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The roles, reasons and restrictions of science blogs
John S. Wilkins*
Department of Philosophy, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD 4072, Australia

Over the past few years, blogging (‘web logging’) has become a major social movement, and as such includes blogs by scientists about science. Blogs are highly idiosyncratic, personal and ephemeral means of public expression, and yet they contribute to the current practice and reputation of science as much as, if not more than, any popular scientific work or visual presentation. It is important, therefore, to understand this phenomenon. Introduction A blog is fundamentally a continuously updated web page, with entries (‘posts’) that have date, time and, if many authors contribute to the blog, author-name stamps (Figure 1). Each post may be commented upon by the readership, and the discussions can range from a few humorous one-liners to complex and well-written rebuttals or contributions, and everything in between. Blogs typically have a general theme, and most blogs are personal diaries organized around these. Many are focused on single issues, such as politics, religion or scientific topics. Science blogs are blogs whose main focus or intent is disseminating or commenting upon science. Many science bloggers are graduate students, but a number are practicing teachers and researchers. It is unclear so far how the scientific and educational communities regard blogging. Some graduate students and early career researchers have complained that they are being told by advisors and supervisors to stop blogging and concentrate on ‘real’ work, whereas others have drafted up later-published papers on their blogs, and taken advantage of an informed and enthusiastic readership for critique and suggestions. At times, readers offer references the author might not have found otherwise, especially from cross-disciplinary fields. In this article, I argue that there are also many other reasons for scientists to enter the blogosphere (Box 1). Readerships and reasons There are, it seems, several reasons people have for science blogging, each of which, in my opinion, is enough to justify it. One is the obvious concern of science communication. In comparison with the usual modes of science communication (e.g. magazines, newspapers and television), blogging is more intimate and responsive. It gives a rapid and
Corresponding author: Wilkins, J.S. (john@wilkins.id.au) John blogs at Evolving Thoughts (http://scienceblogs.com/evolvingthoughts), part of the Seed Magazine stable of bloggers known collectively as Sciencebloggers (or Sciblings). All links active as of 16 May 2008.
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timely account of news in science, and relies not merely on press releases, which can be terribly misleading, but on the personal knowledge and expertise of the blogger. Papers that would otherwise be missed can be described and even critiqued within days. Some journals even send notifications to bloggers to ensure that their papers are seen and commented on. Blogging is also a way to demythologize science. Unlike laws and sausages, the public should see science during its manufacture, but the lay public is generally ill-equipped to interpret what they see, and science bloggers play a crucial role here. Bloggers with a deeper knowledge of the topic, or of science in general, can place studies in a context of prior work, thereby correcting or avoiding the myths and pigeonholes of science journalism. In addition, readers can comment immediately, making correction possible. This provides a contrast to science magazines and columns in the mainstream media and shows that science and medicine are not always about major breakthroughs or immediate applications. Science bloggers can also discuss science politics (both the politics between the scientists themselves and the role of wider politics on science), which are frequently not touched upon in popular science publishing. Occasionally, major scientific politicking occurs on the blogs, as when Jerry Coyne attacked Olivia Judson on Carl Zimmer’s The Loom over ‘hopeful monsters’ (http:// scienceblogs.com/loom/2008/01/24/hopeless_monstersa_ guest_post.php) (Box 2). Blogs regarding ecology and evolution are often established to counter opposition to these sciences in the public discourse, especially after the politically motivated socalled Gingrich contract with America that used obfuscation to undercut confidence in the findings and theories of various sciences (details of this specific case of a wider antiscience attitude in the West can be found in Ref. [1]). Blogs are used by both professional scientists and those who support science to counter this opposition. Examples of this include the Real Climate blog (http://www. realclimate.org) and Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog (http://www.badastronomy.com). However, to become a strong blogging presence, one cannot focus on science all the time. For instance, a Minnesota professor of developmental biology, Paul Z. Myers, blogs about religion and politics at Pharyngula (http:// scienceblogs.com/pharyngula), and these topics attract the bulk of his massive readership of over 300 000 visitors per week. In between these populist posts, his science posts, usually on developmental biology, are works of art. By contrast, as a philosopher of biology, my blog
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Box 1. How to start a blog
There are both commercial and free blog site providers. Of the free ones, Blogger (https://www.blogger.com/start) is the most widely used. To start a blog, the user logs on, creates an account and names the blog. Thereafter, entries are written and posted using either the web browser interface or a blogging tool. Only very ITproficient persons should try to set up a blog server themselves. What skills does a blogger need to get the message across? Basically not more than what is needed to teach freshmen students, although one should not presume that the readership will know even the basics of the field. Some argue that science communication requires training, but as authors like E.O. Wilson show, a scientist can be an excellent communicator without specialty training. All kinds are needed, and none should be excluded. However, a blog is not written like a science paper or a lecture. It has to be engaging, if not entertaining, as well as opinionated. Although there are group blogs, this is a personal medium, and the ‘voice’ of the blogger, their personality and obsessions, has to come across. One excellent example of this is Moselio Schaechter’s microbe blog, Small Things Considered (http://schaechter.asmblog.org/schaechter), which features ‘Talmudic questions’ such as ‘Why haven’t protists become multicellular?’ And to get the really big readerships, controversy is essential. What is the most efficient way to reach the audience? There is an ongoing fight over a technique of popular science communication known as ‘framing.’ Proponents of this technique argue that science should be tailored to the audience. The argument is based on communication theory and on observations of how the neoconservatives in the United States have skewed science to their own ends. Whereas proponents of framing think that one should fight fire with fire, others argue that we should present the science as it stands in our professional opinion, without special concern for the readers. In my mind, this debate stems from a difference in opinion of what science blogging, and communication in general, is for. It is my view that one cannot make up for bad science education through popular media; at best, one can only inspire and rebut. And of course one must not speak above the level of comprehension of one’s audience. But I am a firm optimist on this matter—if you challenge the popular audience, it will often rise to the occasion. Many science enthusiasts will recall being similarly challenged by the best communicators of their youth. So I do not think we should trim the message when the message is relevant.

Figure 1. The life cycle of a blog. Sources include other blogs, news services, journal articles, popular media and the personal knowledge of the blogger. In the case of science blogs, posts are often based on recent science announcements and, more rarely, recent articles. Sometimes science bloggers blog about their own research, whether science research or research about science (e.g. philosophy, history or sociology of science). Political and policy influences of science are often discussed; for example, the ‘ScienceDebate08’ campaign aims to get either presidential candidates or their campaign representatives to present firm policies about scientific research (http://www.sciencedebate2008.com/www/ index.php). Blogs can be deleted when their authors decide to stop maintaining them, but the convention is to leave them available for as long as the service provider allows. At least one blog that contained a considerable amount of useful information, a Philosophy of Biology blog at Florida State University (http:// philbio.typepad.com/philosophy_of_biology), was deleted when it ceased to be active, and it has now been taken over by a ‘cybersquatter’ who uses it to sell merchandise.

Box 2. A hopeful monster controversy
In a New York Times blog and opinion piece on 15 January 2008, entitled ‘The Monster Is Back, and It’s Hopeful’ (http://judson.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/22), Olivia Judson revived, in a way, Goldschmidt’s Hopeful Monster. Citing upstream regulatory genes that can mutate with large effect downstream on morphology and general phenotype, Judson proposed that many changes occurred in a single radical step, with no intermediates. Immediately, the science blogger community leapt upon the topic. At Carl Zimmer’s blog, The Loom, biologist Jerry Coyne attacked the idea in a guest post (http://scienceblogs.com/loom/2008/01/24/hopeless_monstersa_guest_post.php), calling her post ‘inaccurate and irresponsible.’ He and others (e.g. John Hawk’s Anthropology Weblog; http:// johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/links/links_012708_2008.html) immediately rejected the equation of saltationism with evo-devo. As one geneticist noted (http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp/2008/01/jerry_coyne_smacks_down_olivia.php), ‘[It is] [i]nteresting that Coyne, a serious contributor to evolutionary scholarship, has gotten his hands dirty and reached out to the public so directly to correct what he perceives is journalistic malpractice.’ The increasing activity of leading scientists on the internet in general and the blogosphere in particular indicates that a novel way of doing science debates is arising, one that might in fact be more immediate, but less ‘official’ than, say, letters in the New York Review of Books, where the debates between Gould, Dennett and others in 1997 played out [4], or in the pages of Cladistics or Science. The ephemeral nature of such debates might make the task of the historian of science more difficult.

attracts a mere 10 000 visits per week. Still, the wellknown philosopher Paul Griffiths once remarked that this was a massive readership for a philosopher of biology, so ‘success’ is a relative thing. In any case, the purpose of science blogging is not to compete with the political pundits or bloggers of popular culture. The benefits of blogging Blogging also has personal benefits for the blogger. A blog that represents a scientific community or subdiscipline will become a community in itself. Through back-channel forums, personal contacts, and commenting, an isolated researcher can become part of a wider social network. Occasionally, conferences result, such as the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference (http://www. scienceblogging.com) that has now been held twice. And science bloggers can even find jobs via their blogging. At least three members of the blog community at the Seed
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Magazine Science Blogs (http://scienceblogs.com) have reported that they have been offered or gained positions partly on the basis of their science blogging. Blogging also allows commentators to overcome the twocultures divide between the sciences and the humanities, which was first identified by the researcher and novelist C.P. Snow in the 1950s. In the terminology of the internet, a two-cultures ‘mashup’ becomes possible, in which cultural and scientific themes can be treated together. Advocacy for policies such as open access or watch-dogging scientific organizations are also features of blogging. A particularly nice example of this is the NASAWatch blog (http://www.nasawatch.com), which constantly criticizes, as well as reports, the behavior of NASA, and has been responsible for more than a few policy debates, for example over the Crew Launch Vehicle configuration (http:// www.nasawatch.com/archives/cev_osp_sdlv_and_istp). If a blog is not deleted when it becomes active (and it is general good practice that it should not be), it provides a good record of debates and issues at a given time. Historians and other metascience researchers such as philosophers and sociologists of science will have a large amount of material to investigate, but only if they can find it (Figure 1). The costs of blogging There are also downsides to blogging. Quality control, rewriting and editing are usually lacking, and some blogs that purport to be science based are often merely apologetics for pseudoscience or quack medicine, especially when issues are politically charged (e.g. anti-global warming, antivaccination, creationism, homeopathy and so on). Many blogs also act as ‘vanity publishing,’ that is, self-serving outlets for ideas the author is unable to get past peer review. Blogs fall prey to the same failures as websites in general, with much of the ‘information’ being false or one-sided. For example, if you google ‘evolution,’ most of the top hits are creationist sites such as the Discovery Institute. One way to filter the sense from the nonsense is to use an aggregate feed. Aggregate feeds are links that allow a newsreader, that is, a program that lists headlines and excerpts from the posts of a blog, to note new entries as they are published (see Figure 1). Some blog aggregators such as Postgenomic (http://www.postgenomic.com/ papers.php) will extract information on peer-reviewed papers from blog entries, and they often restrict their sources to those blogs that are usually about science. A recent proposal, with which I was peripherally involved, is to have an ‘opt-in’ feed, where the bloggers themselves insert a graphic and a link to ResearchBlogging (originally called ‘Bloggers for Peer-Reviewed Research Reporting’; http://bpr3.org). Although the blogger gets to designate

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posts that are based on peer-reviewed research, the administrators will assess links and ensure that they are legitimate. This is a noncommercial service run by volunteers (in particular Dave Munger, a medical blogger at http:// scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily). Some science blog entries end up in a more traditional form, in published anthologies. There are an increasing number of these anthologies, often published as ‘print-ondemand’ (e.g. the Open Laboratory series; http://www.lulu.com/content/1869828). Such anthologies are also often edited and assessed by volunteer editors (e.g. [2,3]), and so tread a balance between readability and reliable content. A further question lies in the economic costs and benefits to bloggers. Unlike journalists, bloggers are often treated as their own publishers, and so they are liable to legal action. Thus, despite some successes in having journalistic privileges extended to them, bloggers can be forced to name confidential sources. Moreover, there seems to be no obvious income generation stream apart from some minor advertising revenue. One science blogger journalist, Chris Mooney, has suggested unionization (http:// www.cjr.org/on_the_job/blogonomics.php?page=all). Conclusion In conclusion, blogging remains an individualistic, sometimes anarchistic and convention-breaking form of communication. There are gems in the rough, but there will always be a lot of rough. Sites that continue to deliver interesting reports will tend to survive, but ultimately it is up to each blog reader to find the blogs they like and trust. The academic research and teaching communities for science and related fields need to see blogging as more than a casual hobby, as core outreach for their science. It is an effective way for scientists to counter the misunderstandings, deliberate and otherwise, of popular culture. Not only graduate students, but more tenured professionals, need to engage in this to ensure that their science, and the science of others, is in the public eye (for an example, see Massimo Pigliucci’s blog at http:// rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com). In this way, we can ensure that the quality of the science that is communicated to the public is high, while the personality of working scientists humanizes science.
References
1 Mooney, C. (2005) The Republican War on Science, Basic Books 2 Wilkins, J.S. (2007) The demarcation problem. . .again. In The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs 2006 (Zivkovic, B., ed.), pp. 269–274, Lulu 3 Wilkins, J.S. (2008) Ancestors. In The Open Laboratory: The Best Science Writing on Blogs 2007 (Cartwright, R.A., ed.), pp. 92–95, Coturnix 4 Gould, S.J. (1997) Darwinian fundamentalism. New York Review of Books 12 June, pp. 34–37

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