All the science that is fit to blog – an analysis of science blogging practice

By Grant Jacobs 25/04/2015 11


Those who use blog software as the media to distribute their science writing might like to browse Paige Brown Jarreau’s summary of her Ph.D. thesis, All the Science That is Fit to Blog: an analysis of science blogging practice, or to download a PDF copy of it. You can also download the data and figures.

Her summary offers bullet-points for the key findings, along with some key infographics and tables, headed with that xkcd cartoon (‘Someone is wrong on the internet’).

There’s a lot to think about. Access to embargoed material is one I’d like to take up, for example.

Below are a few examples from the summary that caught my eye; you will no doubt favour others so check it out for yourself! :-

• Bloggers with more years of experience more often blog to correct current misinformation or to address poor media coverage of research. Perhaps they become more aware of and better appreciate the issues with media coverage over time, especially compared with their own efforts to cover topics they’re familiar with? Alternatively, is it because they become more confident over time? Perhaps both?

• Only 1/5 of the bloggers I interviewed blog occasionally about their own research. Me, too. On one hand this makes me wonder why, but on the other have a plenty of sympathy – after all I do it myself. (I’ve written on this in the past.*)

• Many science bloggers feel pressure to correct misinformation, but tend to enjoy content that is more “oh wow” popular science. Me to a ‘t’. Correcting misinformation feels like a public service in many ways.

• A little over 1/3 of science bloggers I interviewed at least sometimes get blog post ideas from reader requests or suggestions. I get this infrequently—these days, anyway. (It does remind me that there’s a topic suggested by a reader that I ought to get back to!)

• The #1 logistical constraint for science bloggers is “time.” A while back, I wrote asking others How long does it take you to write a science blog post? Most reported over 2 hours.

Comments on my thoughts welcome.

It’s also the only Ph.D. thesis I’ve seen with a smiley (in the acknowledgements). A little ‘internet speak’ breaking through 🙂

Footnotes

* I’d dig these out, but now isn’t really the time.


Other articles on Code for life:

Rain, sleet, snow, music and science blogs

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

Writing a popular science book; links and writers’ warnings

How long does it take you to write a science blog post?

How long do you take to review a research paper?

The best places to read


11 Responses to “All the science that is fit to blog – an analysis of science blogging practice”

  • I think older bloggers are more into criticism because they always were – they did not change over time due to experience etc. The early science bloggers (with a few exceptions, e.g., Grrrlscientist, Syafolee, Easternblot, Neuro Dojo) emerged out of anti-Creationist usenet groups, skeptical boards, and political blogs. They started out by debunking anti-science and blasting the media for bad science reporting.

    It is later, with professionalization of blogging (some getting paid to write about science), formation of networks (Nature Network, Scienceblogs), and especially invention of Researchblogging by Dave Munger, that new generations of bloggers adopted a different style, less criticism, more “wow, this is cool”. Introduction of blogging into science writing/journalism MS programs finally sealed that deal.

    So, people didn’t change over time, but blogging changed over time. Veterans always did more criticism, newbies always did less because they came in a later wave, and have different goals.

    • Good points, Bora. You would have a perspective on this!

      I guess I’m an odd mixture, then. Although I was active on usenet, I avoided the controversial stuff at that time as it seemed frighteningly weird to my timid PhD student self 🙂 (Esp. things in the ‘alt’ section…) I have dabbled in some direct engagement in a few topics, which is reflected on my blog, but, given a choice, I really prefer to be writing about the interesting things happening in science. Less aggravating maybe. I prefer to go past ‘just’ “wow”, though, if I can.

  • Is there much data on what audiences read science blogs? Is it the lay audience or other scientists?

    • Good question. I don’t have ‘the’ answer, but I’d guess ‘not much’ to the first and that it various hugely to the second, depending on the content. (Some blogs are very technical and clearly intended for scientists in the same field, others directed at a lay audience.)

      The thesis might have something on this (although it is focused on the practices of science bloggers), but I have to admit I haven’t tried to get into it (yet). I’ll pass your question on to Paige and see what happens!

      • Just to be clear, when I wrote “but I’d guess ‘not much’ to the first” earlier, I was referring to not much data, not small readerships.

        A little data used to be able to be gleaned from Technorati’s blog rankings, which included a science category, but unfortunately that was quietly closed about a year ago.

        For what it’s worth, Alexia suggests around half of sciblogs traffic comes from google. If a fair reflection, I would have thought that suggests a decent portion of our audience are are a general audience. (It’s flattering that the most popular keyword phrase Alexia suggests is one referring to an old post of mine!)

  • Hi Kimberley and Grant! You bring up a GREAT question, and one that unfortunately I don’t have data on. I did ask the bloggers in my survey who their TARGET audience is, but obviously that could be very different from their actual audience. I am planning a follow-up study that would involve surveying the AUDIENCE of a sample of the science bloggers’ who participated in my survey – perhaps by asking bloggers to post a survey I will create for blog-readers on their blogs. If you’d be interested in collaborating on such a study, let me know!

  • @Kim there is some data on the science blog audience, courtesy of the Nielsen study MBIE commissioned last year. According to that, 20% of NZers read or responded to a blog about science and technology. The same percentage discussed science on a social media site. In contrast 72% of the population watched a science-based show on TV. so science blogs attract a relatively small audience the stats on Sciblogs users shows them to be highly educated, high earners in and around the science sector, government and business. So my takeaway is that science blogs aren’t a way to actively engage the mainstream audience directly, but that they serve a highly engaged and influential audience that can influence the rest of society.

    • Hi Peter,

      Compared to TV blogs may understandably have less immediate visibility to a national audience, but that’s not to say that blogs and other forms of science communication don’t have a useful contribution to science communication. (Unless we want to make everything about ratings! – shades of the argument to remove Campbell Live.)

      In particular, it’s difficult (if not nearly impossible) to convey anything subtle in, say, a 3-minute segment whereas a written article (or book) can take examine issues in a way TV rarely can and blogs provide the opportunity for discussion – a form of direct engagement that ‘media’ in general isn’t able to provide. (Conveniently overlooking TV channel’s social media sites here! Ideally we’d have parallel publication on the same topic, with media sites linking to us for further material and discussion – after all, their sites do not provide engagement from the authors/scientists, only interaction the commenters amongst themselves.)

      I’m not sure I’d take the same ‘message’ away from the stats. Some loose thoughts:

      I’m always cautions about linking stats from different sources directly compared unless they have a common cohort or the like to make the comparisons work. The sciblogs stats and MBIE’s results have different bases; that needs thinking through.

      My own perception is that the sciblogs audience has shifted over time. I’m under the impression (anecdotal!) that we initially attracted some from media sources, some from the science sector, a fair number from science communication (a bit of a case of having to start amongst your own, as it were), a number from the public, but few from business or government.

      In particular, I have wondered if the relatively high proportion of economics posts has changed the character of the site. This might explain the business/government numbers, for example. For myself topics like “Should cities pay for sports facilities?”, “Real wage inequality”, taxation or the like don’t have much to do with science (these all taken off the highlighted posts on the top page as I write). I wonder sometimes if others think similarly and if the dominance of economics on the site affects the audience. It may be an article of faith, but many suggest that readers aim for a high ‘hit’ ratio in a site. Related to that is how effective the categories on sciblogs are as a way of improving the ‘hit ratio’ for readers. (Just loose thoughts. Note I’m not saying economics posts don’t attract some readers—they obviously do—but how they might affect a science-seeking audience.)

      It would also be useful, I think, to compare the audiences of the syndicated blogs and their syndicated posts. I suspect the original blogs draw more of the general public, as it were.

      Related to that I have long noted the reluctance of people to engage on sciblogs, and used to put in considerable effort encouraging this. There appears to be a perception amongst some readers that sciblogs is rather formal, and with that a reluctance to contribute.

      I don‘t think these observations make for an argument that sponsoring science communication should focus heavily on TV or ‘media’ to the exclusion of other forms of communication, but rather to think about how to bring the intended audiences to all forms of science communication and to understand what the particular forms of communication achieve. (e.g. TV might get a sizable audience, but does it have that audience engaging more with science outside of that?) Revision to sciblogs might help this part of the wider picture, but my own experience (anecdotally!) suggests bringing an audience to blogs often has as much to do with social media outreach and whatnot than anything to do with the target sites itself.

  • Over the past decade, Google has greatly changed how people gather information. People can now quickly find sites ( web, blogs, facebook, etc. ) that satisfy their curiosity about something.

    Usenet was initially a limited dicussion entity ( academic, business and govt. research centres, computer techs. etc. ) offering knowledge and opinion not readily available. Once it became open access the signal was smothered by noise, curious people looked elsewhere.

    Blogs are owned, and similar-minded people create mutual admiration groups. Adverse opinions tend to be discouraged.
    I’ve noticed a major change in my workplace mealtime activities. Many people now prefer to use their work lunchbreak to surf the net or do personal business privately, rather than sit in groups and discuss news or issues with current work. Google now allows people to learn at their own pace using sites they enjoy reading. The filter of a group pointing out bias, additional information, or obvious errors is gone.

    Sciblogs has a lot of economics posts, and doesn’t offer up meaningful technical coverage of current events ( “experts respond” raises my concern about the quality of “experts” these days ), unless a specialist blogger covers the topic.

    40,000 visits/month for Sciblogs isn’t large for the number of blogs ( but Whale Oil’s 1.5 million visits / month may be dodgy ). I assume other people visit the original blogs but, AFAIK, none exceeded 10,000 visits / month. I suspect general news site now provide access to science news and background for many readers.

    It’s now far easier to Google and find sites that that discuss subjects I’m curious about, or even fill in time browsing general information ( eg BBC’s “10 things we didn’t know last week”, comments on “Melanie’s Marvelous Measles” at Amazon, etc. ).

    Balance can be obtained by monitoring credible news or specialist sites. It’s not clear that blogs will endure, given the effort that owners have to expend.

  • I must confess that on recent visits to Sciblogs the front page has been dominated by economics, with little obvious ‘science’ as most would understand it (apart from the wonderful nanogirl video link). I guess it could be argued that those of us who blog actual science should blog even more, but then, we all have day jobs. So I’m not sure what the easy fix is.