Who blogs on what, and why

By Grant Jacobs 01/09/2010

Floating around the science blogosphere for the last few days has been an informal survey of top 100 science blogs (according to wikio) by Vivienne Raper and her take on what these blogs cover.

It’s fun and gives an idea of what there is out there, at least for those at the wildly popular end of the scale. If you blog on science, or just follow them, read her survey, and ruminate over her data. I am!

Vivienne originally started this wondering if there was a bias towards biology, but concluded that’s not the case, particularly bearing in mind that there are more biologists that scientists in other disciplines.

Vivienne has commented in reply to Razib Khan pondering other issues, in particular ’why there are no ‘popular’ blogs in certain subjects’. Razib Khan, in turn, has replied suggesting that it may be a case of not having ‘soul’. What do you think?

More recently Vivienne has put up an internet poll, hoping to probe this further.

Dave Munger, who runs ResearchBlogging.orgsuggested categorising the contributions there. Doing a very hasty count* of the number of pages in each main category, the forerunners are distinctly bio- or homocentric: the top five are biology (284 pages), psychology (128), health (108), clinical research (90) and neuroscience (78), dropping to 50 (social sciences) then 33 (anthropology). ’Last’ (this isn’t a race!) is mathematics (6 pages), narrowly having fewer pages than engineering (7) and philosophy (7), with astronomy and computer science having 12 and 13 pages of articles, respectively.

(To consider which field blogs the most, these would need to be corrected by the number of people in each of these fields. I suspect once this is done the skew won’t be as dramatic. However, with chemistry and physics having only 23 and 19 pages of articles, respectfully, I imagine the bias toward biology and homocentric topics will remain.)

I wonder if self-reinforcement is at work here: biology research blogging may be encouraging more biology blogging in self-reinforcing fashion. As Munger pointed out, some probably don’t blog on peer-reviewed papers much: computer science may be an example. (Bear in mind that computing, a very popular topic on-line, isn’t necessarily the same as computer science.) Tricky stuff to account for.

My own anecdotal thoughts on what’s popular? (Help me out with your thoughts in the comments!)

Well, this is at least vaguely related to explaining and what people identify with… (Source: xkcd.com)
Well, this is at least vaguely related to explaining and what people identify with… (Source: xkcd.com)

I suspect readers like things that they can grapple with reasonably easily, and ideally that they can directly relate to. By ‘direct’ don’t I mean something readers can physically touch, but something they can understand or visualise without a lot of indirect reasoning.

My suspicion is that topics that are abstract are harder to engage readers with. It’s simpler if you’re talking about an animal, a plant, a planet, something made of stuff we can all identify with. Or write about things that affect people, their moods, addictions, relationships.

So, one bias in topics might be towards the low-hanging fruit and the current topical interests (disease of the month, the latest astronomy buzz, etc.)**

That would be unfortunate, as it would leave readers with a skewed view of science, and furthermore one that doesn’t represent the day-to-day reality of working in science well either.

On that note, I like the biographical angle a few like Jennifer Rohn take. Let’s face it, if I wrote about the reality of writing a large bioinformatics application, it’d be tedious: day-to-day science work in any field is persistent stuff. That’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s daily moments, just that day-to-day you’re working to a longer-term plan.

Alternatively, another bias – more positively this time, have to end on a good note! – might be an appreciation that these writers can explain complex ideas to readers simply (and presumably accurately!) Many of the more popular writers in wikio’s top 100 have that skill.

With the balance of these two things in mind, I’d be curious to see what a survey of the specific topics showed, would it favour one over the other? The latter would be consistent with the oft-repeated statistic that the most emailed New York Times articles were ’long articles on intellectually challenging topics’, including those on science.

It’ll be interesting to see where these surveys lead.


* Here‘s the full counts from ResearchBlogging in lazy fashion. I haven’t time to make a tidy table or pretty graph. Did I say I was being lazy? There are 20 pages per full page of articles, with up to 20 on the last page, so this rounds upward.

  1. 284, Biology
  2. 128, Psychology
  3. 108, Health
  4. 90, Clinical research
  5. 73, Neuroscience
  6. 50, Social science
  7. 33, Anthropology
  8. 27, Geo-sciences
  9. 23, Chemistry
  10. 21, Research/”school” (college, university)
  11. 21, “Other”
  12. 19, Physics
  13. 13, Computer science
  14. 12, Astronomy
  15. 7, Engineering
  16. 7, Philosophy
  17. 6, Mathematics

Other articles at Code for life:

How does science work?

Coiling bacterial DNA

Preserving endangered species – of gut microbes

Temperature-induced hearing loss

Book sales, frumpy readers, and mental rotation of book titles

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