Science blogs: still kinda there, I guess

I have bemoaned the lack of a neuroscience blogosphere before. Neuroscience blogs exist as independent fiefdoms, rarely responding to one another. And if we were to cut out the cognitive and psychological sides of neuroscience, the field of blogs would be more like a field of half-grown trees cut down and abandoned, with only a rare leaf or two peaking out of the desiccation.

So in the interests of navel-gazing, it is interesting to think about a post from DynamicEcology (Blogs are dying; long live science blogs):

The classic blog is “the unedited voice of an author”, who thinks out loud over an extended period of time and carries on an open-ended conversation with readers who like that author enough to read a significant fraction of his or her posts. That turns out to be a poor way to make money compared to the alternatives, which is a big reason blogs as a whole are dying. Another reason blogs as a whole are dying is that some of things they used to be for are better done via other means (e.g., Twitter for sharing links, various apps for sharing photos and videos). A third reason is that not that many people actually want to blog…

Fortunately, most of the reasons why blogs as a whole are dying don’t apply to science blogs written by academics. Academic scientists have day jobs that often pay pretty well, and tenured ones have as much job security as anyone ever does. Academics don’t need to make money from blogs, they can do it for real but intangible rewards…

So how come there’s no ecology blogosphere? And how come many ecology blogs either have died or post much less often than they used to (e.g., Just Simple Enough*, Jabberwocky Ecology)? And how come new ecology blogs are so scarce, and mostly peter out after only a few posts without ever building much of an audience? Not that you’d expect most ecologists to blog, but so few puzzles me a little. And it’s not just a puzzle for ecology, since there’s no blogosphere worthy of the name for any scholarly field except economics

But Paige Brown Jarreau actually studies this and is writing a dissertation on this. Here is what she has to say:

Many science bloggers I interviewed and surveyed talked about their blogs today as a place for extended thoughts from Twitter and other “faster” social media streams. According to my dissertation data, academics and science writers alike continue to use their blogs…

– as a home for their writing

– as a portfolio

– as a place to be able to write without strict editorial oversight

– as a place to stick extras that don’t fit elsewhere, either in the academic publishing world or in the larger science content ecosystem

– as a place for opinion, interpretation, analysis and curation

– as a place to cover in depth the stories and scientific papers not being covered by the media (what I call Ecosystem Blogging, or covering what’s missing from the existing content ecosystem)

– as a place to add context missing from news and social media

And here is her fantastic network diagram of how blogs are linked (I have a small little dot in between the neuroscience blogs and the ecology blogs, ironically):

BlogsRead_ModularityClass3_InDegreeSize (1)

I only started blogging something like a year or two ago so I certainly couldn’t tell you if blogs are dying or growing or changing or what. Things seem pretty much the same to me. There are a lot of blogs about science and science culture; there are a lot of blogs explaining science to a lay audience; there are a few blogs that discusses the science at a professional level. But I know that there is demand for it; every conference I go to, I meet people who read my blog.

But we can’t pretend that the community isn’t fragmenting in strange ways. Last week, I posted one of my intermittent Monday Open Questions. It got 0 comments on my blog. However! It go comments on Google+ and tons on Twitter. There was a lot of discussion – it just routed around my blog. Blogs aren’t hubs for discussion and interaction they are the start of the conversation.

I always find it a bit of a shame because it is hard to make everything accessible to a large audience. I know there are people who read this blog through my RSS feed, and who read it through G+, and who read it through Twitter, and who just come to it every so often. And they are going to have very different experiences with it.

(As an addendum: it would be quite nice if there was a way to automatically grab responses to specific blog posts on twitter/G+ and embed them in the comments section.)

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.

Why is there no neuroscience blogosphere? (Updated)

aka Why does the neuroscience blogosphere suck?

Obviously, there are tons of great neuroscience blogs out there – I’m not even going to try to list them because they are numerous and I don’t want to accidentally leave one out. But there does not seem to be a blogosphere. To get all middle school on you, Wikipedia defines the blogosphere as the collection of all blogs and their interconnections, implying that they exist as a connected community.

When I look around at the Economics blogosphere, I see a lot of give-and-take between blogs. One blog will post an idea, another blog will comment on it, and the collective community has a discussion. I see this discussion, to a greater or lesser extent, in the other communities I follow: math, physics, and ecology. Yet missing in all this is neuroscience, and perhaps biology in general. Why is this?

The online academic biology community seems primarily interested in discussing the disastrous state of the profession. This set of problems – the lack of funding, the overabundance of PhDs, etc – has a clearly connected blogosphere. There’s lots of discussion.

Are biologists just less interested in discussing broad ideas? I wouldn’t think so, but I don’t see any equivalent to, say, Dynamic Ecology, where discussions on neuroscience ideas big and small can kick off. I think the closest we get is the Neuroskeptic/critic axis.

Am I missing something? Is there a place that big ideas in neuroscience get debated on blogs? Is there a scientific give and take that I’m missing? Is neuroscience too diverse, or too data oriented?

Update: Okay, I’ve been thinking about this and there have been some really great comments. I think I’m won over by one on G+ and Artem’s below. I think there are x key factors:

(1) Too much science communication, not enough science debate. People in the biology blogs seem to want to be science communicators! It’s much easier to do this in a popular field like neuroscience than, say, math. And these bloggers who attempt communication get much more positive feedback than the bloggers who attempt to communicate with the tiny neuroscience blogosphere. I know that my post on Einstein’s brain got orders of magnitude more views than my post on Tony Movshon explaining V2.

(2) Few blogs are focused on individual research themes. It often seems that the most successful blogs devoted to a more academic audience are those with clear research themes (aka, find your niche). But we have almost none of these in neuroscience! I think a lot of this follows from (1). We have blogs like labrigger and Memming, but where are the rest? Visual neuroscience often seems to take up half of the SfN space, but where are the vision blogs?

(3) The blogging community is not used to it. Maybe part of it is that we’re more used to the passive meeting presentation format than the more useful symposia (debate) format, but I think the biology community is not used to this kind of debate over ideas and that uncomfortability has carried over into the blogs. I know when I started taking snips from other blogs and commenting on it I felt…uncomfortable, but it’s something I see all the time in economics/etc.

(4) Data is hard. Let’s just admit to ourselves that biology is more data focused than, say, economics. Economics is very easy to have a semi-informed opinion on than biology.