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?