Allison McDonald has had a lot on her mind lately. She has ruminated on the common mistakes that students make when defending their theses, the identification of the flies that have invaded her office and the plot points of the TV show Star Trek: Discovery. But instead of keeping these thoughts to herself, McDonald, a cell biologist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, has posted them on her DoctorAl blog.
Science blogs have been around since the early 2000s, and in recent years the ‘microblogging’ platform Twitter and other social-media channels, which require less time to maintain than does a full blog, threatened to make them obsolete. But some scientists are keeping the practice alive, and it continues to play a major part in sparking collaborations, conveying crucial information and strengthening scientific communities.
“Blogging isn’t for everyone, but it’s important that people realize it is part of the many ways scientists talk to each other,” says Stephen Heard, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of New Brunswick in Canada and author of the blog Scientist Sees Squirrel (tagline: ‘Seldom original. Often wrong. Occasionally interesting.’)
Studies on the reach and impact of science blogging have refocused attention to the endeavour. In unpublished work, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany surveyed the social-media and scientific-outreach activities of 865 scientists who were born in 1981 or later. The participants included mathematicians, chemists, physiologists and physicists. Overall, 15% had started a blog, but few updated it with any regularity. “I already knew science blogging wasn’t very popular in Germany,” says lead author Carsten Könneker, a science-communication researcher who has trained hundreds of young scientists in public outreach. “Blogging is only one digital format for science communication. Scientists who don’t make use of any of these formats are missing out on immense opportunities.”
The survey uncovered some telling attitudes towards blogs and other forms of science outreach. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said that a lack of time was a ‘great obstacle’ to any sort of science communication.
But almost 70% agreed that communicating science can help to advance a researcher’s career, and nearly 90% said that it could help to recruit more bright minds to science.
McDonald had young researchers in mind when she started her blog in 2013. Writing maybe three times a week, she aims to pass on information that could help them to navigate tricky professional waters. “My posts aren’t all epically insightful,” she says. “But the ultimate goal is to take the mystery out of the equation, to level the playing field for people who aren’t aware that there is even a game at play.”
Like McDonald, Heard hopes to inform and encourage younger scientists through his blog. But he also sees benefits to his own career. “I don’t have any evidence that blogging makes it any easier to get grants or to get papers published,” he says. “I have just as many failures now as before. But I have a network of people that I know because they read and comment on my blog posts. There’s a research project on my screen right now that began as a blog post.”
Heard estimates that he averages three to four hours a week working on his blog, but acknowledges that some posts take longer than others. “I’ve spent eight hours writing a single post,” he says. Still, he finds a way to fit blogging into his schedule. “I try to blog at low-productivity times, like when I’m in an airport lounge or waiting for a meeting to start.”
For Heard and others, the investment is worth it. In an October 2017 paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science (M. E. Saunders et al. R. Soc. Open Sci. 4, 170957; 2017), he and seven other blogger-researchers analysed the impact of their own ‘science community’ blogs, sites targeting researchers that focus on the culture and business of doing science. The most-read blog in the sample, Dynamic Ecology, has a median viewership of more than 40,000 views a month, whereas Scientists Sees Squirrel brings in around 10,000 views. Some of the most important impacts are also impossible to quantify. The paper notes that total strangers have walked up to Heard to thank him for a post that offers advice for introverts trying to cope with a conference.
Any study into the reach and impact of blogging will leave some unanswered questions, says Paige Brown Jarreau, a science-communication specialist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge who blogs at From the Lab Bench. “Blogs are often difficult to define; the ecosystem of online science social-media content is expanding, and platforms are blending into one another,” she says.
Still, blogs clearly have some reach. In a 2017 study that Jarreau co-wrote for Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 40 out of 43 randomly selected science bloggers reported getting more than 1,000 views within a few days for a typical post (P. B. Jarreau and L. Porter Journal. Mass Commun. Q. http://doi.org/cjvj; 2017). For the most part, those clicks were coming from colleagues or colleagues-in-the-making. More than 40% of blog readers surveyed said that they were already pursuing careers in science, and another 16% said that they were interested in science careers.
For Marc Robinson-Rechavi, a researcher in bioinformatics at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, one motive for writing his blog was a desire to create a community of bloggers — and readers — in French (most science writing online, including blogs, is in English). Today, Robinson-Rechavi blogs on the French-language platform Café Des Sciences, which hosts several dozen bloggers in Europe, North America and Africa.
Terry McGlynn, an ecologist at California State University Dominguez Hills in Carson, credits his popular blog Small Pond Science with transforming his career by increasing his visibility. His institution — a teaching-focused school that maintains a relatively low profile among researchers — recently wanted to hire an ecologist. Some of those who were interviewed for the job said that it was McGlynn’s blog that had alerted them to the opportunity. “That was a light-bulb moment for people in my department,” he says. His standing in the blogosphere has helped him in his own negotiations with the university, giving him the edge he needed to demand more support from his department.
Seeing the positive impact of blogging in his own career, McGlynn has decided to open up the opportunity to others. This spring, he plans to launch Rapid Ecology, a site that will feature blog posts from any scientist or science student anywhere in the world who wants to contribute. “There are only three criteria for posts,” he says. “They have to be relevant, they have to have at least some substance and you can’t be a jerk.” He says that 30 scientists have already volunteered to help run the site and contribute occasional posts.
Contributors to Rapid Ecology will be limited to one post a month, meaning that anyone could give blogging a try without a huge commitment. “I want students to be able to write posts that will have as much visibility as something that I write in Small Pond Science,” McGlynn says.
Hash out a fresh approach
Changes in the online landscape — particularly the social-media boom — have diluted the impact of blogging, argues Jeremy Caplan, director of education for the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. With a Twitter or Facebook feed to do the work for them, he says, “people don’t want to keep track of 10, 20 or 30 individual scientists’ blogs”.
And posting to sites such as Medium, Quora and Reddit — ‘hangout’ sites where researchers or any subgroup can post ongoing ‘threads’, or conversations on a single topic — is a way to publish without the burden of maintaining a blog (see ‘Blogging’). Responding to the constant need for new content, say bloggers, can take tremendous discipline. “Writers lose steam and decide to park their store in someone else’s mall,” Caplan says.
As Jarreau sees it, social-media platforms don’t supplant blogging, they feed it — giving writers a place to develop and test ideas that they might later incorporate into a lengthier post, and directing readers to the detailed content they want. “Discovery of science blogs is increasingly through social media,” she says.
Risks and benefits
Blogging does have potential pitfalls. For a start, it is not likely to make anyone wealthy. “It’s probably not worth doing it for the money unless your audience is huge,” says McGlynn. Small Pond Science, which has had more than 570,000 visits in total, doesn’t take ads. But even if it did, McGlynn has calculated, he’d probably clear only US$10,000 to $20,000 a year.
Academic colleagues might think that blogging is a waste of time or damaging to a career. “Some people say blogging and social media are distractions and will hurt you on the job market because it demonstrates that you’re not serious,” McGlynn says. When Robinson-Rechavi started blogging in 2010, he signed his posts using only his initials, unsure how people would react — even though he already had tenure and faced little risk. He thinks that his colleagues don’t understand why he blogs and are indifferent to his posts. Yet administrators at his university consider his blogging a useful forum for communicating ideas. “I think they like that I’m doing it,” he adds.
It’s worth considering the inherent risk in putting one’s name, face and ideas on the Internet. McDonald says that bloggers — and particularly women — need to think carefully before they post, because online visibility can expose writers to abuse.
Still, McDonald keeps at it, happy to be involved in broader conversations about teaching, biology, women in academia — and Star Trek. When she came up for tenure, she discussed her blog in her application. “This is part of my outreach and advocacy work for diversity in science,” she says. Blogging helps her to take her research into the world, a goal that she believes is crucial for scientists.
“We hear all the time about the decline of blogging,” Heard says. But he has no intention of quitting and will continue to spread the word about its benefits. “I hope that those who are on the fence — those who think it might be for them — can be encouraged to give it a go.”