Blogging for impact (Science Online London 2009)

Mark Henderson, Dave Munger, Daniel MacArthur

MH (from the Times of London) blogs because it provides him a different voice and a different audience. When he’s blogging, he can focus on a lot more detail and aim at a more specialized audience. With the web and blogs, it can be easy to find authoritative sources of information. You can give your work a useful media profile to the world. It’s also very nice to have a legal department to turn to!

Next there was a presentation by Dave Munger from within Second Life. DM is speaking as an optimist, while DMA is is speaking as the realist. DM believes that blogging is a really important method of communication for scientists. It allows you to build connections, present yourself and also present a longer, more detailed study of things that are important for you.

DM’s blog (Cognitive Daily) was started 4 years ago by him and his wife. What impact did it have for them? People recognize DM at conferences, but no money 🙂 . He’s also started a column recently on seedmagazine.com. His wife made full professor two years ago, and people at her institution really appreciated what she was doing.

What are the benefits of blogging for scientists?

  1. You can use it as a research or writing tool. You get the opportunity at a dry run for papers, for instance.
  2. You can tell a much longer story, and you can really engage with your readers and start building a dialogue with them.
  3. You can control your own message – no-one is telling you what you have to write or how you have to write it.
  4. Build stronger connections with colleagues.

What is DM’s vision of science online? First, scientists write about science they’re interested on the blog. Then that work (i.e. just the science-based posts) is collected on sites such as researchblogging.org and useful metadata is added. Then, at researchblogging.org they regularly select notable posts from each field of study. Through this winnowing, they hope that the mainstream media will pick up on the research that science bloggers have posted. researchblogging.org is starting to forge relationships with companies such as pubget, which provides links from the journal article itself directly to the appropriate posts at researchblogging.org.

Finally, DM says blogging doesn’t have to take over your life. What you get out of it depends on what your goals are. Some things are out of your control, and researchblogging.org and similar help you control those forces as much as possible.

DMA, who works at Sanger, spoke next, and is speaking more as a realist. He focused on how to balance your blogging with your career and how it can hurt you. He also blogs at science blogs as Genetic Future. The first aspect to talk about is time: there’s never enough time, and time spent blogging is time not spent doing experiments, coding, other writing etc. Microblogging and choosing topics close to your area of research helps. The danger of microblogging is that it can make your information stream more superficial.

DMA also has found it challenging to deal with criticism from his work colleagues about his blog posts. On the one hand, controversy sells, but on the other hand inaccurate and even perfectly valid criticism can damage careers. You need to balance the desire for open, interesting reviews with career protection. There are uneasy interactions with the commercial world, including litigation risks – he’s taken a fairly conservative route.

Finally, DMA discussed the identity crisis facing science bloggers. It is difficult to sustain multiple identities, and it is easy for your online persona to diverge (with time) from your professional identity. You have to tread carefully when you are discussing science with colleagues that you don’t then end up as a reporter for a bit of research you shouldn’t be reporting. Finally there are some interesting relationships between you and your research institutes: as a blogger, you’re not going through “official” channels.

That’s the end of the presentation: now on to the discussion.

  • (from Duncan Hull) Does the Sanger Institute have an official blogging policy? Not yet, though people are talking about it.
  • (from Ed Yong) to MH: How do you stop the blog from becoming the “B” role of what doesn’t make it into the paper? We try hard not to separate it like that. Firstly, they have a rule that they do not just post stories they’ve written that do not make the cut. Secondly, the way material is selected and written is completely different in the two cases.
  • Do you notice a difference in the style of online conference between the online newspaper and the blog? MH: You get generally a much much higher quality of comment on the blog. There is also more of a community feel on the blog wrt the commenting.
  • DMA: Do you think the current situation wrt academia and its relationship with blogging is transitional, and that in a few years all academics will be blogging? The benefits in terms of engagement are great, and there is already an increase in blogs. However, there will probably always be branches of academia where blogging isn’t suitable or doesn’t take off. There is still very much a sense in academia that blogging is a waste of time and that time could be better spent elsewhere.
  • There’s a lot of pressure on people to run personal blogs as PR for themselves or their institutions. How do we resolve this? Do you suffer from such pressure? He’s careful not to have the two worlds meet.
  • (From Cameron Neylon) Could DM expand on the story about your wife’s support by her institution for blogging?  You can have a blog that might or might not be acceptable to your institution. In her case, their institution is relatively news-oriented anyway and so it worked well.
  • Could DMA elaborate on your CSHL situation? CSHL only recently allowed reporters to attend. There was some discussion about why DMA was allowed to blog the conference without permission when the journalists were required to get that permission (more information on DMA’s website).
  • In 2005 there was an article by someone who said that they’d never hire someone who blogs. Has that changed since then? DMA certainly thinks the situation has changed, though it isn’t uniformly improved.

FriendFeed Discussion

Please note that this post is merely my notes on the presentation. They are not guaranteed to be correct, and unless explicitly stated are not my opinions. They do not reflect the opinions of my employers. Any errors you can happily assume to be mine and no-one else’s. I’m happy to correct any errors you may spot – just let me know!

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