the benefits of science blogging

A couple of weeks ago one of the commenters on Ken Perrott’s Open Parachute pointed me at a paper about blogging (& in fact Ken’s already written about it). Shelley Batts & her colleagues have looked at the benefits of ‘institutional’ blogging – to the institution, the bloggers, and those reading the blog. I found it helpful & thought-provoking, & it sparked a conversation between me & some colleagues elsewhere on campus.

I’ve written before about why I write this blog: it’s fun, it’s a good discipline, it’s useful in teaching (not just for me & my students but also – I hope! – for secondary teachers & students) – & it helps to get science into the public domain. Well, I’d like to think it does; there are a lot of science blogs out there & I know I’m a very small frog in that particular pond. Even in New Zealand – as Ken says, there are few science blogs based in NZ (or at least, when I did a quick search it turned up only a handful), & even fewer that are written by scientists based in universities, Crown Research Institutes, or other research institutions.

That’s a pity, because, as Batts & her colleagues note:

Scientific discovery occurs in the lab one experiment at a time, but science itself moves forward based on a series of ongoing conversations, from a Nobel Prize winner’s acceptance speech to collegial chats at a pub. When these conversations flow into the mainstream, they nurture the development of an informed public who understand the value of funding basic research and making evidence-based voting decisions. It is in the interests of scientists and academic institutions alike to bring these conversations into the public sphere.

 This resonates with me personally, not least because it reflects the philosophy of the Cafe Scientifique movement – we’ve got a Cafe here in Hamilton, supported by my School at the University. As I said, I see blogging as just another way of getting science out there in the public domain, and enabling conversations about that science. (It doesn’t matter where those conversations take place – but do feel free to have them here occasionally!)

Because many science bloggers are practising scientists or experts in their field, they can provide a unique educational bridge between academic and the public and distill important experimental findings into an accessible, interactive format.

There’s more to it than that public interface, mind you. As the PLoS paper points out, blogs can also provide a medium for peer comment on & review of research papers, and a way of building links and enabling conversations between researchers. And for all these reasons, it would be really good to see more blogs like this one.

[And yet there is] a lack of institutional blogs or blogs by established academics.

Yes, there are a number of issues that you have to deal with in venturing into the blogosphere. Time, for a start – it takes time to write a blog, & to manage & respond to comments. And in today’s academic climate there are so many other conflicting demands on your time. If you’re a research scientist, you probably won’t write on your own unpublished work because of the IP issues involved. (But if it’s already published, or you’re contemplating someone else’s piece of published work – why not give it a go? If you’ve got research students – why not set up a group blog where you & they can discuss & critique a paper? A blog can be a useful teaching tool, & a "valuable medium for facilitating scholarly discussion".) And if your blog is hosted by your institution, then there may be some restrictions placed on what you write – certainly you have to think about how what you write might reflect on the organisation you represent.

And yet… a blog can raise the profile of your work (& your institution!), and foster public engagement with & understanding of the science that you do.

And blogging can be fun. Come on in – the water’s fine!

S.A. Batts, N.J. Anthis & T.C. Smith (2008) Advancing science through conversations: bridging the gap between blogs and the academy. PLoS Biol6(9): e240. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060240

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