Blogging about science about blogging about science…

So… I’m writing a blog post for ResearchBlogging.org about a paper about blog posts written for ResearchBlogging.org. And that means that if ever anyone else writes a paper about blog posts for ResearchBlogging.org it will be a paper about blog posts for ResearchBlogging.org including at least one blog post about a paper about blog posts for ResearchBlogging.org. Yes.

But all silliness aside, this is an interesting paper. Its mere existence raises the interesting point that science blogging is very definitely no longer the activity of bored PhD students or scientists who should be using their time more wisely. Science blogging is now an important forum for disseminating and discussing information. In an age where preprints are becoming increasingly important and scientific journals are realising the prudence in publishing new results as rapidly as possible, science blogging is taking on an increasingly useful role.

Most (84%) bloggers apparently blog under their real name. This high percentage suggests that science bloggers see their blog, if not as a career enhancer, then at least as career-neutral.

I’ve heard a great many people at all levels of expertise make two major criticisms of the way new information is communicated to the world. Journal papers are dry, stuffy, and largely unintelligible for non-specialists in any given field (I’m not afraid to admit that I can get lost in astronomy papers which concern topics I’m not an expert in, let alone completely different fields like botany or neurology), let alone for the general public, and; news reporting dumbs things down too much, frequently misses the point, and should be written by journalists with at least some understanding of the topics at hand. A few media are present to bridge this gap, including magazines like New Scientist (not without their own unique criticisms), and certain news websites. By far the best way to find out about a topic though, is to look for a blog article about it. A good blogger will use a combination of wit, opinion, commentary and background to explain the research nice and clearly. On the more well renowned blogs, the discussion continues in the comments left. It ends up as the way peer review probably should be, with several scientists, including experts, giving their thoughts and opinions on the subject. As the paper points out, the online commentary is often so useful that it feeds back into the research community and influences what steps are taken next. The larger blog communities like ScienceBlogs.com and Scientopia.org are undoubtedly major players in all of this.

I was originally alerted to this paper by Sci Curious, who’s written her own take on the research. I must say, the points she raises are all the first things that should probably spring to anyone’s mind when they read this. Apparently, in this study they find that the vast majority of science bloggers also have an associated twitter account, and are typically PhD students/holders, male, and blog under their own name. 59% of them are affiliated with an academic institution. So not having my name anywhere on here, perhaps I don’t entirely fit the stereotype. As far as I’m concerned, gender is irrelevant to these things. I don’t really think it matters if I happen to be male or female, and that opinion extends to the blogs I read. Interestingly though female science bloggers seem to be hugely underrepresented in this study, and the reasons for this are likely to be complex.

I suspect the biggest reason is probably the regrettable fact that women are prone to receiving a lot more verbal abuse for what they do, and typically receive a lot less sympathy for their mistakes. It’s frankly quite distressing sometimes. Let’s not forget that study on gender and imposter syndrome at this point, either. XKCD points out in jest, what is an alarming truth about our society, and as quotes by Ellen Page exemplify, this is by no means a blogging thing or a science thing. But… the interesting thing is that female bloggers, including science bloggers, are by no means underrepresented in the community. I made a point of checking those who I follow — in my blogroll in the bar on the right of my page here, 67% of the blogs are either solely run by female authors, or are shared and include female authors.

We found a lack of gender balance in the science blogging gender distribution, with 72% of the blogs being written by one or two male authors. This is in line with studies of Wikipedia and about the general distribution of RB bloggers.

The crux of the matter seems to be the blogging style. Female bloggers who I follow tend to post much more about thoughts and opinions than facts and figures. A perfect example would be Female Science Professor, whose blog is so compelling because it’s purely about those thoughts and opinions. I don’t even have much idea about what she actually researches, and suffice to say that without her use of a pseudonym and her silence on actual science, her blog simply wouldn’t be able to exist.

An interesting thing too, is the breakdown of fields. No real representation of physical sciences. Again, I’m an outside perspective. Most of the blogs I follow are, quite understandably, run by physical scientists, although most science blogs are in the domain of life sciences. The languages present are also worthy of note. I’m not sure how much is biased due to ResearchBlogging.org being a website created by English speakers, but it’s interesting that not one blog was written in Japanese, given the majority of the blogosphere is written by Japanese speakers. Though it’s notable that English is currently the language of choice for science, just as throughout history science has been predominantly written in one language (German… Latin… Greek… It depends when in history you look).

While this study is undoubtedly not without its flaws, it’s an interesting read all the same, and a rare insight into the online presence that seems to increasingly underpin the academic community. I only hope that certain current trends continue and the gender balance might, in the future, actually be balanced! And no, the relevance isn’t lost on me that the paper doesn’t fully discuss a lot of the wider implications of their findings, and instead I’m doing so on a science blog. I don’t even know whose point I’m proving anymore…

(With thanks to @AstroKatie and @scicurious for the discussions)

Being as Supernova Condensate is about both astronomy and chemistry, I often find something interesting when reading over things to write. Because lots of people love astronomy, astronomy news isn’t hard to find. Chemistry news though? That’s rare. Which stands to reason — amateur astronomers exist in abundance, but when was the last time you ever heard of an amateur chemist? Let alone an entire local society of amateur chemists?

The less said about the use of Technorati as an absolute measure of how good a blog is, the better. And I’m not just saying that because of my rather mediocre ranking there!

ResearchBlogging.orgShema, H., Bar-Ilan, J., & Thelwall, M. (2012). Research Blogs and the Discussion of Scholarly Information PLoS ONE, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035869

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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