Blogs, the Bad and the Ugly

In the previous blog I explained why I thought more blogging was a good step for academic science. Now I am going to explain that whilst it might be good for science it can be a dubious choice of undertaking for a particular scientist or group. The first thing I'll say is yes I have added the qualifier "academic". Sorry but the omisssion was just an oversight in the first post. Commerical research is a totally different beast as it's results are either commerically sensitive and thus kept in secret or alternatively specifically for public consumation. In the latter case marketting, salespeople and maybe even PR consultants are used to "engage/sell-to" the public. In the commerical world blogging if it exists will likely be professional polished manipulative statements more like press releases than a true blog post as I know it. There is a world of issues in commerical research but I will save those for later. 

In academia the main issue that arises in blogging is due to the modern expectations and measure of a scientist being publications. Now human resources type people will tell you that it is interdisciplineary skils, time management, team working, etc etc that are important. However in all my experience they are wrong and the harsh truth is that it is almost publications alone that get you science based jobs. Of course there are exceptions but if your career plan is based on being an exception in what is already a small field your setting yourself up for alot of stress. On the plus side these skills are somewhat more transferable assets outside science than publications. 

Generally scientists are only in a particular post from one to five years. Unlike most highly skilled careers featuring fixed short term contracts academic scientists mysteriously accept relatively poor conditions and relatively low pay rate. So unless your rich each placement is almost entirely dedicated to securing the next post. As in most short-term post based careers your last reference is very very important. Thus if you want another post first and foremost you have to do whatever is required by your current post. Hence most academic positions are split between rolling out publications in a narrow niche and trying to acquire sufficently diverse scientific skills to fulfill the requirements of the next position. This is a terrible state as I have described before. However the point is that you don't have time to "mess" about. I have met many scientists and scientific line managers who have been of the opinion that if something won't result in a publication a scientist shouldn't even be thinking about it. It's a very defendable if slightly selfish and short sighted opinion.

No one will defend a scientist who misses a conference deadline as they were too busy blogging about whatever scientific scandal hit last night. Their blogged rebuttal might be wonderful for science as a whole but this sort of action is also the path to getting a reference that stops future academic positions. Calls for more blogs generally come from science journalists, the tiny minority of scientist who are famous and people in safe permanent positions. These are people who are paid to write to the public or have the gravitas to set their own priorities. The average scientist is not so graced and does not have such freedom. Even thou I have about 10 years of scientific experience I am still told what to do (thou not the method) and that is about all I do in work. Of course I could make a case for blogging during my working hours and sell it to my line manager. I can predict the response I would likely get, something like "O feel free to do whatever you feel is best. Just remember X needs done by Friday." (Doing nothing but X will take until the end of friday).

So calls to blog are actually indirectly asking give up scientists' own time. That's quite a request and not one that is made of people in other professions. Put another, more emotive way, is asking me to give up my time with my kids to comment on today's science story reasonable?

Some scientific workplaces and funding agencies are slowly starting to embrace "public outreach" including blogging during working hours but it's still very much an afterthought. Plus even if your current institution does support bloging its merit will not necessarily be recognized in the next position you want. If you don't believe me go to a job worksite and search for academic positions which mention outreach or public engagment. Compare the number of hits to the number of posts that mention scientific writing.

Many would argue that if your writing was powerful, you had a good number of visitors or strong community influence it would be a strong asset in your CV. Indeed it would, but the goalposts have now been seriously moved. Rather than simply posting the odd random explanation of a scientific issue on a personal site we are now dicussing being a "good" writer or the ability to make a "good" website. Acquiring either of these skills is a massive untaking and a career in it's own. I would argue that a good website requires a massive time investment and to get good daily visitor numbers you need huge amounts of quality content. My own website (and writing) doesn't come close to this (I don't even allow comments to reduce workload) and unless something bad happens making me single and unemployed it's not going to anytime soon. Most blogs are ugly thou precise writings on small functional websites/webpages.

The last issue I notice is possibly the most irriating to me. It is the arrogance of many bloggers. Often bloggers speak as thou they are the voice of science even if they know almost nothing of the actual topic. There is no reason to think a graduate biologist will have any better understanding of quantum mechanics than a priest. You can say ah, but he is a scientist. That may be so but I have yet to meet anyone who actually understands quantum mechanics who hasn't studied it. Basically it's not obvious. Quantum Mechanics is admittedly very weird, but so are lots of other fields. Science is full of nuances, weirdness and wonderful counter intuitive results. That's why even after all these years in my own field their are still effects that surprise me. It's also why all of nature hasn't been explained by science yet. Any scientist whose field suddenly gets a blast of public attention knows the annoyance of hearing their little niche glossed over or just misrepresented by a science blog. It's irritating and can be dangerous to the blogger both legally and in the credibiility stakes. 

However irriating as this is I cannot damn bloggers as they do science a necessary service. That they wander out of their specialites into the issues of the day merely shows their drive to engage their audience. That they are nearly always doing this on their own time without certain reward shows the best in science. I do hope that scientific workplaces change and start a more uniform assessment and requirement of engagement to make it fairer. But at least we have somewhere to start.