Science Blogging 101
March 3, 2016
By Sarah Boon, Ph.D.
Blogging has become a popular way for researchers to share their work. You likely have colleagues who blog about their research, and may even want to try it yourself: a recent study showed that 47% of science bloggers who responded to a survey were academics. While blogging might seem like a waste of time, it has a range of career and personal benefits. Don’t be intimidated by writing your first post, as there are many helpful resources available to guide you through the process.
Many researchers who blog are keenly interested in sharing their results with as wide an audience as possible. They realize that the number of people who read their research papers is limited—particularly if they’re behind a publisher’s paywall—and want to both share their knowledge and generate a conversation with a broader audience. Blogging can help you reach that audience, not only through the blog itself, but via the various social media channels on which that blog might be shared (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, etc.).
Regular blogging can hone your ability to explain your science to non-specialists, such as students, the public, or even granting agencies. Blogging requires that you explain your research within a set word limit (usually 750-1000 words), using plain language, and avoiding the use of jargon and acronyms. Imagine how interested and engaged your students would be if you were able to do the same in the classroom!
Blogging is also a great way for scientists to put a human face on the scientific endeavour. Many people respect scientists, but find they’re more competent than they are trustworthy. By describing research in plain language and including a personal anecdote or two, scientists can show that they’re regular people—not that much different from you and me.
Blogging is also a great way to build community. By writing about your own research, and linking to the work of others, you can create a network of people who read your blog—and whose blogs you also read. For more on the benefits of blogging, see this comprehensive post by Patrick Dunleavy over on the LSE Impact Blog.
How to Blog
Researchers may shy away from blogging because they feel they don’t have the time or skills required to do it well. However, you have all the tools you need in your scientist’s toolkit—you just have to deploy them in different ways than you’re used to.
The first hurdle to blogging is time: many researchers think they have to host their own blog and write regularly—a time commitment they may not be able to make. However, the great thing about science blogging is that it’s become mainstream enough that there are many existing blogs that solicit guest posts from researchers. Some examples include Science Borealis, Sapiens.org, The Conversation (US and UK), iPolitics (Opinions), and of course, Canadian Science Publishing (get in touch with CSP if you are interested in contributing!). Most of these sites also include editorial assistance: you receive feedback on your writing by working with an editor to polish your post, which then helps with writing future blog posts. This is a nice way to dip your toe into the blogging waters and see how you like it.
The second hurdle to blogging is structure. Scientists are familiar with journal article structure, which is generally described as a pyramid: background and supporting information in the introduction, and the details about research outcomes and conclusions outlined near the end. Blog posts turn this structure on its head, and thus are often described as having an inverted pyramid structure. You start with your main outcomes and conclusions right off the bat, using a catchy first few sentences (or “lede” as it’s called in journalism-speak), then flesh them out with background and supporting information. Switching from the pyramid to the inverted pyramid structure can be a challenge, but it’s a good way to visualize your research from the perspective of a non-specialist.
Structure of an academic paper (from www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/its/servicessupport/web/sitebuilder2/goodsites/content)
Structure of a blog post (from www.wannabehacks.co.uk/2014/08/06/how-to-write-a-news-story-5-top-tips)
Successful blogs also tell a story about the research they’re covering. This isn’t that different from writing a scientific paper, in which you tell a story of what you think is happening based on your interpretation of your research results. You then go over that story in the discussion section, and make a case for why it’s accurate or relevant in relation to the rest of the literature. In blogging, you’re not just telling a story about your research, but you’re injecting a personal aspect as well. Perhaps something you did or were thinking about while you were collecting or analyzing your data, or people’s responses to your research outcomes. Storytelling makes blogs more personable and accessible to the average reader.
Making the time to blog, developing the blog structure, and storytelling are relatively straightforward for scientists to address using their existing toolkit. But one of the more difficult requirements is to write in plain language. Scientists are trained to write for their peers, usually in third person using passive voice. However, blogs are usually focused on the average reader, and are written in the first person using active voice. The goal isn’t to “dumb down” your research, but to explain it clearly, completely, and concisely.
So how do you put this all together? Patrick Dunleavy has a great summary of how to construct a blog post, while Katie Burke has a good list of do’s and don’ts—including some excellent examples—when blogging about your science. I highly recommend reading their posts for tips on how to put your blog together.
It’s critical that you start with a catchy first few sentences—something surprising from your research results, or an odd or funny anecdote that happened while you were doing your research. For example, a blog about my winter research in the southern Canadian Rocky Mountains might start with: “We arrived at the coordinates marking our measurement site only to find a forest of trees snapped off at 4 feet above the ground, and a deep avalanche deposit covering our base station.” This sentence is designed to catch the reader’s attention—and hold it.
You’ll also want to explain how your results advance knowledge, and what the implications are for society. As Katie Burke notes (point #8), the best way to do this is to tell a story about real people—readers are more likely to understand and connect with this than if you use more abstract terms like general statistics about a group of people.
Don’t forget to include images! You can include graphs or charts, but make sure they’re not only straightforward to interpret, but are central to the message you want to get across in your post. Also consider including photos of you and your research team in action—readers like to be able to put faces to names, and to see researchers “at work.”
If you’re wondering about references, notice that in blogs we hyperlink directly to relevant information throughout the text. You may want to link to a specific research paper abstract, but it can be just as effective to link to a popular article that was written about that research paper. This is in keeping with making the post as accessible to readers as possible—they’re more likely to read and/or understand the content of the popular article than the research paper itself.
Once you’ve written a few blogs, you’ll soon get the hang of it. You may begin to enjoy sitting down to put together a public summary of what you’re working on and to engage with people outside of your small research field. You may even get the science blogging bug, in which case you might be interested in this new book on science blogging coming out in March, authored by prolific science bloggers Christie Wilcox, Bethany Brookshire, and Jason Goldman.
To read examples of some great Canadian science blogs, visit Science Borealis, Canada’s science blog aggregator. And if you’re already a Canadian science blogger and not part of the Science Borealis community, get in touch! We’d love to have you on board.
Sarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about nature and nature writing, science communication, and women in science. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the Editors’ Association of Canada, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. Sarah is also a founding member of Science Borealis. Find Sarah on Twitter: @SnowHydro