Thoughts on the Value of Blogs to Science
Weblogs ("blogs") and "bloggers" (people who create, write and edit their own blogs) are everywhere; indeed, there currently are more than nine million of them and, because many blog hosting services are both user-friendly and free, there is a new one created approximately every 7.4 seconds. A quick survey of blogs reveals that there seems to be at least one devoted to every topic in the world, from politics to sex. Yet, despite this explosion of blogs, there are surprisingly few that discuss science or are written by scientists, and there is little evidence to indicate that most scientists are even aware of blogs. Additionally, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no suggestion in the scientific or trade literature that blogs might actually be valuable to science.
Until now, that is. During the past few weeks or so, the monthly trade magazine, The Scientist, became demonstrably interested in blogs (one of their editors even emailed me several times via my blog). They were the first to break this silence when they published David Secko's interesting piece, The Power of the Blog, in their 1 August 2005 issue (registration required). Secko's article is a general synopsis of the value of blogs to scientists, and to biotech and pharmaceutical companies. In this essay, I condense Secko's piece for you, adding considerable commentary of my own, and then conclude by offering a few of my own opinions regarding the value of blogs to science.
Basically, as anyone in the "blogosphere" can tell you, the power of blogs lies in increasing the speed and efficiency of information exchange using words, pictures, and sound and video files. Using this primary characteristic as a starting point, Secko found that bloggers' motives range from the idealistic to the practical, even among scientists. For example, biochemist Jeff Bizzaro is one of the early science bloggers who created bioinformatics for an organization that boasts a membership of 15,000 because he wanted to "create something of a utopian place for people to share ideas."
In fact, many scientist-bloggers are exploring the utility of blogs for sharing and organizing their thoughts about new research and its implications to their own work. "I get a lot of ideas and feel I'm at the edge of science news [because of blogs]," says Michael Imbeault in Secko's piece. Imbeault is a blogger who is a virology doctoral student at the CHUL Research Center in Quebec.
Other scientists use blogs to record the development of ideas and to increase information flow in their labs and with their collaborators, Secko reports. For example, blogger Kevin Kubarych, who will soon join the University of Michigan as an assistant professor, says "I expect to have a blog in my new group where we can have a collective conciseness." But even though blogs provide for speedy information exchange between colleagues, Kubarych also appreciates the historic value of blogs; "when someone leaves, their work is still there in the blog."
Another useful aspect of blogs is the creation of peer-reviewed open-access blog-journals, such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS), as mentioned in Secko's piece. Electronic journals, or "e-journals", have the potential to accelerate and streamline the peer-review and publication process while simultaneously alleviating the stranglehold that traditional publishers have enjoyed over the availability of scientific reports. This could benefit the international scientific community by improving information access for all scientists, many of whom labor under severe financial constraints that prevent them from subscribing to dozens of expensive journals in their fields of expertise. Such access could also increase the overall efficiency and quality of research, allowing scientists to consult with their colleagues as they pursue their work so they can avoid costly mistakes while allowing them to strengthen their line of inquiry by addressing online criticisms. Towards this end, one idea that is being explored is providing resources to encourage a real-time discussion at the end of each scientific article on the publishing e-journal's webpage, just as you find in the comments section of a typical blog.
Another advantage to publishing in open-access e-journals is the increased access to current research for the public. This would provide the scientific community with the added benefit of helping citizens become better-informed and more scientifically literate consumers and voters.
Secko also discovered, not surprisingly, that businesses are beginning to notice science blogs, too. For example, the high-traffic science blog, In the Pipeline, attracts a lot of business attention. In the Pipeline is written by chemist Derek Lowe, a blogger who works for the pharmaceutical giant, Bayer. In his blog, Lowe primarily discusses the pharmaceutical industry with an insider's eye, although he sometimes comments on other relevant issues. Insights from blogs such as In the Pipeline have the potential to lead to new investment opportunities as well as helping to improve the flow of data while potentially avoiding redundant lines of research at these companies.
"You have a huge amount of money going into drug discovery compared to only a small number of drugs approved by the FDA each year," says Eric Gerritsen, who runs a small investment company called Global Seed Capital, based in the Boston area. "It looks to me like a huge productivity problem."
Despite these obvious advantages, Secko found that there is a lot of skepticism regarding the value of blogs among those few scientists who are aware of them.
"The whole thing is still very immature," observes Gerritsen, who runs a blog that provides an international forum for scientists to discuss and share their research. This reluctance to explore blogging as a communication tool may be due to scientists' aversion to future retribution, unfamiliarity with the technology or because they do not yet understand the inherent significance of blogs. Nevertheless, scientists should be jumping on blogs, Gerritsen continues. "I expect to see this within the next year."
Secko's points that I summarized here are all fine and good, but the article completely missed what is in my opinion the most compelling value of blogs to science and scientists: public outreach and education, particularly for protecting and enhancing scientific curriculum in public schools. Considering that there is a "science versus religion in classrooms" argument raging in this country indicates that the scientific community has thus far failed, and failed miserably, in their public outreach and education efforts.
As I see it, America is currently engaged in an internal war that is centered around science and scientific education; it is a battle for the minds of the public. On one side is a small but militant group of christian fundamentalists who noisily portray science, particularly evolution, as a fallacious way of perceiving how the world functions. On the other side are scientists and secular humanists who refuse to allow religion to be taught under the guise of science in the public schools. In the middle are the majority of the American public, who know little or nothing at all about science and who are apparently confused by all the rhetoric. What is needed are more scientist-bloggers who are willing to bridge this gap by presenting a clear, concise and engaging argument to the public regarding the veracity and value of science, especially evolution, to society.
To accomplish this, we should encourage more scientists to join the blogosphere. We need more scientists to create blogs that present scientific research to the public, that explain the scientific method and identify what constitutes good science, that methodically catalogue the multitude of differences between science and pseudoscience/religion, and that describe future economic, technological and medical/scientific damages that will inevitably follow if our nation supports the teaching of religion under the rubric of "science" in our public schools.
Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio and a frequent speaker on evolution issues, said in a recent Nature op-ed piece (436, 753; 11 August 2005) that all scientists should be deeply concerned about this evolution versus intelligent design debate. "Make no mistake — this is not an attack on evolution, but on science," he stated.
Scientists have a responsibility to make it clear to the public that there is no dissent regarding the theory of evolution within the scientific community. Scientists must explicitly state that if intelligent design had any scientific merit whatsoever, it would have been addressed by the robust and open scientific process -- just like all scientific theories. Additionally, scientists must make it clear that this so-called "debate" is truly a battle for control; control over what this nation's children will be taught in public schools, control over what Americans will be allowed to talk about and ultimately, control over what we all will be allowed to think and do. Scientists have a responsibility to safeguard the public trust by providing accurate information about science to the people, and blogs are a fast and effective tool for achieving this.
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