A challenge out of Science Blogging 2008 – encouraging senior scientists to blog
September 5, 2008 13 Comments
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: