Scientists should blog

27 05 2014
© Bill Porter

© Bill Porter

As ConservationBytes.com is about to tick over 1 million hits since its inception in mid-2008, I thought I’d share why I think more scientists should blog about their work and interests.

As many of you know, I regularly give talks and short courses on the value of social and other media for scientists; in fact, my next planned ‘workshop’ (Make Your Science Matter) on this and related subjects will be held at the Ecological Society of Australia‘s Annual Conference in Alice Springs later this year.

I’ve written before about the importance of having a vibrant, attractive and up-to-date online profile (along with plenty of other tips), but I don’t think I’ve ever put down my thoughts on blogging in particular. So here goes.

  1. The main reasons scientists should consider blogging is the hard, cold fact that not nearly enough people read scientific papers. Most scientists are lucky if a few of their papers ever top 100 citations, and I’d wager that most are read by only a handful of specialists (there are exceptions, of course, but these are rare). If you’re a scientist, I don’t have to tell you the disappointment of realising that the blood, sweat and tears shed over each and every paper is largely for nought considering just how few people will ever read our hard-won results. It’s simply too depressing to contemplate, especially considering that the sum of human knowledge is so vast and expanding that this trend will only ever get worse. For those reasons alone, blogging about your own work widens the readership by orders of magnitude. More people read my blog every day than will probably ever read the majority of my papers.
  2. Related to (1), even your audience diversifies when you blog. From school children to journalists to politicians to scientists in other disciplines, people who would never think to read (or be able to understand) your technical paper will suddenly be able to digest the results in at least their basic form. In essence, a blog post becomes your own personal newspaper article about your work.
  3. A greater audience means that you’ll also likely get your work across to more of your peers who will be interested in collaborating with you. Yes, even scientists read other scientists’ blog posts. I have been approached many times by previously unacquainted peers with ideas for collaboration based solely on the subject of my blog posts.
  4. You have a moral obligation to disseminate your results to the public as best you can, because let’s face it, most of our funding comes from public sources (national science agencies, government grants, NGOs and even philanthropists). In my view, believing that you’ve achieved that dissemination once your paper goes online is self-delusional and unfair to the members of society that funded it.
  5. Even if you’re a cold-hearted bastard that isn’t swayed by the moral or goodwill arguments, you can justify blogging by appreciating that it will probably lead to a higher number of citations of the original article. But don’t just take it from me, there are now empirical studies emerging that show that the more a paper is visualised outside of academia, the more it’s cited within (see here and here for examples).
  6. Have you ever had one of your papers butchered by a so-called ‘journalist’, sensationalised by a reporter or just ignored by an influential news outlet? Most scientists can relate. A great reason to blog is, as I hinted above, that you can ‘cut out the middle man’ and publish your own ‘news’. Of course, still deal with traditional journalists and reporters, but take more of the matter into your own hands and rely less on non-specialists.
  7. Related to (6), blog posts are a great precursor to traditional media releases. Every time I wish to send out a press release, I e-mail a copy of the paper in question and the blog post covering the topic to my university’s media team. It makes their job much easier and limits the probability of translation errors.
  8. Blogging allows for a certain amount of independence from the shackles of institutional restraint. Like people afraid of inadvertently raising the ire of their employers for posting online material, blogging ‘independently’ of your institution’s main web presence gives you some (but not necessarily complete) freedom.
  9. As I’ve written recently, good writing skills are a key element of being a good and successful scientist. Blogging frequently means that you will hone your writing skills, which will make your scientific papers/books/chapters more concise, easily understood and engaging. Practice makes perfect.
  10. “The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about” (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray 1890). A little self-indulgent, perhaps, but for many of the reasons outlined above, getting ‘known’ improves your scientific career. Use your blog to promote yourself.
  11. For the same reasons why it’s easy to debunk the argument that it’s all too difficult to find the time to keep one’s online profile up-to-date, blogging shouldn’t really add much to your daily agenda. If you’re spending more than a few hours blogging per week, you’re probably cutting into important scientific writing time. Limited like this, it’s an easier pill to swallow.

I’m sure there are other reasons why scientists might choose to blog, but the ones I’ve given are probably the most relevant. Happy blogging.

CJA Bradshaw


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11 responses

28 05 2014
franckcourchamp

Nicely done Corey! Your blog and your lectures on blog recently convinced me to start my own blog.
Don’t hesitate to visit and share!

last post: “you’re too pretty to be intelligent”

http://biodiversitydynamics.wordpress.com/

cheers mate
Franck

27 05 2014
Xingfeng Si

Thanks for your quick reply, and welcome your coming visits in China. I will probably attend your lecture in Fudan University if I travel to Shanghai in August — around 200km far away from my university to Shanghai.

27 05 2014
CJAB

Would be good to meet you.

27 05 2014
marioquevedo

Yes, they should.

Now, I think that some of the points do not run so smoothly all over the scientific world. For instance, # 3 or 5 conflict with the native language thing.

Of course, English is the language of science and rock ‘n’ roll, no doubt about it. But what if some of your potential audience dances to fado or milonga? Should you blog in, say, Spanish or German or Chinese, or forsake that part of you brain and keep it English?

If your objective is to promote your scientific work, no doubt, you buy yourself a nice English thesaurus. But if you want to target also conservation officers and stakeholders (I also dislike that word), it is not clear to me which is the good option. One could keep two blogs, but that is not nearly so efficient.

Like so often in ecology, there are no straightforward answers. Thanks for the post!

27 05 2014
CJAB

Bien articulado, Mario ;-)

Agreed – a slightly tricky issue. I wouldn’t be so arrogant to assume that English is the only blogging language for scientists, but considering that the lingua franca most decidedly is, my recommendation would be to hone one’s writing skills by blogging mainly in English. However, one should choose one’s audience carefully. If I wanted a certain scientific result to be understood and digested primarily by regional group speaking mainly one language other than English, I’d use that one. If I wanted it to be understood by this group AND the rest of the world, I’d at least do an blog ‘abstract’ in the non-English language as well. Complex, yes. Impossible – no.

27 05 2014
Xingfeng Si

Hi Corey,

Thanks very much for this great blog. I subscribe your blog for a long time. Today I received this email alert, and immediately borrowed your 11 reasons of why blogging into my blog: http://sixf.org/en/2014/02/why-i-blog/

I began to blog in English last year (my native is Chinese). Although I found that it is pretty harder to write a blog than scientific paper in English, I am glad to help you to translate some of your blog ‘abstracts’ into Chinese in order to attracting more audiences, and also will benefit to more Chinese scientists.

An example is that, last month, I translated ‘Some modest advices to graduate students’ (http://sixf.org/files/others/ModestAdvice.pdf) wrote by Steve Stearns, and post the translation to my blogs. Just in two days, it received more than 10,000 visitors. An amazing record!!

Xingfeng

27 05 2014
CJAB

Nihao Xingfeng,

Xixie for the kind words and your story. I’m more than happy for you to translate ConservationBytes.com posts into Chinese, although I cannot confirm veracity. As long as you link back to the original in English, this sounds like a great idea. 非常感谢!

Good luck with your research and blogging. Incidentally, I’ll be travelling to Fudan University in Shanghai in August for a biodiversity lecture series hosted by Shurong Zhou. After that, I’ll be flying through Lanzhou up to the Tibetan Plateau with her team to view some community ecology experiments. Looking forward to it.

Xiexie,
Corey

27 05 2014
Dr Andrew Morgan

Criticism is great, some will love you for it and some will hate you. Always present a level-headed argument and don’t respond to emotionally driven agenda’s with emotion. What is wrong with people having a go at you – these days many scientist hide too much behind a small and very narrowly focused body of work. Get out there and express an opinion on the world (I think its called a Doctor of Philosophy). Write magazine articles on your work and communicate with everyone that is not a scientist. Besides, the days of the traditional Journal are numbered!

27 05 2014
Gill Ainsworth

Great article, I completely agree. What strategy do you recommend for those of us who haven’t quite got our research published yet? Thanks!

27 05 2014
Mark Schultz

can you write a blog about how to blog?

by blogging, don’t you set yourself up for criticism?

27 05 2014
CJAB

Next blog post ;-) Can’t give away ALL my trade secrets in one go!

Keep to the facts, reference well and don’t be afraid of engaging in an evidence-based diatribe.

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