Scientists’ blogs: glimpses behind the scenes




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Brian Trench

Scientists’ blogs: glimpses behind the scenes

1 Introduction

Scientists operate in an Internet-saturated environment and their pervasive use of email and the web for professional and public communication and, in particular, the implications of the web’s adoption for scholarly publishing have been the object of much professional discussion and formal analysis over more than a decade (e.g., Rzepa 1998; Peterson 2001; Dumlao and Duke 2001). But scientists’ use of more conversational Internet media, specifically web logs (blogs), has not been examined as much. Much of the commentary that has been published on blogs in and about science comes from practitioners who are strongly committed to promoting this kind of communication. In this chapter, we aim to take a more dispassionate view of the extent and effects of science blogging in the context of the increasing mediatization of science and changes in professional scientific and public science communication driven by media-technological developments. We take mediatization to refer to scientists’ and scientific institutions’ increased and significant attention to media dimensions of their work and their increased and significant adoption of mass-media genres and platforms in their communication.

We will consider the growth of science blogging, and particularly scientists’ blogging, as part of the developing blogosphere and offer a characterisation of scientists’ blogs, focusing in more detail on particular disciplines. In developing this characterisation we will give special attention to the insights that scientists’ blogs may give on the media orientation of science, such as mediatization theory posits. We will also consider the role that scientists’ blogs play in opening access to the inner workings of science; in this, we are interested to establish whether blogs as a means of personal expression facilitate public understanding of science-in-the-making.

In reviewing science blogs we were interested to establish what support, if any, could be found for the observation of nearly a decade ago that the web “opened up many aspects of scientific research previously hidden from the general public” (Peterson 2001) or for the notion of the Internet “turning science communication inside-out” (Trench 2008). Here it was postulated that Internet communication, in opening to public view previously closed private spaces, blurs the boundaries or restructures the relations between these spheres. Blogs, with their personal, even intimate, character appear strong candidates for facilitating this ‘inside-out’ process.

This interest in blogs as windows on previously private spaces relates to several well-known propositions on the social organisation and social relations of science that all draw implicitly or explicitly on Goffman’s (1959) work on the back-stage and front-stage presentation of self. All also, to one degree or another, stress the importance of gaining access to and understanding of the back-stage preparation for the front-stage performance. These include Hilgartner’s (2000) elaboration of performance, theatrical and staging metaphors in relation to scientists’ participation in public debates and Latour’s (1987) view of science as Janus-faced, with two faces of ready-made science and science-in-the-making. Latour focused on securing entry “through the back door” of science-in-the-making as of greater interest in understanding the social constitution of science. Durant (cited in Gregory and Miller 1998) suggested that scientific literacy could be considered as knowing many facts of science, knowing how science works, or knowing how science really works and focused his attention on the last of these: “What [the public] needs, surely, is a feel for the way that the social system of science actually works to deliver what is usually reliable knowledge about the natural world”. In this, Durant can also be interpreted as advocating the need for public appreciation of what goes on back-stage in science.

The editors of this present collection draw on the same lexicon in their discussion of the concept of medialization (see Franzen et al., this volume) when they ask if science’s orientation to the mass media remains “limited to activities on the front stage produced for public view or does it extend to the back stage, thus affecting the criteria of relevance in knowledge production?” Sociologists have applied ethnographic and other methods to see what is happening back stage in science. The development of Internet media, and, in particular, of blogs appears to provide a readily accessible means to look behind the scenes. In this chapter, we are interested to see if communication in this hybrid private/public space of blogs has a bearing on the conduct of science itself. In his discussion of mediatization, Valiverronen (2001) notes:

“Communicating science to the general public may influence the mechanisms of science, and not only in the level of funding, science disputes or in the public legitimation of science. Public discourse also feeds back into science-in-the-making.”

The case of climate science blogging that will be discussed in this chapter offers specific answers to the editors’ questions above and some confirmation of Valiverronen’s view of public communication affecting the conduct of science. Pearce (2010b) opens his extended investigation of the ‘Climategate’ affair with a chapter entitled “Windows on a closed world” and writes in his concluding chapter: “The doors of the labs are being opened, whether scientists like it or not”. As we shall explore further in part 5 of this chapter, climate science represents a special case of highly mediatized science in which blogs have played an important constitutive role.

The following sections of this chapter trace the short history of science blogs, with particular reference to blogs published by scientists (section 2), consider some of the claimed impacts of scientists’ blogs on the conduct and governance of science (section3), set out some general characteristics of scientists’ blogs (section 4), review the intense discussions of climate science in the blogosphere and the role of blogs in the ‘Climategate’ affair (section 5) and discuss the factors constraining scientists’ adoption of blogs in their peer-to-peer and public communication (section 6).

2 The Slow Growth of Science Blogging

The growth of blogging since the early 2000s has been dramatic. Total weblogs were estimated at about one million in 2003 and over four million in 2004. Another two years later, the Pew Internet and American Life Project (2006) reported that 8% (12 million) of 147 million adult users of the Internet in the United States kept a blog, while 39% (57 million) read one. By late 2006, the specialist web site Technorati.com was “tracking more than 57 million blogs and counting” (Sifry 2006). In 2008, the same source gave the total number of blogs as 133 million (Sifry 2008).

Free blogging software reduced the entry-cost to zero and the entry-time to minutes and helped drive blogging as a near-mass phenomenon. By 2004, the accumulated blogs were being referred to as a collective space, the blogosphere, meriting analysis in a special issue of the computing journal Communications of the ACM (December 2004). Business Week writers Baker and Green (2005) described blogs as “simply the most explosive outbreak in the information world since the internet itself” that would “shake up just about every business”. Interviews with bloggers associated with Stanford University revealed that bloggers’ primary motivations were to document one’s life, to provide comment and opinion, to work out emotional issues and to promote conversation (Nardi et al. 2004). But bloggers were also credited with breaking major political stories in the United States (Rosenbloom 2004). Rosenbloom noted that technological research disciplines were well represented among blogging communities and, more recently, Davidson and Vaast (2009) suggested that “tech bloggers may act as an active minority within technology-focused discourse communities and, in doing so, influence social representations of ICTs within society”.

A study of medical bloggers (Kovic et al. 2008) noted that survey respondents’ motivations for blogging were different from the generality of bloggers: “Sharing practical knowledge and skills, as well as influencing the way other people think, were major reasons for blogging among our medical bloggers, but not among general bloggers”.

Another such study (Lagu et al. 2008) concluded that medical blogs were “now part of the literature and media of medicine” which in the authors’ view ranged from professional and scientific publications to medical dramatizations on television. The authors expected the importance of medical blogs to grow but they also noted that “authors of some medical blogs censor their thoughts and comments less than we expect they would in traditional public settings”.

Science blogging has also attracted attention in academic and professional journals. Batts et al. (2008) described science blogs as having “carved out a small but influential niche”. A report in The Guardian (McClellan 2004) offered an early view of blogging by academic researchers, but the cases cited were in popular culture, literature, political philosophy, informatics and cyberculture, not in the natural sciences. In the following year, a Nature report (Butler 2005) suggested there were “still only a few dozen scientific bloggers”. Hannay (2007) described scientific blogging as “still a niche activity” and stated that “scientists have been relatively slow to fully embrace [the web’s] potential ... among a few million scientists worldwide, only perhaps one or two thousand are blogging, at least about science”.

Batts et al. estimated the total number of science blogs at “over 1,200”, drawing on a study published a year earlier that in turn quoted science blogger Bora Zivkovic as estimating the number of science blogs at 1,000–1,200 (Bonetta 2007). A more recent estimate (Mooney and Kirshenbaum 2009) was “some 1,000”, though this was qualified as “undoubtedly a very conservative figure”. Several science bloggers who responded to a survey by Nature blogger Martin Fenner (2008) said they expected there to be many more science blogs in five years’ time as it becomes “more socially acceptable”, or, according to one respondent, “so many science blogs that we have to specialise”.

Because the definition of science blog or scientist blogger can never be unequivocally settled the numbers cannot be precise. The distinction between science blog and scientist blogger is of some significance, however: authors of blogs that are mainly or exclusively about science include graduate students, science journalists and science writers; qualified scientists may not be in a majority of those behind science blogs. What seems clear is that there are less science blogs and certainly far less scientists’ blogs than the numbers of scientists in the world’s Internet population would indicate. As has been previously observed in studies of science web sites (Massoli, 2007; Trench 2008, 2009), scientists and their institutions have tended to use the Internet mostly for professional communication and, where wider publics are in mind, for dissemination of scientific findings and for promotion of science to students, policy-makers, media, business partners and prospective employees. Blogging and other more highly interactive applications of the Internet do not fit comfortably into that set of priorities. However, these observations do not deprive science blogging of all importance. In certain sectors of science where, for example, knowledge is especially uncertain or controversial, science blogging may have a weight that is not measured in the total number of science blogs in the total blogosphere. This may also be true for sectors of science where there is a relatively high level of public, or amateur, participation. We will consider examples of such cases in later sections.

3 Uses and Impacts of Science Blogging

In discussion of science blogs claims have been made on how science blogging has influenced the practice of science itself. Science blogging has been reported as a means by which scientists have found collaborators for the authoring of significant papers (Batts et al. 2008) or have benefitted from “interesting perspectives” of site users’ comments, even helping to generate “new research ideas” (Butler 2005). However, it is notable that examples given by commentators of significant impacts of blogging on the conduct of science tend to be repeated, suggesting there may not be very many such examples: The story of a PhD student in genetics, Reed Cartwright, who disagreed in his blog with a 2005 Nature paper and was then invited to be co-author of a paper for Plant Cell, has been told in The Scientist (Secko 2007), by Bonetta (2007) and by Batts et al. (2008).

Science blogging has also been presented as a means of “enabling a conversation between the science community and the general community” (Elliott 2006) as a way to interact with a wider audience of peers and public (Butler 2005), and as having a powerful “capacity to put a human face on science and related health issues by allowing scientists to discuss how these things affect them personally” (Nature Methods 2009). It has been claimed that the notably successful blog Pharyngula has become a “universal, interactive rallying point for understanding and discussing evolutionary development” (Batts et al. 2008), making its originator, P. Z. Myers, a “rock star of scientist bloggers” (Bonetta 2007), also through his advocacy of science-based atheism.

Much of the analysis of science blogging has been written by enthusiasts or by observers who are also practitioners. Batts et al. (2008) set out an argument for research and academic institutions to adopt blogging actively as part of their practice. Tola (2008) considered

“the advantages of this medium are so self-evident, in terms of the possibility of gaining feedback on one’s work and approaches, of finding new solutions and ideas, of meeting new colleagues and other scientists who might be contributing to the development of one’s research, of starting new collaborations, even of finding new positions, that it is really difficult to imagine why a scientist, especially a young one at the beginning of her own career, should not feel like entering this collective conversation”.

Wilkins, a philosopher of science and blogger (Evolving Thoughts), describes science blogging as personal, ephemeral, and “more intimate and responsive” than other forms of science communication (2007). Schmidt, a climate scientist and blogger (Realclimate.org), sees blogs as a way for scientists to talk to the public directly, casually and in depth about complicated and contested scientific topics (Gramling 2008).

This merging of professional and public spheres of communication, without the intermediation of journalists, has been represented as one of facilitating public peer review (Batts et al. 2008), or of harnessing “collective intelligence” and “wisdom of the masses” (Minol et al. 2007). By analogy with “Web 2.0” – the purported new face or phase of the Internet that is genuinely interactive and participatory, and of which blogs are a representative expression – “science 2.0” is sometimes invoked to refer to a collective, inclusive endeavour in which both citizens and experts are engaged (Waldrop 2008).

Some commentary on the Climategate affair sees in it the emergence of “extended peer review”. Jerome Ravetz, who coined that phrase almost two decades ago with Silvio Funtowicz in their elaboration of ‘post-normal science’ (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993), said of the climate science debate that it demonstrated the need for and inevitability of such public scrutiny:

“It is hard to see how this extended peer community of the scientific blogosphere could be silenced or suppressed, once it has shown its power. Doubtless it will be vulnerable to misuse and abuse, just like democracy in the political sphere, and so it will need guidance … and courtesy” (cited in Pearce 2010b).

Similarly, journalist and blogger Patrick Courrielche (2010) believes Climategate “triggered the death of unconditional trust in the scientific peer review process” and the maturing of a new movement of peer-to-peer review.

However, it is clear that the potential of science blogging to significantly affect communication among scientists and relations between scientists and lay publics depends to some degree on the level at which blogging and other more highly interactive Internet media have been adopted in science. Physicist Michael Nielsen (2009) observed that “scientists have been relatively slow to adopt online tools such as comment sites and Wikipedia”. Waldrop (2008) noted, “although wikis are gaining, scientists have been strikingly slow to embrace one of the most popular Web 2.0 applications: Web logging, or blogging”. He quoted Christopher Surridge, managing editor of the Web-based journal Public Library of Science On-Line Edition, as saying that “scientists don’t blog because they get no credit” and this was echoed in the comment of Nature’s editorial writer (Nature 2009) that “blogging will not help, and could even hurt, a young researcher’s chances of tenure”.

What the available literature indicates is that, despite strong advocacy of the merits of blogging in science and some notable instances of highly visible scientist bloggers, scientists are significantly under-represented among bloggers in general and little evidence has been reported of blogging having a tangible impact on the conduct of science.

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