Has blogging changed science writing?

I gave a talk to students on the Science, the Environment and the Media course at American University this week. The actual talk was a reasonably long and sprawling event, so I’ve pared it down a bit for this blogpost.

There’s an oft-made joke that the answers to questions in headlines is always ‘no’, and that this is especially apparent in the era of click-from-the-tweet linkbait news production. It was neatly parodied by Martin Robbins in the sub-heading to his (infamous) This is a news website article about a scientific paper post for the Guardian last year.

So, here’s a headline question: Has blogging changed science communication?


Or at least ‘ish’.

Yes, various technologies of online communication, and cultural changes surrounding them, mean we can do new things with science writing, but that doesn’t mean we have done them, or that we’ve done them in simple ways.

There are various thing we can talk about in terms of how blogging has or has not impacted on science writing. In the longer version of this piece I covered several. There’s the ongoing story of journalists vs bloggers (the silliness of it, though also the sense where it is real). There’s the complex ways in which trust can be build via pseudonymous blogging (the about us section at HolfordWatch is a fascinating example). Or, for all the promise of the web as a great leveler, when it comes to science many of the old patterns of authority and anti-authority are played out online (I think science bloggers tendency to networks is interesting here). I also cautioned against naivety when it comes to setting ‘information’ ‘free’, using Ben Goldacre’s scepticism over an investigation from the Guardian Health team as example, including the idea that open data might need open methodology too (credit). To which I might add the need for open education, not to mention an awareness of the role of tacit knowledge (and that’s without getting into economic arguments…).

Here, I’ll posit two ideas in more detail, and invite your response: (a) I don’t think hypertext has transformed science writing, but (b) I do think blogging has fostered greater reflexivity in the field.

Hypertext hasn’t transformed science writing

Or at least it hasn’t transformed it as much as it could.

The link is a form of rhetoric like any other form of communication. Placing one, thinking about what you’ll link to, how and when, is part of the craft of modern writing and something to delight in. It’s a challenge that, as someone who has been writing about science online for over a decade, I personally adore. However, many science writers don’t link, even to the paper a story is about, let along further context.

There are various reasons for this. Content management systems many professional writer work with can be very clunky, constraining a writer’s hypertextual expression. A lot of text online has to also be available in print. In the tough economies of professional writing, links are used to increase search engine optimisation, or even advertising (Mary Knudson shared a story about this at a DCSWA event last week). Writers often also ask the simple question ‘link to what: a paywalled document no one will understand?’ (which brings us back to access issues…).

We might similarly argue that there are many more complex tools available than simple href tag which could add something to the way we tell stories about science. Several writers have been playing with timelines recently (e.g. this one from Henry Nicholls) as ways to connect the rich context around a story. These are great, and I look forward to their use more and more, but they are underused. The Guardian’s Story Tracker idea is nice, but very low tech and hardly used. Compare it to the Guardian’s Arab Spring timeline. Where’s the human genome project version of content like this?

I know a lot of science journalists who are incredibly excited by the various new media options available to their craft. They just don’t have the time or resources to pursue them. I should note that it was Mun Keat Looi, Online Editor at the Wellcome Trust, who prompted me to wonder where the HGP roller-coaster was. Maybe it’s institutionally based science writers like him who have the resources to make these sorts of projects? (maybe this is a problem?)

This isn’t necessarily a criticism. I don’t expect science journalism to have to ‘tech up’, nor do I necessarily think all their audiences want it. But let’s not assume more than there is. The history of technology is often as much a story of what innovations we haven’t taken up as those we have (see Edgerton, 2006); there has always been more options than actions when it comes to science writing.

Blogging has fostered reflexivity in science writing.

By which I mean we can see science writers engaging in critique and debate about the meanings and methods of science writing.

Especially in the UK, the role of Ben Goldacre and other members of the ‘Bad Science’ blogging community shouldn’t be discounted, but I think my favourite example here has to be the US-based EmbargoWatch. It’s quite ‘inside baseball’, and in some respects, an example of the ability of the web to connect niche interests groups (it’s a bit ‘Long Tail’). I mentioned this to a professor of science journalism recently and his eyes grew into saucers with geeky glee: ‘there’s a whole blog, on embargoes?!’ Another nice example is Christopher Mims’ reminiscing over the history of science blogs. Or there’s the Guardian’s recent series linked to a competition, or simply the way so many science writers use their blogs to disperse posts about their craft alongside actually doing it.

The niche element is only part of the story though. Going back to the impact of ‘Bad Science’ blogging, Martin Robbins who now blogs on the Guardian network (great post about this here by the way) makes for a super case study here. There is that parody I mentioned earlier, or his occasionally mischievous tweeting. What makes Robbins so interesting though is not just that he gets to post critiques of professional science journalism on the site of such professional journalism (as Ben Goldacre does too), but the way in which this demonstrates an audience for such a critique (again, see also the success of Goldacre). Just look at the share stats at the top of that parody post: 4747 tweets, shared on facebook 37K times. That’s unusual for the Guardian science pages. I checked with Martin, and it amounted to 15% of traffic to the site for 2 days; about a quarter millions hits per day.

That’s not to argue that such critique is always useful, valid or listened to. Just that it’s there. It’s probably worth noting that much of this sort of critique is of the kind that both the scientific community and media-watchers (including mainstream media itself) have made for years. It’s not necessarily all that new; it’s just more overtly embedded alongside the work itself now. I’d also add that for all that the odd blogpost may be highly perceptive and well researched, not to mention sometimes incredibly funny, there’s still a role for the more developed work of academics (e.g. from Andy Williams, Matt Nisbet or Jenny Kitinger, Felicity Mellor, Martin Bauer, Angela Cassidy, Brian Trench…).

In conclusion, science and blogging are both large and amorphous cultural spaces: aspects of the above will be more or less true depending on where you look. I don’t claim to know about all of it. Personally, the thing I appreciate most about blogging is that it seems to have make it more socially acceptable to finish with questions. So, what do you think?

24 thoughts on “Has blogging changed science writing?

  1. David Dobbs

    I’d add a caveat — maybe counterargument? — to your assertion that blogging hasn’t changed science writing. I think it has, in an important but subtle ways. I base this on no formal study, but my own impression is that the looser, more conversational tone found in blogs has spread a bit into mainstream science writing, helping to make it more accessible. The science geeks reading can think of all sorts of biases that may have produced this view. But for now, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Wonder what others think.

    1. alice Post author

      ah, good point – I guess that folds into my point about reflexivity but I think I implied that these things are still separate even if they are on the same platform, whereas I’d agree with you that it happens in subtle ways (and I’d also say this folds into the ways bloggers/ professional writers/ academics often – perhaps increasingly – have blurred identities).

      1. David Dobbs

        So we agree here, I think … ish. In the end it’s all writing, of course, and as long as writers are reading attentively (let’s HOPE so), such things will spread.

    2. Katie Pratt

      I totally agree. The more conversational science writing gets the more accessible it becomes, and the more the stereotypical view of aloof and isolated scientists is challenged. Add humor into the mix and you’re onto a winner. Non-scientists probably didn’t enjoy science in school, and therefore probably won’t read a text-book-style piece of science writing. But hiding the facts in a well written, personal, and engaging piece I think is a very effective form of communication.

      Great post btw :)

  2. Sinead

    They are interesting thoughts, I would think science blogging has more people talking about science. I follow an odd collection of blogs; make-up, recipes, science, feminism. My own blog reflects my own interests. Lot of food, some physics.

    But I can clearly see now more and more, non-science blogs having a science post. Non-experts talking and linking back to trustworthy sources aka no longer linking back to the Daily Mail.

    Scientists knowing that they can engage with “laypeople” and that people outside of their own field are genuinely interested in their work is bound to have subtle effects in how they write or present their own work.

    1. alice Post author

      “I would think science blogging has more people talking about science”

      That is a key question which I admit isn’t addressed above. I have no idea if it is true. It’s something I think lots of people would love to know, but would be very very hard to get any decent data on (that shouldn’t stop us thinking of ways to guess, I’d add…)

      1. Jason Goldman

        “It’s something I think lots of people would love to know, but would be very very hard to get any decent data on (that shouldn’t stop us thinking of ways to guess, I’d add…)”

        Yes, I think more of us need to be thinking about this question. This is particularly of interest to those of us in academia who are blogging, I think, who still need to convince people that the broad outreach-related goals of blogging are met and/or exceeded.

  3. mjrobbins

    Yup, so I agree with most of the above, and I’m a bit of a blog-sceptic when it comes to impact. Well, maybe more of an agnostic. I think so far we’ve failed to tackle the problem of quantifying lots of key things about blogs, starting with their impact.

    “The link is a form of rhetoric” – this is a brilliant quote and so true. I tend to use them as I would use citations in a paper, but sometimes I do like play with the form as well, and pay closer attention to exactly how I use them to inject humour or reinforce a point.

    But the technology is key. There’s been a recent proliferation of story-building tools that allow people to quickly build a visual or multimedia narrative around a collection of primary material. I think the exciting thing about these tools is there possibility as a labour-saving alternative to churnalism. All of them are ultimately about providing context, putting material into a story or narrative, and if you can do that as quickly as you can check and edit a bit of PR material then there’s no excuse not to switch over.

    All of them are flawed, even though some (like Storify) are very well thought out; and we’re flawed too because we’re playing with them for the first time and learning as we go. You linked to my first Storify piece above, and in creating that I had to really stop and think about basic things like “should I write in present or past tense?” The tools will continue to develop, and we’ll continue to learn how to use them. In hindsight I think the Guardian’s StoryTracker will fail, because it requires too much effort on the part of the curator whereas with Storify I could literally build the story in real-time (Storify’s powerful ability to help you locate the source material in the first place is important here).

    Reflexivity… I wonder if this is a function of blogging, or just social media generally. Journalists now are engaging more and more with Facebook and Twitter, and reading and responding to comments (on their articles and elsewhere). Journalists and authors used to be aloof and separate, now they’re in among the crowd and taking part in realtime public conversations.

    1. alice Post author

      glad you like the “link is a form of rhetoric” line – was set the essay I’ve linked to there to read as an undergrad studying research online back in 2002. I’d just started writing professionally for the web then too, and it really spoke to me.

      Yeah, I wonder if reflexivity is a function of blogging. In fact, I have that line in a paper I’m presenting in Ottawa this weekend :-)

  4. Matt

    I’m going to add my completely unsolicited two cents (hooray for blogs)

    I am assuming your criteria for change are concerned with how blogs are affecting other forms of science journalism (via your focus on hypertext/linking and Martin’s Churnalism).

    These seem to be fair assessments. Linking/referencing seems to be a low barrier for appreciating how blogs can be more effective than more traditional forms of journalism. And I also like to think that the excellent science bloggers out there are keeping traditional journalists honest. The ability to explore a topic unrestrained allows science bloggers the space to develop some very entertaining and informative pieces that are far removed from the press releases of Cell/Nature/Science. This has led to a much more diverse landscape from which the interested person can seek out the best “story” and the best “storyteller”.

    But, I do want to make an argument for an instance where I see blogging has had a huge effect on science: Scientists. The ability of scientists to go on-line and tell their “story” or to speak of other science that speaks to them is truly inspiring. The scientists who do put themselves “out there” are able to develop their writing and communication skills and are opening themselves up to a lay-audience.

    Like all science (and progress) things never occur as quickly as we might like. Certainly web 2.o hasn’t caught on in the science community and journalistic referencing is still lagging. But, there appear to me to be some signs of minor progress on these fronts.

    I am curious, Alice, as to what sorts of metrics you think we (as a science-loving community) should be expecting our media outlets to aspire to? I certainly don’t have an answer. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    1. alice Post author

      The “keeping traditional journalists honest” was partly what I mean with reflexivity, and one of the reasons why I think this is a rather old form of critique (note old does not necessarily equal bad).

      So, I like your line about how blogging can be ‘truly inspiring’ for scientists, because I think that sort of ‘Grrr, they’ve got that WRONG. AGAIN’ rants used to be limited to the lab or common room, and now they have the opportunity to link directly to media audiences and/ or journalists themselves.

      As for metrics… I think media outlets need to aspire to ones their advertisers want. They are businesses. As a Brit, I can also add that I think public(ish) media like the BBC (and in a totally different way, the Guardian) have the freedom to avoid a fair amount of pressure to any such metrics, they can be a lot more flexible than calls for metrics require.

  5. Gaia

    Interesting, thanks Alice. I wonder how effective links actually are, because when I include lots of links (a fairly time-consuming business), I find few people actually click on them. Are they a waste of time?

    1. alice Post author

      Yes, I think that that a lot too (indeed, it crossed my mind several times as I wrote that very link-heavy blogpost…).

      As an academic I’m used to pointing and referencing things as much as possible, just to be open about where I come from to people can follow it up if they want (and for my own personal record). That’s may be different from a more journalistic piece where you’d want to point people towards one or two other really key and useful sources (although equally you can highlight their importance in text amongst a wealth of others by simply saying things like ‘this has a really clear and accurate explanation if your puzzled’, etc etc)

      At the end of the day, is it that hard to link? If it’s influenced your writing you’ll have it open in a tab anyway. Put it there for the 1% of your readership inspired/ bored enough to click.

      1. Martin Robbins

        Just a quick thought – links aren’t always for the audience either. Links can be a bit of a backup, there in case of any challenge rather than something for people to follow. That’s particular useful in controversial areas. I suspect a lot of science bloggers formed their linking habits from citations in research writing (I certainly did) and out of interest, I wonder how often scientists actually read cited papers in a piece of research?

        1. Matt

          I agree that my linking follows directly the style I use for referencing in my scientific papers. Also, if there is a paper that I am very interested in, I will read most of the references and then references that these cited papers use … often going two or three references deep. Most times, one paper won’t have all of the information I need (for a protocol or explanation) but this info can be cobbled together from a combination of references.

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  7. Deborah Blum

    I thought this was a really smart post, Alice. And smart discussion. As someone who grew up “straight print” and now blogs, I find it has and hasn’t changed the way I tell stories. It’s more conversational, sure, because it is a conversation – at least on a much faster scale than the old newspaper model. Although I once wrote a story when at The Sacramento Bee (behavioral biology) that caused people to set up a protest march in front of the building. But in interesting ways, I’ve found that the blog allows me to be a more literary writer – I can use the technology (links, graphics) to bypass lengthy explanations and really focus on the storytelling. Absolutely love that.

  8. Lisa Palmer

    If you haven’t read it already, Nature had a piece two years ago called “Science journalism: Supplanting the old media?” http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090318/full/458274a.html More recently, Momentum, a publication of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, asked me to write about this subject as it relates to climate change reporting in the US. My story, News vs. Views, is here: http://environment.umn.edu/momentum/issue/3.2s11/viewpoints.html

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