Blogging Research

I have to stand up and talk about blogging about research on Saturday, and it’s about time I wrote my talk. I guess a natural way to compose my thought (and receive feedback) is to write a blog post on the topic. All cooments are, of course, welcome. Particularly if you have some good examples of what I’m describing, or if you think I’ve left something out.
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First, something I won’t be talking about is blogging about literature – I guess that will be brought up elsewhere and the short version is go here.
I guess the first questions that need tackling are why blog about your research, and what sort of things could be blogged about. As I don’t have any over-arching theory, I’ll just pick on a few examples that illustrate the genre.
One reason to blog about your research is the same reason I’m writing this – to get your ideas in order. John Wilkins, Aussie philosopher of science and general wit, sometimes uses this strategy. The visible output of his work is just words anyway, so it is possible for him to write a paper over several blog posts, and get feedback from his readers as the successive parts appear. That way, his ideas are refined your arguments and literature discovered with the help of the blogosphere’s hivemind. Eventually an academicized version might get published, so John gets a professional benefit, and his readers get the usual benefits of reading his posts.
One reason I have blogged about my research is that I have done something that isn’t publishable (it either too obscure or less than the Lowest Publishable Unit), but which is still worth putting “out there”. One example comes from an obscure statistic called DIC. Last year I realised why I and other people had been getting some odd results with it. The reason was already in the literature, but tucked away at the start of the original paper on DIC. I played around with the idea a bit, because I wanted to understand it, and then thought that it was worth pointing uot to the wider community that the problem was there, and here wre my thoughts. But I hadn’t done enough to get something publishable, so instead, I blogged what I had done, and then emailed a link a discussion list which most of the people who would be interested probably subscribe to.
As a result of this post, I received a couple of emails from people, including one manuscript describing a general approach to solving the problem, as well as a few other comments about the post. Making people aware of the problem was my intention, so blogging it worked. But it is probably not enough at the moment just to write a post – most scientists don’t read blogs, and of those that would be interested in one of your posts, most probably don’t read your blog. Some selling is going to be important: send a link to relevant newsgroups, bulletin boards etc. and see what happens. Even if there is no direct benefit, you do get yourself better known in the community you are trying to be a part of.
These first two examples are about, respectively, writing for yourself and writing for your peers. But sometimes writing for a more general public is called for. This is going to be trickier – science is technical, and blogging about what you have done whilst bringing people up to speed.
One approach is not to focus on the science, but instead on the human aspect. For example, blogging about things going right, or wrong, or just plain silly. Off-hand, I am not aware of many post about the actual doing of science: the closest I can think of is Andrew Gelman’s blog, where he often answers questions from people who have emailed him. His audience seems mainly to be statisticians and others interested in quantitative social science, rather than the general public.
Blogging about our the actual science we do seems to be much rarer, but maybe open notebooks will change all that.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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14 Responses to Blogging Research

  1. Heather Etchevers says:

    I hope open notebooks will change that, sooner or later. But protocol sharing doesn’t hurt in the meantime.
    I also hope you get a little more feedback than I have done with similar requests for comments – and you’re likely to, since the number of people blogging far exceeds that of people using online notebooks to date.

  2. Bora Zivkovic says:

    I have asked repeatedly, with silence as an answer, if anyone has posted details of unpublished research (at least in biology) on a blog before I posted the crayfish/melatonin study and the Chossat’s Effect study (both smaller than the LPU). I am also the first I know of to have had a blog post cited in a List Of References of a paper (OK, a review).

  3. Heather Etchevers says:

    Actually, Bora, that’s making me think of other unpublish(-ed/-able) findings that I’ve accumulated over the years here and there. Why don’t I write those up?
    I want to, but: Time.
    There is so much else to write – and I find it a wee bit more painful and slow than you seem to – and then sometimes I still want to work at the bench, though to slightly better effect than occasionally seen.
    The actual writing up of the tidbit findings wouldn’t be bad, it’s couching them in any sort of a context so that other people might be able to discover them later even on the Internet. Yes, I know, better there than in my old physical lab notebook. Even the possibility of getting cited for writing this stuff is not sufficient motivation – I would just have to be really bored, or really forced to, like when you move labs and have to reorganize what’s on the shelves.
    But you must have been pretty pleased to have a blog post cited in a scientific review. It’s a foot in the door, man.

  4. Bob O'Hara says:

    For some reason I’m unsurprised that Bora is the first with blogging research!
    I hope we get to discuss the issue of the relationship between blogs/open notebooks and the formal scientific literature – I think it’s going to be an important issue in the future. I don’t have a firm grasp of the issues yet, only a few vague thoughts.

  5. Hans Ricke says:

    How about this quote from Richard Feyman?
    We have a habit in writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover up all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or describe how you had the wrong idea first, and so on. So there isn’t any place to publish, in a dignified manner,what you actually did in order to get to do the work.
    From his nobel Lecture 1966
    I think blogs fill that hole. They are the place to publish this!

  6. Bob O'Hara says:

    Wonderful, thanks Hans! I’ll definitely use it (unless Heather or someone else does first).

  7. Noah Gray says:

    I’d like to second that “wonderful” from Bob, Hans. Indeed, like never before, scientists have opportunities to share more than just their final figures with the public, if they choose to do so.
    If nothing else, some of these obviously anecdotal-like descriptions could be useful for younger, inexperienced scientists to learn more about how life in the laboratory progresses. Or, for the public to have a “peak behind the curtain” as to what goes on in the world of science.
    The more information, the better.

  8. Brian Derby says:

    Of course Feynman wrote a number of autobiographical memoirs that act as a permanent record of his method.
    Back to the thread. There are a number of difficulties in blogging research and indeed the concept of the open notebook blog. These relate to disclosure and correction. At present, you are judged by your peers (and job panels) by your publication record in peer-reviewed literature. peer review is important as a quality control, plus the literature acts as a permanent record for posterity. Pre-publication can be accommodated by well known preprint servers (Arxiv for physical sciences) but that paper in Nature will be recorded for posterity. Journals require original unpublished research and also normally demand some copyright. Publication of the blog may be complicated if it is too well known.
    If Blogging is used as a reporting tool the results are disclosed – so no patents. Students should be very wary of blogging their PhD as most universities have a test of significant original research and this might be compromised if your initial findings are rapidly taken up outside your lab. Blogging can also propagate errors, unless it is expected that people will immediately try and duplicate results to confirm. Remember that anyone can start a blog and use it to propagate untruth and falsehood as well as unintentional error. If you think I am being alarmist, just look at the extremes of the political blogosphere.
    Having stated my worries, there is clearly a place for a science blog but I don’t think it can really convey the workings of research. In my case it would be really stream of conciousness and the chore of blogging it all would be extreme. As with much of science, the culture of research varies dramatically from discipline to discipline. Physical scientists tend to publish earlier than people do in the life sciences. It may be the case that blogging might have a useful role in protocol or technique development in the life sciences but I see less use for it in the Physical Sciences.

  9. Maxine Clarke says:

    I haven’t contributed to this discussion but I have been following it with great interest. I’m very much looking forward to this session at the conference. It is such a central issue.

  10. Bob O'Hara says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Brian. It’s a pity you can’t join us on Saturday. I think the issues you raise of the relationship between blogging and other scientific media (whether dead tree or virtual dead tree) need to be worked through. I don’t have a clear view on it yet, partly because different stakeholders (scientists, publishers, university admin etc.) want different things, and I haven’t even identified all the stakeholders.
    Maxine – as you represent one of the stake-holders, I hope you’ll give us your input (either here or on Saturday).

  11. Brian Derby says:

    @Bob – Alas I was out of the country on holiday and when I returned the meeting was full! Never mind face to face discussion may degenerate into a free for all. But it might have answered a question as to why there are so few physical scientists on NN.

  12. Noah Gray says:

    Off topic, but while we are quoting Feynman, I happened to be on Bj√∂rn Brembs’ blog and saw this quote from RF –
    _Science is a lot like sex.
    Sometimes something useful comes of it, but that’s not the reason we’re doing it._
    Had to share.

  13. Martin Fenner says:

    Bob, we are in parallel sessions, so unfortunately I won’t be able to listen to your talk. As many other science bloggers, I write more about the research process than research itself. There is not only the issue of writing about unpublished work, but I also think that there are currently just not enough people involved in your research area that regularly read blogs. Who on Nature Network would be interested if I write something about testicular cancer? This will of course look different when reading blogs is as common for scientists as reading email.
    I often wonder whether we publish too many papers (the infamous LPU) or too few (with a lot of research unpublished and therefore repeated unnecessarily). This relates to the tools we have for filtering out the relevant research and how we measure the success of a scientist – both connected to (pre-publication) peer review. This may change in the future and would of course change the role of science blogs.

  14. Heather Etchevers says:

    Wow – you all are active while I’m offline. Bob – you get first dibs.
    The thing about lab notebooks is that they are mostly about process, and only somewhat about raw results. I hoped to cover a bit about this overlap between blogging and notebook in my talk. Brian – I definitely wanted to get to this point of talking about what is really useful for the person keeping the notebook versus what will be perceived as an unnecessary chore. Keep the ideas coming!
    Noah – delightful citation.

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