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.

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