scientist. From my reading experience, active scientists will sometimes blog about their own research findings and papers, but this is far from their primary blogging topic. A blog often allows the scientist or academic to be him- or herself in ways that writing scholarly articles does not.

Other scientists have started blogging in part to provide what they feel is missing in mainstream coverage of science. Sally Church writes in a comment on Not Rocket Science: “I started blogging partly out of frustration and exasperation with poorly written articles on science topics by journalists that had no analysis or the writer frequently didn’t understand science. My original goal was to explain complex issues more simply and offer some meaning or context in the wider scheme of things for those interested in cancer.”

"I have something to say about that."

“I had a long standing gripe (as someone with a degree in AI) with some researchers who made extravagant claims about human-level intelligence coming in the next few years.” – Martin Robbins

Martin Robbins writes that he started blogging “out of annoyance,” as a way to “scratch an itch.” But then, “over the following months it become more serious, and I began doing a lot more original research on posts, rather than just commenting on news stories. Inspired by people like Orac, Ben Goldacre and PalMD I started digging into bad science, and took an interest in its spread in the developing world.”

Martin emphasizes, and I agree, that blogging often opens up other opportunities in (more formal – and paid) science writing. Many successful science writers would tell you to start by blogging as a way to show your expertise in a topic or field of science.

“When I began writing, people looking to enter the field often talked despondently about the vicious cycle of not being hired because they lacked experience, yet not being able to get experience if no-one hired them. Blogging provides a solution. Blog about a field or a cause that is dear to your heart (or indeed one that you would like to develop knowledge and expertise in), and comment on blogs written by people you admire. Even if you are wary of starting your own blog, get a feel for it by commenting on other people’s blogs. Interact with these and other people on Twitter. There’s never been an easier time to show people what you know.” – Simon Frantz, in this comment

As Ivan Oransky puts it, “More and more, hiring managers [for science journalism] are looking for people with expertise. And you can prove you have that on a blog and Twitter.”

Where science blogging just fits: Science education

Many science bloggers, often those with training in the science, have a goal very different than journalism or raising their profile as public intellectuals, and that is science education. Hannah Waters writes in a comment on Ed’s post: “Thus my blogging was born. An attempt to create a backlog of interesting topics, well-researched, essentially to show up in google searches one day.”

Julia Heathcote also realized science education as a strength of this medium: “I have adapted my blog to focus on my real strengths – science education. I am a better science speaker than a science writer, and I now try to write as I speak. This makes for a less sophisticated blog, but hey – my students, non-scientists and most importantly my husband all understand the concepts I explain.” Writing as if you are speaking is definitely a classic blogger style.

“If nothing else, I wanted the opportunity to share what I’ve learned with others.” – Steffie Tomson

New wave: Science blogging as Journalism

Then there is an approach to science blogging, popular today in the more prestigious science blogging networks, that looks more like journalism than essay or “personal-science-dairy” writing. While often bringing in the voice, experiences and expertise of the blogger, this style of blogging often sticks to traditional news values and the highest standards of journalistic verification. Perhaps it comes from a younger (arrival to blogging, not age) generation of science bloggers who decided to take on doing the science journalism other bloggers lamented as inadequate or missing. We can probably say Ed Yong’s blogging fits this category.

Erik Klemetti, whose blog Eruptions moved from scienceblogs.com to Wired in 2010, writes in a comment on Ed's post: “I’ve always felt kind of outside the mainstream of science blogging. I mean, I do blog about science, but Eruptions (http://scienceblogs.com/eruptions) tends to be a lot of news and less essays – I hope my blog provides new information, corrects misinformation and, well, keeps people entertained.” According to Erik, blog readers want clear and correct information that is not biased or glammed. Erik does seem to blog about volcanoes in a more “newsy” way, recently tying discussion of volcanos to the World Cup and writing about a landslide in Iceland.

“I tend to think that many bloggers get bogged down trying to be too clever for their own good, adding lots of personal information and rants – which are all well and good in the right times – but take away from the science they are trying to convey. If anything, anyone who wants to blog should have a clear focus, stick with it and not get wrapped too much into the us-vs-whomever mentality that the internet tends towards.” – Erik Klemetti

Science blogging is rather natural and organic.

On starting his blog, Ed Yong writes in his own comment section: “I wanted to flex my writing muscles on different topics and in a style that’s more naturally mine and since I wasn’t getting any traction sending pitches into mainstream media, I started doing it myself.”

Jennifer Ouellette did well in science and math, but never considered either as a career. After a stent as an editor at her college newspaper, and writing science-related news for American Physical Society, a friend told her that her “e-mails were more entertaining” than her straight reportage, and why didn’t she consider writing science in her own voice?

Jennifer writes in a comment on Ed’s piece: “And blogging? It is my metier. I was born to be a blogger; the format just needed to be invented. My writing has continued to improve in leaps and bounds since I started blogging.”

What do YOU see science blogging as? As always, please comment below or reply to me via Twitter @FromTheLabBench.

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