Science blogging seems to be the hot topic this week. First, there was this short piece in the Economist about “User-generated Science“, and now Shelley Batts, Nicholas Anthis, and Tara Smith are adding to the conversation (somewhat ironically) through a publication in this week’s PLoS Biology (article). It’s a short read, I definitely recommend checking it out.
The authors do an excellent job describing the merits of blogging about science – namely, quick peer review and dissemination of information to a larger audience than a journal or trade publication would reach. They cite several examples of science blogs being used as educational tools in the K-12 classroom. My favorite example of these is Cognitive Daily, written by Dave and Greta Munger (Dave is also the founder of ResearchBlogging.org, an aggregator for quality blogging about peer-reviewed research). The husband-and-wife duo dissect recent publications in the cognitive sciences and do a great job explaining the findings in a clear and concise way. I also really enjoy their ‘casual friday’ posts in which they conduct their own experiments through online polling software and analyze the results in a future post. Dave and Greta even organize their posts into convenient categories that K-12 teachers can use to supplement their curriculum.
The most substantial portion of the Batts, Anthis & Smith paper is a discussion on what institutions can do to benefit from resident science bloggers, and how this involvement can benefit the bloggers in return. Their primary suggestion is for institutions to create an aggregator, similar to Seed Media Group’s ScienceBlogs, which organizes all the blogs kept by members (be they staff, faculty, or students) of an institution by category and has a portal that displays recent posts and comments. This kind of thing is already being done at Stanford (here).
I think there are some inherent problems in the “institutional blogging” solution which Batts et al propose.
First, I imagine being hosted by and promoted through your institution would influence the content of your posts. It would be difficult (and perhaps not even permitted) to critique work done at one’s own institution or new policies or happenings about the university. I doubt absolute censorship would occur except in the most extreme cases, but there would be a conflict of interest, I think.
Additionally, I don’t think that institutional blogging will solve many of the problems in science blogging. Organizing content by institution doesn’t make much sense – just because I like Semir Zeki’s blog (http://profzeki.blogspot.com) doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll like or be interested in other blogs by UCL professors or students. Instead, I’d like to be given ready access to other blogs that deal with similar (though somewhat unique) subject matter. This is where ScienceBlogs really shines – they have a great collection of diverse and high-quality blogs that deal with all manner of topics, and they organize their content into “channels” of related blogs.
Thus, I think an open version of ScienceBlogs which allows (most) all submitted blogs to be indexed and aggregated would have the best potential for bringing together interesting and varied science content. To avoid reliance on a single site, perhaps the site (OpenScienceBlogs?) could aggregate from RSS feeds and just display the content of the feed on the portal site, while linking to the original post for comments. Or, plugins could be written for WordPress, TypePad, Blogger, etc that could make all this content aggregation relatively seamless. Each blog could be tagged with different attributes, such as Topic (evolution, neuroscience, physics, etc), Institution, Author Information (student status, major/concentration, class year), and type of blog (research, pop sci, multi-author, etc) to make finding interesting and relevant blogs fast and easy.
This, I feel, would be an optimal way to organize and access content. Little work would be required on the part of the bloggers (except maybe the installation of a plugin), it would require minimal staff to maintain, and hosting costs would be generally low. Additionally, this could be combined with the institutional “badges” mentioned in the paper to confer legitimacy to the blogs (i.e., in order to display your institution’s badge, you have to submit posts to an editor or committee for review, etc). I think it would be fair to institute community quality control measures, like those used by ResearchBlogging.org, to ensure members are posting relevant and appropriate content. There would need to be some approval process, but it should be rapid and minimal to encourage participation. This system would funnel readers to blogs that they’re interested in, as well as surround them with similar content they may not have discovered elsewhere. Bloggers would get more readers, readers would have more to read and comment on and blog about – everyone wins.
If there’s anyone out there that thinks this is a good idea and knows anything about web development, contact me – I’d love to get started on a project like this. Or if something like this is already around, please let me know.
Other posts/articles about science blogging:
Living the Scientific Life: Science blogs can advance the academic process
The Scientific Activist: Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy (by Nick Anthis, an author on the PLoS Biology paper)