Tag Archives: blogging

Troll Below? Science policy below the line.


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.

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.

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.

Why Don’t You? A review of ‘Making is Connecting’

making is connecting

I’ve mentioned David Gauntlett’s new book, Making is Connecting, a few times recently: on my work blog, my knitting one, and on the Guardian’s Notes and Theories. It’s an interesting book worth talking about. It’s about the social meanings of creativity and 21st century maker cultures, be these makers of blogs, woolly cardigans, cupcakes, podcasts or physics-themed lolcats, and in particular the changing structures of making which surround what is sometimes called ‘social media’. As any seasoned media studies scholar will grump at you, all media is social, but with this thing we call web 2.0 the patterns of sociability are changing (Gauntlett has made a lovely vid on this) in ways which are wrapped up in the history of crafting.

It has, however, taken me a while to actually finish reading the book and post this review. This isn’t because it’s a hard read, or boring. Quite the opposite. For a piece of social sciences, it’s incredibly well written. Still, in a way, it is a book that inspires slow reading, because one of the many reasons why it took me so long to finish (why it takes me so long to finish most books, unless I make myself sit and read them in a go, or even watch a movie or er… finish this sentence) is that I get distracted. I stop consuming whatever other people have made – in this case Gauntlett’s book – and go and produce something for myself. I knitted, I cooked, I wrote, I gave lectures and organised events. Some of this I did myself, some of it collaboratively. Along the way, I also found stuff other people had made to consume and take part in too. And that’s why Making is Connecting might be ‘slow reading’. Because, this process of going off and doing something yourself is a lot of what the book is about.

One of the key frames of the book is a shift from the passivity of the ‘sit back’ model of what might come to be seen as the odd mid to late 20th century era of the television and towards a culture dominated by ideas of making and doing. People who watched British television at a certain point in the late 20th century may remember a show called Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead. So does Gauntlett.

I wondered at times whether this shift is over-stated in the book. Or at least that I we should be careful of putting them up against each other in terms of making. I love the passivity of some TV shows because they free me to knit in front of them (just knitting on its own doesn’t catch my attention enough). Or what about TV shows that draw on crafting cultures? (food TV, especially in the USA is fascinating here). Moreover, there are ways in which that big smooth professionally oiled machine of big media acts as a material for 21st century craft. One of the striking, not always appreciated, aspects of 21st century making is how much of it is re-making. Fan fiction is the classic case study of the complexity of such remaking culture. Take, for example, Constance Penley’s book NASA/Trek where she writes about people re-working the stories of Star Trek just as they also rework the various stories surrounding NASA.

A smaller topic, but equally interesting I thought, was that of mess. Gauntlett mentions this first when he is introducing web the notion of web2.0 and mentions a video from Chris Anderson, and then comes back to later when discussing the Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. It reminded me of my friend Felix’s great idea (a few years back now) of ‘messy Tuesdays’. Inspired by the ways in which some knitting and cooking bloggers seemed to be self-consciously styling their domestic lives to look like a glossy lifestyle magazine, Felix wrote up a manifesto (currently offline): ‘You are not your flawless surfaces. You are not your orderly laundry-pile. You are not the seamlessness of your Finished Objects. You are not your risen cakes. You are not your sewn-in ends’. As another blogger, Lara put it, ‘as someone who spent her teenager years wrapped in teenage angst about not being clever enough, pretty enough or thin enough, the idea that my home won’t be beautiful enough, my craft not so well executed or my knitting up to speed has been at times quite tough’. They confidently posted about the less tidied-up bits of their lives, celebrating the beauty and reality of the mess that surrounds us all.

I sometimes think we should bring that back: #messytues has something on a twitter meme about it, no? I also think there’s potential for some research here. John Law is good on this topic, as a post on the ‘serendipity engine’  reminded me recently. Although I’ve just quoted a couple of knit-bloggers, I think this idea of the reality, necessity and even beauty of mess has something to say about the way we tell science stories too (as the reference to Law may signal).

The point that most interested me about this book, however, was the way that Gauntlett, as a professor of media studies, is interested in people making media and mediating making. It’s all very popular culture orientated, with some nods to domestic life. The hand crafting of pharmaceuticals, for example, doesn’t get much of a look in. I wondered if this would have brought something else to the debate.

That’s one of the reasons why I referred to NASA/Trek. There are many other better works on fanfiction (e.g.) but I think Penley’s discussion of something as intrinsically ‘big science’ as the space race says something about the social arrangement of makers in late modern society. There is a danger that by focusing on the ways people make and remake some objects we further ‘black-box’ others. For example, I learnt how to knit from reading knit blogs. I can make a jumper. I can also blog about this on the super clever iPhone I carry around with me. I don’t know how to make an iPhone though, or even spin my own wool to make that jumper from. The latter is largely a matter of choice (I do at least know some blogs that’d teach me to spin and even what plants to grow to make my own dyes from, as well as a few people who have access to sheep for wool, or possibly even a llama). For the former though, I have no clue where to even start teaching myself, even if I did, the manufacture of an iphone is not exactly opensource. Most of the time, I’m ok with that cluelessness, it frees me up to be knowledgeable about other things, but it does also disempower me.

There are key ways in which most of us do not have the means to (media) production – from our inability to understand how to do anything but use (as in use as a consumer) the shiny computers so many of us carry around in our pockets, to more economic or legal issues like the one Martin Robbins recently flagged up on his post about web hosts as the Achilles heel of online journalism.

None of that is necessarily a criticism of the book. We all have to focus somewhere, and Gauntlett does touch on these issues a bit in his final chapter ‘Web 2.0 – not all rosy?’ Still, I was surprised not to see more on the sociologies of work, expertise and technology and finished the book wanting to hear more about anti-social aspects of DIY culture. I also suspect Gauntlett would get an intellectual kick out of the various aesthetics of steampunk maker culture (old post I wrote on an exhibition of such work).

To conclude, I do want to stress that Making is Connecting is a lovely book, not least because of Gauntlett realistically optimistic approach. Though he’ll happily call ‘rubbish!’ (his 10 things wrong with the media ‘effects’ model is justifiably a classic), he doesn’t wear an ability to be ‘critical’ like it’s some sort of pin badge to show membership of the ‘very clever thinkers club’. Academics should be able to say they like things, and I like this book. I’ll end on a positive note, an honest one, and say if you are a maker of any sort, I can wholehearted recommend Making is Connecting. It’ll give you a chance to think about the history and philosophies of crafting cultures. It’ll lift you out of your own maker microculture to help you ponder your wider context. It inspired me to make this post, and others, and to think more about my making. So do read it, even if it does take you a few months to get around to finishing it because you keep putting it down to do something else instead.

Science and craft

Mendel's peas
Mendel’s pea, by some of last year’s science communication MSc students

There seems to be more and more events happening which I can only describe as science-craft. I thought I’d write about it, and did a post for the Guardian Science blog.

There are overlaps here with sci-art projects, just as there are overlaps (sometimes problematic ones) between arts and crafts more generally. However, I think science craft events have the potential to involve new and different communities which sci-art doesn’t necessary reach, and to be more participatory in their whole project set up too.

There is the question of what you participate for exactly: what are you making? At danger of repeating myself, science communication isn’t all about baking a cake shaped like a neuron. In particular, I worry that the fluffier ends of sci-craft might act as a distraction from the production of more politically controversial outcomes.

Still, we shouldn’t loose sight of the use of these more playful products too. Or rather, we shouldn’t ignore the power of the social interactions which surround their production. My knitting friends often laugh at me for being a ‘process knitter’. I’ll happily take a piece apart and re-knit it, several times. Finishing is nice. But, for me, the fun’s in the doing. Similarly, I suspect much of the worth of public engagement happens in the process rather than the outcome. The various collaborative processes often involved in crafting can provide a space for people to talk through and think through ideas together. As I end the piece for the Guardian:

At a knitting evening held at Hunterian Museum a few years back, I ended up sitting next to a homeopath. As well as swapping tips on the best way to bind off for socks, we discussed our own research projects, including the ways in which they might be seen to clash, and some of the items of the history of surgery that surrounded us. Other people listened and joined in, before we all moved on to complaining about estate agents. It was polite, humorous and thoughtful. It was also pleasingly mundane; something that we’d all do well to remember a lot of science is.

To give another example, I spotted this video of a neuroscientist, Zarinah Agnew,  making a giant sandcastle. She told me she wants to do it again, but as a workshop rather than a film. I like this idea, because the time spent making the sandcastle allows space for social interaction which simply watching the film might inspire, but won’t necessarily do in itself.

Not all public engagement can or should have an obvious political or scientific outcome. Whether you want to open up the governance of science or increase the public understanding of science, you are unlikely to get anywhere without quite a bit of cultural change first. Playing with a bit of yarn might seem unambitious, but arguably the social interaction and reflection that comes with it can help us get there. Or this social interaction might lead us somewhere else entirely.

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?

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?

Studying the politics of online science

This ‘women science blogging revolution‘ has really been amazing to watch unfold. From Kate Clancy’s initial call to arms to Christie Wilcox’s forthright ‘Bring it‘ (as well as David Dobbs ‘Sister, you kicked some ass’ and Stephanie Zvan’s ‘But…’), and much, much more.

I thought I’d contribute by sharing a bit of recent empirical research about women, science and online media:

  • Mendick, H. and Moreau, M. (2010). Monitoring the presence and representation of  women in SET occupations in UK based online media. Bradford: The UKRC.

You can download the report and read it yourself, or here are my notes.

What they did

Mendick and Moreau considered the representation of women on eight ‘SET’ (science, engineering and technology) websites: New Scientist, Bad Science, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, Neuroskeptic, Science: So What, Watt’s Up With That and RichardDawkins.net. They also monitored SET content across eight more general sites: the BBC, Channel 4, Sky, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, Wikipedia, YouTube and Twitter.

Yes, they did include Watt’s Up With That in a list of science sites. Personally, I think it gives an interesting bit of context and flavour to the study. It doesn’t legitimse the site. Remember, they are looking at gender, not truth claims. That said, I did think it was odd they didn’t reflect more on its slightly different status (if only because I think that’s interesting sociologically).

Additionally, they interviewed six ‘web authors’ (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 8. See also Appendix 4), and carried out group interviews with 32 young ‘web users’ (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 8-9. See also Appendix 5). The researchers note that they find any distinction between writers and users problematic with respects to online media, stressing a blurring of boundaries around such roles and explictly distancing themselves from the attitude to online science media taken by a report on Science the Media published by the UK government last year (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 4-6).

What they found

I’m going to focus on the results from their analysis of web content, as this post is already quite long and I want to leave space to also discuss their methodology. Do read the full report yourself if you are interested – it’s quite accessibly written.

Their results suggest online science informational content is male dominated in that far more men than women are present. On some websites, they found no SET women. All of the 14 people in SET identified on the sampled pages of the RichardDawkins.net website were men, and so were all 29 of those mentioned on the sampled pages of the Channel 4 website (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 11).

They found less hyperlinking of women’s than men’s names (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 7). Personally, I’d have really liked some detail as to how they came up with this, and what constituted ‘hyperlinking of women’s names’ precisely. It’s potentially an interesting finding, but I can’t quite get a grip on what they are saying.

They also note that when women did appear, they were often peripheral to the main story, or ‘subject to muting’ (i.e. seen but not heard). They also noted many instances where women were pictured but remain anonymous, as if there are used to illustrate a piece – for ‘ornamental’ purposes – and give the example of the wikipedia entry on scientists, which includes a picture a women as an example, but stress she is anonymous (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 12).

Echoing findings of earlier research on science in the media (e.g. the Bimbo or Boffin paper), they noted that women, when represented, tended to be associated with ‘feminine’ attributes and activities, demonstrating empathy with children and animals, etc. They also noted a clustering in specific fields. For example, in the pages they’d sampled of the Guardian, they found seven mentions of women scientists compared with twenty-eight of men, and three of the these women were in a single article, about Jane Goodall (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 12-13).

The women presented were often discussed in terms of appearance, personality, sexuality and personal circumstances, again echoing previous research. They also noted that women scientists, when present, tended to be younger than the men, and there was a striking lack of ethnic diversity (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 14).

There were also some interesting hints about women having a particularly hard time when it came to sceptical communities, women are more likely to be associated with dishonesty, or at least foolishness. This was both in the Bad Science end of this, and what might be seen as ‘pseudo-scepticism’ of Watts Up With That (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 17-18).

One site they did seem to quite like was Science: So What (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 19).

What I thought

I’m going to be quite critical of this research. It’s not actively bad, it just seems to lack depth and precision. I suspect Mendick and Moreau were doing their best with low resources and an overly-broad brief. I also think that we are still feeling our way in terms of working out how to study online science media, and so can learn something from such a critique.

Problem number one: it’s a small study, and yet a ginormous topic. I’d much rather they had looked at less, but made more of it. At times I felt like I was reading a cursory glance at online science. Problem number two: the methodological script seemed a bit stuck in the print era. I felt the study lacked a feel for the variety of routes people take through online science. It lacked a sense of online science’s communities and cliques, its cultures and sub-cultures, its history and its people. It lacked context. Most of all, it lacked a sense of what I think sits at the center of online communication: the link.

It tries to look at too much, too quickly. We’re told that of the blog entries sampled from Bad Science, three out of four of the women mentioned were associated with ‘bad science’, compared to 12 out of 27 of the men . They follow up this a note that Goldacre has appeared on television critiquing Greenfield,­ a clip of which is on his site (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 17-18). OK, but ‘bad’ needs unpacking here, as does the gendered nature of the area Goldacre takes aim at. As for Susan Greenfield, she is a very complex character when it comes to the politics of science and gender (one I’d say it is dangerous to treat representations of simplistically). Moreover, this is a very small sample, without much feel for the broader media context the Bad Science blog works within, including not only other platforms for Ben Goldacre’s voice but comment threads, forums and a whole community of other ‘bad science bloggers’ (and their relationships with each other). NB: I think there are interesting and important discussions to have about gender and sceptic communities, which is precisely why discussion of this needs to be done well.

I also got a bit annoyed at the analysis of the wikipedia entry on scientists (they note the image of a scientist is of a woman, but that she is anonymous). OK, it’s an example of a nameless woman, but the culture of anonymity around the idea of a scientist is important to remember here. There is a gender politics to this, but that needs to be brought out, as do the new ways in which cultures of the web may disrupt or change this politics (personally, I’d start quoting this fascinating statement on Holfordwatch whilst reaching for my copy of Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium).

In fact, I was surprised not to see issues of identifying gender within anon/ pseudonymous identities come up. To me, this flagged up a lack of attention on of forums that many of the sites they looked at contained. Indeed, the relative lack of attention the report played to conversations between people was, I thought, especially odd considering a key finding of one of the rare bits of research that has been done on young people and science online is that they go to the web to talk to each other, rather then to be fed content (admittedly, this study is a bit old, but I was surprised not to see it referenced).

The approach to twitter was, I thought, especially weak. It boiled down to a keyword search for Ada Lovelace, Susan Greenfield, Alice Roberts on one side, and Charles Babbage, Richard Dawkins, and Robert Winston on the other. I guess it could generate some data to then have a play with, but they don’t seem do anything with it, and I remain unconvinced that it’s the best first step anyway. Keywords just don’t capture twitter. Trending terms, maybe (maybe).

The report needed to reflect something of the routes people take through online science. Their use of focus groups does capture this up to a point, but it really was very small and, for me, called out to be supplemented with more ethnographic work. The hyperlink disrupts the basis for a traditional content analysis, news-sharing and link curation sites,  folksonomies, etc even more so. You can’t treat twitter like a pile of paper to search for the existence of particular words within: it’s too complex a social system. We need to consider the time people dwell online, and how they interact with each other there.

To conclude, It’s always easy to say what people haven’t done and point a finger with ‘it’s more complicated than that’. My argument is that this study spreads itself too thin. Maybe it’s best to think of it as a first sketch towards later work that will learn how to capture the richness of the subject matter. To make a practical suggestion, the iterative research methodology applied by the Cardiff study, which applied feedback from research subjects along the way, strikes me as extremely applicable to studying online media.

I want to reiterate that I suspect the researchers were working with an overly-broad brief and simply weren’t given the resources to meet it. If we want to understand the cultures and politics of science online – and I think we should – we need to fund people with the time and resources to have a proper look.

Simple scribes

This week, the Guardian’s science blog published Tim Radford’s Manifesto for the Simple Scribe. It’s a lovely set of tips for better writing which has been passed around the UK science writing community since it was first written in the mid-1990s.

I was really sceptical it’d appeal to a broader audience. I was wrong. As soon as it was posted, it spread quickly on twitter and facebook; spread with warmth and across the globe. I’ve seen tweets about it in several different languages. It’s currently the most-read piece on the Guardian science pages, even beating the story about the astronaut falling off his bicycle.

Ian Sample asked a great question when he shared a link to the manifesto: this was written last century, what would you change? This is my attempt at starting an answer. I’d be interested to know what others think.


Martin Robbins suggested twitter ‘nukes’ point one (that you’ll never meet your reader). I think Robbins is right to draw our attention to a change in read/ writer relationships, but I’m not sure nuke is quite the word. It’s only a small percentage of readers a writer is likely to interact with.  The loud ones, the bored, the ones with an axe to grind or, more positively, those that feel some relationship with the author or community of other commentators. Yes, it’s easier to do this and twitter lets you talk to them. You can also watch people sharing your work, using sites like topsy.com. This is more than was available a few years ago, but it’s no where near comprehensive. It’s also a development of structures for relationships with readers that were already in place: It’s worth remembering that Radford was letters editor before he moved to the science desk.

The manifesto was published on the run-up to a Q&A with Radford we held at Imperial on wednesday. A member of the audience there asked him how he felt about readers comments when his writing ends up on the web. Radford said he’d found himself ‘depressed, but also profoundly impressed’ by these.  On the one side there were those commentators  who react to some key word like ‘climate’ and ignore what you’ve written, ranting off about something else entirely. But then he had also witnessed experts on a topic find each other through comments and develop ideas mentioned in a piece, making something new from their interaction. I thought it was fascinating that both of these examples were a matter of readers interacting really without the need for the writer.

Maybe that’s a function of an old-media writer, one that is slightly unaccustomed to building a relationship with readers through comment threads. I suspect a similar list written today would include some tips on how to work productively with the people formerly known as the audience.  But I also think it’s partly a matter of working for a mass-media brand, and there are practical difference between the crowded space of the Guardian and a cozy personal blog. I’m not entirely sure it’s appropriate, or possible, to expect one to try to be the other. I know I teach differently in a large lecture theatre, compared to a small seminar room (or a meeting in my office with one or two students). I’m not sure we can expect writers to meet their readers, especially when writing online, as texts may become all the more open. Or at least we can’t expect them to meet all of them. To allow the illusionary interactive feel of twitter con us into thinking we have would be silly. 


The manifesto doesn’t really talk about linking, a point made critically in the blog’s comments. If anything Radford makes a point of stressing linearity for clear writing (though he does mention putting ‘twiddly bits’ in, see point 10). I think linking is part of the art of being a writer in the 21st century. I think it is something writers have to think carefully about, take time over, will get better at over time, and will develop their own distinctive style for. I suspect it is a skill which the wise old writers of the future will be keen to share tips about, and in that respect this manifesto shows itself up as a bit 20th century.

Long tails

For me, the biggest difference between today and the 1990s is the way the online communication means it easier to get away with writing for rather niche audiences (a small percentage of the WHOLE INTERNET still being a fair quantity). Much of this manifesto reads like tips for sharing science to as broad an audience as possible. It’s classic mass-media communication. Today, a writer for the Guardian might want to speak to as many people as possible, but the many bloggers who will have lapped up Radford’s advice won’t necessarily feel the same way.

I suppose niche writing has always existed though, just as I think there is an ongoing market for writing which aims to share a piece of science with as many people in the world as possible. Indeed, one might argue that because niche communication now increasingly happens in relatively public spaces of the web, there is a need to make it digestible to diverse audiences. Similarly, we might argue that as science becomes increasingly specialised, all science should be easier to understand outside the small community of peers which produced it (and that goes for the composition of journal articles as much as anything else).

Another question we might ask is whether this desire to talk share science with a mass audience ever really held true, even back in the 1990s? When I posted a link to it on twitter, I did so with the quote: ‘No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand’. Mariette DiChristina, the editor in chief of Scientific American, re-posted this with the comment ‘Except some SciAm readers, who will!’. She has a point. I’ve heard complaints along these lines too. Indeed, we could see some in the comments to Radford’s piece, many incorrectly conflating ‘easy to understand’ with patronising the audience. I suppose it’s a slightly utopian statement in some respects, a challenge (see also point 4, on journalism never being self-important).


And that, in the end, is my answer to Sample’s question. Yes, these tips are a decade and a half old, but it’s a manifesto. As such, it’s a statement of desire born out of an awareness of what is understood as some key problems. It is a statement of hope, not matters of fact. Our tools for science writing may have changed slightly, and I do think this has an impact on what we expect of it, as well as the relationships between scientists, writers and readers. But I don’t think our ideals for science writing have really changed that much.