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…
The conference on science blogging at the Harvard Kennedy School from last month now has a lot of multimedia available. There are Flickr pictures, like this one, showing a panel comprised of myself, Jessica Palmer, Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and moderator Sam Evans:
And there are also 35 YouTube vids of the entire event. I am going to post some of these over the course of the week with commentary, but for now, you can start from the intro, by Harvard’s Sheila Jasanoff, and go from there…
This weekend, I’m going to be teaching some science journalism at the following event hosted by Johns Hopkins and the Smithsonian:
Science Writing: From Eureka Moment to Digital Publishing
All Day Seminar — Saturday, May 15 – 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
From cells to stars, from evolution to swine flu, writing about diverse and complex scientific topics is an engaging, challenging endeavor requiring special skills. Today, well-known practitioners discuss how to find ideas, develop essential skills, and thrive in the digital age. Their ideas resonate with people currently working in the science or medical fields, writers who want to re-direct their work toward science or medicine, or anyone interested in how scientific information is communicated to the public.
9:30 to 10:45 a.m. Getting Started
Challenges of science writing. How to target audiences and choose an area of concentration. Ann Finkbeiner, writer, columnist, critic, and director of the Master of Arts in Science Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University; Chris Mooney, author and Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT; Nancy Shute, contributing editor and blogger for U.S. News & World Report and vice president of the National Association of Science Writers.
11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Finding and Developing Ideas
Writing about advances in science and medicine, science policy, and the scientists themselves. Chris Mooney.
Other panels later in the day feature Carl Zimmer, our very own, and Jon Hamilton, a correspondent for NPR. You can see the full roster here. Unfortunately the event isn’t free, but, well, if you visit me on Facebook you might learn something about an, er, discount….
So maybe I will see some folks there.
Throughout the day, panelists touched on topics including blogging as a business, the perks and pitfalls of the Web as a medium to distribute scientific information, what makes responsible blogging, how to handle false information spread through the blogosphere, and the norms and expectations of the science blogging community. The final panel explored the issue of “what needs fixing” in the blogosphere during which panelists discussed the responsibility and mechanisms by which the science journalism and law communities have to address these problems.
“It was interesting to see that speakers with law backgrounds were generally extremely reluctant to impose any controls on speech in the blogosphere, whereas some science writers felt that there was a need for stricter standards, and maybe even a system of independent ratings of the reliability of science blogs,” said Jasanoff. “Another interesting insight was that blogging under an assumed identity — ‘pseudonymous’ blogging — may allow socially valuable information to be conveyed that a blogger with a known identity might not risk communicating. This runs contrary to the normal idea that democratic deliberation requires face-to-face communication with known allies and adversaries.”
So what comes next? This was an “exploratory conversation,” says Jasanoff. “I expect we will fold considerations of the nature and impacts of the blogosphere into future grant applications and teaching approaches.” In other words, look to this space for more down the line.
I think I can safely say that our event on Friday at the Harvard Kennedy School, entitled “Unruly Democracy: Science Blogs and the Public Sphere,” was a success, and perhaps even exceeded expectations. The room was full; the presentations were great; we had a historic first panel bringing together representatives of Seed, Discover, and The Boston Globe to talk about three different approaches to science blogging; we had a real debate about whether blogs are “good” or “bad” for science–and we had a move towards some constructive suggestions for finding better norms in the blogosphere.
If you want proof that the event has caused some very important thought and reflection, you need go no further than this lengthy post from Jessica Palmer of Bioephemera, who attended and gave a rockin’ talk on my panel. Jessica is, broadly speaking, in my camp–or what on Friday was called the “Sunsteinian” camp–when it comes to the negatives of blogging. Why? Some excerpts from her post: Read More
On Friday at our Harvard Kennedy School event, I’m going to be giving my rather pessimistic take–already laid out in Unscientific America, and only amplified by “ClimateGate” and other events since then–on the science blogosphere.
I’ll talk about how in comparison with the old media, the Internet fragments and narrows the audience for science information, even as there aren’t really any norms for responsible conduct–and thus, misinformation, innuendo, and general nastiness abound.
I’m sure, however, that others will have a different view. Perhaps Joe Romm will; he has just joined our roster for the event. Certainly, his blog has been a major success and demonstrates many of the upsides of science blogging.
Such debate is all to the good; it’s why we’re having the event in the first place. Indeed, I myself will point out some clear positives when it comes to blogging about science (I’m sure you can guess many of them).
But taken as a whole, are blogs broadening the conversation about science by reaching new audiences, replacing what has been lost in terms of science coverage in the old media, or elevating our general science discourse?
I have to say, I’m skeptical. There is no going back from this new world, but it is important to ponder how it is currently developing.
However, the purpose of the event is far broader than my particular argument. Frankly, I’m most excited about the first panel, which bring together representatives of the two big science blogging outlets and the science editor of the Boston Globe to discuss the economic end of things; to my knowledge nothing like it has happened before:
10:00-11:00 Panel 1: Blogging as Business
Henry Donahue (Discover), Gideon Gil (Boston Globe), Joy Moore (Seed)
Not to be missed.
So if you haven’t yet, and are in the Boston area, register for “Unruly Democracy” here!
Joe Romm is now coming to our Harvard Kennedy School event. And Joy Moore of Seed/ScienceBlogs will be there to represent one key powerhouse of the science blogosphere.
It’s all on the website, which has been newly updated. And so has the poster. Check it all out.
So I’ve given you the website of the Kennedy School science blogging event–cosponsored by the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships program–but not yet the speakers list. Here goes:
Sheila Jasanoff, STS Program, Harvard Kennedy School
10:00-11:00 Panel 1: Blogging as Business
Henry Donahue (CEO, Discover), Gideon Gil (Science Editor, Boston Globe), Representative of Seed Magazine [not confirmed]
11:15-12:15 Panel 2: Science on the Web
Francesca Grifo (Union of Concerned Scientists), Chris Mooney (MIT and Discover), Jessica Palmer (Bioephemera)
1:15-2:30 Panel 3: Rules and Responsibility
Amanda Gefter (New Scientist), Kimberly Isbell (Citizens Media Law Project), “Dr. Isis” (ScienceBlogs.com), Thomas Levenson (MIT)
2:30-3:30 Panel 4: Norms and Law
Sam Bayard (Citizen Media Law Project), Phil Hilts (Knight Program, MIT), Cristine Russell (Harvard Kennedy School)
3:30-4:00 Open Discussion and Wrap-Up
Incidentally, I also want to credit the poster artist whose work is helping so much to publicize this event: Alex Wellerstein. Amazing work.
So, I’ve been working very hard over the past month to organize an event with Sheila Jasanoff of the Harvard Kennedy School about the state of science blogging. The event is cosponsored by Jasanoff’s Science, Technology, and Society Program and the MIT Knight Fellowship in Science Journalism. I’ll be putting up much more information about it very soon, but for now, just a teaser….the truly rockin’ poster:
C’mon, you know you want to attend….
It has been brought to my attention that a number of readers and science bloggers seem to be wondering if Monday’s post means I am retiring from the blogosphere. I’m not, but am glad to see that reflection on the devolving state of science blogs–and their tendency to be more sport and spectacle than science–seems to have resonated broadly with over 400 comments and counting. I will have more to say on science blogging shortly, but first a few words on why I’m posting less frequently…
Foremost, blogging should not be a daily requirement. For me, it began in 2006 when I lost a bet with students–as Cornelia Dean explained in her terrific book. I found I enjoyed the interactive exchange and the way it helped me to make sense of all of the endless ideas spinning around in my head everyday. But a good blog post is the result of inspiration, and over time it started to feel like homework. I’d work a full day at Duke, or edit my book for hours, and scramble for something to get on the blog as an afterthought. Blogging stopped feeling cathartic and became more burdensome while juggling work, travel, talks, some semblance of a social life, and wedding planning. So I’ve decided it’s time to change the way I contribute. From now on, I’ll write only when inspired. This may happen a few times a week or a few times a day. We’ll see how it goes.
And more importantly, I’m busier than usual this month because David and I are headed to Austin, Texas! I’ll be very sad to leave the incredible Pimm Group at Duke, but I’m also so excited about what’s coming next! While I’ll always stay connected to the marine realm, there’s another crucial area I’ve been growing more and more interested to pursue and there’s no better place to do so than Texas. So here’s the big–related–announcement:
The Intersection is about to become an energy blog. I’ll have more to say on that soon so keep watching… you ain’t seen nothing yet!