Science blogs are a heterogeneous lot, ranging from personal diaries of life in the lab to sites offering technical tips and professional advice, with many stops in between on the hot-button science issues of the day. Different blogs serve different purposes, but one common justification for science blogging is that it can serve as a way for scientists to speak directly with the public, as a tool for engaging non-scientists, keeping them up to date with current discoveries and promoting the enormous value of research.
A recent study in the Journal of Science Communication, however, points out that science blogs are failing to provide this useful service (link found via A.J. Cann, thanks)
Is this really a failure or is it an unrealistic expectation?
Inna Kouper, a graduate student in library and information science at Indiana University, put together an attempt to “initiate a scholarly evidence-based discussion about the role of science blogs in promoting public engagement with science.” To do so, she selected 11 science blogs and tracked their activity during the summer of 2008. A series of quantitative and qualitative analyses were applied to both the posts on the blogs and the comments. While Kouper points out that science blogs are so varied that it’s impossible to pin down “stabilized genre conventions,” she concludes that, in general, they are highly insular to the world of science:
. . . those readers who engage in commenting are almost always associated with science in one way or another. They are graduate students, postdoctoral associates, faculty members and researchers. . . . science blogs are virtual water coolers, where fellow scientists and researchers can virtually get together and talk about “what’s interesting in research topics, what’s up with funding, looking for trends and needs.
There’s nothing wrong with providing an outlet for communication within the scientific community, but, as Kouper notes, there’s a potential here for providing “informed expert and citizen commentary” that is not being realized.
Kouper admits that she’s missing out on non-scientist lurkers, who read but don’t comment, so perhaps more education is happening than she concludes, though that leaves blogs as a one-way medium, rather than as a socially interactive place for conversation between scientists and the lay public.
I’d argue that the insular nature of most science blogging creates barriers that go beyond those mentioned in Kouper’s study that keep non-scientists out, and that they’re likely keeping out a good number of scientists as well. Science Blogs is often referred to as something like a “high school clique.” The Nature Network is regularly seen as a small private club:
Bloggers from this or other platforms comment on other bloggers’ posts, get to “know” one another both online and IRL [In Real Life] in many cases, and in the end, conversing often with a cordial tone. It leads to a club atmosphere . . .
Human nature compels us to seek out like-minded individuals, to bond and form communities. These can be very valuable for scientists, both as a source for information and as an outlet to blow off steam. But it’s likely slowing the growth of science blogging as it cements the image of science blogging as a niche activity. And the in-jokes and snark based on the personalities of the regular clientele sitting around the bar of a blog (or blogging platform) that are impenetrable to all but regular readers are certainly preventing the lofty goal proposed by Nature — that science blogs would fill the void left by science journalism’s decline.
Is that even a reasonable goal? To increase public engagement, Kouper suggests:
Science bloggers need to become more aware of their audience, welcome non-scientists, and focus on explanatory, interpretive, and critical modes of communication, rather than on reporting and opinionating.
In the abstract, this makes sense, but is it realistic? Writing about complex scientific concepts for a lay audience in an entertaining and understandable manner is a rare skill. Having done book acquisitions for a science publishing house for the last decade, I’ve seen a steady stream of well-meaning authors proposing books about their research aimed at a non-science audience. Very few have been able to pull it off. Scientist-authors seem to either assume their readers have an unreasonably high level of background knowledge or they get bogged down in explaining the most basic concepts, taking a tortuous path to get to the actual research they want to discuss (and sometimes both things happen in the same chapter). Writing for a lay audience is not something that’s taught in most Ph.D. programs. Skills can certainly be acquired, but this takes time and practice. It should come as no surprise that many of the science bloggers most skilled at writing for the general public are professional writers, not scientists (see Carl Zimmer or Jen Ouelette as examples).
More importantly, would shoehorning science blogging into an outreach/educational role ruin science blogging? One thing we’ve learned from the development of social media tools is that once created, you can never dictate how those tools are going to be used in the real world. Twitter was originally conceived as a mobile status update service. Its users, however, decided to do something completely different with it, turning it into a far more interesting and useful tool. Science bloggers are doing much the same thing, they’re taking a tool and adapting it to their needs, doing what they want with it rather than forcing their activities to follow someone’s plan for the medium.
The best blogs (not just science blogs) are written with passion and personality. Take away those strongly held opinions and you take away a lot of the fun of reading and writing a blog.
Let’s think of a theoretical world where the wishful thinking of science Web 2.0 advocates has come true, and blogging is now both a required task and something that’s evaluated as part of career advancement. Science bloggers: would knowing that your thesis committee, your tenure committee, your funding agency, and your department chair were reading your blog and factoring this into your professional advancement and continued rate of funding change the way you write your blog? If that career credit were based on the quantity of content aimed solely at education and public outreach, would you enjoy blogging as much as you do now? Would you even want to blog at all under such conditions?
Does institutionalizing a highly personal form of expression destroy its value?