Tag Archives: journalism

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.

A call for open journalism, and open campaigning, on climate change

A view from the Science Museum’s climate gallery.

This was originally published on Greenpeace’s Energy Desk blog and written for a debate they ran at the Frontline Club last month. I might well have written something different today, as I read debate over climate and Sandy and keep track of the anti-gas protest in West Burton. I still think it applies though.

Is journalism fit for purpose when it comes to energy and climate change? I have two answers. They’re both questions.

Firstly, whose purpose are we trying to fit to exactly? This is important. It draws our attention – crucially – to the politics of it all, because the public debate on energy and climate change is all about the politics.

We might, if in a conciliatory mood, agree that we all want to make a happier, safer future for us all. But what this future looks like and how we get there is up for debate. It might be nice to imagine scientists could simply pass their great knowledge on to the rest of the world. But they don’t know everything, and we’re not going to quickly believe them either. Neither is it as simple as a matter of saying we should argue with scientists. See, for example, cases of “false balance” (where a marginal view is put up against a rigorously worked out one, as if they were equivalent) or “merchants of doubt” (where small amounts of uncertainty are exploited to rhetorically unravel strong cases).

I give my students the difference between top-down versus discursive models of science communication to play with, but the reality is too complex for such rarefied models.

Secondly, is journalism really the problem? Greenpeace may organise an event like this, ready to point fingers at journalism, but they should take the chance to look at themselves too. For all that I’d like to see a continued role for professional, independent journalism, we’ll increasingly see direct communication to the public from activists, academics, politicians and more.

We could all be better.

The involvement recent Arctic Ready campaign came under particular criticism. I personally felt those wailing “but Greenpeace LIED” needed to get some perspective. It’s not like Greenpeace is the first to pull something like this. The Office of Fair Trading tried a similar game a few years ago, working with Sense About Science to highlight misinformation around health. Other parodies such as the pregnant man or downloadable tan invite people to consider quite how credulous they are when it comes to science and technology. Arctic Ready fooled you? You should ask yourself why. So far, so reflexive modernisation, perhaps. But I don’t think Greenpeace should cast their audiences in the role the fool. The public discourse on energy and climate change is shadowy, elitist and confusing enough already.

In contrast, Leo Hickman’s “Eco Audit” live blog is a good example of the sort of communication I’d like to see more of. He asks a question, shows the answers he’s actively gone looking for and provides a space for more people to chip in. He listens to these contributions, pulling bits out of the comments threads and twitter, before offering a conclusion.

If nothing else, this approach lets him draw on more expertise than he can imagine when he starts off. It leaves him more open to serendipitous surprise. It also helps build trust around his analysis; even if you only read his conclusion at the end, the workings are there to check if you want to.

I want to see more of this in environmental journalism, and I want to see politicians, activists and scientists similarly asking questions in public in such an interactive way too. Hickman’s approach isn’t as flashy as Arctic Ready, but it offers a more meaningful form of collaboration than space to upload photo-art or a point and click game. It asks readers what they know and think, not simply to perform jokes within a set framework. Maybe we do need more LOL-cat humour in the climate debate (LOLpolar bear? LOL oilrig?).

And arguably the odd bit of subversive art invites us all to think. But both politics and science can still be done with respect for the public sphere as a source of inspiration for what new directions to take, not simply a space to amass support on pre-set routes.

There is a place for privacy, even secrets, when it comes to a lot of work in climate change and energy. Many in the field are defensive for good reasons; be it email hacks, undercover cops or simply a desire for a bit of uninterrupted time to explore an idea on our own. But that doesn’t mean we should close off. Be bold, be open, listen.

Identifying arguments in climate science

George Bush used to say, in his generous way, that the science [of climate change] is uncertain. But it’s an almost content free statement because science is about uncertainty.

Lord Oxburgh FRS, Imperial College, 30th January 2012.

That quote comes from a debate on climate science in the mass media we held at Imperial last week, part of the pilot science in context course I’m working on. You can find a podcast of the debate at the college media site.

Oxburgh chaired the event, with a panel comprising of Louise Gray (Environment Correspondent, Telegraph), James Randerson (Environment and Science News Editor, Guardian), James Painter (Reuters Institute, University of Oxford) and Joe Smith (Open University), along with questions from our undergraduates.

A couple of students and tutors later told me they felt the panelists were too similar, that there wasn’t enough ‘debate’ and they’d have liked to see a climate sceptic. I take that point, but also disagree with it. There was, if you listen carefully, a fair bit of diversity within the discussion. It wasn’t one side vs. the other, and just because the panellists tended to be polite and smile and nod at each other didn’t mean they were all coming from the same position.

It’s worth reflecting on how we identify a ‘debate’ here. Debates do not always have to be a battle of two opposing views. Personally, I’d say that’s often the least productive sort of debate you can have. They can also just be a group of people playing with a particular issue; a matter of chatting to gradually identify problems and reflect on possible answers. Indeed, this question of how we structure and spot the debate within climate science was a key topic of this particular event, as it was in our previous class, with Brian Hoskins.

James Painter started things off by stressing there are many types of uncertainty involved in the public discussion of climate change, including many types of scepticism: ‘there are many ways you can question and be uncertain about climate science’. Drawing on his Poles Apart report, he suggested four types: people who are sceptical that global warming is happening, those who a sceptical that it is due to human action, those who are sceptical about aspects of climate change’s impact and people who are sceptical about specific policies.

James Randerson followed with a different track, noting the stretch of the issue with reference to an extraordinary letter to the Guardian from the medical community, calling for more transparently on climate lobbyists. Louise Gray offered another topical case study: the diversity of coverage of a recent UK government report on the impacts of climate change to the UK: the Guardian focused on the burden to poor where as the Telegraph noted possible opportunities for the tourist industry (you can google for yourself to see what the Mail said). As Gray argued, newspapers will have different frames for how they read climate news based on the editors’ ideas of their customers, a point underlined by Joe Smith later when he stressed the way we all bring our own cultural ‘baggage’ to climate change debates, and plugging Mike Hulme’s book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change

For his presentation, Joe Smith argued that in many ways climate science makes for a rubbish story in the mass media. There is simply too much of a consensus: too many of the experts agree, what really is there to report? He said he used to think the consensus on climate change was a good thing, but it does make it unreportably dull, which is why the contrarian views get pulled in, to liven it up. There isn’t enough of an edge, maybe we need more of an edge? Gray echoed this in discussion, saying we should pay attention to more of the ‘dodgy things’ going on around climate change – subsidies, inefficiencies of NGOs – that the real stories are less about sceptic vs non-sceptic and more about who is doing the right thing, how and when. Randerson and Oxburgh seemed slightly more cautious of Smith’s call for more arguments, laughing ‘careful what you wish for’ and noting the ways a stronger sense of disagreement plays in the US and Australia. I wonder if that misses Smith and Gray’s point though, which to me was more of a call to open up the political edginess of climate change policy. It was about the disagreements at the end of Painter’s typology of sceptics: debate over what to do about climate change, not whether it is happening or why.

For me, this was summed up in a comment from Gray near the end of the evening: ‘there’s a lot of heat and fire around a few sceptical people, but maybe that is the wrong focus’.

Maybe you disagree though.

Science in the mass media

I’m working a day a week at UCL this term, teaching the ‘Science and the Mass Media’ course in the Department of Science and Technology Studies.

Nosey people can see the full syllabus here (pdf). Or, if you want to play along at home, I’ve pasted some of the essay questions below.

Yesterday’s news(papers).

A couple of thousand words due by the end of term. No, I won’t mark your answers (unless you are actually registered on the course, obviously, in which case I am very much looking forward to reading your work).

1. In early 2010, an expert group working on behalf of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills published a report entitled “Science and the Media: Securing the Future”. To what extent do you believe this report reflects what Steven Hiltgartner, writing in 1990, described as the then “dominant concern” of popular science? Has anything changed in approaches to science in the mass media over the last 20 years?

2. Have the roles of science journalist and PR officer blurred too much in recent years?

3. Last year, the UK’s chief scientist Sir John Beddington was reported as saying: “We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality… We are not – and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this – grossly intolerant of pseudo-science.” Do you agree that such gross intolerance is the correct approach to take here, or are there alternatives?

4. Are bloggers the new science journalists?

5. To what extent can an NGO do effective science communication? Is the case different for environmental campaigning groups compared to medical charities?

6. John Rennie, a former editor of Scientific American, recently argued against what he calls the “big paper of the week” approach to science journalism. He went on to suggest an experiment where everyone agreed not to write about research until six months after publication. Do you agree that a focus on the publication of papers is a bad approach to reporting science? Should journalists wait six months, as Rennie suggests, and/ or write about science pre-publication?

7. What is the ‘inverted pyramid’ of news reporting, and how are science writers using online tools to re-invent science storytelling?

8. How might we go about studying the representation of women in science media? Your answer should discuss both possible research questions and methods for analysis, referring to the body of work already undertaken in this subject.

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.

The BBC Trust Report on Science

EDIT, July 2012: Slightly updated version for Open Democracy.

Last week the BBC Trust published their review of impartiality and accuracy in science coverage. This included research undertaken by my group at Imperial. My name’s on the front but I should stress that I only did a small part of the work. It was lead by my colleague Felicity Mellor.

This post isn’t in any way an extension of the report, or official comment in any way: it’s just some of my thoughts on a small part of it, a few days after publication. Please also note that I’m talking about our report (pdf) which is Appendix A of the full review. It’s also worth flagging up that it was a content analysis, and these can only tell you so much. A focus on content can lose the context of the making of the news, as well as its reception (something I think came out well in the recent debate between Ben Goldacre and James Randerson). However, studies like these can also flag up some fascinating points for further thought/ analysis, and challenge the sorts of assumptions we all make through our own everyday personal (and partial) consumption of the media. It all too easy to get annoyed by a bad example and generalise from that, a systematic content analysis can provide a more nuanced picture.

A lot of the news coverage of the review has focused on so-called ‘false balance'; the perceived problem of giving too much weight to fringe views in an (arguably misguided) attempt to avoid pushing one particular point of view. Just as a political piece might ‘balance’ itself with perspectives from left and right wings, a science story might, for example, include someone who is against vaccinations as well as someone who would advocate them. If you are interested in balance issue with respect to climate change, chapter three of Matt Nisbet’s Climate Shift report makes for interesting reading. I’d also add that Hargreaves and Lewis’ 2003 Towards a Better Map report on science news gives some historical context to the UK’s particular issues with respect to balance, in particular the way BSE led to framings of MMR (which one might argue, in turn, influences reporting of climate).

Our study was based on a slightly more diverse set of questions than simply balance though, as we tried to gain a detailed empirical grip on these slippery issues of impartially and accuracy. As a result, I think it threw up a rather more complex set of challenges too.

One of the key questions our work asked was who is given a voice in science news? What’s their expertise, where do they come from and – arguably most importantly – what are we told about this sort of context?

For a start, less than 10% of broadcast items in our sample included comment from those presented as having no specialist professional knowledge of relevance to the issue. Moreover, lay voices tended not to be run alongside expertise voices. So, that oft-made complaint that news reports rely on personal anecdote? Well, going by our sample, for the BBC this would not appear to be the case. It’s also worth noting that almost two thirds of the broadcast news sample – which included a lot of very short summary items – either relied on a single viewpoint or paraphrased alternative views. In items reporting on new research, this proportion rose to about 70%. So there was little room for alternative view here; to ‘balance’ or otherwise. I also thought it was significant that only about an eighth of broadcast news items about research, and almost two fifths of online news items about research, included comment from independent scientists (i.e. with no connection to the research being reported).

Whether you think any these various expert voices (when they were included) are the right ones is another matter though. You can’t just say scientists are the appropriate voices and that’s it. Simply being ‘a scientist’ doesn’t necessarily make you an expert on the topic at hand, and there are other areas of relevant expertise, especially when it comes to science policy issues. We had to think a lot about the rather large ‘other professional expertise’ category we considered alongside scientific, clinical, lay,  non-science academics and ‘unknown’. Other forms of professional expertise came from politicians, spokespeople for charities and representatives of industry. It’s important these experts are included in debate about science. For example, a scientist might be able to talk about their research, but know little about the policy surrounding it. Equally though, many scientists do have expertise of such areas as part of their research. It depends, which is rather the point about ‘a scientist’ being too blunt a description. We did notice a relative lack of direct comment from the UK government (less than 2% of items) as part of science stories, something I think is potencially worrying in terms of public debate over science policy.

Aside from questions over appropriateness of expertise being a rather slippery issue, there is very little information given about the expertise of a speaker. We found lot of reliance on phrases such as ‘scientists have found’ and ‘experts say’. Personally I think we need to address this issue before we can even get on to matters of whether experts are the right ones or not. Although expertise may be implied through editing, and TV in particular can flag up institutional association and title, we rarely saw a contributor’s disciplinary background specified. Especially significant I thought, in broadcast reports about new research we found little explicit reference to whether or not a particular contributor was involved in the research being reported (online reports often refer to someone as ‘lead author’ or ‘co-author’). This lack of definition makes it hard for audiences to judge a contributor’s independence, whether they are speaking on a topic they have studied in depth or if they are simply working from anecdote.

(I do appreciate how hard it is to give this sort of context, but it’s still a problem).

One of the things I was personally excited to find out in the study was the institutional location of the voices of science. We found that they were twice as likely to be affiliated to universities as any other type of organisations. There are perhaps also questions to be raised about the geographical distribution of these. Cue headlines suggesting Welsh science is ‘frozen out’ by the BBC, but the dominance of researchers based in the South East of England might be a due to a range of other factors (e.g. concentration of ‘Russell Group’ universities there).

When it came to coverage of recently published research, it was also interesting to ask which publications they came from. Nature, the Lancet and the British Medical Journal accounted for nearly all journal citations in the broadcast news. As with the location of research institutions, this is perhaps understandable considering their status, but also lacks diversity. On the reliance of particular journals, Charlie Petit was quick to note how little the American journal, Science is mentioned compared to the British equivalent, Nature. We thought this was interesting too, and wondered if this was a UK bias issue, but seeing as we found more coverage from Science when it came to online and non-news samples, it could be simply be that Science‘s embargo times don’t fit so easily with the BBC’s broadcast news schedule.

If you combine the arguable lack of diversity of news sources with our concerns over the reliance on press releases it is tempting to think back to Andy Williams’ point, based on his Mapping the Field study, about the ‘low hanging fruit’ of the almost ready-made content the highly professional press teams at these elite publications and research institutions push out. It’s hard to tell the reasons for this sort of coverage from our content analysis though. These sorts of questions, I believe, require studies which consider the processes of news-making as well as the content (and while I’m talking about Cardiff research, I should flag up the great iterative and mixed methods approach taken by Chimba and Kitzinger in their Bimbo or Boffin work; inspiring bit of research strategy there).

Anyway, I hope that’s pulled a bit more out of the study, but it’s only scratching the surface. There is, obviously, a lot more in the report itself – do read it for yourself if you’re interested in science journalism. If I get time later in the week, I’ll do a follow up post on what we had to say about the BBC’s blogs (edited to add 29/7 done!). There’s also a great interview with Dr Mellor on the Imperial College site which runs through some of the key findings. Edited to add 27/7: and a sharp editorial in Research Fortnight about it too. Edited to add 18/8: and here I am on the college podcast.

(or, you can try the BBC report of the review, which is rather brief, but does include a picture of Brian Cox blowing bubbles)

Towards a multigenerational debate about science

Last week, I was supposed to be one of the speakers at the World Conference of Science Journalists, part of a session on reaching younger audiences. For various reasons (some including ambulances…) I didn’t actually get to give my talk. This post is a linked-up version of what I would have said. The images are screengrabs from an old website, Planet Jemma, which is discussed near the end.

One of the rare bits of research on young people and online science media was conducted back in 2004 by some communication researchers in Florida, published as Attracting Teen Surfers to Science Web Sites in the Public Understanding of Science journal. I know it’s old work, but it’s their attitude I’m interested in here, not the primary data. They concluded that attracting teens to science websites can be difficult because when teenagers do go online, they do so for social interaction and entertainment, not to be educated. They seem to be a little disturbed by this, or at least see it as a problem to be managed.

I don’t think they should be disturbed though. I think they should be excited.

Let me give some background. In recent years, much of the discussion about the public communication of science and technology has focused on what we might broadly see as a shift from a top-down model to a more distributive approach; models which stress the need for scientists to listen to the public, and the role of public-to-public communication in the construction of ideas about science. Many science communication professionals now see their job as facilitating conversations, not providing ready-made polished stories (see this post for more on that).

It is rare, however, that we see this approach followed through when it comes to work with young people. The idea of ‘discovery learning’ was briefly popular in the late 20th century (put kids in a classroom with a load of science kit, let them discover it for themselves). However, as many educational researchers pointed out, this is rather naive: it only works if we actually believe scientific research comes from such uncomplicated, quick interaction with physical entities. In reality, science teachers accommodated students’ results that did not fit the expected outcome. They were demonstrations, not experiments; activities wrapped up in a rhetoric of discovery. Additionally, when young people are asked to debate science policy issues or ethics in class – as we see increasingly English science curriculum – this is seen as a rehearsal for democratic engagement in later life; the kids aren’t going to be listened to as kids.

This shift from providing polished stories to facilitating conversations isn’t unique to science communication. Developments in media technology and cultures surrounding these have led to changes in the way journalists consider the people formally known as the audience; changes I do not need to repeat here. There is also a specific debate within children’s media about the history and politics of adult-to-child narration. It should be remembered that so call-ed ‘children’s media’ is usually given to young people, not produced by them. Even writers aiming at a ‘child-centered’ approach will draw on memories of their childhood which may well be out of date and framed by adult worries. David Buckingham, riffing off Jacqueline Rose, talks about a form of generational drag; adults acting as if they were children, based on an adult conception of what a child is.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with sharing science across generations. Indeed, we might think of science as a generational activity, and the lengthy time frames of science is something I think we need to acknowledge. But we should also be aware of when exactly younger people are asked to speak rather than being spoken for, how much freedom they have, and how often they are listened to.

I will now briefly introduce a few examples of UK science communication websites aimed at young people, before offering two conclutions.

First up: SciCast. Here, children are invited to make short films about science and share them. There is a competition for the best ones every year, and they have a big Oscars-style awards do (finalists announced last week). There are some gems on the site: do go and have look. Let’s not pretend it is unmediated kid-to-kid communication though. Kids are drawing on the ideas of adult scientists, some of which are long dead too. They are also using adult-made media technology, and I’m sure some videos were lead by parents or teachers. It’s also a competition, judged by adults, so kids work to their idea of adult expectations. But I don’t think it pretends to be adult free either. Indeed, the project invites adult professionals to leave feedback, and gives feedback itself, because they see this as a productive part of the process.

Secondly: I’m A Scientist Get Me Out of Here. Scientists are put in zones with four others, each zone is matched to a set of schools. The scientists introduce themselves with a profile, and then the school students ask them questions. It runs for a bit over a week, and adopts the loose structure of reality TV show; the scientists get voted off daily so they compete to give good answers. Here the kids do not produce content, but rather lead it with their questions (and the content is sometimes slightly scrappy forum post answers from scientists, not carefully constructed literary prose). The questions are diverse – about the scientists as people as well as factual – as are the scientists who are everyday working researchers rather than the super-star presenters you might see on TV, and the project is proud of the way it communicates a sense of how science really works. Another key point to stress about I’m a Scientist is that the questions are not always resolved: a lot of scientists simply reply with ‘I don’t know’ (see this post and comment thread for some discussion, as well as this video made by one of the contestants).

SciCast and I’m a Scientist are unusual though. Most science media for young people is made for them, not by them. Moreover, although some may offer forms of interaction, it is worth questioning whether this is interactivity or, more simply, ‘activity’. So here’s my third example: Energy Ninjas, a science computer game developed for use on gallery at the Science Museum, which you can also play online. It has a loose narrative, though you have some control over the order. You move around a city, pick a site to enter and watch the Energy Ninjas chastise people for their carbon consumption. Where you choose to click will have some impact on your route through the game, but it won’t impact on the structure of the game itself, or even change the outcome of any loose story it contains. What you as player choose to click on certainly doesn’t get fed into science, or science policy.  It’s reasonably standard as the genre of these mini-science games go. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we should be aware of the limits of user involvement here.

Finally: Planet Jemma. It’s from 2003 and not online anymore (edit: a demo version is now up), but I think it’s fascinating and so worth sharing with you, so I’ve included some screengrabs the developers had archived, and there are some reviews online (this is interesting, and do see the comment thread includes response from developer). There’s also a Guardian article about it. This tells a story of Jemma a physics student in her early months at university, though emails sent to you as if you were an old friend from back home. You learn a bit of the science she is learning, but also about her life at university. The emails you get relate to where you’ve clicked on an associated website which includes videos and photo stories. Think of it as database-driven personalised narrative. This is a very good example of adult writers aping kid-to-kid discussion (see earlier point about ‘generational drag’). However, I should stress this was 2003. I’m sure the developers would have loved to have brought more of the actual teenage audience into making the story rather than just being the recipients and characters in it, something which is simply easier to do now. I’d love to see a project of this level of imagination and narrative complexity run today, but with the various technological and cultural resources we now have available.

Conclusion one: We should be honest about generational issues at play here. Don’t pretend to be providing a child’s voice when it’s an adult’s one, be aware of how adults are framing, possibly curtailing, children’s interactions with science (and why – they may have reasons for doing so). We should also be honest about the age of scientific content discussed with and by young people. I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with young people talking about old ideas, or using old ways to demonstrate them (in some ways, it’s quite exciting that people back in the 18thC did similar tricks to demonstrate science that we o today), but I do think we should be honest about this long history, even aim to explicitly pull it out. Moreover, rather than looking at communication patterns as just top-down or side-to-side, maybe we need to think about co-constructed multi-generational media; both in the construction of content, and its audiences.

Conclusion two: there are a host of projects getting kids to work with scientists, even to be involved in the scientific research. Why not get kids doing science journalism, with science journalists, too? Why not get science journalists doing ‘outreach’? Yes, there is SciCast and some projects to get schoolkids scienceblogging. My mother told be me about a science radio project in North London in the ’80s. But why not more of this? Moreover, why not include the more probing critical work of professional journalism? Kids can do more than explainers. I think this would have a number of educational benefits. Moreover, just as scientists doing outreach is sometimes (cynically) seen as serving the scientific community as a form of promotion for their profession, maybe is science journalism is under threat as a profession, maybe doing outreach could help promote youselves? And, just as scientists often say they learn a lot from working with young people, maybe science journalists could learn something too.

You want to reach young audiences? Stop thinking about them as ‘audiences’, and involve them.

Imagining the communities of online science

As a researcher of science writing and science writers, I’m interested in the ideas science bloggers have about the communities they are part of.

Bloggers being a reflexive lot, I have a growing collection of posts which discuss some of the issues involved here. Still, I want to go beyond the limited perspective provided by simply pointing and clicking through the blogs I already read, and see if I can generate something new. I decided to focus on people who blog about something to do with the brain. I choose the brain because it seemed like an area where there is a lot of interest in interdisciplinary work, as well as being one with a fair bit of sometimes contentious popular interest. I thought I might find elements of what might be called ‘bad science blogging’ and outreach work,  as well as researchers talking about their work in quite technical ways. I thought I might see overlaps in communities and cultural identities, and that this would be interesting.

My first main step was a very rough survey. The aim of this was just to increase the perspective; to introduce me to new blogs and bloggers, and get some ideas for how to frame interview questions at later stages of the work. I posted a set of questions a bit before Christmas, and have spent time over the last few months considering the results, including some of the new sides to blogging (both content they generate, and ideas about them one might hold) it has led me to. This is where I am now, and my next step will be to interview a smaller number of bloggers.

Having posted the call openly, I feel some responsibility to report back. Some of the responses were even posted publicly (in the comment thread, or on blogger’s sites). However, others were not only emailed to me, but also marked with as private. Moreover, I don’t want to go into detail about the results of this survey because it really is a rough look at the field. It is designed to help me do rigorous research, rather than be rigorous research in itself. It is not representative of science blogging, or even those who blog on the brain. It didn’t set out to be.

So here’s a compromise: a bit of an overview of what I’ve found which COMES WITH HUGE HEALTH WARNINGS (add your own red flashing lights here).

I emailed several bloggers I knew of in advance to ‘seed’ the project.  It was posted on my blog, and I posted a link to this on twitter. It was re-tweeted, and a few other bloggers linked to it too. I was taking a sort of ‘snowball’ approach, drawing on the connectivity of online communication to help see what I picked up. I was purposely vague with the notion of brain bloggers. I wanted to see who it attracted.

I received 47 responses in total. Some were academics, and there were a few science students who described themselves as scientists in training. Some were probably best described as patient bloggers; with a disease or injury relating to the brain. Some were journalists, some were skeptics and some I can only describe as ‘other’. A few were several of those categories at once. Some wanted to note they weren’t one of those identities; a few stated emphatically that they weren’t scientists and one wanted to stress that he wasn’t a skeptic. Very few had any formal training in science communication or journalism, though several had experience of some sort of professional writing outside of their blog. Very few said they were paid to blog, (this was true of the academics even if they also said they saw it as outreach).

I asked if they felt if they fitted into any particular community, network or genre of science blogging. The response to this seemed rather unsure, with a lot of question marks after answers. Interestingly, some also spoke about the importance of independence from any network too. One said they didn’t have time to read other blogs, which I was personally surprised by, and makes me want to learn more about bloggers blog-reading habits. Those who were on a network would talk about that, others mentioned the theme or subject area of their blog (e.g. ‘neuro’ or ‘genetics’), though many listed more than one. When I asked what this community gave them, the response was mainly ideas, sometimes access of paywalled papers and a way of making or keeping up with friends/ gaining emotional support. Networks seem to be seen to provide extra visibility, as well as technical support.

The reasons for blogging were really diverse. Some by accident. Some for fun and curiosity about the medium. Some because they were frustrated with peer review in academic publications or the (comparable?) limitations of writing for the mainstream media. Some wanted to tip a toe into professional writing, some wanted to promote a particular idea. I think my favourite was the one that said they started as a tribute to Darwin’s 200th birthday (anyone who has fallen down the rabbit hole that is the Darwin Correspondence Project will appreciate this).

The question after this was ‘what keeps you blogging’ – these answers were similar (some said ‘as above’) but they were more likely to stress the impact their blogging had had on others, or feedback they had received and that they learnt from the experience. Other topics that were stressed here were enjoyment, that they kept on finding things to share, and there was a sense of getting into the habit. I really think the notion of a community came out in these answers.

When I asked if they had a sense of size of their audience, what was most interesting was the variety of ways people answered the question. Some quoted web metrics, some said they thought only their friends read it, and clearly felt their readers were just those who left a comment or tweeted about it. Others felt there was probably some unknown audience, but that this was pretty much unknown. Some implied curiosity over this, one said he’d like to do the sort of reader survey Ed Yong does. When I asked about attitude to the commentators, the response was largely positive. A few seemed to boarder on the ‘I tolerate them’ end of things though, and bad comments did come through when I asked about disadvantages.

What’s next? Based on these results as well as my broader reading and research interests, for the next stage, I want to focus on just scientists who blog. I may later talk to those who come from a professional journalist route, and I’m really interested in student bloggers. The patient bloggers were fascinating, but I suspect this is something for someone with more expertise in the sociology of health to do. Obviously, part of the point of why this area is interesting is that we can’t necessarily divide these identities too clearly. Still, for the sake of having perimeters, scientists bloggers seem the most interesting.

Anyway, this is work in progress, so for all the red flashing health warning, as I continue to refine my research queries, I’d be interested to know what people think. Do these results, such as they are, match your own experience and expectations?