Category Archives: blogging

We need to talk about the Conversation

There’s been some fuss over the possible death of Facebook, and whether such reports have been exaggerated. I’m not too interested in the story itself as much as what it shows us as a study in problems of science journalism. For me, it flags up larger questions about academic writing, and I’d be interested to know if others share these concerns.

Background: The BBC’s technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, did a bit of debunking, and complained about journalists overhyping academic research in the process. It was noted that one of the “hyped” reports came from an academic involved in the research, writing on the Conversation, a site which aims to bring academic voices into the public sphere, promising content from academics themselves (tagline: “academic rigour, journalist flair”). Then the academic himself, Daniel Miller, wrote a longer post via the UCL network saying that a key passage had been re-written by a professional journalist and he regretted agreeing to the final text. Cellan-Jones dubbed this “ghosted” which is maybe the wrong word. As Miller notes, there are compromises academics have to make in sharing their work to larger and different audiences, and it can be hard to draw lines between inaccuracy and retelling. Also the line between ghostwriting and editing can be slippery.

Problem: Miller’s experience of the Conversation resonated with me. I’ve been worried about its approach for a while.

When the Conversation launched first in Australia and then moved to the UK, I was sceptical. I didn’t see the point of a space for just academics’ content. Indeed, I thought that was possibly even a slightly dangerous idea. Also, I wasn’t sure it was needed, especially in the UK. Many academics were blogging on their own or university owned sites already, or for media organisations. But I could also see the value in a space for those who wrote less regularly, including support from professional writers and, despite my misgivings, I think they’ve published some great pieces which might not have made it out of the ivory towers otherwise.

Then, a few months ago, one of their journalists emailed to ask if I had views on university league tables. I said I had opinions but nothing I’d actually researched, and also I was really busy that week but, because I was sympathetic to the topic, I’d give her a quote if she wanted to write something herself. I also didn’t see the point in me writing for the Conversation. I can publish directly to the Guardian site. It seemed silly to chase people like me, a bit cheeky of them even (and I’d previously told Conversation staff this). Still, I stayed late at work and emailed a quote. She replied with a full piece incorporating my few hundred words but really by her, expecting me to add a little more and sign off as if it was authored by me. They were great words. But they weren’t mine. What would I give other than the credibility of my academic affiliation, which meant very little anyway as its not even a topic I have done empirical work on. I was rather shocked by this, so said no.

But I felt crap that we’d both put time into this and didn’t want a fight with a writer I respect, so wrote my own piece as a replacement, staying up late at night to do so. This is the result. I included a bit by the Conversation writer (paragraph 5) because she’d put work into it, and it was good, and I felt rude ignoring it. But it felt very wrong and I regret it. Not, as in the case of Daniel Miller, because it was bad. Quite the opposite. It saddened me that the work of a professional science journalist was being ignored because people seemed to want the cache of an academic voice.

I felt pressured into co-writing something I didn’t want to write, and pressured into saying it was by me. I should have just stood up to them and said “this is dumb and dishonest.” Because it is.

I’ve spoken to several other UK academics about the site since, wondering if they’ve had similar problems. Most say their experiences have been positive; light editing and useful feedback about focus or questions readers might ask, exactly what the Conversation purports to do. But a few others have grumbled too. It’s hard to tell if they are just grumbling in the cliched precious academic way of “but but but of course my jargon-filled eight-page single-sentence rant was more accurate” but I’m not sure. I also think that even if so, the work of the professional writer should be made obvious. A press release from a university communications team, for example, might well re-write research, but it won’t pretend to be the academic themselves (quotes are routinely fabricated by press officers in many fields, but honestly I don’t like that either and I also think the full posts of the Conversation are another step). I also continue to worry about them chasing content from those of us who are already writing a lot in the media, or even have careers in journalism. Mark Lynas has written for them, for example (he’s a visiting fellow at Cornell) and that seems even weirder than when they’ve asked the Guardian science bloggers to write for them. Lynas doesn’t need the Conversation’s help, he’s a highly skilled and successful writer.

If the Conversation is doing journalism, they should acknowledge that and have co-author credits, or even pieces written entirely by their writers, and celebrate that. They don’t, because the idea is that it they offer unmediated academic voices. But unmediated academic voices are often the last thing anyone wants, and playing up to that bollocks isn’t doing anyone any favours.

It reminds me a bit of the fuss over Futurity. I worry that the Conversation seems to be more about offering a shine of academic credibility than meaningful interaction between academics and society at large. I’m all for editing academics (I’ve learnt a lot and had my prose improved by many editors myself) but by passing off the work of a professional journalist as written by academics you do both professions – and the public – a disservice.

I’d like to see the Conversation grow, but I want to see it do so honestly.

Troll Below? Science policy below the line.

troll

Some streetart on a bridge in Dublin

I have an essay in James Wilsdon and Rob Doubleday’s collection: “Future directions for scientific advice in Whitehall” (downloadable for free). It’s an invitation for the various greats and goods of science policy to not only use social media to promote their ideas but to “go below the line” and listen to the public there too. I know such listening is problematic – I’m not about to try to rehearse all the problems here, they exist and are generally very specific to the people and cases involved – but that doesn’t mean you can’t try.

There’s a shorter version on our Guardian blog, or here’s a preview of the full thing:

We should ask what we want openness to mean online, what forms we want to invest in, and how this should be organised. There is a lot more to open science than simply open access. Indeed, a preoccupation with the latter as a solution to social ills may well be a way of avoiding dealing with the former. Further, how we choose to finance and manage forms of open access is far from straightforward. Whilst politicians, scientists, publishers and learned societies argue it out, the #icanhazpdf hashtag is gradually whittling away at current publishing models (used so people looking for paywalled papers can find those with institutional log-ins who are willing to be generous on their library’s behalf). Scientists may feel persecuted by activists, especially if they engage in debates over climate change, alternative medicine or animal rights. They may also feel that when work flows into ‘social media’, even more of their private lives are being taken over by work. Online interaction can be tiring.

A related issue is whether the public can be trusted with science in the open. One might, for example, feel pleased when the Science Media Centre manages to keep a story out of the press (as when I heard senior scientists cheer in the case of a story about GMO food last year). Alternatively, one could follow the lead of the Cancer Research UK news blog which accepts that stories they don’t agree with will get published, but uses the more open spaces of the web to put extra context out there, hoping those who care will find it. One recent piece of research argues that the ‘incivil’ tone of web comments can derail evidence-based public debate on science, technology and especially environmental and health issues. For all that I can personally relate to this (having uncomfortably found myself being incivil myself, as well as at the receiving end of incivility), such calls for polite behavior online leave me uneasy. Complaints about ‘tone’ are too easily used to quell dissent. Words like ‘troll’ can become a proxy for what is, at best, disagreement, and worst, class hatred.

It is now 18 years since Bruce Lewenstein suggested a ‘web model’ as an alternative to top-down ideas of science communication in his study of the cold fusion controversy. This networked view seems almost too obvious today, as gross a simplification as the deficit model. But it contains an important message that is increasingly hard to ignore: the simple messiness of scientific discourse. Although neater debate has its uses, especially in policymaking, that doesn’t mean we should aim to tidy it all up. This mess is how we build capacity for more coherent exchanges, build trust, learn and digest. It is also where people can show dissent and support for science, both of which are important. We should be wary of being too spooked by the incivility or apparent lack of expertise online. As science policy debate bleeds onto social media, we shouldn’t be scared to take a dip below the line, and take some time to look and listen. You never know what we might find.

For personal reasons – and partly to make a slightly tongue in cheek point – comments are closed for this entry.

Paper on brain bloggers

A bit of brain-y street art, Shoreditch, London.

A while ago, I started some research into people who blog about the brain, in particular the ways they see their audiences  Sadly, changes in jobs meant I didn’t have time to develop that particular research interest (and I mean sadly, because this study only strengthened my belief that science bloggers are fascinating, for all sorts of reasons). However, I wrote up my preliminary notes for the Canadian Journal of Media Studies, and you can read it here (download pdf, no paywall).

The abstract follows, though please note (ht to Bora Zivkovic) the disjunction between speed of changes in science blogging and the slowness of scholarly publishing means some of the links don’t currently work. A bit of googling should get you round this, as usually it’s a case that blogs have moved but individual posts have kept the same titles and datestamp.

“ScienceBlogs is a high school clique, Nature Network is a private club”: Imagining the audiences of online science.

This paper is the result of preliminary research on science bloggers, with a focus on how science bloggers view their audiences, the community they sit within and their personal social identity within that. It starts with some broad background on science blogging, in particular the ways in which science bloggers seem to congregate around networks, their concerns over seeming exclusive, and they ways they may actively attempt to either maintain or blur boundaries around the social identity of scientist, journalist and blogger. I then move onto more detailed work on people who blog about the brain, offering some rough work-in-progress results of a small survey study. From this early analysis, it seems that an idea of an audience is important to many science bloggers, although they are not necessarily all that sure of the specific make up of this audience. Moreover, it seems that science bloggers see their audiences not simply as a recipient of scientific knowledge, but a potential resource, and as blogging as being part of an ongoing diverse conversation. As this is the first stage of analysis, I finish with some notes on how I see the next stage of this work.

Research: education bloggers

I’m currently working with colleagues at the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology on a small research project exploring communities of education blogging. It’s based on some work I did last year on brain bloggers (some early data on this, more developed publication soon). As with that project, I’m not going into it assuming I know what a brain blogger is, or even if such a thing even exists. Rather, I want to let the first stage of the research help me get a sense of who blogs about education, where, how and why.

So, do you blog about education? Would you fill in this survey? Do you know someone else who blogs about education? Will you tell them about it?

You can respond in comments here if you want, or it might be easier (and more private) to email edubloggingstudy@gmail.com. Or you can cut and paste it to post it on your blog, if you want to share your answers with your readers (although please drop me a line with the link so I can make sure I have a copy). I need to get responses by the 15th of June to take them to the next step of analysis.

Also, please do pass it on to anyone you think might count as a blogger about education.  Part of the point of setting this survey free on the same networks of social media it aims to study is to see where it ends up.

The idea of this survey is to get a better feel for the area than I can just by looking myself. I eventually want to do a small number of more detailed interviews with bloggers, informed by this survey. Depending on the results I get from this stage, I may also use aspects of the data in my final analysis. I shall be preparing a report for the Open University and, we hope, submit something to a peer reviewed journal.

If you want your answers to remain anonymous, that is fine, just let me know in the email. Otherwise I will assume it is ok to quote you (using your blog name as identifier, not necessarily your name, a point which might be important for pseudonymous bloggers).

Please email responses to edubloggingstudy@gmail.com by the 15th of June. You are welcome to post your response openly to your blog if you want, but please send me the link.

Please feel free to leave any questions blank if you feel it is intrusive or you simply don’t have anything to say on the subject. This will not invalidate the overall response.

 

Blog URL:

What do you blog about?

Are you paid to blog?

What do you do professionally (other than blog)?

How long have you been blogging at this site?

Do you write in other platforms? (e.g. in a print magazine?)

Can you remember why you started blogging?

What keeps you blogging?

Do you have any idea of the size or character if your audience? How?

What’s your attitude to/ relationship with people who comment on your blog?

Do you feel as if you fit into any particular community, network or genre of blogging? (e.g. schools, science, education, museums, technology)

If so, what does that community give you?

What do you think are the advantages of blogging? What are its disadvantages/ limitations?

Do you tell people you know offline that you’re a blogger? (e.g. your grandmother, your boss)

Is there anything else you want to tell me about I haven’t asked?

Has blogging changed science writing?

Badges made for our housewarming last year. Bonus points if you get the ref.

There is an oft-made joke that the answers to questions posed by news headlines are always, when take time to consider them, a simple ‘no’. With that in mind, here’s a question headlining my essay in the latest edition of the Journal Of Science Communication: Has blogging changed science writing?

You can download the full paper on the JCom website. Spoiler warning: I think the answer is no. Or at least not much. Drawing on basic tenets of the social studies of technology, I argue there have always been more options than action when it comes to innovation in science writing, most of which we haven’t taken up. It hasn’t changed nearly as much as it could have, and we don’t know yet how much it will change. The future, as ever, is up for debate. We should think carefully about the science media we want, not what we’re given or simply left with.

As I finish the article, I don’t claim to know though. The thing I personally enjoy most about science blogging is that it seems to have make it slightly more socially acceptable to finish with questions. Of course, this has yet to weave its way through to journal design, so if you do have an answer, you might want to use the comments space here, as there isn’t one on JCom.

Science and hobbies

What I did on my holiday

Sitting with some science on Brighton beach.

I co-run a regular event with the Biochemical Society exploring science online. Last week, we had one on science and hobbies, a combination that doesn’t need the web to come about, but is arguably facilitated by it. I know the word ‘hobby’ seemed a bit off-puttingly folksy for some, but I wanted to capture the difference between doing or talking about science for a living, and doing/ talking about science in one’s spare time. Fully aware that this divide isn’t clear cut, I thought the topic would generate debate. I think it did. You can listen to a podcast of the full event, but here are my three ‘take home’ questions from the debate.

What counts as value in citizen science? One of the audience members gave the example of a crowd-sourced citizen research project run by their university, where they realised that it would have been cheaper just to employ a single professional to do the work, largely because it all had to be checked by an expert anyway. One response was that this argument relies largely on the idea that the outcome being funded is purely research. If it is engagement too (and you count citizen involvement as engagement, not just free labour), then maybe it’s a false comparison.

Do we need to consider the ethics of citizen science? In many ways, this follows on from above. If a citizen research project could have just employed a professional academic, are they robbing someone of a job? One of the reasons science became professionalised was to allow people who were not independently wealthy make a living from it. We have seen similar tensions around journalism and music. We might equally ask whether citizen science projects like those run by the Zooniverse simply exploit their members for free labour (this piece on research and the Mechanical Turk is interesting). On the other side, however, it was argued why not let the public volunteer to give something to science, especially if by giving some of their time rather than just money via taxes, they learn something about the science and built relationships with each other and the scientific community in the process? Further, maybe such citizen research frees up a postdoc to do something more interesting, especially if greater public engagement leads to public support for science meaning they find it easier to keep public funding and therefore jobs in science (big ‘if’ though…). I don’t think we settled on answers either way here, but they are all good questions to keep asking. I also think we should find further ethical questions on this topic.

Does doing science as a hobby encourage or discourage social engagement? Again, this is complex question. While discussing garage-based biohackers, it was argued that this removes science from its broader social context. Not only the large networks of professional science, but what many of them are working for; it’s science for the individual, not a public good. Is hobbiest science anti-social? I thought this point was really interesting, and reminded me of Jack Stilgoe’s thoughtful post on science and the Big Society, where he stressed science as a ‘team sport’. On the other hand, a chance to have some individual relationship with science could be an invite to communities both within and around science. Indeed, the word communities was mentioned a lot. This is partly because it’s buzzword de jour in science communication, but it also reflects the ways in which many hobbies connect people to others with a similar interest (see also David Gauntlett’s ‘Making is Connecting’). As one of the attendees of the event said to me the following day, maybe instead of ‘hobbies’ we could have thought of ‘science and alternative social networks’. I also think it’s really significant that OPAL is part funded by the lottery because it works with deprived groups: it is science for social work, as well as research and public all the various possible meanings and uses of ‘public engagement with science’.

As usual at these events, we ended with more questions than answers. I’d love to hear any more thoughts on this – do leave a comment if you have further ideas, questions or even answers.

Context context context

Context context context. It’s what the mainstream media’s reporting on science always lacks, isn’t it? It’s the oft-repeated line ‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that’ which media critics such as myself can grump about from the cosiness of their ivory tower. Context context context: Easy to say, but hard to provide?

Context context context: Easy to say. For example, our content analysis for the BBC Trust’s review of impartiality and accuracy in science coverage (blogged about earlier this week) highlighted quite hand-waving descriptions of scientists’ roles and work, with a reliance on phrases such as ‘scientists have found’ and ‘experts say’. We also noted little exploration of experimental design, and that it was very rare that the funder of research was referred to. We worried that many reports relied on a single viewpoint or paraphrased alternative views, and the lack of explicit reference as to whether or not a contributor was involved in the research being reported (i.e. independence was hard to judge).

Context context context: Hard to provide? A journalist can easily, and quite fairly, reply to calls for more context with the argument that readers do not care. Of course the big wide world is more complex than depicted in the mass media, but a large part of a journalist’s job is to simplify this world, and that inevitably means losing some context. Personally, I think there are still ways journalists might rethink the traditional patterns for telling stories, and I expect professional journalists of the calibre working at the BBC to be imaginative and thoughtful about what parts of stories they choose to provide (and I know the good ones do, and that they are constrained in a lot of their work too).

One of the things we coded for in the study was if a piece pointed the audience to other information: the chance for people to find out more if they wanted to. This didn’t have to be online links, but would often be. We noticed it was rare that the broadcast news items ever explicitly directed viewers to the BBC website for further information about science items. In the online news, there were automatically generated links to other BBC reports on similar topics, but only 21 items (16%) included links to other BBC reports within the body of the text. However, almost 90% of online news items included at least one link to the source of the story, such as the laboratory where the research was carried out or the journal where it was published, but 70 items (54%) included no links to other external sources. So, over half of online news items the reader is not offered opportunities to find further information relevant to a science story other than that provided by the source.

Blogs in particular offer the opportunity of linking to other sources and, by enabling journalists to “show their working”, may help make visible the process of reporting too. Some of the BBC reporters’ blogs we looked at made use of this, particularly those of Jonathan Amos and Richard Black, but only one of Tom Feilden’s blogposts in our sample period contained any in-text links to sites other than the Today programme. Blogs also allow journalists to post longer quotes from sources than the edited versions included in broadcast reports, include links to other sources of information that the journalist has used to build their story, or track unfolding stories (as with the Guardian’s Science Story Tracker). However, we found few examples of this type of usage in the BBC blogs we looked at.

Like much of the content we looked at, blogs were more likely to mention benefits of scientific research than risks (eleven of the 27 unique postings cited benefits compared to just two mentioning risks). It seemed to us that as with a lot of the online science content (and science content overall), the blogs located science as a ‘good-news’ story where science provides benefits to society and is rarely the source of any risks. As with any of this, you may well be able to dig up an example or three to argue that the BBC blogs are ‘anti-science’ in some way (and this singular examples may well be very important, perhaps even because they are singular) but looking at our sample as a whole, this was not the picture we saw.

We saw a range of ways of using the blogging form amongst the science and technology reporters that blog for the BBC. Some reporters took the chance to contextualise news stories they have reported on (Richard Black), or to offer a more personal take on a story (Fergus Walsh). Others would trail upcoming items (Susan Watts), to summarise/ repeat a news item in another site, or describe related research (Tom Feilden, Jonathan Amos). Potentially, adopting a personal voice raises issues with respect to the BBC’s impartiality (there are editorial guidelines on this), although we found no evidence in the blogs we looked that it had actually compromised impartiality in action. If anything blogs can also offer a space to address questions of impartiality and accuracy when they arise though. We found a lovely example of this from Rory Cellan-Jones, where he reflected on an report for the BBC One News at Ten, saying he should have been he should have taken a more sceptical tone, and also took the chance to quote at length the scientist’s defence of the research.

You can find more details of this study in the full report (opens as pdf) especially pages 33-38.

As I’ve written before, the placing of a link is a rhetorical and, as such, creative process. Thinking about what you’ll link to, how and when (and when not to) is a challenge I personally adore when I write, and one of the many reasons I find writing online more professionally fulfilling than print. It really doesn’t seem to be used enough though, or thought about as much as it could be either (n.b. this is a general grumble, broader and looser than the BBC Trust study).

So, I guess for now I’ll keep banging on about ‘context, context, context’, knowing it’s hard for journalists to provide it but hoping they continue to try to be as imaginative and proactive as possible in facilitating connections between the information that is out there and those members of their audience who are interested to find out more.