What’s on the horizon for science blogging?

December 16, 2015

By Natalie Sopinka

As a relatively new blogger of fish-related content, I am still learning about this realm of science communication. I wanted a way to archive the short poems I found myself inspired to write about all things aquatic. I wanted to share these poems freely in hopes of enlightening and inspiring others. The result is Phish Doc a collection of poetry from fish barbels to marine upwelling.

Prior to launching Phish Doc I read articles on what makes a blog successful. I contemplated who I wanted my audience to be and how I would connect with them. I chatted with other bloggers for perspective. There is a lot of information out there on general bloggingblogs, after all, are not novel digital tools anymore. One can now make a living off blogging about what you wear, what you eat, what you buy or a grumpy cat. 

Science blogs are pushing at least a decade in existence, depending on how you define science blogging. An article in the journal Cell entitled “Scientists enter the Blogosphere” was published in 2007 and stated there were “1,000 or so science blogs” written mainly by academics versus professional journalists. Today blogs are still written by academics but also journalists trained to write about science and academics turned science journalists. There are blogs hosted by the scientist blogger themselves and blogs hosted by organizations that enlist all science writers. Blogs are also being examined by the scientific method. Google Scholar searches bring up myriad articles on science blogging. Topics range from comprehensive discussion on who blogs are for to connections between blog coverage and citations of peer-reviewed articles

That said, there are comparatively few science blogs out there specific to the aquatic sciences. When I started thinking about aquatic- and fisheries-focused blogs, I kept coming back to the idea that blogs are still a relatively new tool when it comes to communicating this area of science. For this post, I have gathered the thoughts and insights from aquatic bloggers on lessons learned and future directions of #scicomm blogging.
What works?

When I asked what the backbone of an effective #scicomm blog post was responses included: 

  • having short and captivating titles
  • always embedding photographs that are always appropriately credited
  • aesthetically pleasing formatting
  • “distilling” the topic 
  • telling a story, and 
  • practice
Practice makes progress. This lesson is especially pertinent to scientists that blog. We scientists “are typically awareperhaps painfully sothat our writing skills have been honed on the academic whetstone,” [behind paywall] points out communications enthusiast Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey of the American Fisheries Society. Language used in peer-reviewed scientific journals is not compatible with non-specialist readers of a blog. If Uncle Phil is not familiar with the life cycle of Pacific salmon, it may be outside a scientist’s comfort zone to explain smolitifcation (the transformation of juvenile salmon that prepares them for living in saltwater) without the words osmoregulation or sodium-potassium adenosine triphosphatase. Practice makes a blog “work”. Kari Pohl, scientist at the University of Maryland and blogger at oceanbites, exclaimed “my posts got better with time!”

Credit: Natalie Sopinka

What’s next for blogging?

Allure and accuracy:
Marah Hardt, blogger behind Sex in the Sea, noted that a current weakness of blogs is quality control. “It is easy for folks to misinterpret or misrepresent science on a blog, and things can go viral before there is a chance for correction or errors to be pointed out.” Captivating readers is important but not at the cost of scientific accuracy. For syndicated blogs, building dialogue and understanding between journalists and scientists  is one way to embrace the narrative structure without compromising data interpretation. Keep in mind that the journalist may in fact have a considerable background in science. As blogs are also platforms for scientists to be their own media outlet, a future direction of science blogging is simply more scientists blogging about their research. By doing so we are taking steps to inform publics on “how science works and what exists in nature”, notes Christopher Mah of The Echinoblog. Mah adds that when scientists are the individuals shaping “the general perception of science in the public arena”, they are also addressing current issues with “misinformation and mismanagement when the public spotlight bears down on a scientific decision.” Can #scicomm blogging shift to sharing the scientific discovery and educating readers on what robust science entails? 

Evaluating readership:
When Paige Jarreau, postdoctoral researcher at the Louisiana State University Manship School of Mass Communication, announced she was crowdfunding a study to evaluate who reads science blogs and why I was full out celebratory-hands-up emoji. Akin to the scientific method, developing science communication strategies can be thought of as an iterative process (see Figure 1 of Johanna Varner’s piece on scientific outreach). For individuals and organizations utilizing blogs (or any social media), assessing the effectiveness of your efforts in achieving pre-determined communication objectives is an important but also overlooked component of science communication. Built-in analytics of websites are excellent starting points. The parameters included in the analytics (e.g., number of post shares, page views, etc.) are easily interpreted. For The Fisheries Blog, analytics help reveal which topics are most popular. The blog readership exploded and ended up on CNN after publishing a post on the sex-changing nature of clownfish and the biological reality of Finding Nemo. Patrick Cooney, writer at The Fisheries Blog, shared that the blog tries “to identify [topics] that have lasting value.” These “legacy” articles are the ones that continue to gain readers over time, especially when the topic makes news headlines. 

Institutional recognition of blogging: 
There have been a number of conversations I have followed on Twitter that reflect on how scientific institutions can recognize contributions to blogs as legitimate writing output. If the ultimate goal of generating data is to get the findings into the hands of those who will use it, how can this be so if the only access to the data is behind paywalls or not easily understood by general audiences? As Batts et al. (2008) conclude, “bloggers can help academic institutions take advantage of a powerful tool for the dissemination of scientific information and facilitation of conversations about science.” Blogging can be a medium by which data are made accessible “directly to the public.” Still, peer-reviewed publications reign supreme when it comes to the selection criteria for the typical tenure-track job. Justin Baumann, from the student-run blog Under the C, commented that “it is difficult to give as much time to science communication as I would like because it is not part of my actual job.” An interesting facet of this issue is that certain funding agencies require that grant applicants now include an outreach/communication strategy for the proposed research. So blogging is not part of a scientist’s job nor is it recognized by their employers but if blogging can fulfill a requirement of a grant, it indirectly becomes part of the scientist’s job. I hear whispers of institutions considering outreach, in general, more earnestly when resumes are being evaluated, and this is encouraging.

Blogging for education:
In autumn of 2013, Patrick Cooney filmed fungus-covered Pacific salmon swimming upstream toward their eventual death. He posted the video of these aquatic zombies and a professor at the University of Georgia utilized the blog post’s content as part of a class assignment. Science blogs are indeed excellent and free resources for teachers at all levels of education. A Google search “science blogs for teachers” yields lists of science blogs curated for teachers, as well as blogs discussing pedagogy of science. Christopher Mah adds that when scientists blog, they are also  “supporting teachers” and bringing “genuine excitement, humor and other dynamics” that “can add humanity to what might be considered dry or boring by many individuals.” This kind of engagement via blogging is again shaping how non-scientists view science. 

Building a blog community: 

Aquatic researchers use sonar and maps to locate their study species hidden beneath the waves. What tools do aquatic researchers have to locate fish blogs “floating around in a vast sea of internet”? Jens Hegg from the PLOS Ecology Community Blog sees “community-style blogging” or “blog teams” as a way to bring together bloggers of the aquatic world, which can facilitate generation of consistent news and discussion. Consistency is important for drawing in, engaging with and maintaining readership of both scientist and non-scientist readers. Working on a team versus a solo-operation blog is likely more appealing to scientists with 8 mile long to-do lists. There are also blog hubs, such as Science Borealis, which act as “one-stop shops” for readers to gather content amassed from multiple blogs that write about similar topics. It is perhaps this idea of fostering blog communities that can create an environment that propels the aforementioned future directions of blogging; a collaborative effort to creatively share rigorous science with the publics which evolves with the publics to further digital media as legitimate sources of scientific information.

Thumbnail credit: Natalie Sopinka

This blog post is part of our Making Waves: The future of #scicomm in fisheries sciences series. For information on the series please read the introductory post. Connect with us on Twitter by using #MakingWaves.

Natalie Sopinka is a post-doctoral fellow at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor. When she isn’t rearing baby salmon or measuring hormones in fish eggs, Natalie is pondering the ins and outs of science communication and looking for new opportunities for #scicomm adventures. You can read Natalie’s aquatic-inspired poetry on her blog, Phish Doc. Natalie tweets as @PhishDoc.

Filed Under: Science Communication Making Waves Natalie Sopinka

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