The public sphere of neuroscience

I have complained in the past about the lack of a blogosphere in neuroscience. And it’s not just bad for the community – it’s bad for the scientists, too. Here is a short selection from a piece on how twitter and blogs are not just an add-on to academic research:

A lot of early career scholars, in particular, worry that exposing their research too early, in too public a manner, will either open them to ridicule, or allow someone else to ‘steal’ their ideas.  But in my experience, the most successful early career humanists have already started building a form of public dialogue in to their academic practise – building an audience for their work, in the process of doing the work itself…

Perhaps the best example of this is Ben Schmidt, and his hugely influential blog: Sapping Attention.  His blog posts contributed to his doctorate, and will form part of his first book.  In doing this, he has crafted one of the most successful academic careers of his generation – not to mention the television consultation business, and world-wide intellectual network. Or Helen Rogers, whose maintains two blogs: Conviction: Stories from a Nineteenth-Century Prison – on her own research; and also the collaborative blog, Writing Lives, created as an outlet for the work of her undergraduates…The Many Headed Monster, the collective blog authored by Brodie Waddell, Mark Hailwood,  Laura Sangha and Jonathan Willis, is rapidly emerging as one of the sites where 17th century British history is being re-written.   While Jennifer Evans is writing her next book via her blog, Early Modern Medicine.

The most impressive thing about these blogs (and the academic careers that generate them), is that there is no waste – what starts as a blog, ends as an academic output, and an output with a ready-made audience, eager to cite it…But as importantly, blogs are part of establishing a public position, and contributing to a debate. Twitter is in some ways the same – or at least, like blogging, Twitter is good for making communities, and finding collaborators; and letting other people know what you are doing.  But, it also has another purpose.

Really, go read it all, it’s great.

Social media isn’t just a place to joke around and have fun – it’s a place to get into discussions and get your ideas out there. It’s a place to have an outsized voice if you have an outsized opinion. Papers are one way to get your ideas out there – but social media is more powerful. And a Latourian reading of science is that if your ideas don’t get out there, they don’t exist.

Although not in the influential category of the examples above, let me offer myself as an example. I often write about things that are on my mind. I put my thoughts and ideas out there to try to get them into a coherent form. And people interact and discuss my ideas with me, and help me refine them (even if they don’t know it!). I even found out that someone gave a lab meeting on one of my blog posts! Even more, I’ve found that over the past year, people will come up to me at conferences and tell me that they read my blog…which is honestly really weird for me (but it’s fine!). The point is: just being willing to talk on the internet has real-world consequences for your scientific ideas.

Someone published a comment in GenomeBiology today proposing a Kardashian Index: how many social media followers you have above what you’d expect from the number of scientific citations you have. It’s true to a certain extent: you pop the world “professor” into your twitter profile and it seems like an automatic boost in followers. But they make having an outsized following out to be a bad thing! It seems to me that means that you’re doing it right.


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