Why a (young) scientist should blog

12 11 2018

I started to blog in the middle of my PhD, exactly on 17 February 2011 — as a scientist I remember my first blog like a soccer-loving kid might remember his/her first soccer ball. Postgraduates from ACAD have recently asked me to give a talk about my blogging experience, and I couldn’t resist turning my talk into a blog.

Salvador Herrando-Pérez

 

CB_ScientificBlogging_nov2018

The cover of the February (polar bears) and December (water flea) 2017 issues of the Spanish magazine Quercus featured two of my popular-science articles. Founded in 1981, and with a current print run of some 15,000 copies monthly, Quercus has pioneered the dissemination of ecological and environmental science with a conservation edge in Spain and survived the digitalisation age, which has recently deserved the prestigious 2018 BBVA prize for Biodiversity Conservation. My liaison with the magazine already spans seven years with 49 articles published in three theme series (conservation biology: 2011-2012; animal behaviour: 2013; and climate change: active since January 2017 in collaboration with my colleague David Vieites).

I write in blogs, but I am not a blogger in the sense of owning and managing a blog. More exactly, I write about science using a language that should be understandable by an audience of scientists and, primarily, non-scientists. The best English expression I have found to qualify such activity is ‘popular science’ (I use it interchangeably with ‘blog’ hereafter). And blogs are just one platform (internet) to publish popular science.

In fact, I publish popular science on a regular basis here in ConservationBytes, and in Quercus: a printed Spanish-language magazine about ecology and biodiversity. My articles in those outlets typically synthesise the findings, and expand the background and implications, of high-profile research papers from the primary literature. Sometimes, I also write blogs to maximise the audience of my own publications (e.g., here and here), or to discuss a topic of general interest (e.g., numerical literacy). I have listed all my blogs on ConservationBytes at the end of the text.

Frankly, I had never stopped to think why I started and why I keep writing popular science. So after a bit of brainstorming, I have come up with five personal motivations which will probably resonate with those of other scientists entering the Blogosphere (1) — see here Corey’s take on the virtues of blogging.

Self-promotion

When you are in the early stage of your research career, letting your peers know that you exist is essential, unless one already publishes hot papers that everybody reads and cites, and/or you have already amassed quite a reputation in the scientific community (not my case). Let’s be clear: my blogs are bound to be read by more people than my research papers, because blogs magnify the chances of being detected by search engines (2), and because the size of the scientific community is dwarfed by the size of the internet community. Doubtless, self-promotion drew me into popular science in the first place, when I was just a PhD student — ahead of me lay some five to ten years over which I would have to compete hard for funding and publication space with a respectable crowd of other researchers, let alone to create new partnerships with colleagues in and out of my area of expertise. So, blogging initially meant like saying ‘hey! I am here, I am doing science’.

Funding/Outreach

Every popular-science article I write is one additional line in a key component of my CV: ‘outreach’. Anyone applying for research grants knows that nowadays competitive funding programs/institutions request candidates to detail how his/her science will have an impact on society and potential stakeholders. Indeed, several times as a grant applicant, panel assessors have evaluated my blogging experience as proof that I should be able to produce meritorious outreach — so they ticked off that box in their assessment sheet!

But I take that to the letter … and beyond, because a lot of national and international research is supported indirectly by taxpayers — people like you and me. I believe any researcher financed through public money should return his/her research outcomes in ways that are palatable to lay people and, of course, by those who have the power to put our scientific conclusions to a useful end. Explaining through public platforms why on the Earth what I and other scientists do is relevant and worth the funding we receive seems to me a fair quid pro quo way of action: I get money, they get knowledge, tools and (in the case of vocational readers) even entertainment. That’s why I don’t do popular science as a hobby or pastime, to me popular science has the concrete goals I am trying to convey in this blog, and in practice constitutes a different mode of scientific writing which must be crafted in as high standards of style and content as a research paper.

Literacy

Popular science demands reading literature on topics beyond my areas of expertise, which truly equates with ‘thinking outside the box’. Through popular science, I have genuinely broadened my understanding of ecology and related disciplines such as climate change and conservation biology. And I can now better link ideas, and I am aware of publications, from other disciplines that often come handy for the specific piece of research I might be doing at any given point in time.

The reality is that doing science is both addictive and insatiable — you never have enough, there is always something else you can measure, sample, sequence, analyse, model, read, cite, conclude or discuss. So, without convincing cost-effective incentives for writing popular science, I could not afford delving outside my box in terms of coverage of new literature, and the enormous amount of time that goes into it (20 to 60 hours per blog). This effort has yet to be widely recognised, and I do concur with others (3) about the need of designing new metrics (which could be reflected in a scientist’s CV) of how much popular science enhances the societal accessibility and utility of pure and applied research.

Networking

When I publish popular science I get to mingle with people I wouldn’t otherwise. So with every blog I write featuring the work of other scientists, I always contact them to obtain photos of their study species and/or locality to illustrate my narrative. In doing so, a link with a new peer is created (4). I might never use it but the link stays indelibly there. For instance, writing about where citizens stand on climate change led to a paper with ecologists and psychologists about the language of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (paper in review). Or writing about communicating climate change led to my ongoing Spanish translation of the Uncertainty Handbook (in progress).

Additionally, popular science, particularly through social networks, embodies an implicit two-way interaction with readers, who might feel compelled to contact me back. For instance, a young student once emailed me that he wanted to be a biologist like me and that he was counting the days for the first day of the month to arrive to run across the street and buy the new Quercus issue and read my article. Or a school teacher who shared, also by email, that he found my articles a useful educational resource for his classes. Those two interactions justify by themselves every single minute I have devoted to popular science.

Simply writing

Popular science is a training exercise to keep my prose tuned — free of the normative corset of research papers. I love writing for the sake of writing. This might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but personally I got an inspiring pleasure from sharing hand-written letters with friends already as a teenager (and still do). In my 30s, I escalated those exchanges formally into creative writing (short tales) and story-telling performance; I attended and delivered several workshops, published some tales, won some prizes, and did > 30 shows — all small-scale, but those wordy experiences shaped the way I communicate in all spheres of my life.

The reality is that every word has a reason to be and gives us the power to mean exactly what we think and feel, while our language style sets the distance between being understood and misunderstood. I know this very well because I am in a profession (science) and live in a country (Australia) where I don’t use my mother tongue in the majority of interactions with other people. In hindsight and with time and practice, my passion about words turned into a precious skill, shaped the way I write science, and also created a genuine interest in improving ecology’s low terminological standards (see here and here). Ultimately, when I sign a letter for a pen pal, as much as when I complete the final line of the last draft of a blog or a research paper, I feel elated by the joy of expressing ideas in an orderly manner — this is truthfully my most intimate connection with the arts.

In summary …

Popular science enhances our visibility, strengthens our outreach profile, stimulates thinking outside box, expands our network of collaborators, and prompts us to forge and exercise our own writing style.

As I was writing this blog post, I visualised a carousel of recollections about the origins of my ongoing relationship with words. So I remembered my last story-telling performance about Japanese erotic tales accompanied with the mesmerising flamenco arpeggios of a Spanish guitar. How I prepared that show, how I prepare the delivery of a scientific talk, or the writing of a research paper or this blog, are all just the same thing, essentially … a conversation with words that should lead to what I call the magic quartet: (i) clarity (avoid complex sentences), (ii) conciseness (be short), (iii) precision (say what you mean to say) and (iv) flow (make your main message the backbone of your piece of writing).

For when we write science, we should always keep in mind that there is a reader on the other side of the screen or the paper, we should be aware that writing is communicating with someone else.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Quercus Editor Rafael Serra for opening the space of his magazine to me, to Corey Bradshaw for being an inspiration to write popular science, to Jorge Eduardo Benavides for guiding my first excursions into creative writing … and to past, present and future pen pals.

References

  1. Bonetta, Scientists enter the Blogosphere. Cell 129, 443-445 (2007)
  2. Osborne-Gowey, Doing cool science? Why you should be blogging about it. Fisheries Magazine 40, 530-530 (2015)
  3. Fausto et al., Research blogging: indexing and registering the change in science 2.0. PLoS One 7, e50109 (2012)
  4. Brown & Woolston, Why science blogging matters. Nature 554, 135-137 (2018)

My blogs in ConservationBytes (most recent to oldest)

CB = Conservation Biology, CC = Climate Change, OR = Own Research

 


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