Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The science of blogging

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

Scientists are usually ahead of the curve in new ways of thinking and doing. Yet they don’t often ride the wave of communication technologies to engage the lay public with their ideas. This is where science blogs are beginning to fill the breach. Run by people interested in science, these blogs are a platform for keeping pace with, understanding, and communicatively bonding with the world of science and its rapid and futuristic developments as well as its hopes, anxieties, joys, and controversies.

With the growing ubiquitousness of the internet and the global embrace of social media, science blogs have a potential to take science to the people. Bloggers can cut though the iron walls of jargon and verbosity of research papers, complex equations, caveats and variables, and sheer mystery, to get the core ideas across with brevity, simplicity, and pictorial as well as audio-visual props. 

There are several exciting and informative blogs out there in cyberspace. ScienceBlogs, for example, is a wonderful repository of a very wide range of blogs across domains such as the Life Sciences, the Physical Sciences, the Environment, Medicine, Technology, and many more. Within each of these domains are scores of blogs with a variety of styles, content, and focal points.

However, as Mathieu Ranger and Karen Bultitude point out, despite their accessibility and ease of use, science blogs “constitute only a tiny proportion of science information sources”. In an article forthcoming in PUS, they make the case that “there is still significant room for development before science blogging becomes a truly ‘pluralistic, participatory and social’ element” in science communication. Ranger and Bultitude’s study on the motivations and characteristics of popular science blogs, including an analysis of interviews with seven prominent bloggers as well as blog posts, shows that science blogging is still a “niche” area and most bloggers take to blogging because of their own passion for science rather than to foster public engagement. Science blogs, the authors add, also don’t make as much use of design elements as general blogs and tend to be updated less frequently than popular general blogs.

For those of us following science blogs, there are trends that suggest engagement with science is on the way up. There are several blogs that have caught the fancy of those with a thirst for the wonders (and despairs) of science. The Real Clear Science website recently listed Ethan Siegel’s Starts with a bang; Carl Zimmer’s The Loom; and Deborah Blum’s Elemental as their top three science blogs. While Siegel translates complex topics for curious minds, Zimmer uses his writing skills to attract and retain the attention of readers interested in the life sciences. Blum is an expert on toxic substances.

Although there aren’t that many scientists writing blogs themselves, people in the scientific community are surely and steadily taking to social media platforms. A recent article in Nature, Richard van Noorden suggests that academic social networks are burgeoning with scientists increasingly joining social networking sites such as ResearchGate to share ideas and papers, and foster collaborations. The next step would be to seek out wider audiences and blogs are one such avenue.

A few years ago, scientist-turned-film maker Randy Olsen had come up with four main “admonitions” for scientists looking to communicate with the lay public: “Don’t be so cerebral; don’t be so literal minded; don’t be such a poor story teller; don’t be so unlikeable”.  Taking to writing blogs will take care of these perceptual barriers.