A challenge out of Science Blogging 2008 – encouraging senior scientists to blog

Recently, a lot of people in the life sciences (at least those who have an online presence) have been talking about how the current academic system needs to change. Impact factors, peer-review, the traditional system for evaluating scientists – all of these have their own problems, some of which are only exacerbated by the changes brought about by the internet and web 2.0. But nothing is really changing yet – even though PLoS ONE wants to buck the trend, it still feels tied to the impact factor. One contribution that people feel is undervalued is blogging. As mentioned at the ISMB BoF session on Web 2.0, blogging has a number of positives, not the least of which is its ability to start lively public discussions. Blogging also has a very low barrier to entry – anyone can blog and anyone can participate in a discussion. Blogging is egalitarian – you are judged not by your degrees or your h-index or how many papers you’ve published in Nature, but by the quality of your writing and of your ideas.

Despite the value – and the impact – that blogging can have in communicating science to the public or in engaging the community to discuss ideas, university hiring committees and others who evaluate scientists are more likely than not to have a negative view of it. Time spent not researching is considered time wasted. Even though science blogs are proliferating and the next generation of scientists is clamoring for change, change is slow in coming. That is because the people who are in charge – the hiring committees, senior scientists, funding institutions, etc – are familiar and comfortable with the current system. In order to bring about change, we need those people to be on board. This could happen by passionate campaigning by this next generation, or by a changing of the guard; it’s not clear that the former would be successful before the latter occurred, however.

For those of us who blog, we find incredible value not just in being able to express our ideas about science but also in the connections we make with others who participate in the conversation. In some cases, blogging and being active in online discussions like FriendFeed has led to collaborations and published papers; more commonly, questions are posed and quickly answered by your colleagues. Yet outside of this small circle, blogging is an activity rarely valued and little known. That’s where the challenge comes in.

An informal announcement about the challenge, which arose out of the final panel discussion at the Science Blogging 2008 conference in London, appeared on Science in the Open (with an official announcement expected soon, somewhere):

There was a strong sense that some people had made real personal gains out of blogging and online activities and that many organisations are starting to see it as a valuable contribution. Nonetheless it is not an activity that is widely valued, or indeed even known about. To this end the panel offered a challenge – to persuade a senior scientist to start writing a blog. One prize will be to be featured in next year’s Open Lab 2008 – the best of science writing on the web. The other prize – which caused an extensive collective intake of breath – will be an all expenses paid trip to Scifoo next year for both blogger and the encourager.

Granted, the challenge is not a solution to the various problems with the current flawed system of evaluation and reward, but it may be one of the cracks to help break the “silicon ceiling”. By encouraging senior scientists to blog about science – people who have interesting ideas, grounded perspectives, and established stature – blogging may no longer be seen as a frivolous activity. Perhaps someday all of a scientist’s contributions, including those made on the internet in the form of database annotations, comments on papers, and answers to Epernicus BenchQ questions, will count for something, too.

Note: I admit I am not an unbiased outside observer – those tickets to SciFoo are very tempting. This post started as an email to my advisor, encouraging him to start blogging in earnest about his thoughts and ideas (he maintains a blog of sorts at PharmGKBlog, but it is very focused in topic and does not have commenting). When the email grew larger than 3 paragraphs and started having a list of references, I realized it was turning into something else. If all goes as planned, though, my advisor will soon become a regular contributor to the science blogosphere!

References and further reading:

http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/newsletter/09-02-08.htm#prestige

http://bjoern.brembs.net/news.php?item.397.11

http://www.nature.com/nature/peerreview/debate/nature05006.html

http://bjoern.brembs.net/news.php?item.424.11

http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v1/n4/full/ngeo170.html

http://blog.openwetware.org/scienceintheopen/2008/09/04/the-open-science-endurance-event-team-jc-c/

http://www.wikigenes.org/e/art/e/A_wiki_for_the_life_sciences_where_authorship_matters.html

http://www.plos.org/cms/node/254

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13 Responses to A challenge out of Science Blogging 2008 – encouraging senior scientists to blog

  1. I think that challenge is a great idea! I’m applying for senior positions right now, so do I get two tickets if I get one of these positions? lol :-)
    Joking aside, in one of these interviews I actually mentioned that I was different from the other applicants because I support web-based publishing reform, embraced the new media, write blogs and that I would use these skills for teaching and for leading my new university into the new age of scientific communication. :-)
    Wish me luck, this position will be decided on Sept. 10!

  2. Duncan says:

    Hi Shirley, its a great idea. I’m goading all the Professors who read my blog. Do you have any targets in mind? Professors who should/would be bloggers?

  3. Graham Steel says:

    Prof Peter Murray-Rust was one of the Panel at sciblog where the challenge was announced. I’ve spoken with Peter on and off for just over a year. In oone of our ealier chats, I called him “Professor”. I can’t recall his exact response, but he basically insisted that I call him “Peter”.

    Peter’s a very down to earth guy and is pretty web savy. My point is the ones that we’re trying to convince to start blogging probably will need to have at least one of these qualities – or both.

  4. ouroboros says:

    Great post, Shirley; I just linked from Ouroboros.

    I’m very nearly entirely in agreement. I do take issue with the idea that blogging is entirely egalitarian — certainly, the barrier to entry is low, but as the enterprise develops I find that we’re finding ways to “de-flatten” the landscape.

    One may be judged “by the quality of your writing and of your ideas”, but one is only judged when readers are able to find one’s writing in the first place. And when I look at the link structure of science blogging, and how distorted something like Seed’s ScienceBlogs has made that, I can’t help but feel that we’re taking this great tool and finding ways to recapitulate the inhomogeneity and “prestige”-based structure (and here I mean “prestige” in a sense that does not necessarily connote reputation based on direct observation of quality) of standard publishing. We don’t compute impact factors but we do live and die by things like page rank, Technorati score, and other things that might originally have had something to do with quality but now have everything to do with the structures people are creating around science blogging.

    Not sure what to do about that, but it gets under my skin a bit, so I thought I’d vent.

    My main point, though, was to congratulate you on a thoughtful and provocative post. I’ll be passing it around for sure.

  5. Pingback: Science blogging: Shirley a worthwhile activity « Ouroboros

  6. shwu says:

    @bjoern: Ha! Unfortunately I think the panel will be on to your tricks. ;) Good luck with the jobs – hoping for good news in a few days!

    @Duncan & Graham: I think Graham’s points are good ones – whoever you target needs to be either web savvy or approachable (and willing to try new things) enough to make them amenable to the idea, if not both. But if you can get someone who’s never used the web for anything other than browsing and email I think it could be an even bigger win (of course, someone may have to play IT guy for a while). Other than that, I don’t know who specifically to target, except perhaps heads of departments, PIs with high profile grants or appointments, PIs who are “cutting edge” in meat space but perhaps not yet in virtual space, who you think would be receptive?

    @Chris: Thanks for the comment and the plug! I can see what you’re saying about the landscape “de-flattening”. There will always be blogs that are more popular than others by all sorts of criteria, but I think that the road to recognition is much more open – blogs come up very frequently on web searches, you can easily advertise your own simply by joining a FriendFeed room and sharing your feed, and if your posts are well-written and engaging then they will be passed around on those grounds alone. I guess my point is that it is relatively easy to be “found” these days, even with millions of blogs. Hopefully that won’t change anytime soon.

  7. Pingback:   Business,Education,Science,Uncategorized | Science needs a bigger role in Canada’s food safety policy — Recycle Email

  8. Pingback: Science in the open » Science blogging challenge goes live

  9. rpg says:

    I think I should get to go to SciFoo for coming up with the challenge idea… ;)

  10. Jim H says:

    One of the things I found interesting about SciFoo (and BioBarCamp for that matter), was how dominant academia was vs Industry (the Evil Empire). I think both parties will benefit by having a better mix of the two. Funny thing is that a lot of time Industry blogging = advertising/marketing instead of just sharing thoughts and ideas.

    I don’t have any answers, just observations. Great post Shirley…

  11. Pingback: “Building confidence” in blogging « I was lost but now I live here

  12. shwu says:

    Thanks for the comments, all!

    @rpg: I agree! (whatever makes the judges happy…)

    @Jim: I’ve been finding that there’s been a pretty good mix of industry and academia in the open science arena. Obviously a lot of open science principles go against industry motivations but at the same time there are some new business models based on concepts that are common in open science talk – CollabRx, for example, and the increasing focus on open collaboration to solve global problems in biomedicine. Plus developments like PatientsLikeMe and Google Health. As far as industry blogs go, I don’t follow very many but the 23andMe blog does a pretty good job of sharing thoughts and science without directly advertising their product for the most part.

  13. sandrar says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

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