A few more thoughts on the position and the responsibilities of science bloggers

There’s been some more interesting discussion of the Nature Geoscience point-counterpoint on science blogging, by Kim, by Gavin over at RealClimate, and on Nature’s Climate Feedback blog. I’ve also been giving this issue more thought, because I’ve never encountered the notion that science blogging might be detrimental to the scientific enterprise before. As I blog under my own name, and have some hopes of a long-term academic career, I’ve always been aware that I might have to defend my online activities to people on interview and tenure panels who don’t see the point of it all, but I would have been rather unprepared for people who believed that blogging compromised my scientific integrity.
So what’s the problem? I think a couple of diagrams might be instructive. Firstly, here’s a depiction of the idealised relationship, in the absence of the blogosphere, between the author, or authors of a study, their fellow scientists, and the wider world of the media and general public.

mnet1.png


The key aspect of this set-up is that the people who did the science have full control over how their results are presented to the outside world. They’re the ones who communicate with the journalists, via press release, press conference or interview, and it is their opinions that will be passed on to the public*. The involvement of the rest of the scientific community in this process is limited to airing their issues and criticisms at conferences, or in comment-and-reply exchanges in the peer reviewed literature, or their own paper. The very best journalists might well contact other prominent scientists in the relevant field to ask for their views on the significance and/or validity of the research; but this will usually be in conjunction with communication with the authors, so they will probably both hear about, and get a chance to respond to, any comments before they make it into the public sphere.
Now, when science blogs are added to the picture, things are made more complicated:

mnet2.png

The major change is that through blogging, other scientists are suddenly crowding in on the channel between the research and the public, both directly (and interactively) to browsers of the interweb, and by posting additional material for journalists to consult. At one level I don’t think anybody is going to complain about communicating more science to the public; but a potential sticking point does lie in the fact that the nature of that communication is also different. Whereas most journalists are quite passive in their interaction with the source material, only concerned with finding a compelling angle** and translating it into language that can be more widely understood, scientist bloggers are much more likely to bring their own expertise to bear, which might lead them to put a slightly different spin on the results, or question a particular interpretation, or highlight possible shortcomings. This is where the tension lies, I think: the authors’ take on their own research is suddenly not the only story available to the public, and given the vagaries of search engines may not be the easiest to find online. Furthermore, this fact might not become fully known until they find themselves being questioned about it at a later date.
As I concluded in my original post, I am personally all for opening up the scientific process to outside observers, and placing a published paper in the context of the pertinent debates within a particular field. Also, as a trained scientist, I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to do in this medium exactly what I do in my day job: read and critically analyse published research, and independently decide what I think of it (indeed, that is a major selling point of science blogging in the first place). That remains true even if I end up disagreeing with either the research itself, or the way that is is being reported. However, it is also true that having established my own personal soap-box, some caution is required in how I use it. When talking about recently published research, I always link to the paper (I generally also try and find a homepage for at least one of the authors). If I do happen to disagree on some point, I always try to contrast my opinion with the original, and lay out my reasoning for the disagreement. On a more general level, I also have a responsibility to try to accurately reflect the balance of opinion within the academic sphere (even if I happen to personally disagree with it). This last issue actually seems to be at the core of Myles Allen’s complaints – he seems to think that climate blogs are inaccurately reporting the state of the debate over climate sensitivity. My knowledge of that particular debate comes principally from the IPCC reports, and climate blogs, so I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment on the validity of this accusation (although I hadn’t really noticed much disparity between the two sources). However, as a general concern, it certainly is one that needs to be taken seriously.
One thing that I don’t do very often when writing about published research is interact with the authors themselves, and I am now reconsidering that policy. Not for reasons of ‘fact-checking’, so much as that is only courteous to inform the authors that their research is being discussed, and invite them to come along and join the conversation should they feel the motivation or the need. Of course, calling it a ‘policy’ indicates that I’d given the matter some thought; in reality, I’ve never considered that my online ramblings were important enough in the grand media scheme of things for this to be an issue (RealClimate I’m not), and it seemed rather self-aggrandizing to draw attention to them. But perhaps I am guilty of not fully thinking through the consequences of my accumulating bloggery.
I’d be interested to hear what other people think about this new proposal, or indeed whether other aspects of my current approach need modification, in the comments (if Myles Allen is still reading, I’d be particularly interested to hear whether he’d consider this acceptable, or at least a move in the right direction).
*I’ll ignore for the moment the fact the fidelity of transmission sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.
**Again, ignoring that this particular need is sometimes at odds with reporting the facts as presented.

Categories: bloggery, public science

Comments (9)

  1. Scott Belyea says:

    Whereas most journalists are quite passive in their interaction with the source material, only concerned with finding a compelling angle** and translating it into language that can be more widely understood, scientist bloggers are much more likely to bring their own expertise to bear, which might lead them to put a slightly different spin on the results, or question a particular interpretation, or highlight possible shortcomings.

    Well, I am but a humble lay reader here, but I suggest that the above is a bit cynical, particularly when it comes to what one could call “real science journalists.” Carl Zimmer is a name that comes to mind; for my taste, he represents a gold standard in readable responsible science writing. I’ll read about anything with his name on it.
    It seems to me that there’s a fairly general suspicion/disdain of journalists among ScienceBloggers. I have no doubt that it’s justifiable in some cases, but it sounds to me as though there’s more than a strain of intellectual superiority involved which is not unrelated to the whole overblown “framing” thrash – only a scientist can adequately filter and communicate science.
    The above comments are not invariably true, but they are a general impression I’ve developed.

    One thing that I don’t do very often when writing about published research is interact with the authors themselves, and I am now reconsidering that policy.

    This is one thing which I suspect divides many scientist-writers from the Carl Zimmers of the world. There are pros and cons, of course. If a scientist is writing about a field in which he’s involved or has some expertise, I often wonder about what looks to me like some bias creeping in. Perfectly understandable … if you’re writing about your own field and about some of your own opinions/conclusions, I’m sure it’s pretty tough to present a “balanced” perspective.
    It’s an interesting dilemma to find the balance among scientific knowledge/understanding, writing skill, and a disinterested perspective.

  2. chezjake says:

    It certainly can’t hurt to inform authors that you are blogging on their research and invite them to participate if they so choose. I definitely do not think that one needs permission from authors to blog about their work.

  3. The Ridger says:

    Carl Zimmer is not your typical journalist, however. All you have to do is get outside the “Science” section of a major publication and look at the way things get presented. Much science news is reported by people who don’t know anything about the topic and just want a hook. For an example, the whole “Women use 20,000 words a day and men only 5,000″ thing – which NO STUDY supports – and yet which is still living and thriving in papers.

  4. Monica says:

    As an undergraduate student considering a career in science and hoping to be more-or-less in your shoes someday, I think getting authors involved when blogging about their papers sounds fantastic. I don’t see how more information about the research that’s going on in the world could ever be a bad thing, except that it could potentially jeopardize what I understand to be the competitive nature of academia (but I don’t know that that would necessarily be bad).

  5. Scott Belyea says:

    Carl Zimmer is not your typical journalist, however. All you have to do is get outside the “Science” section of a major publication and look at the way things get presented. Much science news is reported by people who don’t know anything about the topic and just want a hook.

    True, as I said. So what?
    From my reading, the same thing is true for much of the journalism about politics, military matters, religion, the arts, education, agriculture, and just about any other field you want to mention.
    From reading ScienceBlogs, one could get the impression that scientists and science are uniquely picked on and badly served. I don’t see it.

  6. Kim says:

    I’ve never considered that my online ramblings were important enough in the grand media scheme of things for this to be an issue (RealClimate I’m not), and it seemed rather self-aggrandizing to draw attention to them.

    That goes doubly for me. (You may not be RealClimate, but you are on Sb.) (I wonder how Famous Geologist That I’ve Never Met would react to getting an e-mail saying “Hi, my name is Kim Hannula, and I blog at All of My Faults Are Stress-Related…” It’s not like I’m Ira Flatow from NPR’s Science Friday or Carl Zimmer or even a reporter from my local newspaper.)
    On the discussion of journalists – I don’t think the journalist vs scientist is the issue here, really. There are fantastic science journalists (Flatow, Zimmer, Natalie Angier, and in my corner of the world, John Fleck from the Albuquerque Journal, for a few examples). But their take on the same story might be very different. For instance, Carl Zimmer wrote about a recent Science paper about the age of the Grand Canyon. His wonderfully written piece had a very different take than the discussion in the geoblogosphere. (I can’t remember who posted about it… maybe the bloggers could add their links, if they want?) The different perspectives come from different backgrounds regarding the work: the geobloggers knew about other studies that came up with other ages for the Grand Canyon, and talked about how the differences in methods and assumptions could explain the different conclusions.
    I don’t think that either take is the “right way” to talk about the paper. Zimmer’s article was beautifully written, and very accessible, and answered questions that non-geologists might have. The geobloggers gave some perspective on how geologists approach the question. I think both were valuable for different reasons. (And I think there’s a podcast from NPR about the story… I haven’t listened to it, which is why I haven’t commented on it.)

  7. Kim says:

    Argh… I should not try to comment while the kid is climbing on my lap.

    But their take on the same story might be very different.

    Should be
    But their take on a story might be very different from that of a scientist.

  8. lab lemming says:

    Is Dr. Allen’s comment available to the general public, or is it subscriber only?

  9. Kim says:

    Chuck – Nature Geoscience seems to have a Limited Time Offer to let people temporarily subscribe for free. (Or one of us who took advantage of the offer could probably e-mail you a pdf…)

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