Sunday, April 20, 2008

Where are the female bloggers?

MissLaura at DailyKos writes
There's this question that the traditional media likes to ask:
"Why aren't there more women blogging about politics?"
"Why are most of the big political bloggers men?"
It's an interesting question - why aren't more of the prominent political bloggers women? When I started reading political bloggers in late 2003 or early 2004 I don't think there were many of them. But that hasn't been the case for a long time. Marcia Wheeler, Barbara O'Brien, Digby and Jane Hamsher (to name a few) are prominent female political bloggers. Seven of the leading bloggers at dKos are women: SusanG, McJoan, MissLaura, Georgia10, Plutonium Page, Scout Finch and BarbinMD. There's Arianna Huffington. And just because Michelle Malkin is a horrible person doesn't mean she isn't a prominent female political blogger.

Is there a deficiency of women among the prominent political bloggers? MissLaura concludes
Megan Carpentier wrote a really stupid piece for Glamocracy, and her failure to quote Markos rejecting her premise makes you wonder how many other people she left out because what they said didn't fit her narrative. But she didn't pioneer this kind of stupidity. She was rerunning a hackneyed story the traditional media has been telling about blogging for quite some time. There are lots of different stories to write about blogs and gender -- never mind "prominent" bloggers, why does it seem that state bloggers are so disproportionately male? How do women and men blogging together at group blogs get treated differently by readers or the traditional media? Is it the case that men started the earlier blogs, and if so, at what rate have women been catching up? Whose blogging is more likely to lead to paid work as an institutional or campaign blogger, as a journalist, as a consultant? Do meat-world credentials play a different role in how male and female bloggers are received? These questions don't get asked, going unmentioned to leave room for the fortieth retread of "why are the three bloggers the laziest journalist can think of all men?"
I have no idea if there are fewer prominent female political bloggers than there "should" be. But I don't see any reason to assume that there is a dearth of female political bloggers. There are lots of good questions related to why men tend to be early adopters of technology. But the question of why there aren't more prominent female political bloggers is only valid if there are fewer prominent female bloggers than would be expected. Are there?

[Update Sept. 12, 2014]: Eight years later, this seems so naive. The internet can be a horrible place to be female, with all sorts of hideous comments and threats thrown your way. Granted, it can be horrible for anyone. But the threats seem to get more graphic and horrible if you're female.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Tangled Bank #102

Tangled Bank #102 is up at Further Thoughts. Berry Go Round #3 was published a week ago at Greg Laden's blog.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Blogging Heroes

Bora got an email from Amazon recommending Blogging Heroes: Interviews with 30 of the World's Top Bloggers. He points out that it should really be subtitled "Interviews with 30 of America's Top Tech Bloggers".

While Bora had an idea as to who he would have considered the world's top bloggers, I realised that I had no idea who I would consider top bloggers. Markos Moulitsas, of course. Josh Marshall. Juan Cole. Volokh. Hindraker. Drudge. Malkin. Andrew Sullivan. PZ Myers? Seriously though - outside of politics, I wouldn't have a clue. And more importantly, I wouldn't know how to rank them.

How do you rank the top bloggers? Traffic? Impact? Recognition outside of their corner of the blogosphere?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Blogs meet Old Media

At the heart of Web 2.0 is the idea of user-generated content. While the vast majority of blogs probably are crap, some of the more popular ones play an important role in the dissemination of news. As a result of this, their relationship with the older media sources has been a rocky one. But as blogs have become more popular, "old media" has tried to bring new media into the fold. The result has been a clash of cultures.

In her article about blogs which I keep referring to, Sarah Boxer criticised the paid bloggers attached to newspapers and magazines. Part of the problem with these ventures into blogging lies in a cultural divide - asking reporters to blog tends not to work, while "organic" bloggers are unlikely to be a good fit in the newsroom.

Hank at Scientific Blogging commented on an article published by Neil Thurman1 in the journal New Media & Society in which Thurman looked at the adoption of web 2.0 concepts by the British news media. Thurman found that, as of 2005, only the Guardian had really done much to incorporate user-generated content. While they all saw users as a source of information, they preferred to incorporate it into older paradigms - bulletin boards, polls and restricted areas for feedback. Hank wrote

I read things like this and I shake my head in wonder. Web 2.0 today is like the WWW of 1999 in many ways. People thought if they threw up a website to sell dog food, it would somehow be better than buying dog food down the street. In the past 8 months I have had phone calls from various journalists or media reps who have wondered why our brand of Science 2.0 has worked well and others have stagnated.

The answer is simple; let people write.
Some of the areas of conflict that Thurman writes about are cultural: a reporter works to deadlines, with editors, and is taught to fact check. Bloggers are more like columnists, writing when they feels like it, about whatever catches their fancy. To make matters worse, they are constrained by stereotypes.

There is a stereotype of blogs as being misspelt, semi-literate rants. Like any good stereotype, it has an element of truth. But it isn't necessarily true. Wikinews, which is classic user-generated content, is a decent news source and is generally well written. Like any wiki, it's possible for better writers to correct and polish content added by others.

Other stereotypes are that blogs don't contribute anything new, they simply work of the reporting of established news media and, as mentioned in the Thurman article, the fact that a blog tends to be more about the blogger than about the story - the personality gets in the way. Again, there is some truth to these assertions, but they aren't necessarily the case. Most notably different is Talking Points Memo (and its associated projects). While TPM is the creation of Josh Marshall, his personality never overshadows the news (except for the occasional pictures of his son). TPM has done original investigative reporting and recently won a Polk Award for their coverage of the US Attorneys firing scandal.

Bloggings (as both a medium and a style of writing) has most to offer to traditional media when it is incorporated into the system. TPM has done it very successfully.

When is comes to science writing, science blogging can be superior to conventional ways of reporting on science. While there are excellent science journalists, there are also many who lack the necessary understanding of the material they are covering. Science bloggers, because they have a depth of knowledge of the field about which they write, are excellent sources for the communication and dissemination of science. And very often, they can be incorporated into traditional media.

  1. Thurman, Neil. 2008. Forums for citizen journalists? Adoption of user generated content initiatives by online news media. New Media Society 10(1): 139-157 doi:10.1177/1461444807085325

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Berry Go Round #2

The second edition of Berry Go Round, the plant-focussed blog carnival, is up at my main blog.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Should science bloggers just blog about science?

Anonymous Coward (his/her chosen name, not a descriptor) at Bayblab has complained about the state of modern science blogging. S/he wrote
Why do we blog about science? For us at the bayblab, it was just an extension to our conversations about science that tended to take place in the "cool" bay of the lab, the only place with a decent sound system. It wasn't initially intended to be public, it was just an efficient way to share stories among us so that we could have some conversation fodder. In fact, back when we started, blogging in general was mostly about personal journals and pictures of pets, and the science blogs were few and far between.

Now there are thousands of blogs dedicated to science, yet only a few are popular. And strangely the popular ones are only loosely related to science.
I don't find it all that strange. Putting aside, for the moment, the issue of how they define "about science", it seems absolutely predictable that the most popular blogs are going to be the ones that have the broadest appeal. While the blogosphere is swarming with graduate students and junior faculty, the truth is that most blog readers aren't going to have advanced degrees in science. The more narrow your focus, the more narrow your appeal.

AC characterises the top 5 science blogs as follows
Pharyngula (mostly about creationism)
Cognitive Daily (psychology research)
Living the Scientific Life (personal journal)
Sandwalk (some evolutionary genetics, and creationism)
Aetiology (pop science)
Setting aside a few quibbles (about methods and definitions) for the moment, what does this say about science bloggers? AC laments the fact that, of the top five, only Cognitive Daily consistently talks about peer-reviewed science and asks
Why is that? Perhaps there is less appeal in discussing recent papers than bashing creationists.
It's an interesting question, but I believe it's the wrong question. The question isn't why do the top science bloggers not blog more about peer reviewed research, the question is why are these people the most popular? Now, here's the methodological complaint. The ranking is based on Postgenomic's list of the top science blogs.
Rankings are based on the number of incoming links from other indexed science blogs and some secret Postgenomic sauce.
While this may be a good proxy for "most popular", it's really a measure of "linked to by other science bloggers".

Unfortunately, this makes it really difficult for me to make the point I wanted to make. So setting aside the facts, let me wander off into my own diatribe...

What makes a popular blog? Quite frankly, if there was a blog dedicated to dry forest ecology, I would be reading it every day. But me and how many other people? Not an awful lot, I suspect. A really good, carefully focussed science blog which only discussed the peer-reviewed literature on a certain topic probably wouldn't get a lot of traffic. And it would take a lot of effort to write. It would, of course, make a nice experiment.

Most science bloggers have other commitment apart from blogging. As one person said, the only way the justify blogging is by calling it outreach. And outreach should go beyond the people who would normally read peer reviewed science. Outreach involves reaching out to the people with a casual interest in science. Outreach involves producing content that would be of interest to people who don't normally read about science.

Outreach is also about public education. While AC laments
It's been said before, you can't reason somebody out of a position in which they didn't reason themselves into. And it worries me because to the lay audience listening to PZ Myers (the 800lb gorilla), it would seem that science's purpose is to attack religion.
writing about creationists and kooks is important - when scientists say "intelligent design isn't science", the public needs an explanation. And debunking the latest nonsense is valuable. There was a time when people could wait for books to be published or for to be updated. But blogging has become the medium of choice. This is even more important for a blogger like Orac - the amount of quackery in medical fields is overwhelming. A site like Translating Autism is great in that it bridges a gap from technical journals to the public, it only gets things halfway there. Orac is another step, but we need more to reach the Oprah crowd.

Downside of paid blogging - you can get fired

In her article about blogs which I discussed a few weeks ago, Sarah Boxer says:
Bloggers are golden when they're at the bottom of the heap, kicking up. Give them a salary, a book contract, or a press credential, though, and it just isn't the same. (And this includes, for the most part, the blogs set up by magazines, companies, and newspapers.) Why? When you write for pay, you worry about lawsuits, sentence structure, and word choice. You worry about your boss, your publisher, your mother, and your superego looking over your shoulder. And that's no way to blog.
Apparently this isn't the only challenge faced by paid bloggers - "performance" standards, it would appear, are based on traffic. Via Hank at Scientific Blogging, Michael Learmonth reports:
Another day, another end to a Gawker employee's nasty, brutish and short career. Radar says media reporter Maggie Schnayerson, hired in September, was sacked for failing to generate enough page views.
Apparently the writer's traffic fell from 400,000 page views the previous month to 160,000, when the expectation was 670,000 page views.

So what's a blog post worth, anyway? Some function of the number of page views it can generate. In that regard, context is everything - it isn't the post, it's the publication.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Learning how little I know

Since I am interested in blogging, I figured I could blog about blogging. It seemed like a simple enough idea. I realised how self-absorbed that really was, and named the blog appropriately. I quickly learned how little I know.

My first foray was into blogging ethics. And having jumped into it with both feet, I found myself uncertain how to proceed. Was I ready to jump into a fairly sophisticated topic?

Then there was the rest of the world. I realised that there are an awful lot of blogs about blogging - big names, top blogs. Science blogging is a niche endeavour - blogging about science blogging is a micro-niche. On the other hand, there was a lot out there that I don't know, there's an awful lot that I could learn. Perhaps, before I look inward, I should look outward. The problem that entails is that I didn't know where to start. What are the top blogs about blogging?

The best place to start might be Technorati. Technorati ranks blogs based on "authority",
Technorati Authority is the number of blogs linking to a website in the last six months. The higher the number, the more Technorati Authority the blog has.
Authority is an alternative to traffic measures - it says (should say) something about how much other bloggers value your blog.

So I searched for the term "blogging" under blogs (other options are "posts", "photos" and "videos"). At the top of the list was TechCrunch, which has a Technorati Authority of over 23,000. The name alone suggested that I had come to the wrong place, and a quick examination of their site seemed to support that idea.

Second on the list was Mashable with something over 13,000- at least I had heard of Mashable, even though I didn't know what it was. Mashable is "the world's largest blog on social networking" (which they explain as: sites like MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, hi5, Piczo, Bebo and YouTube; YouTube didn't strike me as fitting into that initially, until I realised that it was a way of actually watching people speak and perform). Problogger (at 9,508), DoshDosh (7,842) and Copyblogger(7,039) rounded off the "over 4000") crowd.

Of course, poking around led me to one really interesting site:

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Defining science bloggers: Casey Luskin and BPR3

Wikipedia has a policy page which outlines What Wikipedia is Not. While it is possible to define Wikipedia in positive terms (it is an encyclopaedia and an online community of people working to write that encyclopaedia), it's more useful to define it in negative terms - not a dictionary, not a soapbox, not a publisher of original thought... After Casey Luskin's recent (mis)use of the ResearchBlogging (formerly BPR3) logo on a post at Evolution News & Views, a debate sprung up over the issue of his use of the icon. The ResearchBlogging icon is supposed to be used for blog posts about peer reviewed research. I first came across the issue yesterday when Mike Dunford raised the issue - among the issues with Luskin's use of the icon was the fact that, instead of registering to the site, it was downloaded to the Discovery Institute's server and hosted there, with no backlink to

There's a more fundamental question of whether Luskin's post meets the guidelines for its use. While some people raised the issue of whether a review article meets the requirement of "peer reviewed research" and questioned whether EN&V can be called a blog (since it lacks a comment section), two other issues were more important:
  • The post author should have read and understood the entire work cited.
  • The blog post should report accurately and thoughtfully on the research it presents.
Luskin's post does not appear to meet the second guideline - that the post reported "accurately and thoughtfully". There's the quote mining issue - that bits were picked out of the paper to support a specific agenda. Couple this with the fact that Luskin put words in the mouth of the author that weren't in the paper, and the end result was that the post did not accurately reflect the paper.

In trying to define science bloggers, I suggested that
  1. Science bloggers blog about science because they find it interesting
  2. Science bloggers are interested in communicating their field of interest to people outside of their immediate field
  3. Science bloggers are frequently motivated by a desire to defend science against pseudoscience and denialism
In my opinion, Luskin's work can't be called science blogging - it's agenda-driven blogging which seeks to discredit science. Rather than making it more accessible to the public, Luskin leaves his readers with a misunderstanding of what the paper was trying to say. Given that my original set of criteria were based largely on intent, I think it may be more useful to recast them in terms of what science blogging is not.

Posts on this issue

BPSDBOther people who mentioned the issue

Thursday, January 31, 2008

How many blogs does a person need?

T. Ryan Gregory asked that question yesterday, as he launched his third blog at Nature Network. In the post, he mentioned his second blog, DNA & Diversity at Scientific Blogging. So I went over there to have a look - and realised that I had just registered at that site the previous day. At the time, I knew nothing about the site, but now I poked around some more, and it seems reasonable and credible. So I now have a sixth blog, Tropical Ecology Notes (ok, in reality it's my fifth, since I can't really count a blog I don't update).

Scientific Blogging seeks to be science-only. At the very least I can cross-post my tropical biology posts over there. It might be nice to put together a collection like that. Since everything gets a short while on the front page, let's see if anyone reads it. If so, great. If not, well, I'm not creating content specifically for that site, at least not yet, so the marginal cost of adding a post there is very small (unlike here, where I am blogging for almost no readers). We'll see - it could be fun. And it could fill a useful niche - there don't seem to be too many people blogging about tropical plant ecology.

Update: Gregory mentioned that Scientific Blogging was a way to reach a wider audience than he currently has at Genomicron (which is probably many times the readership that I have on my WordPress blog). Based on the one article I have posted there, I think he's right.

Defining science bloggers

Jeremy Bruno of The Voltage Gate does an excellent job of tying together some of the ideas I was playing with in my post on the Boxer article and my post on responsibilities to readers. Commenting on Brian Switek's response to Boxer, Jeremy says
Brian goes on to say how science bloggers are different, basically that we haven't fallen for the dressed up dumbed down money trap, even since the move to Sb. I'd like to riff on this idea for a bit, coming from the perspective of a writer.
Jeremy points out that there are several reason why science bloggers are different from your average bloggers, at least when they are talking about science - in part, because the community is relatively small (there aren't that many people who are really qualified to talk about science), and at the same time, there are enough knowledgeable people out there that
If something is wrong in your blog post, expect that someone in the science blogging community will pick up on it and tell you why you're wrong...Fluid physics and phylogeny take an instructed understanding to discuss properly, while the ills of liberalism or war in Iraq can generally be commented upon by anyone. A political scientist or a historian might be more eloquent and be able to cite specifics, but in general, politics can be approached by anyone with half a brain.
(Which is reflected, I suppose, in the fact that science bloggers spend a lot of time commenting on politics, but few political bloggers spend much time talking about science - DarkSyde at dKos being a notable exception. Of course, that does raise the question again of "what is a science blogger?" Is DarkSyde a science blogger on a political website, or a political blogger who writes about science?)

The contrast between ScienceBlogs and other paid bloggers may reflect a difference in where they are coming from. Jeremy agrees with Boxer that professional journalists who blog at blogs set up my newspapers and magazines tend to fall flat (or, to use his far more evocative language "forced, boring and stink of the inverted pyramid"). But these are people who got the job because they are journalists, not because they are bloggers. The people at ScienceBlogs earned their reputation as bloggers. It isn't like Seed went out and recruited people based on their reputation as scientists. That is likely to be the reason why Boxer's assessment of paid bloggers falls so far off the mark when it comes to ScienceBlogs.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Blogger ethics: responsibilities to readers I

The Science Blogging Ethics Wiki asks the question: what is the responsibility of a science blogger to his or her readers? This gets back to the question "what makes a science blogger a science blogger?" Sarah Boxer's article about blogs makes me realise that I have spent too much time in overly genteel company. Most bloggers probably aren't overly concerned about their reliability or reputation. Most science bloggers probably are.

So what is the mission of a science blogger? Why does a person blog about science? Without a shred of data, I am going to hypothesise that:
  1. Science bloggers blog about science because they find it interesting
  2. Science bloggers are interested in communicating their field of interest to people outside of their immediate field
  3. Science bloggers are frequently motivated by a desire to defend science against pseudoscience and denialism
While the first point doesn't necessarily require you to be committed to reliability, for the latter two it's extremely important. Nonetheless, having come across many a defender of pseudoscience who insists that they are pro-science, I have to wonder whether there aren't "creation science" bloggers out there, or "homeopathy science" bloggers out there. I'm sure the latter exist, but they are probably hard to distinguish from snake-oil salesmen. While you find the defenders of creationism out there, it's probably hard to be a "creation science" blogger - you'd probably realise that there's no science to blog about. Of course the intelligent design crowd actively quote mine science in their blogs, I've never come across anything like an interest in science.

Getting back to the questions raised by the Science Blogging Ethics Wiki, is the science blogger's responsibility to his or her readers more like that of a journalist, a professional scientist or a professional educator?

A journalist's responsibility is to report in a fair and impartial manner. While a professional scientist should also summarise the literature fairly, they are expected to analyse and synthesise the data, and generally use that to make a case in support of (or against) some interpretation of the data. The role of professional educators is somewhere in between - it's more important for them to report on the dominant understandings and less important for them to advance their own ideas (depending, of course, on whether you are talking to an introductory course or a graduate student seminar). So where does the science blogger fall? Sometimes you're a reporter, telling people about an interesting new discovery that you don't really understand. Sometimes you're a scientist, advancing the case for one interpretation of the data over another, or pointing out flaws in a published work. But a lot of the time, you're an educator, a person with some expertise trying to explain things to a group of interested novices.

If I am right, we're in a new place: not the place that Tim O'Reilly wrote from, trying to get bloggers to impose order on their Wild West, not in the place of the Cyberjournalists, trying to set standards of behaviour for reporters. But there are also huge swathes of educator ethics that don't apply either.

Blogger ethics: existing codes IV

Another existing bloggers code of ethics has been added to the Science Blogging Ethics Wiki (it's a wiki, after all). This one, the Healthcare Blogger Code of Ethics has five components
  1. Clear representation of perspective
  2. Confidentiality
  3. Commerical disclosure
  4. Reliability of information
  5. Courtesy
The first of these is similar to a point I made earlier - while we all have opinions on areas outside of our training, readers should know where you are coming from, they should know the difference between when you speak as an expert and when you simply speak as a person with an opinion. While it may be pretty clear to you when you are speaking as one or the other (for example: I assume it's pretty clear to both of my readers that I know nothing about ethics), it may not be clear to your readers.

The issue of confidentiality is far more relevant to a doctor or a lawyer, but there will be times when a science blogger has information she or he should not a manuscript you're reviewing that has something awfully cool...but there are probably far fewer examples. The issue of commercial ties is also true, but likely to have much less weight
If the author is using their blog to pitch a product, it must be clear that they are doing that.
After all, few ecologists are wined and dined by company reps (I can see it now, Forestry Suppliers sending former beauty queens as sales reps to ecology labs...)

The issue of reliability is important. If bloggers aren't taken seriously, then we have to do our best to change that perception. And then there's courtesy. I've said something about this on my commentary on Tim O'Reilly's blogger code of ethics. More later, once I've figure out what I think about the matter.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sarah Boxer on blogs

Sarah Boxer has an article entitled "Blogs" in the New York Review of Books. She opens with the line:
Two years ago, I was given a dreadful idea for a book: create an anthology of blogs.
Despite her misgivings, she did just that. (Not to belittle her achievement, since, after all, she had to find the best of the blogosphere, but Bora has now published two anthologies - The Open Laboratory 2006 and The Open Laboratory 2007, albeit through

Boxer writes about blogs and blogging. While she has some admiration for bloggers (Every sport, every war, every hurricane brings out a crop of bloggers, who often outdo the mainstream media in timeliness, geographic reach, insider information, and obsessive detail), the blogosphere she sees is very different from the one I know. She seems to only venture into the semi-literate portions of the blogosphere. When she talks about political blogs, she talks about Glen Reynolds (not semi-literate, but he doesn't write much) and Little Green Footballs. Why does she ignore Daily Kos, the most widely read political blog - and a place where front pagers often produce moderately long articles in literate English?

But maybe I'm just a bad blogger, or maybe I'm not really a blogger at all. Maybe I'm getting this blogging thing all wrong. Nonetheless, I think I'm getting it wrong in good company. Brian at Laelaps writes:
I suppose the disparity between the sort of blogging Boxer describes in the article and what science bloggers engage in is part of the reason why it's still a struggle for science bloggers to be taken seriously. Many people look at science blogs as a simple extrapolation of more normative forms of blogging, i.e. bad grammar, bad spelling, lots of unsupported opinion, stolen images & videos, etc. etc. etc. From what I can tell, though, science bloggers hold themselves to an entirely different standard and popularity requires not only a talent for good writing but accuracy and insightful commentary.
I've failed to write like a semi-literate teen. zOMG!!1! I am a failure as a blogger.

Maybe I understand a little bit more of the reaction to Chris Mooney's Bloggers Guild idea...

H/T Bora.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Press release or original articles?

BPR3 was set up as a means of separating blog posts on peer reviewed research from comments on things like press releases. One of their guidelines is
The post author should have read and understood the entire work cited.
Writing at the BPR3 blog, Dave Munger wrote:
Is it ethical for a blogger to simply comment on a press release on new research? Or should a blogger always read the original peer-reviewed journal article?... [N]ot every blog post is equal -- that some bloggers aren't acting as experts who have something important to say about the research; they're just alerting their readers to the press release. ...[W]hen a blogger is acting as an authority who has critical comments to make about the research itself, then the blogger does have a responsibility to carefully read the original work.
Jonathan M. Gitlin of Nobel Intent made a similar point
Obviously, from where I am, the number one ethical concern is that what we write is accurate and doesn't misrepresent the facts. ...[T]oo often, coverage of science news involves people taking press releases and rewriting them, with the PR spin intact. ...Sure, it takes longer to read than a press release, and sometimes involves spending an hour or two in PubMed going back through the preceding literature to get up to speed, but it also means that it's possible to see things in the research that might not have been highlighted by other coverage but are just as interesting.

What role should press releases play in the life of a science blogger? It’s difficult to answer that question without addressing the question: “what is a science blogger?” Is it simply someone who blogs about science? Obviously one blog post about science does not make someone a science blogger. Being a scientist who blogs isn’t enough either. And a science blogger isn’t simply a scientist (or someone with or working on an advanced degree in science). Without trying to define a science blogger just yet, it’s obvious that any science blogger (like any human being, I suppose) has some range of expertise. Science bloggers are likely to find themselves outsider of their area of expertise at some point in time. When you find yourself on the margins of your knowledge, it seems smart not to pretend you are an expert. If you don’t feel qualified to assess the original source material, then by all means use a press release or a news story (although it doesn’t hurt to scan the abstract). Just make it clear to you readers that you are commenting on the press release.

It’s a little different when you have some sort of “expert knowledge” (or are willing to bring yourself up to speed on the topic). In that case, if you have the time, you should really look at the original paper (provided that you can get access to it). Obviously you won’t always have the time to do that. But if you have the time, you should really go to the original paper and try to provide your readers with something better than the press release. Because, after all, one of the best things a science blogger can do is to try to present science to the public, to be an interpreter for people who wouldn’t otherwise be reading the scientific literature.

Some thoughts on copyright

Continuing through the "what others have written" section of the Science Blogging Ethics Wiki, we come to come other posts. Writing in Wired Science, Liz Burr reports on some questions from the session at the Science Blogging conference that caught my eye. The first one especially:
If you quote a blogger from their post, do you have to tell them? Should you link to them? In theory, blog posts are public domain, and can be used at whim.
Ah...the Wild West of the internet. Do people still feel like everything they find online is free for the taking? Then I recommend a short course of Wikipedia - hang around there a while and you'll learn the basics of copyright. Work done by U.S. government employees as part of their official duties is in the public domain. Really old stuff is in the public domain. Other than that, it's safe to assume that the things you find online are not in the public domain. They're covered by some form of copyright (even if it's a copyleft copyright, it's still not in the public domain). Any legal rights that you have not explicitly surrendered are still yours.

Of course, Burr (or the participants in the discussion) might not have been talking about the "public domain" in the legal sense.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Accreditation standards?

The Science Blogging Ethics Wiki links to prior posts that discuss the underlying issues of blog ethics. Ryan Somma of Ideonexus has an interesting idea: Blogger Accreditation Standards for Scientific Accuracy. I don't think it's feasible, but it's definitely thought provoking.

The issue he identifies is one of trust. There's general recognition that you can't believe everything you read online. The problem then lies in figuring out what to believe. Science bloggers tend to be an excellent source of information - very often they're a marked improvement over what passes as science journalism and "science by press release". But how can you tell the good from the bad? If you go to a place like ScienceBlogs you are likely to find a lot of good - but even they make mistakes. When it comes down to it, we're all amateurs once we step outside of our area of expertise. Since we all step outside of out particular field of knowledge, simply trusting the blogger is no guarantee that any given post will provide high-quality analysis.

Somma proposes the idea of after-the-fact certification of blog posts - that you could submit posts to a panel of expert reviewers who would decide on certification. It's a good idea in theory, but the problem would be one of finding enough experts. While this would be far less demanding than reviewing manuscripts, it would still require a major time commitment. There would need to be some sort of reward for doing so. There is very little reward in manuscript review, but it's still expected of you as a working scientist. In addition, if you publish, someone has to review your manuscripts. So what would you do to entice reviewers for blog post certification? Maybe when blogging becomes something that you can add to your tenure dossier. Short of that, I just don't think the resources are out there.

Wikipedia: The Missing Manual

Wikipedia: The Missing Manual has been published.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Blogger ethics: existing codes III

The Association of Health Care Journalists Statement of Principles may in many ways be more relevant to science blogging than the other two. There definitely appears to be shared ground. Of course, medical journalists should have even higher standards than science bloggers, because people take this stuff really seriously. One of the principles that really got me thinking was
Understand the process of medical research in order to report accurately
I tend to think of science bloggers as scientists and graduate students - people who either have advanced degrees in the fields they write about, or are pursuing advanced degrees. Then I realised that Brian Switek (Laelaps) is an undergraduate, while Chris Mooney has a B.A. in English (according to his Wikipedia biography). They are two of the most effective science bloggers. So now I have to rethink the demarcation issue. A code of ethics is all the more important when you realise that "science blogger" is both a broader and more narrow term than I had previously thought.

The codes of ethics put forward by Tim O'Reilly and CyberJournalist address some useful issues, but they are (intentionally) broad - they are meant to cover bloggers as a whole. The medical journalist code is more specific. While its target group shares many characteristics with science bloggers, there are notable differences. In general, science bloggers aren't going to be investigative journalists. In addition, their code is probably more narrowly focussed than a science blogger code of ethics should be.

Blogger ethics: existing codes II

CyberJournalist's Bloggers’ Code of Ethics is broken down into three broad areas
  • Be Honest and Fair
  • Minimize Harm
  • Be Accountable
The first set of principles are fair and straightforward: don't plagiarise, don't misrepresent, identify your sources and link to them and distinguish between advocacy, comment and factual information. In addition, they include this principle:
Distinguish factual information and commentary from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.
This point is important - you always see these pay-per-post ads - people who offer to pay you for product placement, in essence. Of course, people tend to justify them by saying "I was going to give a positive review anyway, so why not get paid for it". There's nothing wrong with it - so long as you let your readers know that you were paid for the review. If you don't let them know, you are violating the trust between reader and blogger.

The second set of principles deal with the idea of minimising harm. Generally bloggers should show compassion when dealing with people and be tasteful in their coverage of issues. While these are basic ethical standards, not everyone adheres to them. Finally, the Cyber Journalist ethics call on bloggers to be accountable. These are, to me, the most interesting.
  • Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
This is an important point, in my opinion. Too many people find it difficult to admit it when they make a mistake. Doing so is good for you, and it builds your credibility.
  • Explain each Weblog's mission and invite dialogue with the public over its content and the bloggers' conduct.
Isn't the fundamental mission of a blog "to write about things that interest me"? I'm not sure how important this is in a general sense. On the other hand, it's probably important in the context of a science blog. So I suppose that makes sense. As for "inviting dialogue"...does this mean "have a comment section"? Or does it mean something more?
  • Disclose conflicts of interest, affiliations, activities and personal agendas.
I don't think it's necessary to disclose affiliations unless they are applicable. Many bloggers use pseudonyms. Many people wouldn't be in trouble until they disclose the identity of their employer. But you owe it to your readers to disclose conflicts of interest. As for your personal agenda - no one expects bloggers to be unbiased. People read bloggers because they have a opinions. And while I trust a political blogger on politics precisely because I know their agenda, it's a little different when we talk about science. Science is supposed to be apolitical. We are supposed to leave our agenda behind when we start talking about science - or at least, separate it from the science. This makes for some interesting questions, certainly.
  • Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence content. When exceptions are made, disclose them fully to readers.
  • Be wary of sources offering information for favors. When accepting such information, disclose the favors.
  • Expose unethical practices of other bloggers.
  • Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.
Pretty basic stuff. The bit about exposing unethical bloggers is interesting - per O'Reilly's rules, you should only do that after you have tried and failed to get them to change using back channels.

Blogger ethics: existing codes I

The Science Blogging Ethics Wiki breaks this issue of science blogger ethics into six areas (see previous post). The logical place to start is with the first one: what are the existing codes? Three are listed:
Tim O'Reilly's Blogger Code of Ethics drew a lot of attention - and criticism - when it was posted last year. Given O'Reilly's prominence in the Geek community, it's no surprise that he had a lot of impact. He had seven principles:
  1. We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.
  2. We won't say anything online that we wouldn't say in person.
  3. We connect privately before we respond publicly.
  4. When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.
  5. We do not allow anonymous comments.
  6. We ignore the trolls.
  7. If "anything goes", there should be a "free for all" badge
The idea of taking responsibility for your own words is pretty much a given, if you're talking about "ethical conduct". But taking responsibility for comment "we allow"? I'm not so sure about that. To begin with, since recent rulings have said that you aren't legally responsible for comments, why say that you are? It's probably wise to delete posts that appear to libel someone. It's worthwhile to set some level of civility for discussions on your blog. But within the boundaries of your code of conduct, you shouldn't claim "responsibility" for your posts. If you did, then you would delete any comments you disagree with. Reading the principle as a whole, it has merit, but I feel that principles like these could far too easily create fora of the Uncommon Descent/Conservapedia model.

Not saying things online that we wouldn't say in person...that depends on whether we are the kind of person who speaks their mind in person. Don't say anything online that you wouldn't want to "own" in real life. Sure. But quite frankly, if I met George W. Bush tomorrow, I would be polite. I wouldn't tell him that he's made a mess of the country. But that shouldn't mean that I should refrain from criticising the policies of the Bush administration online. The third point, about "connecting privately" before responding publicly is closely entwined. In the context of scientific communication, it make sense to say what you think about a paper. Science works through open communication - if you see a flaw in a paper, why not blog about it? It seems like these principles would lead to a "speak no evil" situation. What if I see a flaw in a paper, and I approach the author privately and convince him or her of the flaw, and she or he "corrects" the error...only to have it end up that I was the one who was mistaken, or to have me convince the person of a suboptimal solution? Take responsibility for what you write, speak out in the open, and be prepared to be wrong.

I can't fault the "take action when someone is unfairly attacking another...though I think it clashes with numbers 2 & 3. Given the half-life of posts online, by the time you have initiated private discussions with the attacker, the matter is stale. In addition, of course, the victim of the attacks is left out in the open.

I can't agree with the idea of forbidding anonymous comments. It's one thing to let someone hide behind anonymity to attack others. It's quite another to require that a person "out" themselves to us before we post their comments. And, of course, "valid" email addresses are dime-a-dozen, so all we are doing is creating the illusion of not allowing anonymity. And what does that really achieve?

And finally "we ignore trolls". Generally good advice, but sometimes it's more fun to toy with trolls.

Science blogging ethics

What sort of ethics should guide science bloggers? What does a blogger owe to his or her readers? What makes a science blogger? Janet Stemwedel (Adventures in Ethics and Science) discusses this issue

One of the things that came out of the discussion of the ethics of blogging about science at the 2008 NC Science Blogging Conference was a clear sense that we don't yet have general agreement about what kinds of ethics should guide science blogging -- in part, because we haven't come to an agreement about just what kind of activity science blogging is.

Is science blogging more like journalism or the scholarly activities of scientists reporting their findings to their peers? Is it education or punditry? Is it a profession or a hobby?

It's a good question - what is science blogging? What does the blogger owe to the reader? Well, I suppose the Science Blogging Ethics Wiki is a good place to start. It divides the question into six topics

Blogger unionisation

Chris Mooney followed up his Columbia Journalism Review article with a post at The Intersection (his blog at ScienceBlogs) in which he notes the attention that the issue has attracted attention from Slashdot and Andrew Sullivan, but that it seems a bit too radical an idea for a lot of people.

At Slashdot, in response to the comment that "they get zero compensation for their products being distributed over the Internet", a poster replied "The vast majority of them earn every penny of that." The other argument, which Simon Owens made in response to this topic on my WordPress blog, was that there are far too many "semi-pro" bloggers waiting to take over if the A-listers went on strike.

I think that Mooney addressed the first point pretty well:
At the same time, though, there’s sense in diversity when it comes to compensation: not all bloggers should be treated equally with respect to remuneration. Most bloggers, after all, don’t draw very much traffic; neither are they part of a blogging conglomerate that is making real money selling advertisements. Were bloggers to organize, a threshold would have to be established between blogging “for fun” and blogging in a way that should be considered “labor”—between amateurs and professionals, if you will.
He also pointed out that the distinction between an amateur and a pro shouldn't be whether you have a day job. Most blogs aren't generating significant income for anyone. Obviously, if you simply blog to let your friends and family know what you are up to, the issue of compensation is moot. That said, you should still have the opportunity to join a Bloggers Guild. You never know when someone will decide that your personal exploits are interesting enough to re-post. It never hurts to organise.

The second point is more relevant. If the A-listers went on strike, the B-listers would say "sign me up!" The "industry standard" at the present time is to not pay bloggers. Most people blog because they want their words to be read. If you are getting paid nothing to blog in obscurity, and someone offered you the opportunity to make the same amount of money on a far more prominent platform, many people would jump at the opportunity. The key here is to get people to recognise the value of their labour. Part of that may lie in getting people to realise that people are making money off your labour. In some cases it probably doesn't matter - people who post diaries at places like Daily Kos are doing so as activists. Their aim is to change opinions and get candidates elected. In addition, of course, Markos is sharing the wealth - he is paying his frontpagers, and Daily Kos is sponsoring political events. But even in a case like that, it's useful to give people a sense of the value that they are creating.

Of course, when it comes to comparing A-listers with B-listers, there is an issue of quality. The top tier draw traffic because of who they are and because of what they have to say. B-listers might be just as good writers, they might be just as insightful commentators, but fewer people will read them because they are relatively unknown. At some point, the difference in value makes it worth paying the A-listers. But if the A-listers never ask to be paid for their labour, the entire argument is moot.


From my WordPress blog
From my fish blog
From Helium

Monday, January 21, 2008

Rebranding: A blog about blogs and blogging

When I started my WordPress blog last year, this blog had a major identity crisis. Not that it ever had that much of an identity to begin with, but I now had nothing to separate it from its successor. After floundering along blindly for over half a year, I started wondering about dedicating a blog to blogs. And since blogging about blogs strikes me as the height of navel-gazing, I figured I should re-name it. So, welcome to...Omphaloskepsis (because the only thing more self-important than navel gazing is giving it a fancy Greek name).

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A different sort of wave

Blogging about Obama's speeches in Iowa and New Hampshire generated a lot of traffic, and it was an awful lot of fun to see the spike. But it wasn't something sustainable - most of those people will never visit my blog again. Over the last few days I have experienced a different sort of spike in traffic - one driven by a real science post.

On Thursday, after seeing a story on my BBC Science news feed, I blogged about the discovery of Tahina spectabilis, a new palm from Madagascar. While the traffic grew slowly, it has grown consistently. And it has dominated my blog the last few days. It's great - and very different from the sort of spike that a one-off link can bring. True, there's an order of magnitude less traffic. But it's awfully cool, especially since this is plant science, not politics.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

On blogs and blog communities

While I started blogging (in a sense) long before I had ever heard the word (back in 1997 or 1998, on MSNHomepages), my introduction to the modern world of blogging came via Howard Kurtz's column on the Washington Post. That led to me read Andrew Sullivan for a while, and to Daily Kos, where I really found a home for a while.

In essence, dKos was too big for my taste. Too many comments, too much buzz. It's a great place to read things, but it's difficult to get to know people unless you're there every day. So, while I continued to read the frontpagers, I stopped commenting and rarely read comments. Too noisy for my taste. Fast forward a couple years, and I found myself at ScienceBlogs. My first "home" was Pharyngula, but again, too many comments, too much noise. Nothing compared to a posting on dKos, but the signal to noise ratio is still too low for it to be worth reading 20 or 30 comments. Sure, I join the conversation from time to time. But it isn't the sort of community I am looking for. Now, I tend to comment most at less popular blogs - Greg Laden's, or Abbie's. But at those blogs there's a tendency for the pool of comments to be too limited.

I suppose the alternative is a distributed community - when you run into the same people at several blogs, and get to know them. That, and building a community at my own blog. How you do that, I'm not quite sure...maybe that's a question for Bora.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


From my main blog
From my Fish blog
My experiment at


Chris Mooney has an interesting article at the Columbia Journalism Review on the economics of blogging, and the disparities in pay that bloggers at major sites get. While some bloggers are creating real value for website publishers, they are often getting little or nothing in return. On the other hand, bloggers at ScienceBlogs get paid on the basis of traffic. (I have always wondered about that - while I know that SBers get paid, I have always wondered whether it was a fixed amount, a function of traffic, or a share of ad revenues. Now I know.)

Mooney suggests that a Bloggers Guild of America might be part of the solution. Interesting idea…but why just "of America"? The internet has no national boundaries.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Politics beats science?

Once again, blogging about Obama's speech brought me a huge bump in traffic over at Further Thoughts. I'd be tempted to call it "unprecedented" except that I saw a similar bump in traffic when I wrote about Obama's victory speech in Iowa. So I suppose people are more interested in politics than they are in the usual mismash of vaguely science-related stuff that I usually blog about.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Catching the wave

Last night, while listening to Barack Obama's victory speech, I posted the following on my main blog
Listening to Obama’s victory speech in Iowa, I understand what people see in him. I heard Edwards, I heard Clinton. They’re ok, but they don’t excite me, and they don’t move me. Obama moves me. This is Obama at his best, I think.
When I checked my traffic stats a short while after, I was shocked. Within a couple hours, it had gone from being a poor day traffic-wise, to being my best day ever. What happened? I'm guessing that I was one of the first to post on the topic. For a little while I was in the top three hits on google searches like "obama victory speech", even the top hit for some variations. The lesson, I suppose, is that "the scoop" generates a ton of traffic, even if only for a brief window of time.