The Science Blogosphere: Not What It Used To Be

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 28, 2011 10:50 am

Over the weekend, I had the privilege of sharing a panel with two science writers I admire tremendously: Carl Zimmer and Deborah Blum. The topic was science blogging, journalism, and the changing media environment. Preparing for our session gave me plenty of time to consider the dynamic nature of the blogosphere and the evolution of online weblogs since my arrival in 2006.

Science blogging itself has virtually exploded during past years. What was once a small community of blogs and bloggers has grown into a myriad of lively networks that interact and engage with each other and broad audiences. We were initially a handful of familiar names and urls, yet now the list is so long that no one—except Bora Zivkovic perhaps—can hope to know every member of the ever-expanding science blogging community. Niches have emerged across disciplines, covering topics from genetics and open access science to, well, everything all at once. And the all-stars do a heck of a good job sharing stories and posing new questions as well.

It’s been extremely interesting to observe the shifting motivations of those who decide to enter the world of science blogging. Years ago, I suspect the majority of us were drawn to this kind of forum as a means of self-expression. A creative outlet. For me, it was cathartic–I had all of these ideas swirling through my head and posting served as a wonderful way to explore them further with readers. I doubt that five years ago, many of us envisioned blogging would be a career asset. At that time, it was still somewhat taboo. Universities didn’t know what to make of blogs and some initially tried to restrict participation by faculty and staff. Meanwhile, we supported each other and the community was close.

Fast forward to 2011 and I’m meeting so many so many fascinating individuals–particularly students, early career scientists, and journalists–who have embraced blogging as a way to stand out, engage others, and get noticed. Many job applicants list blogs near the top of CVs and universities are teaching courses on using new media. Bloggers with authority speak out when they see bad science reporting and a  system of mutual online peer review has emerged. There are exceptions to all of this of course, but I like the overall trends I’m observing: Blogs have become the norm. They are redefining the meaning of “mainstream media” and often determine what makes “news.” Best of all, they are changing perceptions of who scientists are and what we do.

These are my thoughts on the flight home to Austin, and I’m curious to hear readers’ perspectives on the evolution of science blogging. If you are a blogger, when did you begin and what motivated your decision? If you’re a reader, do you enjoy the burgeoning community or feel lost because of information overload? Are your favorite blogs written by scientists, science journalists, or someone in between? The comment thread is yours for discussion, and I’ll be back to participate…

Comments (20)

  1. Ah, the good old days when one could know and regularly read ALL science bloggers. I just had them all bookmarked and checked them manually every day….

    Nobody knows how many science blogs (and scientist blogs, science writer blogs, medical blogs, skeptical blogs, science classroom blogs, science corporate blogs, etc.) there are in the world now, in English or in other languages.

    So I read posts that my friends on Twitter link to and recommend. And I make a heavy use of aggregators like Researchblogging.org, Scienceblogging.org and ScienceSeeker.org.

    While resistance still exists in many parts of academia, blogging has definitely moved up in that world. Now, for the most part, the argument is not about “dirty, hippy bloggers in pajamas covered with cheeto dust typing angrily in their parents’ basements”. It is more about “Do I have time for this? How does that enhance my career? What are the hidden potential dangers?”. Definitely questions that CAN be answered because they are empirical questions, not emotionally-laden knee-jerk reactions. The relatively new blog http://scienceofblogging.com/ is trying to answer some of those questions – I recommend you dig through the archives.

  2. I came to science blogs via phayryngula, which I started reading in college for the atheist content. From there I branched to other, more exclusively science-oriented blogs and now my rss reader has about 40 feeds, 90% of which are science-based.

    I started blogging myself because it seemed like a natural progression. My favorite part about science is sharing understanding with others. Rsearch is great, but teaching is my classroom, and blogging is a way of having a class of potentially thousands. It’s also a great way to hone my pedagogical technique. Since the “students” aren’t required to be there, you have to make it interesting to get anyone to read. I’m still working on improving that part.

  3. I’ve gobbled up science info on the web for years now. Since I started my own blog in Sept. 2010 I’ve kept up with many more. I only have an Associates in science, but I’ve studied astronomy and particle physics in my spare time for years.
    Specific blogs are quite credible, written by established scientists. Bad Astronomy, Starts With a Bang, and Not Exactly Rocket Science are awesome examples. Nevertheless, everyone has to take blog posts with a grain of salt, and that includes bloggers themselves. Info from secondary or tertiary sources really require a little bit of research on the web (as long as you can differentiate credible sources) to back up what’s being said. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take long to do this. It’s a skeptic’s job!
    I do have a goal to become a science journalist. I’m looking to go back to college for my BA, which should help. Honestly, the research and writing behind my blogging is akin to undergrad college papers anyway.
    I think the fuel and motivation that keeps most of us going is essentially a passion for science coupled with a passion for writing.
    -DJ Busby
    http://astronasty.blogspot.com

  4. I agree, science blogging improves almost exponentially with each passing year; there are now so many more good, consistent blogs out there covering all manner of science (even if they still remain a small percentage of ALL science blogs). What is wonderful is that so many are so willing and eager to share so much of their time and knowledge, and, for FREE! Slightly related to blogs, is the amount of wonderfully-collaborative (and productive) opportunities that the Web now offers for working scientists, as well.

  5. Coturnix wrote:

    It is more about “Do I have time for this? How does that enhance my career? What are the hidden potential dangers?”.

    These are very important questions. Also, what is my purpose? Who would I like to reach? What kind of discussions do I want to facilitate? And how do I foster the kind of environment I envision?

  6. For me, I am not sure I consider myself from the old school or not. Anyway, it seems with so many new bloggers out there we have become dependent on twitter.

    Sure, you can have an rss feed, but how do you get new stuff? For me, it is twitter. I hate to be dependent on one technology, but I am.

    Also, I think blogging has become more acceptable academically. That is a good thing. I still would like to see more student bloggers.

  7. I started blogging in 2006 to procrastinate finishing my Ph.D. dissertation and just kept going from there. As a working scientist, what I love about blogging is the casual, conversational, and social nature. If it ever felt like a chore to do, or I had deadlines and such I don’t think I would do it. I can pose questions, speculate about a paper, share photos, complain about science media … it’s great stuff.

    I hope that blogging can become more established/accepted for academics and students w/out becoming professionalized, for lack of a better term. That is, I’d hate to see the casual nature of it change to *always* being a polished, journalistic style (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It would be a shame if undergrads or new grad students decided not to start a science blog because they felt they couldn’t possible contribute among professionals trying to make a living at it.

    For me, participating in this medium is still more about interacting and socializing (like a scientific conference all the time with thousands of people!). The posts are merely a way to ‘meet’ new people and share scientific interests.

  8. Rhett wrote:

    I still would like to see more student bloggers.


    Funny, I’d like to see more faculty bloggers :-)

  9. I just wanted to add that I’m speaking at a scientific conference tomorrow about the role of blogs in science communication and this post basically sums up the content of my talk in five paragraphs. Curse you, Kirshenbaum! Maybe I’ll just stick this up and go to the pub early…

  10. Jocie

    I’m actually taking a class right now, at my university called communicating through social media. As a requirement of the course, we have to start our own blog and follow two throughout the semester. Although I think it can be a bit of information overload at times, I think blogs are a great means of expression and it’s a great way to engage and communicate with others who share the same interests as one another. I think what blogs have done for the scientific community is awesome. The emergence of online peer review has helped scientific issues become more transparent which is good to help maintain the integrity of the research.

  11. I don’t consider myself a “science blogger”, but my blog is in the “science” section of a couple dozen blogrolls, so some people apparently do. I really don’t know why I do it, other than that it is cheaper than heroin. My favorite blogs are written by… wow. Scientists, science journalists, yes, but also artists, culture wonks, optimists, curmudgeons, and activists. And this is just within the science blogosphere. I mostly start off just looking at a small handful of blogs; I am not nearly organized enough to use an aggregator or rss feed. Twitter (@cuttlefishpoet) basically acts as a series of shiny objects to choose among, but there are some writers I will almost always check out when their name streams by (I don’t tend to bookmark their sites, though, out of self-preservation).

    I guess the explosion of possible wonderful things to distract me has led me to a semi-luddite stance, where I deliberately don’t use tools that would allow me to unhinge my jaw and swallow the science blogosphere whole (if I may mix metaphors). On the other hand, I do follow Bora, so I might not miss out on as much as I think.

  12. @8 Ed,
    But with your charming accent, it’s going to sound far more interesting ;-) Would have liked to listen.

  13. I keep coming back to science blogs for reading material and for a sense of almost belonging. Y’all write like I think, but more organized, disciplined maybe. My thing now is reading your books, and writing about them on my blog. I’ve found so many more great books to read by following science blogs. Sheril, yours is on my list!

  14. Thanks, Sheril. If the internet existed when I was 10 (in 1974) I would have had a science blog and would have been writing furiously about the Viking mission to Mars and about pollution in the pond down the street from my house. It’s like having your own little newspaper. And it is important. Information overload is another name for a library. Nobody expects you to read everything in the library on your first visit; and nobody runs out screaming by the sheer quantity of books. The idea is to take your time and to pick and choose, just like at a library.

    The essence and value of science is free and unencumbered exchange of information … shop talk, if you will. That is what blogs can offer. This should make you do a double take on anyone who says it’s a bad idea.

  15. hah. i had short hair back in summer of 2007.

    i started blogging in spring of 2002 mostly to offer my opinion on everything. that was the time of the warblogs, so science blogs as such were still in their infancy. mostly it was derek lowe, myself, and a few others. most of you who know me know that blogging has done a lot for me professional, and educationally. i’ve met great people, and shifted from being a workaday programmer to being focused on science. no complaints.

    i can’t imagine life *not* blogging. so it’s hard to create a bullet list in my head….

  16. A very interesting article. I think the motivation of scientists to blog has been very well explained, also their influence on mainstream media.

    I would be interested in what the target audience, the readers, are like. Has any blogger ever tried to find out, what kind of people mainly read science blogs, and for what reason? Can you reach a broader audience, or do they reach journalists who then take the content to a broader audience?

    In Germany – certainly in other countries, too – journalists are still sceptical on the role of blogs as media. They don’t trust the “mutual online peer review”, blogs lack journalist standards and ethics – do they need that?

    For me as a science journalists, blogs are an inspiration, a way to follow science from a different perspective.

  17. I am one of the newcomers, still finding my voice and my place. I recently semi-retired myself, moving to the countryside and starting my own business as a geoscience consultant. Wanting to blog about my work and my business was one of the big motivations to leave industry. The community has been very welcoming.

    As an employee, I always felt nervous about trying blogging—and my work was not mine to give away. Attitudes and practices around that seem to be shifting, whether employers know this or not, so perhaps I was being old fashioned. Now that I know there are several industry employees that blog, I regret not trying it sooner.

    I wish for continued growth, especially in my field (energy and minerals geoscience). I think it would be terrific to see more blogs from applied scientists in commercial organizations and labs. In many ways, this is where science really meets society. Let’s challenge the tradition of secrecy.

  18. I started blogging in 2005 as a way to keep in touch with my family and friends when I lived abroad. The first blogs I followed were people I knew in real life, but that quickly progressed as I clicked through the blogrolls of my friends. I was hooked.

    A few years later, I began my foray into science blogging. With a background in general science and a graduate education in public communication (under Matt Nisbet, formerly of Framing Science and now the Age of Engagement) the science blogosphere was an Internet homebase. Then, when Research!America needed a space for an initiative designed to empower scientists to communicate about their own research, a blog seemed like a natural place. Over two years later, we’re still carving out our place in the ever-expanding universe of online information for and by scientists.

    @17 Boris – When it comes to trusting the online community (which was a big deal for my employers when we were starting out), I think more is at stake for a blogger to get it wrong.

    Mainstream media can have layers – fact checkers, editors, etc. – chiming in, and in someways that reduces the author’s responsibility in the news section. I hope I’m not offending any journalists (who I really respect) by saying that unless it’s an op-ed, I’m WAY more likely to remember where I read something than who wrote it. Blogs are just not that way.

    Blogs are intimately linked to their author(s). When it is personal (as most good blogs are), sourcing and reputation for getting it right is even more important – whether there are written standards and ethics or not.

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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.

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