One month inside the Empire…

By Ed Yong | March 23, 2008 10:00 am

About a month ago, I migrated from the safe, stable climate of WordPress to the unknown but promising habitat of ScienceBlogs. With four weeks having flown by, this seems like a good a point as any to have a bit of a navel-gazing retrospective about what’s changed since the move.

And the answer is… erm, not that much, at least not on a qualitative level. Take a look at the posts I’ve written in the old and new versions of the site and I think you’ll find that there’s remarkably little difference in the topics covered or the style of writing. It’s really important that people realise that the overlords at ScienceBlogs are completely hands-off in their approach to their bloggers and that everyone here is free to write about whatever they choose to. No directional dictates, no editorial smack-downs.

There’s a slight quantitative difference in that I find I’m writing more. Partly, that’s to build a readership in these new surroundings but it’s also because I’ve found that being part of a community has brought with it a slight competitive element. As the new kid on the block, I definitely feel a desire to show that this little blog can hold its own among the big boys, especially since it (perhaps unusually) focuses almost entirely on peer-reviewed research, which necessarily avoids a lot of juicy traffic-attracting controversy and makes it harder to engage in dialogue with commenters and to build a local community.

I also feel much more of an impetus to get things right. Given that the media is replete (but not totally so) with examples of shoddy science journalism, I’ve always had a strong desire to avoid misleading people here or, worse still, misrepresenting someone else’s research. That desire is even more potent given that I know I’m sitting in the middle of a bunch of (very vocal) specialists who will readily take me to task over inaccuracies or crap communication. That prospect is scary but it’s also tremendously motivating. It’s also helping to hone my spider-sense about crap research, because I don’t really want to write up something that’s going to get completely slated in the community shortly after.

I’ve been incredibly pleased with the comments I’ve received, both in terms of number and content. In particular, I like the general trend that the majority of commenters here use their real names. Now, I fully appreciate the professional reasons that some of you have for anonymity or pseudonymity and I don’t wish to slag off any valuable participants who have such reasons. But I do have an automatic fondness for people on the internet who use their real names – it’s classy and should be encouraged.

One behind-the-scenes difference that’s worth mentioning is that I now get paid for my troubles. Inevitably, some people will take this to mean that I have now sold my integrity for the right to swim through dubloons every night, but these people might chuckle at the fact that my wages (which are based on my traffic) are about enough to buy a couple of books every month. Dividing this by the amount of time I spend blogging, I’m earning about 70p an hour. Sweatshop employees laugh at my pay-check.

Nor is the promise of meagre financial reward much motivation to change the format of the blog in a quest for traffic. Truth be told, I have no interest in courting attention for the sake of it. I was getting slightly more page views on the old site but that was largely because of a significant number of hits from Google Image searches. Those upped the stats but always in a sort of empty way. I’m much more satisfied now seeing more comments and more feed subscribers, which suggest a rise in actual interested readers.

Ever since its conception, the goal of Not Exactly Rocket Science has always been to talk about new research in a way that as many people as possible could understand. I write largely for the sake of it and because the process – keeping in touch with new research, and the act of understanding and writing – is one of the most personally rewarding things I get to do.

The blog has always had a very deliberate focus on research rather than being a personal soapbox. I have purposely avoided certain aspects of bloggery like random personal diatribes or linkorrhea, which is a reflection of the type of stuff I like to read myself.

Obviously, preferences in the blogosphere vary strongly on this front and there are many excellent science blogs that never talk about research at all. I’ve seen a lot of debates about what counts or what doesn’t count as a science blog (or in fact, a ScienceBlog), which seems like a strange question, a bit like debating over what counts as a novel. It’s certainly disappointing to see a lot of people unflinchingly champion their own narrow vision of what a science blog should be, especially given that the medium is still remarkably young.

The massive diversity of science blogs on the net surely show that there is a very wide-ranging market for different styles of science blogging. That’s surely a good thing too – it reflects the fact that scientists (or those interested in science) are a diverse group of people with broad tastes. As far as the science communication ’cause’ goes, it’s just as valuable to have people give scientists a human voice or to deal with science-culture controversies as it is to discuss research in an understandable way. The only reason I’ve focused on the latter is that that’s the bit I feel that I can bring to the table well.

But… I’m open to new ideas and I want to get some thoughts from you lot. Are you happy with the blog as it is? Is the focus on write-ups of peer-reviewed research your cup of tea or do you crave more variety? Would the occasional personal diatribe from me contribute to your reading pleasure or put you off? Have your say in the comments, or send me an email (contact details in the About page).


Comments (13)

  1. chezjake

    I think you’re doing a very good job here, Ed. I enjoy your posts and find them well and clearly written.
    If you want to expand your topics here, it might be natural to post on your own thoughts and those of others on writing science for a general audience. I also would not object to an occasional more personal post.

  2. Sharon

    I didn’t start reading your blog until after it moved to ScienceBlogs, so I can’t really comment on any differences.
    I think you’ve been doing a really good job, and while I wouldn’t object if you changed your mind and started putting more general/personal content I certainly don’t want to lose the stuff you normally post. There are a half a dozen other blogs I read that deal almost exclusively in general content, I like this one specifically because it discusses peer-reviewed stuff.
    Keep up the good work!

  3. Mike

    Hi Ed,
    I love your blog (as I have told you many times before) ESPECIALLY because it sticks to peer-reviewed work and not cheezey thoughts about science.
    However…if you’re looking to expand, how about some philosophy of science articles?
    What are the limits of science? In the States, theres a lot of discussion of science and religion, and are they mutually exclusive?
    How about what separates Biology, Chemistry, and Physics from economics and other social sciences?
    How about if technology, perhaps information technology, is making the world a little too fast and connected for comfort?
    What will it be like if we can someday live to 150? Is that a good thing?
    Should scientists ever take a step back and ponder if they SHOULD do something just because they CAN do something?
    ….might make for some interesting reading
    Love NERS in its new home….

  4. Matt Davies

    Love the blog. Its especially interesting considering that I read scientific literature widely as well, but still miss some of the stuff you blog about or don’t have the time to distill some of the papers to the raw essence. There are other blogs that cover the way that scientific politics and the scientific community works. Diluting your blog with discussions of that would require greater filtration of your posts and reduce the joy I take in the vast majority of your posts.
    Keep it up.

  5. Stacey Cooney

    I picked up a feed of your blog when you moved over to scienceblogs a few weeks ago. I am quite pleased with the format. I can find plenty of more ‘chit chat’ style writing elsewhere which I do enjoy, but I don’t think you should change the format. I’m a science geek who isn’t actually in the sciences currently…so this sort of blog is perfect for me. Cheers!

  6. RNB

    Hello Ed, I have read some of your stuff at both the old and new sites, and saw you at the Apple store talk a few weeks ago. Just echoing the comments above, the blog is great, and there is definitely a niche for the pure peer-reviewed stuff. And I wish there were more of it. Using popular image or celebrity titles, it is presumably easy to get cheap hits (my blog is a living example of how not to:) but you have not sold out your integrity unless you tailor your posts to your advertisers. Please never do. And surely, after reading anything, we should feel “yes, I learned something there”.
    By the way, my real name isn’t secret, anyone can see my profile :)

  7. caynazzo

    Speaking of pseudonyms/titles I haven’t seen any posts on rocket science, psychics or the like (at least since your move over here). I just assumed the name of your blog was figurative or at least ironic.

  8. Folks, thanks for the positive comments. It looks like your views are pretty unanimous so far and indeed, they echo my own. I want to reassure everyone that I have no intention of diluting the blog’s content so aside from the rare personal bit now and then (like this post), things will remain pretty much the way they are.
    If anyone else wants to weigh in with more thoughts, pls do. It’s all good. In response to some specific points:
    Re: ads – I don’t actually have any control over the ads, nor do they have any control over me. The money that’s made from the ads goes into a central pot that helps to keep the website running and pay the bloggers. And apologies to anyone in advance if any of the ads turn out to be wildly inappropriate (which has happened before and will probably happen again) – I have no say in them.
    Re: the blog’s name – yeah, it’s just figurative. I don’t cover physics or chemistry because I don’t know enough about them and I refuse to write about topics I don’t have the first clue about. As a general rule, if I can’t make sense of the original paper, I don’t write about it. Also, caynazzo, did you mean to write psychics, as opposed to physics? :-)

  9. caynazzo

    Well, you know… heheh
    In case you’re interested, I have a book recommendation. “Evolution” by Nicholas H. Barton. It’s billed as an undergrad textbook. I only just started reading it, but from what I understand, it’s supposed to be the most comprehensive book there is on the topic of evolution.

  10. Hi Ed,
    You are doing great. Being a long time regular follower of your blog I can reassure you that neither the content , nor the style has been diluted by you joining Scinceblogs…and I love it.
    Though, for my own, personal , selfish reasons, I wish that you wrote more on psychology related topics, rather than biology-related topics that you seem to prefer.

  11. Spaulding

    The writeups or comparisons of peer-reviewed research, in casual language, with sources cited, is my favorite aspect of this and other science blogs. I’m partial to biology stuff, but happily check out articles on other topics too.
    It’s your blog, do whatever interests you. But from what I’ve seen, you’ve got a good formula and an accessable writing style.

  12. I wasn’t familiar with your blog until you moved to science blogs, but I’ve become a huge fan since. Your blog is honestly an inspiration to me in my own blogging, as your dedication to writing original commentary on peer-reviewed articles is commendable. It has prompted me to try to do more of the same. It has also made me feel inadequate in my writing ability, because for me to write as many quality posts as you do in your blog, I would probably have to drop out of school. So, I’m assuming you can write them much more quickly and fluently than I. I hope that’s a skill I can acquire with time.
    As for suggestions, I personally am not crazy about bloggers going off on personal tangents. I think your blog stands out on science blogs due to the quality of each and every post, and your focus on peer-reviewed research. I wouldn’t change that. Sometimes I feel ripped off when I go to a blog and just find that the most recent posting is a link to a youtube video or a paragraph about the Iraq war. Science blogs is for science writing, and you are in my opinion doing some of the best writing of the group, so I would say just stick with the same.

  13. Matlatzinca

    Hey Ed,
    Great job keeping up excellent posts. I was a fan from the old site and was delighted to see you join the ranks of SB. I think your blog is a fantastic addition to the SB community. Keep up the good work!


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