Thursday, January 31, 2008
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.
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
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:
- Science bloggers blog about science because they find it interesting
- Science bloggers are interested in communicating their field of interest to people outside of their immediate field
- Science bloggers are frequently motivated by a desire to defend science against pseudoscience and denialism
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.
- Clear representation of perspective
- Commerical disclosure
- Reliability of information
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 share...like 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
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 Lulu.com).
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...
Saturday, January 26, 2008
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.
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
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.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Understand the process of medical research in order to report accuratelyI 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.
- Be Honest and Fair
- Minimize Harm
- Be Accountable
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.
- Explain each Weblog's mission and invite dialogue with the public over its content and the bloggers' conduct.
- Disclose conflicts of interest, affiliations, activities and personal agendas.
- 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.
- Tim O’Reilly’s Draft Blogger’s Code of Conduct
- Cyber Journalist's Bloggers’ Code of Ethics
- Association of Health Care Journalists Statement of Principles
- We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.
- We won't say anything online that we wouldn't say in person.
- We connect privately before we respond publicly.
- When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.
- We do not allow anonymous comments.
- We ignore the trolls.
- If "anything goes", there should be a "free for all" badge
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.
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
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?
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.
- Party of ideas?
- Rethinking biofuels?
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day
- Plant bloggers needed!
- Jamaican bubblegum…b’still…
- McCain wins South Carolina
- Hillary wins Nevada
- Clay County, Florida, walks up to the Kitzmiller line, gazes longingly across
- Why Keith Olbermann rocks
- What is natural? Reinterpreting rivers in the eastern US
- Huckabee: Lacking familiarity with the Bible?
- New best friends?
- Another of the original corys
- Glowlight tetra
- New corys
- More cory pictures
- More Cory thoughts
- Guyanese fish
Monday, January 21, 2008
Sunday, January 20, 2008
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
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
- A remarkable new palm from Madagascar
- The Expelled Challenge
- Michigan results
- Tips for presentations
- Michigan Primary
- Top 100 Science Stories of the Year
- Oekologie #13
- Research trails and sample plots
- “A little learning is a dangerous thing”
- Science? In science standards? Who needs it?
- New Hampshire post mortems
- Maddow on Obama
- New Hampshire results
- Hillary’s victory speech in New Hampshire
- Obama’s concession speech in New Hampshire
- New Hampshire
- Spin or real change?
- Obama/Cheney ‘08?
- So what is Dembski’s field?
- Linnaeus’ Legacy
- A superhero for this age: William “Designman” Dembski
- Science and the US Presidential candidates
- Obama’s speech
- Best title of the year
- Big picture
- Obama’s victory speech in Iowa
- Names for new species
- Glowlight tetras
- The real Corydoras aeneus
- Restoring sight in blind cave fish
- Arowana harvest
- Fish from Venezuela
- Changing tank profile
- Dedicated amateurs
- Juvie shrimp
- Otocinclus and Corys
- Holiday happenings
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
Friday, January 04, 2008
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.