Thursday, August 11, 2005

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.

The Tangled Bank

Included with "The Best of Science, Nature and Medical Blog Writing"
Issue #36.

Included in the Carnival of Education Issue #30,
the Best of Education Blog Writing.

Included in the Philosopher's Carnival #18.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

23 Peer Reviews:

Anonymous Gerry L said...

If a science blog is just scientists talking to scientists, it's not going to do much to win the evolution/ID "debate." (I really didn't want to use that phrase, but my mind is not coming up with a better label at the moment.)

Scientist need to figure out how to recruit or partner with "civilians" to help interpret the issue for other non-scientists. I am, btw, one of those civilians. Growing increasingly obsessed with this issue over the past two years.

8:30 PM  
Blogger another orphan said...

For a parlor game version of this topic, consider the question of whether famous scientists of the past would have blogged, and if so, what would their blogs have been like. I imagine that Einstein wouldn't have felt the need. Darwin, on the other hand, would have used the medium better than any of us. And Kepler... I think he would have blogged, but it would have been mostly whining about Mars.

9:39 PM  
Anonymous ThomH said...

Cool! Last Friday, btw, I did a post on science blogs starting w/ Birds in the News and Tangled Bank.

Then I check in today for my BitN fix, and find that it's going big time.

As my four year-old niece used to say, "happy happy happy!"

AO, with all those essays I think SJ Gould might have made a good blogger. Galileo, a celebrity blogger at the Huffington Post or whatnot.

Gerry, fear not. You're on the case, and many others. Check out the reaction @ Panda's Thumb to Bush's ID-iocy.

10:15 PM  
Blogger coturnix said...

Very thoughtful. Excellent.

Some time ago I wrote a post about science blogging, and also tried to figure out why do I run a science blog.

10:57 PM  
Blogger JM O'Donnell said...

I started my blog just for amusement purposes and a place where I could rant about what I felt like at the time. Posting random topics all the time on the forums I go to is generally looked down on or they don't find it very interesting, especially on the science topics and concepts that interest me. So I made my own blog as a result where I post about the things I find interesting in science and my general thoughts on various topics.

I find it's been useful for communicating with entirely new people I wouldn't have otherwise met and on some topics (MeNZB in particular) I like to think I've made a small difference at least.

12:14 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

I think you've got some great points here. I wonder, though, how you're relating blogging to PLoS. I'm not seeing it; just looks like an online journal to me. (An amazingly important contribution to open access science, but not actually a blog.)

But I could be missing it!

8:08 AM  
Anonymous Selva said...

Excellent post.

As an earlier comment mentioned, along with scientist's blogs, science reader's blogs go a long way in fostering awareness and discussion. Non-scientist's blogs on science are also a way for scientists to gauge how much interest is being shown on which subjects and topics.

10:06 AM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Gerry; I think that part of blogging about science, or any topic, really, is the "if I blog, they will read" aspect. Sure, plenty of scientists read my blog, and I am very proud of that, but I estimate that roughly half or more of my readers are professionals in other fields, both scientific and non-scientific, and I am equally proud of that. I also have a few devoted readers who are kids. Because I am trying to reach and educate the non-scientist segment of my audience, I tend to target my writing to them for that reason.

Another Orphan; oooo, as soon as I read your comment, I immediately thought that Darwin would have loved and certainly would have excelled at blogging because his writing is so personable. [In fact, I am reading another book by Darwin right now (as part of my "subversive literature summer reading project" that will probably stretch into the autumn months); The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. I am constantly tempted to publish portions of it here each week, word-for-word, so my readers can read it in bite-sized pieces and comment]

ThomH; yes, I saw your comments and thank you very much for the link back to me and to Birds in the News! Being noticed is encouraging and encouragement is everything in the case of such endeavors as that. Well, I also like links to stories and reader's bird photos that I can publish here.

I agree that SJ Gould would have been a superb blogger with a large audience .. he was rather irascible and strongly opinionated, and those qualities seems to attract people in the blogosphere, which is the reason I think he'd have a high-traffic blog.

Coturnix; thanks for the links. Amusing. I noticed that you claim on your blog to be suffering from "thesis writing block" which seems almost impossible to comprehend, considering your blog output.

Jim; meeting new people is one of the main reasons I continue blogging (well, besides the obvious benefit; I am a life-long writer who loves an audience and their comments on my essays). But it's the people -- "my peeps" as I like to say -- that really make it worthwhile.

Joe; you are right, I was stretching the definition of a blog when I stated that PLoS was a blog-journal. I was mostly looking at the characteristics of blogs (speed) versus journals (snail-y) when I included it here. I should have asked you to read this essay and comment before I posted it. I could have made a more persuasive argument for blogs affecting peer-reviewed science journals in a positive way, I think.

Selva; I agree with you. I am always interested to know what the "general level" of knowledge is about science among the public. Of course, this is difficult to gauge by reading only a few non-scientist's blogs, but it is a beginning.


10:43 AM  
Blogger island said...

Good article... Bad example:

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.

Let's see... that would be THE Lawrence Krauss who just recently wrote a letter to the Pope to make an appeal to the church for it to reconsider its position on his crackpot multiverse theory.


gerry said:
"Growing increasingly obsessed with this issue over the past two years"

Not a good sign.

1:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great essay BUT Public Library of Science is not a blog. It is an expensive online journal. It is not expensive to the readers, because it is heavily subsidized. HUGE grant from the Moore Foundation - more than the endowments of most scientific societies in the realm of the natural biological sciences, and probably of most scientific societies period. They have other grants, support from the Open Access Institute (read: George Soros), CORPORATE sponsorship. They charge publication charges of $1500 per article, and they charge for print subscriptions. That in turn erodes grant funding - it is roughly twice as much as page charges in traditional journals. They solicit sponsorships from universities, so the claim that the libraries are saving money is baloney. The libraries cry poverty and then turn around and contribute voluntary to PLoS. Open access is convenient, and
access to information is the foundation of a free society but make no mistake about - open access is NOT free and neither is PLoS. They've just shifted the costs.

The worst thing about PLoS is their heavy proselytizing and lobbying. They DEMAND laws that will force everyone to provide immediate, entirely free access to scientific literature. It matters not that few if any societies have the kind of resources enjoyed by PLoS, and have no realistic chance of getting resources of that magnitude. They want it their way, and the consequences be damned. If small nonprofit scientific societies - for which PLoS will countenance no exception - shut down, and close their journals, too darned bad.

1:49 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Island; Gee, google seems to think it's the same person, too. But google also shows that he and a colleague, Ken Miller, delivered a video-taped presentation entitled "Why Intelligent Design Isn't Science" in 2002. So that is probably the reason he was cited in the Nature op-ed.

Anonymous; my skeptical-meter obviously needs tuning up: I should have known that PLoS was too good to be true.


8:52 PM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

Well, I'm yet another civilian who's thoroughly impressed by your blog... in fact I only ever read about 8 blogs, though you hooked me not with your bird posts - I'm really not into ornithology - but with your personal-life posts. Unfortunately I won't ever be able to run a science blog, and I presume writing about group theory will be supremely dull compared to writing about the Cambrian Explosion or about the Theory of Everything.

11:16 PM  
Blogger island said...

No, maam, Lawrence Krauss has been on the forefront of the intelligent design war for quite a while now.

He just recently went off the deep end... at least in public anyway. Krauss is right up there with crackpots like, Michio Kaku, in terms of their "belief" in multiverses, Kaku even went as far as to teach a workshop on "visualizing our multivers" at the last quantum consciousness fiasco/conference.

“Many physicists today believe in the multiverse, i.e. Genesis is constantly taking place in a timeless ocean of Nirvana, creating Big Bangs even as you read this sentence”


A lot of people confuse origins science with a theoretical physics free-for-all... ;)

2:21 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Alon; personal-life essays .. hrm. It's been awhile since I've written anything like that, hasn't it? I always think that my life is incredibly mundane and boring unless I am writing about my wanderings in NYC; a magical city to this country grrl. But I do odd things while wandering such as watching cicadas, fireflies, ants and interacting with birds. I sometimes discover people watching me, probably thinking I am a nut-job.

But alas, this summer has been hell, as in "hotter than" .. so my wanderings have been few. As the cooler months of autumn approach, I will try to remedy that. I already have some stories rattling around in the back of my brain about my visits to the Guggenheim (I don't like the Guggenheim, but there's a Renoir painting there that I absolutely love to visit), the Met, MoMA, and of course, AMNH -- all places that take my breath away. I also played a practical joke on a wild bird that I should probably tell you about someday soon.

Island; If I ignore every scientist-turned-crackpot, I'd ignore more than half of the living Nobel Prize winners, and probably more than half of all living scientists.

If you haven't discovered this yet, you soon will because the ugly fact is that people are really damned strange and scientists are people; complete with chinks in their armor, errors in their logic, foot-in-mouth-itis, baggage that they labor under and mismatched socks .. But guess what? Those handicaps don't stop them from saying and doing important things, despite themselves.

Who ever said that scientists have to be gods, perfect and perfectly acceptable to everyone in every way? Maybe that's what's wrong with our culture; they cannot forgive their scientists for being mere mortals like everyone else, and they cannot respect their citizens for daring to be scientists.


3:11 PM  
Blogger island said...

Grrlscientist, you misunderstand me. Lawrence Krauss is a very bright physicist that has no business making (personally motivated) appeals to the Pope for as long as he is going to be THE theoretical physics spokesman for "science" where ID is concerned.

He was in Georgia, Ohio, Dover, and Kansas... etc... for this purpose. In his appeal to the Pope, he used science to his own personal end, most apparently because he couldn't handle the thought of what the popular loss to his personal theory would mean. I say, "most apparently" because he didn't need to make that appeal to save evolutionary theory from ID, unless he also believes that "design in nature" represents valid evidence for intelligent design, which, it does not.

The message that I carry is that the cosmology of origins science must be held to empiricism unless faced with an equally speculative assertion.

For example, it's okay to use the multiverse argument againt "intelligent" design, because intelligent intervention is equally far-fetched without some very hard eviedence.

Design in nature doesn't and can't prove *intelligent* design.

Denying its existence altogether will leave you looking like the fool.

Design requires no designer if design is perpetually inherent to the thermodynamic structuring of the universe, e.g., no naked singularity, no information loss.

For example, information is never lost if a true event horizon never forms, so the "characteristics" for "design" necessarily pre-exist in the energy when a big bang occurs, or the universe would have no interesting characteristics now. This is all that we actually have evidence for, regardless of what theoretical physicists might believe their seriosly flawed theorys are telling them.

The problem is that evolutionary biologists *typically* see design in nature as 'proof of god'... so they deny its existence altogether. They get this mentality from proponents of intelligent design, like, Behe and Dembski, who push design in nature as evidence for intelligent design. It isn't, but it leads to willful ignorance of purposeful structuring in nature, so how else will this come out, if not for the ill-informed and motivated that are pushing ID?

You can't say that scientists are on the side of science when this is the case, which makes ID necessary in order to force the issue. Everybody's too hung-up on the "design" aspect to even realize that design in nature doesn't and can't prove that there is an intelligent agent behind it, since design in nature can only prove that there is some methodical structuring to nature.

They wouldn'a liked Einstein much... says a lot, and they rely on cutting-edge theoretical speculation that has no business in origins science, except maybe as an equally speculative rebuttal to the incredible implausibility of intelligent intervention.

The hardest proof for design in nature is just that, nothing more, nor less, because you can't prove "intelligent" design unless you can produce a very old alien space-ship with the plans for human costruction hanging from their drawing board.

That's the bottom line and that's where the argument needs to be concentrated, because it's much easier to prove the science unworthy of comparison to Darwin's genius if you don't accept that design in nature is proof of god by denying the existence of the patterns in nature that all valid mathematical physics projects.

There's a lot more relevant information about this on my website:


Too many scientists have taken up a tactical front against perceived fanaticism from a positon that also opposes science, which essentially means that fanaticism runs rampant on both sides of the debate, regardless of all the denial that knee-jerk reactionism can produce.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

You've played a practical joke on a bird? You've gotten me hooked once again...

10:21 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Island; I do not even pretend to be a physicist, I tend to stick to my own field of expertise. This means that I have little understanding of this multiuniverse stuff that you continually bring up here. But considering that you are constantly talking about this one issue, which I never even mentioned on my blog and which is (at best) peripheral to what I am talking about, I suspect that you want this idea to have a greater and greater exposure because that is exactly what you are accomplishing with your lengthy diatribes here.

If you wish to discredit this guy amd his ideas, please start your own blog and use it for that purpose.


9:30 AM  
Anonymous shannon said...

Touche', GrrlScientist!

5:48 PM  
Anonymous ruth said...

got here from the scientist article. i've just started my biotech weblog and am enjoying discovering more and more science blogs like yours!

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the first time I heard this word used was in a sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel by Michael Moorcock. So does that mean Mr. Krauss is looking for the eternal champion or on a quest for Tanelorn?

9:15 AM  
Anonymous em said...

sorry to bring back the multiverse thing...

the multiverse theory of which dr. krauss speaks about is one of many mathematical theories of the origin of the universe. some of these theories have sound mathematical foundations, others are in need of more development. but all of them try to make predictions for observations and experiments. particle colliders and microwave space telescopes can run experiments and observations to prove or disprove these theories. he's not a quack, he's a theoretical physicist.

just out of curiosity, island, what are your theoretical physics credentials? bs? ms? phd? none of the above? in case you wonder, mine are bs, ms and am a phd candidate at the moment.

on a lighter note, great blog, grrlscientist! found it through tangled bank, will come back to read more :-)

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any tool that speeds the exchange of scientific information is, in my opinion a good thing. The real question, however, is whether blogs, or forums, will infact speed this exchange. Academic and most especially for-profit based research must, by virture of the competitive nature of the space, keep their research secret.

There have been a number of tools, since the ARPANet that have helped scientists exchange information. The modern day equivalents are blogs, such as this one, social bookmarking services such as Connotea, and a new entrant in the space Siphs. Unlike most social software designed for scientists, Siphs, which is free to use, lets life scientists create private groups, and search for other collaborators.

Whatever the case, the use of social software is just still in its infancy both in the private, non-scientific sector as well as the scientific sector.

9:19 PM  
Blogger tee said...

there is definitely something important in blogs(i), wikis(we), and google(you) and the whole exchange of information.

i like the crackpots. true discoveries happen on the edge, away from the center of mediocrity...


10:21 PM  

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