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Don’t be shy

A few weeks ago I was asked on Twitter by someone for advice on how to write a science blog/do science communication. Since I was studying up for my qualifying exam I said I’d get back to him later. I passed, and now this is later.

First, you should probably read Sabine and Chad. Second, I’ll be up front and admit that I don’t give much thought in the details to this sort of thing (though I follow with interest the opinions of others, such as Bora Zivkovic, on this topic). I really only have one qualification: I’ve been doing this for a long time. Since spring of 2002. To my knowledge only Derek Lowe has been blogging continually and without interruption about science longer than I have (Chad Orzel of Uncertain Principles also started in the spring of 2002).

So in no special order, my “advice”….

Know your goal. This is such a vague and general admonishment to be almost vacuous. But I mean it sincerely. For example, what’s my goal? Basically to write about things that interest me, first and foremost. Obviously I can spin secondary goals out of this (educate the public, make some money, gain marginal internet fame, etc.). But what keeps me writing is that I’m chattering about topics and issues that are objects of intellectual obsession. This means that you sometimes have to read me going on and on about site frequency spectra, and in other cases my interpretation on the importance of the Byzantinze apogee under Basil II. Other people are more focused. Ed Yong worked really hard to get where he is now as a freelance science writer with a wide range of outlets, and he did it to a large extent by extremely high quality writerly blogging. At the other extreme you have someone like Michael Eisen, who offers his unvarnished opinions as a scientist on a variety of topics, though generally science and science policy related. I don’t think anyone assumes Eisen wants to become a writer, but obviously he needs outlets besides what scientific journals can provide. Then you have John Hawks’ model, a professional scientist in writerly garb. It’s more important that you have some internal raison d’etre than that it be coherent, consistent, or even attainable.

Know the web of 2013. You don’t have to be a systems administrator or web developer, but you have to have a minimal amount of web 2.0 awareness. To illustrate what I mean, say you go to PNAS and see an article you like, and want to link to it in your Twitter feed. It turns out to be rather difficult to find the appropriate widget to share, though it is there. But once you try to use it all it fills in for you is the link. Not the title. So you have to manually cut & paste the title, since people often don’t want to click a link if they don’t know what it is to. Or if you go to an abstract in Current Biology, there’s a Facebook like option, but not a Twitter widget. I’m not really picking on these journals, rather, I’m using them to illustrate that a lot of these publications don’t even know how to leverage social media to increase their exposure. And what applies to journals applies to you. This isn’t 2003, and traffic is not driven just through links. Much of the initial exposure you’ll get is via social networks like Twitter and Facebook, so make sure that those widgets are installed. This may seem trivial, but there are too many cases where people don’t bother to install them, while asking me how they could increase their web visibility. Make commenting not too much of a hassle. Don’t overwhelm your site with an enormous visual header which takes up a lot of bandwidth, and occludes much of the screen. Make your RSS feed link prominent so people can subscribe. In other words, reduce the energy that it requires others to find and relay the content you’re generating.

Writing is iterative, chill out. You really have to jump in and figure out your speed (or realize it isn’t for you). Different people have different styles. You won’t know what your style is until you actually go ahead and start writing. You won’t know if it is for you unless you actually try it. Many people flame out and leave behind a blogspot site with one or two posts because they don’t have the first two elements under control, but a minimal level of persistence is also necessary. To iterate means repeat, and you need to try again and again until you converge upon your personal golden mean. The process though is riddled with misfires. If you can’t tolerate that, then you might not be able to tolerate the process.

Write what you know, or what you want to know more about. Pretty self-explanatory. You don’t need to have a Ph.D. to have passion and interest in topics. But you better have those in the first place.

• Category: Science • Tags: Blog, Blogging 
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A citizen of the Republic of Letters

Many people have been talking about the Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson piece on why academics should blog. In my own opinion it’s a little hyperbolic, not everyone is the same, whether it is in inter-individual differences in attributes, or the circumstantial point where one is in their career (e.g., if you are a graduate student or postdoc then your boss/mentor’s attitude matters a lot). With that out of the way I think it is important to reiterate that more academics should blog sometimes. I suspect one issue is that the image of academic bloggers is dominated by people such as Jerry Coyne or the guys at Marginal Revolution. They blog in huge quantity on a wide range of topics. Obviously this is not suitable for everyone’s temperament or situation (it seems that after tenure there is a greater obligation to engage in communication because the biggest hurdle of impressing one’s colleagues is over with, though that’s just me).

But there are other models. There are many times on Twitter where I am party to/or interact with someone where the format becomes tedious and uninformative, and yet the individual still has very strong opinions on the subject. At this point I’m prompted to ask “do you have a blog where you could elaborate your position?” Most of the time the answer is no. And my question here is why? Many academics seem satisfied with 1999 vintage web pages with a short list of qualifications and publications. Often these are years out of date. I’ve met aspiring graduate students who approached a professor from afar to do research after browsing lab websites, only to be told that the lab’s research focus had totally moved in a different direction, they just hadn’t updated their page (this is why it is useful to do a literature search to supplement the lab web page, but shouldn’t the lab web page ideally actually inform you about the state of research in said lab?).

I don’t think it would be productive to have thousands more Jerry Coynes or Tyler Cowens. But, I think it would be productive to have thousands more Michael Eisens. Eisen can go months without posting, but when he does post it often gets a lot of people’s attention. That’s because he talks about what he knows about and what he is passionate about. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t generate a stream of content, when the wadi that is it is NOT junk turns into a raging torrent, you better take notice (and most people do).

Mind you, I am aware that Michael Eisen is gifted with a particular personality profile (which seems to be shared by his brother, Jonathan) which make trenchant blog posts to be expected, and likely relatively easy. But I think a huge number of academics fall under the intersecting conditions of:

1) Specialized knowledge
2) Passion about that specialized knowledge

To give a concrete example of why I think more academics should be blogging: I’m sick of hearing selective quotes in the media from specialists who are consulted after a big splash is made by some result in the popular press. I want to hear the specialists at length in their own words. And don’t tell me it would take too much time, from what I can tell most of the time one is interviewed by the media 95% of the content is not transmitted. Not only that, you don’t have a choice on which quotes are excised out of the full context of your assertions.

Finally, I want to concede that at the end of the day many, many, academics will never blog. And that’s OK. I just think that many more have the aptitude/inclination than currently blog due to cultural inertia. Especially if you can burn time on Twitter, you can afford to blog every few months on some topic that where you add value to the information ecology.

WordPress is easy and it’s free.

Related: The first steps towards a modern system of scientific publication.

Addendum: Here are three blogs which I follow because of my personal interests which illustrate the variety of communication styles, Evolutionary Genomics Blog, Genomes Unzipped, and Haldane’s Sieve.

• Category: Science • Tags: Blog, Blogging 
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Back the summer of 2002 I recall a friend of mine telling me, “so you’re a pundit now!” I’d been blogging for a few months, and I didn’t feel like a pundit, whatever that meant. ~10 years on I guess I am a pundit. In that vein I was discussing with a friend what it took “to be a blogger” (they wanted to get into the game). First, blogger is a rather expansive category. I have no idea what one would need to do to be a food blogger beyond any old person off the street. But I do know how to be what I am. I focus on three things:

* Precision
* Accuracy
* Novelty

And exactly in that order. It’s of the essence you say what you mean to say. Confusions will still occur, but you can mitigate it by trying to be precise. Accuracy is important, but not as important. That’s because I don’t know everything very well. I’m going to be wrong a lot of the time. I know what I think I know, and so can be precise in my description, but I don’t know what I don’t know, and can only do my best in terms of accuracy. Finally, there’s novelty. This is a tricky one. I find that when I do novelty if I’m short & sweet it’s really hard to be precise and accurate. If I have a novel idea then that’s the sort of seed which is going to grow into a post on the order of 5-10,000 words. I can’t manage that very often, so I don’t really do novelty.

Since we’re focused on precision, what I mean by novel refers to ideas and concepts which are new and surprising to me, and which I think will be new and surprising to readers. The “bread & butter” of this weblog probably consists of the churn of new readers who are surprised by the numerous topics which I’ve discussed at various depths and lengths over the years. But in many ways this is just cognitive recycling and elaboration. This is a needful thing, but it’s not introducing fresh and startling ideas to the world.

• Category: Science • Tags: Blog, Blogging 
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BoyBlogs1 (1)Today I was curious what people thought of Wired Science Blogs. More honestly, I was really trying to see if anyone else was a little put off by the forced registration to comment. But in the process I ran into this post, In which I notice a trend. The author did some counting before talking, which is always something I respect. Now, I suspect if you have read me closely over the years you can tell I’m not too worked up over lack of proportionality in the science blogosphere, whether it be of sex, race, ethnicity, religion (or irreligion) or politics. I say this as a Right-leaning brown-skinned male who was once termed “the black science blogger” at ScienceBlogs.

But can Discover Blogs get some props here? Once they swap out the DNA logo and put in my head shot it will be clear that we’re much more ethnically diverse here than at the other “celebrity” blog networks! N = 2 far beats out N = 0. And Wired Science Blogs even has a guy blogging for them who has the same surname as Lou Dobbs! How’s that for insensitive, I’m a naturalized American citizen (and look at this title, it makes me feel unsafe on the web! What’s he trying to say?).

Rest assured, Ed Yong and I are here to give voice to the 85% of humanity which is not of European descent, and, love to write about natural science. You can call us the Chindia of science blogging.*

(and Jeremy Jaquot of Science Not Fiction is half-Asian I believe)

* Indians will object because I was not born in India. Get over it, we all look to the same to everyone else.

• Category: Science • Tags: Blog, Blogging 
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Alert! Some Big And Important And Exciting News!:

So yes, I will be working with the Scientific American editors and staff in conceptualizing, building, launching and then running a new science blogging network. How could I say No when given such a chance? To do what I love and what I think I can do well, and all of that under the banner of a magazine that was published continuously since 1845.

• Category: Science • Tags: Blog, Blogging 
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800px-Bristlecone_CAI began blogging in April 2002 (I once had a graduate student approach me and tell me that she was a big fan of my blog back in high school!). Derek Lowe is the only science blogger I can think of off the top of my head who was around before I was, is still around, and has been around continuously across all those years. The mildly unbalanced Dave Appell left the scene to clear his head for a few years. In those early days a term like ‘science blogger’ would have seemed kind of quaint and strange, but I do recall being approached by others to rebut the naive Creationism of some parts of the blogosphere. It was early days, and the big division was between the older cohort of techbloggers who had emerged organically before 9/11, and the political blogosphere which rapidly crystallized in the months after that event.

But in any case, Chad Orzel’s asking straight up, who’s the oldest science blogger? My money is on Derek, but I’m no Bora Zivkovic, so I could be wrong.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

• Category: Science • Tags: Blog, Blogging 
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sbgrowthScienceBlogsTM just put out a release on their traffic growth. The trend is interesting because after a period of flattening out, 2008-2010 seems to have seen some robust growth again. As I said when I left I do wish SB and many of their bloggers well, and I continue to subscribe to several of their blogs in my RSS as well as the select feed. The network’s robust growth is a positive sign when it comes to the transition of science communication from dead tree to the internet. I know that there’s been a lot of stress on the part of science journalists as to the sustainability of their enterprise, though that is really just a domain-specific instantiation of the issues in journalism as a whole, but until that works itself out the growth and persistence of science blogging and science-related websites is a good thing. There is a calm after the storm of creative-destruction, and the current science blogosphere is laying the seedbed for future renewal. The outcome may be sub-optimal from the viewpoint of labor, but the consumer will benefit.

The growth of internet based science communication means that the pie is growing, and the tide is rising. It isn’t a zero-sum game between SB, Nature Networks, Scientific Blogging, Discover Blogs, etc. My main concern personally is that my readership is still strongly Anglospheric, literally hundreds of millions of Chinese have started using the internet while I’ve been blogging, but very few of them do and can read my content. Due to language constraints this may be a long term structural issue, though the utilization of Google translate + chart heavy posts may be a way to push beyond the Anglosphere a bit. If you want to see the geographic skew, sitemeter is sufficient even with a sample size of the last 100 visitors.

Note: Also, please note that the growth can’t be attributed only to non-science content. Obviously I can’t lay out specific numbers, but blogs which focus on science such as Tetrapod Zoology and Frontal Cortex draw lots of traffic.

(via DM)

• Category: Science • Tags: Blog, Blogging, ScienceBlogs 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"