Skip to content

The evolving role of the geoscience blogosphere

July 21, 2010

This month’s topic for the geoscience blog carnival, The Accretionary Wedge, looks inward and asks how blogging fits into the broader suite of activities and goals of geoscientists today. David Bressan of History of Geology posed this question and is hosting the compilation of responses.

The idea for this collective navel-gazing was proposed prior to the latest event consuming the science blogging world at large — that is, the ongoing implosion of ScienceBlogs. I’m not going to get into all the details of this issue in this post, enough has been written about it in the last couple weeks to fill a book. But, in case you don’t know what I’m referring to, the short story is that a serious mistake by the hosts of the ScienceBlogs, Seed Media Group, turned out to be the proverbial last straw for several bloggers’ growing dissatisfaction regarding their relationship with Seed Media Group. Several prominent blogs, including the well-read geoscience blog Highly Allochthonous, announced they were leaving ScienceBlogs within a few days. Since that time we’ve been witnessing the blogging equivalent of ecosystem collapse. As a result of this event, science bloggers across disciplines are taking the opportunity to reflect on this constantly and rapidly changing medium of communication. What good timing for the geoblogosphere to proactively do the same.

I really like the way pascal from the blog Research at a Snail’s Pace approached this topic so I’m going to borrow the format with a few tweaks.

-

Research

I am currently an active researcher — I have first-authored papers in press and in prep, I’m collaborating on projects with my peers across academia, industry, and government, I participate in conferences (both presenting and organizing), I review papers for journals frequently, and I’m co-editing a special issue of a journal. I have been very interested in how and to what degree the blog medium can be utilized by researchers.

Blogs shouldn’t replace publishing in peer-reviewed journals. But I do think that blogs can be a great venue for discussing research that has been published in a journal. I think that Researchblogging.org has been successful in highlighting at least one pathway towards future online interaction related to published work. While the journals themselves could host online discussions related to a specific paper they publish, this model seems like it might be quite cumbersome for the journals I read. What seems more likely to happen is that these discussions will be attached to a researcher’s personal site — a place where all their papers are listed and available to view (e.g., Scribd-style embedding of PDFs). For some it might be a blog as we know them now, for others maybe there will be some future researcher Facebook-style site (e.g., Mendeley?).

The important thing is that the researchers themselves take some ownership in their site/page. If online discussion-and-reply is housed on journal or publisher sites I just don’t see a robust community developing. Maybe I’m wrong — perhaps pioneering groups like PLoS are on the right track in developing the community I’m envisioning. But what happens if a researcher publishes an important follow-up paper in another journal? And having such a site housed at and uniquely associated with a researcher’s current affiliation might not work either — what happens when that post-doc ends, or they move to another university, or move from government to industry, for example? If that person is still active in the field but have simply changed affiliations, the continuity might be lost.

Having a personal research blog is one way to maintain such continuity. The problem is, of course, that it takes some effort! Researchers are busy enough without having to add yet another task to their list, right? But, now that I’ve been doing this sort of thing for nearly four years it seems effortless to me. The most difficult part is getting it started and getting set up — and even that is pretty darn easy these days. I highly encourage my peers and colleagues that are actively publishing their research to think about it. It starts very simple and grows over time.

I’m definitely not sold on the idea to use blogs to actually plan and execute research from start to finish. The process of science can be tedious — thinking about documenting every little step in a way that’s blog-worthy sounds horribly time consuming. I’ve seen some use a blog format as their “lab notebook” but, for me, I would lose momentum on the actual work if I stopped to blog about it. Sometimes science requires sifting through a spreadsheet for hours to extract some data, which would make for a rather boring blog post in my opinion.

-

Teaching and Outreach

To be honest, I’ve thought less about the teaching/outreach aspect of blogging than I have the research aspect. But, when I wrote my Why I Blog post for AGU’s blog The Plainspoken Scientist last month I realized how some of what I do here on this blog could be considered ‘teaching’. I enjoy teaching and I don’t get to do very much of it in my current job. Using the blog medium to educate fills that void in a sense. It’s a different kind of teaching, of course. You post about a topic and those who are interested will take the time to read and interact. This is obviously quite different than ‘active teaching’, for lack of a better term, where the students are right there in front of you at a certain time, in a certain place, and working on a specific lesson or problem.

The blog medium fills a niche between active teaching and the truly passive education one might get through reading science news articles or books because the “student” can ask questions and sometimes a good back-and-forth is the result. However, as most bloggers have learned, in the classroom that is the entire internet, you can get some unruly students simply causing trouble. Imagine if you were teaching in a normal classroom and a voice that you could never identify nor send to the principle kept interrupting you with outlandish claims (or even nasty left-handed comments). Bloggers have been creative in coming up with methods to use the content of these unruly students to try and get their message across and, hopefully, readers get something out of it.

Similar to my thoughts about about research, the blog medium isn’t a replacement for anything — it’s an addition, it’s an enhancement. And it’s still in its nascent stages. I’m very curious to hear what others who do a lot more teaching as part of their job think about the potential of this medium for teaching and education. Bloggers like Callan Bentley impress me with their consistency and enthusiasm in posting about what is working and what isn’t working in terms of geoscience teaching.

I really think we are just getting started. The 2000s may be viewed as the decade when science blogging started, but the 2010s will be very interesting regarding the evolution of this medium. I hope it remains similar to evolution as well — adapting to the changing technological landscape. Perhaps the ScienceBlogs implosion highlights how inconsistent a top-down change is with what is a very organic and participant-driven medium.

-

Personal Evolution and the Future of my Blogging

This is an exciting time for my own evolution as a science blogger and writer. In a couple weeks I will be contributing weekly posts to KQED’s (the San Francisco Bay Area’s public television/radio station) QUEST community science blog. QUEST is a television program that highlights science and technology with a Bay Area focus — topics that directly affect residents of the region and stories about scientists and researchers who are based in the region. But QUEST is much more than a television program. It has a great companion website with a wide range of science-related articles, interactive maps, and more. I will be writing about the same things I write about here on Clastic Detritus, but with a Bay Area spin. I will be sure to let you all know when those posts go up.

Oh, and there’s some other news about the future of my blogging that is forthcoming — stay tuned :)

About these ads
6 Comments leave one →
  1. Julien permalink
    July 21, 2010 3:08 pm

    Good note Brian, interesting. I agree that growing of (quality) geo-blogs will probably enhance more active research through exchange, discussion, sharing views, etc… it is also a fantastic way to share our “geology” to the “public”. Good stuff then, but how can you do so much things in a life !?!? I spend my days (and part nights) at work these times and there’s no way to find a single minute to blog… well you are likely an organized, efficient person, and I’m not…:)

  2. July 21, 2010 9:16 pm

    After experimenting with various ways to interact on the web, I don’t think blogs accelerate research. Nor do Facebook groups, certainly not MySpace nor LiveJournal posts.

    Business as usual – abstracts, papers, department seminars, reviews of various sorts, shared powerpoints, even web-archived seminars elsewhere provide more effective dispersion and discussion of the latest ideas.

    Not to mention the usual phone calls, emails, texts, and maybe (but probably not) twits.

    Blogs are only effective as general science or general life columns, I’d conclude, and as therapy for venting frustrations and a way of archiving a diary. Outstanding blogs further serve general science by compilation and publication – Female Senior Professor comes to mind as one that did this, and Cliff Mass’s popular weather blog in Seattle could as well.

    I’d argue many blogs serve to segregate people into only talking with others nearly identical in viewpoint to themselves, reducing interaction with their colleagues in other departments and the news in general.

    A more effective tactic is to devote the effort to web-commenting on local news, which brings in some science where people see it, keeping wikipedia and the like accurate and comprehensive, and now we can even comment on Nature news stories.

    Just being contrary, but sincerely.

  3. July 22, 2010 3:52 am

    Some interesting thoughts, Brian. It’s funny, but I’ve never considered your blog particularly research orientated, and I would certainly regard it as having a fairly large outreach component (for example, your Field Photos and Sea Floor Sundays). I guess it just goes to show that effects don’t always match intentions.

    John – I’d agree that if you’re looking to blogs as a means to directly further your research, you might be disappointed, although as Brian discussed, this may change in the coming years as blogging tools mature. But I think there are very real benefits to online interactions – with both scientists and the interested public – which you dismiss rather too quickly. The geologists I interact with online are much more diverse – in both their research interests and opinions – than the people I know through the day job. And you are forgetting the power of Google searches in giving people access to good information, if you are willing to provide it.

  4. July 22, 2010 7:20 am

    Two salient problems with blogging, which is less relevant for Chris and Brian, is that most of us scientists are less clear and amusing than we think we are. And most bloggers seem to overlook that devoting an hour or two (or more, if graphics are created) to writing each post is a significant time investment when expectations are rising faster than resources.

    Our operation, a regional seismic network, is considering whether generating a blog (or a twitter feed, or a forum) to discuss earthquake happenings, is a useful exercise. Even with the weekly stream of odd and portentous observations, and the offer of support from the college, the return on investment is not clear.

  5. July 22, 2010 10:11 am

    John, I think you bring up some great points. As I say in the post, it does take some effort to do this, no doubt about it. And your question of the effort vs. return is critical. For me (and I’m not sure if it’s similar for others), the return now far outweighs the effort. But it took time to build and develop it. In the beginning there is almost always more effort than return, which may seem like the whole thing is useless. For your operation, you’d obviously want to have a pretty clear objective of what you want to get out of it — and think long term. Depending on the objectives, you’re absolutely right, it may not be worth the effort.

    Some concrete examples of what I’ve got out of this from a research point of view include:

    - Other researchers finding one of my posts about a paper I published and then e-mailing me to discuss it a bit more and, in some cases, share with me a paper of theirs. While this correspondence didn’t occur on the blog, it stemmed from it. I liken it to someone coming up to you after you give a talk at a conference. This is how collaborations start and blogging is simply an additional venue so to speak.

    - In one case, the author of a paper I posted about commented on the post with some more detail and he and another commenter ended up ‘meeting’ each other and discussing potential future collaboration. Again, like a scientific meeting, the internet can be a place to meet and interact with people.

    - Sitting down and trying to write about a topic I’m interested in in less jargony language has definitely helped my writing. I feel like I’ve gotten better and more efficient at writing the various things scientists write (e.g., papers, abstracts, cover letters to journals, proposals, reports, etc.).

    But, again, this is my experience. I would challenge your general statement that blogs don’t accelerate research — they don’t for some but they do for others. Like meetings, some might say that a particular meeting was useless to them but another person who attended the same meeting might say it was extremely valuable.

  6. Cian permalink
    July 28, 2010 10:57 pm

    This is a great post that raises some important points and issues. I think John’s comments are important, too, because they reflect the skepticism of most scientists with whom I work. But, a blog is just a tool, and how it is designed and used is only limited by the author’s creativity (and time, as Julien points out!). I think we’ve barely scraped the surface, especially as online collaboration and communication tools continue to evolve so rapidly.

    I also like your vision of research blogs as discussion forums for researchers’ work and publications: blogs are much more accessible to a wider array of scientists than pay-walled publishers’ websites.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 107 other followers