Science Blogging: The Essential Guide, edited by Christie Wilcox, Bethany Brookshire, and Jason G. Goldman

August 9, 2017

By Sarah Boon, Ph.D.

Are you thinking of starting a science blog? Then this book is for you. There are even some excellent tidbits for those of you who already write a blog and want to shake things up a bit.

The book starts with a chapter by Carl Zimmer on the history of science blogging, providing much-needed context for what is now considered a fairly mainstream activity. Zimmer discusses how blogging evolved from traditional media in the mid-2000s and how journalists and others migrated to online platforms. He talks about the opportunities that science blogging provides by allowing bloggers to explore things that traditional journalism doesn’t, for example, focusing on the process of science rather than specific scientific discoveries.

The book covers a wide variety of topics and provides something for every aspiring science blogger. Several chapters cover the technical aspects of blogging: selecting a blog platform (Ch. 3), using science art (Ch. 4), techniques to make your blog more interactive (podcasts, videos, gifs) (Ch. 9), and blog metrics (Ch. 19). There are also chapters on blogging as a woman in science (Ch. 13), increasing diversity in science via your blog platform (Ch. 12), blogging from conferences (Ch. 21) (Pro tip: get permission from the organizers first—in some cases they may even provide you with resources), and the complementary chapters of blogging about controversial topics (Ch. 23) and dealing with deniers, skeptics, and trolls (Ch. 24). 

Each chapter is authored by a well-known science communicator and as such has a different voice and key area of focus. I was glad to see so many Canadians represented in this book, including Glendon Mellow on science art (Ch. 4), Colin Schultz on blogging as an early career journalist (Ch. 14), Marie-Claire Shanahan on blogging as a resource for science education (Ch. 16), and Travis Saunders and Peter Janiszewski on blogging at scientific conferences (Ch. 21). 

You don’t have to read the chapters in order. Instead you can pick and choose the chapters most relevant to your experience and interests. Many of the chapters also have comprehensive reference lists that allow you to dive deeper into topics that catch your interest. 

Some authors have a stronger voice than others—for example, Rose Eveleth’s chapter on making your blog more interactive (Ch. 9). As a beginner blogger, you may be used to focusing on words and feel overwhelmed by alternate approaches such as images, GIFs, videos, timelines, and animations. Eveleth’s breezy, conversational style and excellent sense of humour makes trying new multimedia approaches a lot less daunting than it could be. 

Several chapters cover more philosophical questions that are often overlooked in science blogging. 

Janet Stemwedel’s chapter on ethics in science blogging (Ch. 6) moves the book beyond the basics of beginner science communication. She pushes readers to think hard about the responsibilities they have as science writers to get the facts right, to be clear about what the science does and does not tell us, and to represent scientists fairly and accurately. She provides a list of key questions to ask yourself: (a) what is my goal in publishing this post? (b) whom will the post hurt and/or help? (c) "to whom do I have duties that relate to whether I publish this post...?" and (d) am I a good science blogger if I publish this post? Based on your answers to these questions, you may want to reconsider hitting the "publish" button on a finished post.

Ben Lillie’s chapter about storytelling in science (Ch. 11) is also an excellent resource. Lillie suggests that bloggers go beyond just explaining a research paper in layman’s terms, and move into the realm of science storytelling, which centres on the narrative of science. He suggests two possible approaches. One is to start with a personal anecdote to draw the reader in before getting into the nitty gritty science details. The other approach is to "make the story the whole point of the piece." This could involve sharing the background story behind a neat new scientific finding, complete with narrative elements such as scientists’ emotions and the setting in which the science was done. Either approach can be an excellent way of creating a relationship with readers and making it easier for them understand the science you’re sharing. For more on storytelling in science, see this post by Vanessa Minke-Martin.

Several themes resurface regularly throughout the book. If you’re a well-established science blogger, you’ll note that much of this is the standard advice given to new science communicators:

  1. Why do you want to blog? Some people blog to share their own and others’ research. Others want to make science exciting for kids, while still others want to debunk popular science myths. Some bloggers are interested in networking through their blog, while other people want to help others with specific science-related problems. An example of the latter is Zen Faulkes’ blog, Better Posters (Ch. 8), which is all about helping people improve their poster presentations. Deciding why you want to blog is a key first step, as it leads directly into point number two.

  2. Who is your audience—and what will you write? Once you’ve decided why you want to blog, you need to consider your audience. This is critical as it determines the type of posts you write (technical explainers, science stories, link roundups), and what kind of voice and language you use. It will also define your niche. For example, as Marie-Claire Shanahan writes (Ch. 16), if you’re interested in writing for students, they can really benefit from blog posts that expose the workings of science or that help them assess the credibility of scientific news sources.

  3. What do you want your audience to do after they’ve read your blog? Liz Neeley asks this question in her chapter on self-promotion (Ch. 20). Do you want readers to tell their friends? Talk to their federal Member of Parliament (MP) or provincial Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA)? Have something new to think about the next time they go for a walk? Knowing your goal ahead of time is helpful as you can include it in the post as you write it. For example, you can exhort your readers to contact their MP or MLA about a science policy issue that you’ve blogged about. This will also help provide a focus when promoting your post via the social media ecosystem. 

  4. Blog regularly. Each chapter author has a different approach. Some suggest twice a week, others once a week or at least once every two weeks. The goal is to keep your audience engaged with new and interesting content at a rate that works for you.

  5. Science blogging is part of a larger science communication ecosystem. Most of the authors use the terms "blogging" and "social media" interchangeably, showing that blogging is actually part of a larger online ecosystem that includes Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, and other tools. Science blogging and social media feed into one another and propel ideas, conversations, and topics to greater prominence than can be achieved by blogging in isolation.

  6. Join the community. One of the great things about blogging is that it provides the opportunity to engage with a community of like-minded individuals on topics that matter to you. Most bloggers have to deal with self-promotion, especially if you are using your blog to jump start a career in science writing or to promote your research. Liz Neeley provides some tips about community-building in her chapter on self-promotion. One tip is to actively share and comment on other people’s posts. Other tips include being authentic and honest, and thanking people for sharing your work. As Kate Clancy notes in Chapter 13, “You will very likely develop a posse…we will support you…and empathize with your struggles.”

  7. Science blogging provides many opportunities beyond the blogosphere. This is true whether you’re blogging solo or as part of a network. As a solo blogger you’ll likely have to work harder to obtain those opportunities, as Zen Faulkes notes in Chapter 8. In her chapter on blogging for a network (Ch. 7), DN Lee highlights many opportunities that may not have come her way as quickly if she were blogging solo, including scientific collaborations, public speaking requests, work opportunities, and more. In Chapter 25, Bethany Brookshire also talks about making money through blogging.

  8. Science blogging helps develop alternate skills. Many authors noted that blogging improved their writing skills, helped with their teaching and public speaking skills, and improved their time management skills. As Greg Gbur notes in Chapter 18, for science bloggers who are also academic scientists, tenure and promotion committees are increasingly allowing blog activity to count towards the service and teaching components of your tenure package. In the last chapter, Brian Switek even explores how to use your blog as a platform for writing a book.

  9. Science blogging can open up new research fields. Most scientists are trained in a particular field and focus their blog content on that field. However, you can also create a niche for yourself by blogging about topic you’re interested in exploring further. For example, Greg Gbur writes that he became interested in the history of science after he started blogging, and has blogged so much about it that he’s now recognized as an amateur historian of science.

  10. Have fun! As Ed Yong reminds us in Chapter 5, researchers sometimes need feedback that’s independent of external metrics. This means keeping yourself motivated by having fun and enjoying the process of crafting each blog post.
There’s no escaping the fact that a book about a web-based activity is bound to be affected by rapid changes in the online world. For example, the chapter on metrics mentions, which went defunct in 2015. There’s also some mention of blog carnivals in two of the chapters, but these seem to have gone out of fashion (I’d love to read some commentary as to why this might be). Also, Colin Schultz was recently interviewed by The Open Notebook, which asked whether he would still give the same advice that he provides in Ch. 14 on "Blogging as an Early Career Journalist".

Overall I enjoyed this book both for the range of perspectives on science blogging and its readable, accessible style. It’s like taking a masterclass with the giants of science communication, as it distills their best science blogging tips and ideas into a manageable form that will help you make the most of your science blog. While I’m considering how I can use some of what I’ve learned from the book to tweak my own blog, I think the book is largely directed towards those just starting out. 

To learn more, check out the book's companion website, hosted by The Open Notebook.

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

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