An EMBO report on science blogging

October 21, 2011 • 5:16 am

In the latest EMBO Reports (EMBO = European Molecular Biology Organization) there’s a piece by Howard Wolinsky, “More than a blog,” describing the new wave of blogging by scientists.  It discusses the genre, detailing all of its benefits and perils. And it quotes, among others, Rosie Redfield (exposer of the arsenic-bacteria problems), P. Z., Bora Zivkovic, “GrrlScientist” (I wish she’d give her name, as I think science bloggers shouldn’t use pseudonyms), Sean Carroll, and Professor Ceiling Cat.  At the risk of seeming self aggrandizing, I’ll append one of my quotes:

Coyne, however, does not share his interest in blogging with other senior faculty at the University of Chicago, because he does not believe they value it as a professional activity. Still, he said that he recognizes the names of famous scientists among his blog readers and argues that scientists should consider blogging to hone their writing skills. “Blogging gives you outreach potential that you really should have if you’re grant funded, and it’s fun. It opens doors for you that wouldn’t have opened if you just were in your laboratory. So I would recommend it. It takes a certain amount of guts to put yourself out there like that, but I find it immensely rewarding,” he said. In fact, Coyne has had lecture and print publishing opportunities arise from his blogs.

True, but I don’t have a “blog”!

What I meant about being “grant funded,” of course, is that if your research is underwritten by taxpayers, you incur an obligation, I think, to either explain your work to them or do something else to help them learn about science.

I believe the article is behind a paywall, but, miscreant that I am,  if you shoot me an email I’ll send you the four-page article.

And yes, I think that more scientists should have websites, and that they should put in those websites more than just posts about science.

33 thoughts on “An EMBO report on science blogging

  1. Quite right too, academics have a duty to inform the public of all the work that they (the public) have paid for, especially given the difficulty of accessing academic papers if you are not in a university.

    In my area, Statistics, only a handful of us run websites or blogs. This is especially shameful given the number of websites/blogs that mention or deal with statistical issues (e.g. Bad Science etc). And yes, I’m one of the guilty ones.

  2. “True, but I don’t have a “blog”!”


    It may be akin to theological discussions but how do you define “blog” and how does what you do here differ from that?

    1. Blogging implies that the blogger could have blogged about something else. What Jerry writes is merely the illusion of a blog.

    2. Does anyone here remember the musical group Cream, and how Eric Clapton insisted that their music was not rock and roll?

  3. “Blogging gives you outreach potential that you really should have if you’re grant funded, and it’s fun.”

    “…but I don’t have a “blog”!”

    So it’s blogging, but it’s not a blog. Sigh.

    Whatever it is, keep doing it.

    1. I would agree with daveau, keep doing it if you enjoy it. I certainly enjoy reading what you have to say.

      I don’t know how much the outreach potential really helps many of us with grant funding. People in my field apparently read my papers (at least they cite them, I’m assuming they read them!) but I’m not sure how interested a broader public is in arcane aspects of urogenital tract biology. I’m also unclear how the fame and obvious huge fortune (see the Coyne boot collection) that goes with a blog (or website) would play with a study section. Any thoughts Jerry – did your research funding level improve post site?

      I do seem to spend an awful lot of my time reading and writing and I’m not convinced that my wife or kids would appreciate another excuse to procrastinate on household maintenance. Plus as Zimmer points out in the article, most of us were not trained to do this, so I’d rather leave it with those who have a desire and a talent. Perhaps a lab as opposed to personal blog might work.

  4. Yes. It definitely would be of immense help and service to the lay people if more scientists blogged about their work and make it a little more understandable for everyone. It would also be a good way to combat pseudo-science and put a beat-down on those spreading quackery at people’s expense.

  5. There seems to be some confusion. Here’s how it works. Dr. Coyne does him some lightning fast research and produces a fine intellectually driven product that he dutifully presents on his website which is done as a public service to bring enlightenment upon the land. Soon there after I read the content and write a comment which causes a rut or blog to occur.

    You’re welcome.

  6. Part of the success of right-wing anti-intellectualism is drawing on the illusion that scientists are an elite minority hiding in laboratories and scheming for world domination and the corruption of our “Christian Nation”. We need more scientists on the internet. Including the public in both the failures and the discoveries of science would help break that stigma, and warm more of the public to science as a human endeavor, something to be applauded and celebrated, not simply used when convenient, and rebuked when it contradicts our stupidity.

  7. Grrlscientist’s driver’s license says “Devorah Bennu.” It’s not a secret.

    Grrlscientist is no more a pseudonym than Mark Twain or Boris Karloff or Lady Gaga. Names are what people call you, neither more nor less.

    Getting hung up on “real names” always smacks of magical thinking to me. Does knowing, e.g., William Dembski’s “real name” make him more accountable?

    And as far as any of us know, “Jerry Coyne” is just the name you use professionally.

    1. Oh, puh-leeze. And I’m not “hung up” on real names. I like to know who I’m addressing, particularly when they’re scientists. And OF COURSE using real names makes one more accountable: look at all the invective dealth out by people hiding behind the cloak of anonymity.

      1. She’s a bit shy, but as HP says, her identity is no secret and has even been up on her old blog site at times (such as during the competition to win a trip to Antarctica).

      2. Not all pseudonym / anonymous posters are hiding. Some of us have bizarre contract details we need to stick to. We are choosing to post anonymously to avoid stupid scenarios that clauses like “all scientific communications must be approved by the responsible Director” can bring about…

  8. Dr. Coyne, I think that science blogging by working scientists is actually a really important contribution to our culture. Working scientists communicate in a professional language that is not accessible to the general public. This makes it difficult for the knowledge they acquire to pass into the general culture. The role of science journalists and science writers, of course, is to translate from the technical language of working scientists into more accessible narratives in the dominant language of the culture, but this approach is problematic: introducing a translation layer isolates people from scientists and from the scientific process itself. While many science journalists and writers do an absolutely great job I don’t think their role is sufficient to transform scientific literacy in our culture.

    Scientists themselves writing about their own experiences and inspirations within their domains of expertise close the gap, allowing people to more easily relate to and understand the processes and principles in scientific research as well as to their findings. This is important if we ever want a lay audience to understand what science is and why it works. I think you’re doing us all a great service by sharing the ways a scientific perspective makes the world a more interesting and beautiful place to live.

  9. With regard to the last paragraph in your …um… website-post above, YES! I am not a trained scientist, but I am drawn to sciency blogs and websites. If you wrote about evolution and nothing else, or if, say, PZ wrote about nothing but biology I would quickly be well out of my depth and would find little of interest here. Encountering a meatier article a bit less often, though, I am better able to wrap my head around it. Kittens and boots go a long way toward easing the effort needed to follow your pieces that do require more brain sweat.

  10. Hmm, I see. So if I get into the PhD program with a scholarship then I should use my real name? Oh well the competition is pretty stiff so it probably won’t happen.

  11. IMO not every scientist has the skills to write a successful blog/website, but those with the panache to pull it off, like JAC, are invaluable. And if, by “…[having] print publishing opportunities arise from his blogs” Jerry was referring to his mass market articles (USA Today, e.g.), what an invaluable opportunity. Exactly what Sagan would have been doing, had this been his era.

    I especially like the sentiment, “outreach potential that you really should have if you’re grant funded.” Literature access is only the tip of the iceberg here. If we really think that irrationalism can be ameliorated at all, we have to reach out and touch those who have never encountered critical thinking.

    Reminds me of the time I called a nearby local field station of Michigan State University about the possibility of my then high-school-aged son contacting someone researching pond inverts. The person on the other end said “that sounds like something a land grant school should be able to accommodate.” Which got me thinking, for the first time, about the land grant tradition. As a product of two of them (Oregon State & Cornell), I was suddenly proud to be in some way associated with such a well-founded tradition.

  12. For those without a university subscription to EMBO: Prof. Coyne seems to have got it wrong, the EMBO Reports article that he discusses here is free for everyone. So go read it!

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