Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Value of Science Blogs

Three well-known science bloggers, Shelley Batts (Of Two Minds), Nicholas Anthis (The Scientific Activist), and Tara Smith (Aetiology) have just published an article in PLoS Biology entitled Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy.

I agree with most of what they have to say but there are a couple of problems that aren't addressed in the article. First, the more science blogs we have the more difficult it is to read them all. I'm currently trying to follow 104 science blogs on a daily basis and it's quite a chore. How are we going to sort out the wheat from the chaff and what are we going to do when there's too much wheat?

The second problem concerns the definition of a science blog. We all know that strictly science blogs aren't nearly as entertaining as those that branch off into religion, politics, and other non-science topics. All three of the authors know this because their own blogs are an interesting mix of real science and other things. The authors propose that institutions, such as universities, encourage more science blogging but that will only work for the strictly science blogs and we know that those kind of blogs aren't very popular. Institutions are reluctant to be directly associated with the more popular science blogs, like Pharyngula, because they don't want to be seen as endorsing the private views of faculty members.

The PLoS Biology article says,
Institutions may wish to implement more formal vetting mechanisms, however, such as periodic review by institutional moderators or peer review by official committees of blog-literate individuals, established scientists, and bloggers. Institutions might use one of a variety of mechanisms to confer a visible token of this review—such as a “blog badge”—in order to both reward quality bloggers and help readers identify trusted blogs. A blog badge is simply a small picture or icon that is prominently featured on the blog and represents an award or achievement. Such badges are usually given as awards (such as the “Weblog Awards” or the “MedBlog Awards”), and are awarded to particular outstanding blogs in a variety of categories, such as “Best Group Blog,” “Most Informative,” and “Best Translation of Published Research.” Traditional blogging awards are conferred by a committee who invites submissions until a deadline, reviews them, and then posts the winners on their Web site. The winners can then download the badge to post on their blog. Institutions might find it useful, and bloggers might find it motivating, if institutional blog badges were conferred for particularly insightful posts or as a token for passing their test or review periods. Accumulating these badges would be a public and official way for the institution to reward and validate the blogger, while conferring authority to the blog by letting readers know it has met the criterion for institutional peer review.
I think this may be missing the point of blogs. Their value is based on the fact that there's no "institutional" control or monitoring. There is no peer review. This is the internet and it's free-wheeling and opinionated. I don't know of an "institution" that can officially attach its name to those kind of blogs—although they must tolerate them in the name of academic freedom. (Besides, if we use science press releases as our criterion for judging institutional accuracy, then institutional blog badges aren't going to be worth very much.)

I think we need to rely on bloggers themselves to identify the best blogs.

UPDATE: DrugMonkey does a better job of discussing some of these same issues at Blogging in the Academy: Batts et al, 2008, In addition, the conflict between anonymous blogging—is it desirable?—and institutional support is raised in the article and in the comments.

[Hat Tip: John Dennehy]


  1. I tend to visit a few of the seed Scienceblog sites, mainly because they are easy to navigate around, as well as a few others - The Loom, Bad Astronomy and, obviously, Sandwalk.
    I still get my relevant research information from the scientific journals rather than blogs, but they are good occasionally as reference sources.
    The idea of peer reviewing science blogs, I agree, is a bit self defeating and would likely turn them into bland PR statements rather than showing any sort of personality of the author.
    The trouble with many of the more recent science blogs are that they simply don't stand out from the pack (that actually goes for most of the seed stable - I guess a lot of them get their hits because they are easier to find since they're linked to a big number site like Pharyngula).
    It took me a while to figure out a direction for my own blog - I decided to leave the serious stuff to experts like Larry and just use it as an means to practice photoshop and make silly jokes, usually at the expense of the Discovery Institute.

  2. I'm going to have to read the article in order to make a more informed comment on it; however, it seems as though the 'laisser-faire' nature of the blogosphere is its greatest strength, and appeal. It's probably a good thing that blogs are becoming more 'recognized', but it's probably somewhat important that they represent personal views (based on experience and credentials) rather than people speaking in some sort of official capacity.

    It's also significant to note that there have recently been some high-profile incidents related to employers not liking what employees are writing on their blogs. I can't find the reference but I remember reading that several Human Resources groups were asking that either companies or the government enact clear guidelines with respect to what is considered permissible to blog about (i.e., by representing yourself as a professor, are you speaking in an official capacity). These issues will certainly come up again as blogs continue to grow.

  3. Erm, your Drugmonkey link is to your own blog. :)

  4. I assume you meant "what are we going to do when there is too much wheat" which is actually a fantastic observation. One thing that happens in academic science is that people simply start declaring wheat not to be wheat out of defeatism and laziness.

    oh no? think about those who argue that if it isn't in a GlamourMag it isn't really science....

    thanks for the link, btw

  5. Thanks for your feedback, Larry. I can definitely sympathize with your concerns, and I've tried to address some of them in a new post.