How Can We Best Use Blogs? Help Please!

By Mark Trodden | February 11, 2007 12:08 am

While I enjoy blogging, and am perfectly prepared to discuss it with colleagues and students, I have generally kept it separate from my actual job. I don’t include it in my yearly account of my intellectual activities, I haven’t included it in promotion documents, and I certainly don’t blog about sensitive departmental or university matters.

Nevertheless, I think that universities and academics are becoming increasingly interested in the potential of blogs as educational and research tools (This topic has been discussed before here at Cosmic Variance, where an interesting discussion developed.) As a sign of this, I was recently asked to participate in the Syracuse University Faculty Development Focus Series. The organizers had come across our blog, and asked me to speak in a session with the following blurb

The community of weblogs is growing at an astounding rate. On July 31, 2006. Technorati, a popular search engine for blogs, tracked its 50th million blog*. How then can the educational community harness the power of blogs to get their ideas published and propagated? This workshop introduces participants to the different types of blogs and the ways they are being used for individual and collaborative research and learning.

Now, I have made it clear that I can only really speak with confidence about my own experience blogging, the issues that have arisen here and when I blogged at Orange Quark. I might have a few more widely applicable comments to make, but mostly it will be safer to speak about what I know best.

However, it occurred to me that we might use this opportunity to demonstrate how research might be facilitated by blogs, by asking you all to use this post’s comment section to throw in your ideas about the topic of the workshop. The question is

How can the educational community harness the power of blogs to get their ideas published and propagated?

I’d really appreciate any help you can give, and I’ll use this post and its comment thread as one of my examples in the workshop.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Cosmic Variance, Internet
  • Shawn

    I think you need to talk with Glenda Sims ( ) at the University of Texas, Austin. She has spent a good deal of time and effort bringing blogging to the University and has a great deal more thought on this subject than I have.

    That said, I personally watch the Science Blogs, you, and a number of other “primary sources,” so to speak, which basically accelerates the flow of ideas. Those in the educational and research community can much more quickly get feedback from peers (positive and/or negative) and ideas can get refined that much faster.

  • Suresh Venkat

    Some thoughts that come to mind:

    1. For teaching: a blog helps keep a class organized far better than a mailing list. students can post comments, or can even make posts. A wiki also works here, so blogs are not uniquely designed in that respect.

    2. A private research blog: I maintain a notepad of thoughts on a research blog. WordPress allows me easy categorization, and bookmarklets allow me to post links to papers that I want to read. Cosma Shalizi has the best example of this.

    3. A private research blog among collaborators: again, a good place to share and exchange ideas easily, especially at long distance

    4. A public research blog, like the n-category cafe. Apart from being an interesting experiment in opening up the innards of research, it provides a somewhat more realistic sense of how ideas develop.

    5. Disseminating blogs like Cosmic Variance: spread the latest new results in a field out to the community, and to the public at large.

    6. Real outreach blogs: like Good Math, Bad Math, and RealClimate: dispelling myths in the press, trying to be a one-stop source for media to reference to get good science (or good )

  • Schwaumlaut

    Speaking as an undergrad at the Ohio State University, I think I get the most out of blogs as a resource for news/activism and for digests of primary sources. PZ Myers, in particular, has shaped a lot of my views on a number of politicians and institutions by his tireless fight against ID, and I appreciate all the work Dr. Myers, all of you here, Jennifer Ouellette, and other academics do putting scientific results into lay language.

    I have a biochemistry text that remarks in the first chapter that reading scientific literature takes several hours per article if done thoroughly (which has also been my own experience), but many of the technical details are both irrelevant and incomprehensible to a lay audience. Even abstracts are sometimes too much, so I think things like Scienceblogs’ project to present primers on fundamental concepts and Sean’s idea to translate abstracts from the arxiv into plain English are one extremely helpful thing blogging scientists can do.

  • Flip Tomato

    Dear Professor Trodden,

    In ‘the big picture,’ it is important to note that the blogs are a major part of the social networking aspect of ‘The Web 2.0.’ That is to say that one cannot only speak about the potential of a single blog, but must consider the entire network (the “blogosphere”).

    The most efficient interface to the blogosphere is RSS. Through RSS readers users can subscribe to any number of blogs that they wish to keep up with. New posts are compiled by the RSS reader (e.g. Google Reader) so that users don’t have to manually check each blog to see if they have been updated. Thus new posts are delivered to a single place like e-mail or a magazine subscription.

    This is where the democracy of information becomes relevant. Anyone can start a blog and post anything. However, end-users (i.e. readers) ultimately have the power to subscribe/unsubscribe. Thus users can pick only quality content of interest to keep up with, providing incentive for bloggers to uphold content standards while discouraging poor blogs that nobody would read.

    Within a community (say, the Physics Blogosphere), blogs become known through trackbacks and links. This naturally occurs as part of the discussion that occurs in the blogosphere. As a secondary consequence, it introduces users to other blogs to further strengthen the network.

    The most important aspects of the blogosphere, I think, are the simultaneous opportunities to share useful information and to discuss it. Through RSS users only need to subscribe to the voices in the dialogue that they choose to; for example, a high school student may choose to focus on public-outreach blogs, while a researcher may choose to keep up with ‘arXiV discussion’ blogs.

    The benefits of this kind of discussion and information dissemination are priceless for those who utilize it. Through eprintweb users can have new arXiv preprint abstracts delivered to their RSS reader along with their blog subscriptions, making the chore of checking the arXiv as easy as picking up the morning newspaper. The arXiv has also recently experimented with trackbacks, which — if implemented carefully — could interface the arXiv with the discussion of the blogosphere. This type of discussion already occurs in blogs such as CV and is incredibly helpful since one of the responsibilities of physicists (as early as grad students) is to keep abreast of new papers. With the wider physics blogosphere participating in a discussion of new eprints, one is able to have a better sense of ‘hot’ and ‘interesting’ new papers than if one were only skimming abstracts independently with only cursory background knowledge.

    Perhaps an idealized situation is something like this: a graduate student wakes up in the morning to check his/her RSS feeds. The student skims through his arXiv feeds (say, hep-ph and hep-th) and tags one or two articles relevant to his research for later reading. He also finds a new post from a physics blogger about a nwe paper in astro-ph that is tangentially related to his/her research. The student reads the blogger’s “for a general physics audience” summary, which is much more understandable than the paper’s abstract. He decides that this paper is also something he should read in the near future, but is concerned because he doesn’t have the proper astrophysics background to properly digest the paper. Luckily the blogger who made the original post also provided links to review articles on the topic, which the student also bookmarks for later printing and reading. Realizing that this paper may be of wider relevance to his research group, he puts a link on his groups private research blog with his own preliminary thoughts. Later in the day another graduate student in the group, who happens to be away giving a talk at another university and so must communicate remotely, posts a comment in the private blog asking a question regarding the derivation of a particular equation in the paper. There is some discussion and eventually the PI posts a comment with a proper derivation (the blog is LaTeX enabled!).

    Down the line other blogs discuss this paper, which has generated discussion in the blogosphere. The graduate student can now ask questions or contribute more generally to the blogosphere discussion from his group’s own perspective. Some of his comments generate a suggestion from a reputable professor-blogger that he attend a local conference to hear about other related developments. At the conference, this student — who has been keeping abreast of current research topics through the discussion on the blogosphere — is able to communicate effectively with other researchers, leading to invitations to give talks at other universities and perhaps ultimately a postdoc offer down the line.

    Perhaps elsewhere there is an undergrad who, while reading outreach blogs, finds a link to the original discussion or the paper on the blogosphere and is inspired to look into the subject. Despite not having as strong a background as a graduate student, she is able to get the main idea of the research and decides to get involved as an undergraduate research student in a similar topic at her own university. Perhaps when she begins to look at graduate programs she will be slightly more familiar with which schools are active in her field of research.

    It is possible that this student also periodically maintains a blog of her academic interests. She decides to write about her graduate school decisions, being careful to write diplomatically about individual institutions, but describing in detail the factors that she decided were important and which were not. She includes tips on how to polish a fellowship application or how to be prepared for a grad school open house. Down the line other undergraduates find this post and bookmark it, taking the advice to heart for their own grad school applications.

    Let me take the story one level further and connect two different scales. Suppose the original grad student’s PI contributes regularly to a physics-outreach blog. The PI may make a comment or two about the paper that generated all of the above commotion, but may also choose to write about the process by which all of this is occuring — i.e. sharing the story of how research is done and what ‘real scientists’ do on a day to day basis. Somewhere around the world a high school student is surfing the blogosphere and finds the posts and gets a glimpse of what it’s like to be a physicist. Out of curiosity the high schooler subscribes to the blog feed and, over the course of time, it breaks down many of the misconceptions the student had about scientists being antisocial or strange. Of the hundreds of students who may have similar experiences, perhaps one or two choose to pursue physics in college, thus starting the cycle once again.

    In summary:
    1) The blogosphere (not just individual blogs) is also a relevant entity to consider when deciding how blogs fit into academia.

    2) RSS is the relevant interface for dealing with the blogosphere, where blogs subscribed to or unsubscribed from based on the quality of its content. (“The content of its character,” if you will.)

    3) Blogs are an effective method for information dissemination and discussion, where information and discussion are spread through the larger blogosphere network through links. Interfacing with eprint servers like the arXiv are a way to generate academic discussion.

    4) Different types of blogs (subsets of a community’s blogosphere) appeal to different individuals involved in academia, spanning the gamut from high school students to professors. The cross-linking within the larger community blogosphere is important to maintaining a robust network.

    5) The net effect is that blogs can be used as an extension of in-person collaboration, a research tool within a group, an ongoing academic discussion about new papers, a vehicle for outreach, etc.

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  • Paolo Amoroso

    Blogs are a terrific, largely unexplored public outreach tool for high visibility, publicly funded research projects such as space exploration missions. Press releases are a stone age tool: they look bureaucratic and corporate, miss the human side of scientific discovery and insight, and are often not timely enough.

    Here is an example. John Spencer, a member of the New Horizons Pluto mission science team, is currently a guest glogger of Emily Lakdawalla’s excellent Planetary Society blog. In a post titled The Hubble Scramble he tells about the last minute frenzy for rescheduling the Jupiter observations originally planned with the Hubble Space Telescope ACS camera, which recently failed. New Horizon is flying by the planet, and coordinated observations are needed to supplement those done by the probe.

    Spencer was also Planetary Society guest blogger in the summer of 2006, when he explained the problems and challenges of planning the New Horizons Jupiter observations for the current flyby. So, we have a busy researcher, with key responsibilities for his project, who accepts to talk about his job in a fresh, accessible, passionate and lively way with the general public — also known as “taxpayers”. This is an extraordinary act of humility. People appreciate scientists who directly engage “mere mortals” without mediators.

    The scientists of a research team are too busy to keep a blog or interact with the public? You barely have funding and resources for the project itself, let alone for public outreach? That’s fine, here is plan B: get an embedded blogger, i.e. a bright volunteer student from the local university who accepts to cover your project with a blog.

    Tell him (this means “him/her” from here onward) to bring his own laptop and digital camera. Give him unlimited access to your laboratory (provided safety rules allow this, of course). Show him the network and power sockets where he can plug his laptop, and the table where he can keep his equipment and peanut butter. Show him the floor corner where he can put his sleeping bag. Tell him what he can and can not talk about. Lock the lawyers into a room. And let the student loose.

    Science is fun, and blogs may be an effective tool for spreading the voice.

  • Alison

    Brad deLong at Berkeley has done a lot of thinking about this. Check out his blog for his metablogging.

  • Plato

    This kind of outreach is important to society. If you felt a devotion by spending the taxpayers money “a certain responsibility to them,” then such a step “as this brings brings you that much closer to the responsibility you share by helping the public by becoming aware.

    To point to what was the initiative behind Quantum Diaries? Some of these people are still active, and some not.

    This is to show you what benefits can be assigned to “societies understanding” of where the “origins of Particle reductionism” brought perspective to cosmic origins. Something beyond the particle colliders. An enlightenment of sorts.

    This gave cosmology along side of the theoretics, an important step to comprehensions that might not have ever made sense if people as scientists did not make themself available.

    The legal implications of course have there place here. Is there an autonomous ability that you would give to your professors to speak their minds? To the public as well?

    “This freedom” is important, to giving access to what would remain part of the higher halls of learning, while access had remained apart from the deeper rural communities and economical situations involved? A certain “equality and access” is granted.

  • adam

    I know that a lot of researchers read this blog, so the audience would appear to be there. It could at least allow for some of the same exchange of ideas that has traditionally occurred at conferences, with some of the same risks (share an idea, get scooped by a hastily written paper on the same topic by one of the people that heard you). You would, perhaps, need two blogs, unless you’re OK with increasing the personal/professional intersection.

  • Yvette

    Perhaps elsewhere there is an undergrad who, while reading outreach blogs, finds a link to the original discussion or the paper on the blogosphere and is inspired to look into the subject.

    As one of these undergrads, I can’t tell you how many times something like this has happened while reading physics blogs. It’s been great for that reason and for the chance to see that physicists are actually “normal” people… well, normal enough. 😉

    The classroom blog is one that has been used quite a bit in my own department because it really is a good way to get information out and have the questions of students answered. There are two slight downsides to this: there’s nothing you can’t do with a blog that can’t be done with a bulletin board (though you could argue the same now, I suppose), and whenever it’s an important topic the professor will send out an email to remind you to check the blog anyway. The only time I found a classroom blog invaluble was the time our prof used it to reflect on the class material/ post a few homework tips, which was an interesting read until he stopped halfway through the semester.

  • adam

    A great point on the undergrads, who are the researchers of the future.

  • David Corfield

    For some discussion of our philosophy of blogging as research tool/medium for communication you can read an interview with the other two guys.

  • beezle

    AIP and other organizations have long talked about public outreach efforts and clearly blogs could go a long way in that regards. While currently mostly informal efforts, I think at a minimum those large dollar government funded research and experiments should be required to maintain a lay blog as part of public outreach in an effort to help the taxpayer understand just where their money is going and what kind of results they are getting.

    In cases of pure theoretical research by individuals or small groups, or just very small groups of experimenters perhaps a departmental or institute wide blog with periodic updates to their efforts.

  • Sean

    I think it’s important to emphasize that blogs are as flexible and diverse as any other medium, from books to television. They can be used for anything from straightforward pedagogy and journalism to personal diaries and gossip. And can be just as rewarding or trashy, in the right/wrong hands.

    But, if I were a PR person, I’d probably emphasize the things that make blogs unique: interactivity, immediacy, and informality. The interactivity is obvious; between comments, trackbacks, and hyperlinks, blogs provide a great way to lower communication barriers between insiders and outsiders in any field. Immediacy is also a virtue; as soon as a story appears or an idea becomes popular, you can get quick reactions from people who know the terrain without having to go through the usual publishing pipeline. And the informality is one of the best features of blogging. For the readers, they are a great way to get an inside glimpse at the lives and thoughts of experts (in science or anything else); for the writers, it’s a nice opportunity to stretch one’s self outside what would count as a traditionally publishable article.

  • spyder

    But, if I were a PR person, I’d probably emphasize the things that make blogs unique: interactivity, immediacy, and informality. Thanks Sean, i really needed a lead-in line.

    If i were a University PR/Marketing person, i would propose to the administration that it support a blog site that represents the best of the institution’s blogging faculty and staff (student blogs can be all over the place). This would encourage those interested in grad school and undergraduate admissions to delve into an interactive on-going overview (meta-blog construct) of what is really happening at the school at any one point in time. This would also develop cross-campus (intra-campus) discipline connections and networking; for example suggesting that during the early fall terms, professors and grad students from diverse departments share their researches, planned investigations, concerns for future freshman and grad students etc. Such a forum is much more reliable than the pablum that marketing departments arrange to spew forth to attract students.

  • B

    See also my post on

    Physics Blogs

    for my opinion about what blogging can and can’t do.

  • Mr.Pigglesworth

    Well I am in 8th grade almost about to leave middle school so if u guys who have gone through that help us choose classes and extra curricular activites we should do if we are striving to become physicts. Give us help on classes and for the kids in college also give them help. Almost like a HELP blog or I would agree with a teaching blog where u give a lesson but u would have to give one for high school one for middle school and one for colledge kids! Just an Idea it would help me and would be interesting I could learn alot!

  • Yvette

    I agree with the above. When I started out my serious interests in science (in 8th grade- welcome to the club Mr. Pigglesworth, it’s great!) one of the things that always irked me was how I was obsessed with what scientists did but knew next to nothing about them, or what was really required to become one. It was quite lonely, and I know I wasn’t alone in this regard.

    In even the few years since (ie 7 years or so), things are quite different because anyone interested in science can poke around a few minutes on the Internet and quickly discover a thriving community happy to answer questions. The best thing in the real world to get into a field is some sort of mentor, and in lieu of one in the real world (most teenagers do not show up at colloquia to find one, after all), a blog can really help show someone potentially interested what the field is really about.

  • Sacha


    When I was doing my PhD, I wasn’t aware of any blogs. If I was starting to study now, blogs could be very useful.

    The great thing about blogs is that they facilitate fast communication amongst any group of people connected to the internet. Blogs could help people working on a problem together and allow people to make comments and get feedback – it’s a little like a party-line e-mail tool.

    Blogs are often used by economists and social scientists to publicise papers and ideas and to get feedback and input. Many academics could do the same.

  • Mr.Pigglesworth

    I agree with the guy who agreed with myself I know teenagers who are interested in Physics etc. are declining because most think its to hard or not cool (I like the challenge I have always been good at science but this year I took physical science and really like it and realized I would like to research and find things out around us!) but I am truely a few who would consider science a career I mean were doing this P.A.C.E project and people way smarter than me are doing things like engineers or something. Science is being looked at as a subject not a career. So if you made it fun and exciting some would still not like it cause its not their interests thats okay but some that have the right skills and interest might love this. SO A BLOG THAT WILL HELP WITH HIGH SCHOOL COLLEDGE AND MIDDLE SCHOOL PHYSICS OR ANY SCIENCE EDUCATION AND MAKE IT FUN WILL BENFIT PEOPLE LIKE ME THE BEST. If you want to make science confusing for teenagers and use advance things you learned in colledge go ahead but if you want to teach us tell us about PHYSICS AND OTHER SCIENCES IN LANGUAGE WE CAN UNDERSTAND.

    -Thank You Again Mr. Pigglesworth

  • George

    I teach Political Science and I have a private blog since 2004. However, last year I also started an unofficial blog for my dept (can’t have an official blog).

    I’m teaching a class on Media & Politics and, of course, we post on the blog. The students have various assignemnts and I select a few to be posted every week. They like it. Blackboard gives us the opportunity to have a forum or a discussion board, but it’s closed to those students taking a particular course, whereas the blog is accessible to all.

  • JMG3Y

    Admins – in your spam/trash file is a prior comment of mine from ~5 hours ago with a some example URL’s of where IMO this is all going. You are welcome to delete this comment.

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  • JMG3Y

    Ouch. An hour into the ether. One of the drawbacks of this technology. Another is that indexing hasn’t reached the level of ISI’s Web of Science either.

    Two posts on the issue of how blogging fits into academic scholarship:

    “Blogging Makes Its Way Into the College Curriculum” 2/14/07 on Nisbet’s “Framing Science” blog that brings issues at the intersection of science and public policy into the spotlight

    “Will Blog Posts Get Credit?” 2/7/07 on “Overcoming Bias” blog – will the academic system eventually recognize this media as scholarship?

    “Greg Mankiw’s Blog: Random Observations for Students of Economics” example of a class blog – Harvard EC10

    “The Pump Handle: A water cooler for the public health crowd” – example of an aggregator blog that is in the public health arena

    “Effect Measure” – public health bloggers that are making significant contributions to the preparations for H5N1 among other things, holding public officials feet to the fire.

    The blog “Pharyngula” by the developmental biologist PZ Meyers likely has had considerable impact on the evolution vs. creation / intelligent design debate with its huge number of posts and even greater number of comments. Very wide ranging, fuzzy focus that likely strongly reflects the personality of PZ.

    “Resilience Science” blog – an example of a blog by a group on a topic around which an institute was formed.

    “RealClimate” and “Climate Science: Roger Pielke Sr. Research Group Weblog” – two examples of blogs with in-depth posts and comment responses by scientists having somewhat different interpretations of the evidence in a high profile area that sometimes debate between their blogs. Fairly sharply focused.

    Two examples of applied science blogs are “R-squared Energy Blog” and “Transect Points: Views from the ground down”. Bloggers out applying their science.

    It seems that those areas that have a tradition of working papers, such as economists, are the richest in blogs. For an idea of the number of economics blogs, look at the sources for the “Economics Roundtable”.

    In science, neuroscience and related areas seem to have a disproportionate number of blogs. A senior scientist in that discipline said that many of the popular books, such as those by Pinker, in that area are targeted more at fueling the debates with their colleagues than they are intended to inform the public, which suggests a similar role for blogs in that arena.

  • JMG3Y

    On the blog “The Fischbowl” are two posts relevant to this issue; one from 2/6/07 titled “The Zoho Notebook” and one from 2/7/07 titled ” We’ll Need To Rethink . . . Everything?”. Both have embedded YouTube videos that suggest broader implications of this media and technological evolution will rapidly carry us into currently unknown and inconceivable vistas and new information paradigms.

    Some of the initial links in the “rethink” post are dead, a common problem problem of this media, but the remaining ones go in fascinating directions.

    The YouTube featured video “Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us.” by Michael Wesch’s Kansas State Digital Ethnography working group at Kansas State University to examine the impacts of digital technology on human interaction. They also have the “Digital Ethnography” blog.

    As an aside, I hit these from a link to the Fischbowl blog in an almost off-hand post on an old technology e-mail list serve for medical professionals on which most posts are focused on the day-to-day getting the job done.

  • Ann

    My mother is an 82-year-old retired elem and high school teacher, high school administrator, who also founded literacy programs, consulted on textbooks, and basically gave her life to education. She still gets asked to help at schools but is not physically able. She is online (she’s worked on computers since the 60’s while getting her masters at UTEP) and it would probably give her renewed life to be able to share her life experience, answer questions and connect with the young teachers out there who might use her advice. This introduces a rather emotional layer to the benefits of blogging within academia, a sort of nurturing each other that occurs within the classroom at the best of times, and may bridge some intergenerational gaps in understanding and knowledge.

    Blogging also allows retired teachers to teach with methods, or teach subjects, that perhaps their school board prohibited them from teaching. Or how better to match up the right student with the right mentor or tutor–if your brain works a different way and you can’t communicate with the teachers you are given, you could explore blogs until you find the teacher who understands your particular learning situation.

    If anyone knows of a particular site I can direct her to where she can most easily learn about blogging, I’d appreciate the cue.

  • James

    I am retired and am trying to learn about cosmology and particle physics more or less on my own (although I did attend some graduate courses last year). I did start out working in (condensed matter) physics, but much of my professional life has been spent in the computer industry, so I’ve had a lot of (re)learning to do.

    In this situation, the lack of colleagues to discuss topics is a big handicap, which is partly alleviated by blogs, even though they are not as interactive as face to face discussions. Blogs can be very useful in providing summaries of current work reported in papers or at conferences, as well as pointers to more detailed articles. Confronting Arxiv without some guidance would be a formidable undertaking, and blog articles by competent people provide guidance. Of course, as with most material on the Internet, one has to select reliable sources, and Cosmic Variance is high on my list of trustworthy blogs.

    I have also started my own blog, which I thought would be useful in describing my experience and summarising what I have learned, but it is currently a private blog as I’m hesitant to reveal my ignorance to the whole world. I’ve invited physicist friends to contribute, but this hasn’t been very successful so I talk mainly to myself :-)

  • JMG3Y

    Not blogging, but another part of the evolving information technology:

    On “William J. Polley: Comments and observations on economics and whatever else catches my eye” blog February 21, 2007 “Is Wikipedia an acceptable source for college papers?”

    (His answer – no, but very useful as a starting point)

    linked from the “Economics Roundtable” aggregator blog.

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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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