As you may know, I love the Journal of Science Communication. It publishes some very interesting and useful scholarly articles on a wide array of issues pertaining to the communication, education and publishing of science. I wish more science bloggers (and non-blogging scientists) read it and blogged about their articles. Unfortunately, human nature being as it is, most of the excellent papers go by un-noticed by the blogosphere, while an occasional sub-standard paper gets some play – it is so much easier to critique than to analyze or even praise.
One such paper is now making the rounds – it is mentioned on Science of the Invisible and discussed at length (not badly, mind you) on The Scholarly Kitchen. The article in question is Science blogs and public engagement with science: Practices, challenges, and opportunities, Journal of Science Communication, 9 (1), March 2010, by Inna Kouper, a graduate student in library and information science at Indiana University. The journal is Open Access and this article is now published so you can download the free PDF with a single click. Go for it, you’ll need it if you want to read along with me.
First, let me get the Conflict Of Interest out of the way. I am on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Science Communication. I helped the journal find reviewers for this particular manuscript. And I have reviewed it myself. Wanting to see this journal be the best it can be, I was somewhat dismayed that the paper was published despite not being revised in any way that reflects a response to any of my criticisms I voiced in my review.
So, let me walk you through the big chunks of the paper, adding the critiques that I voiced during the review process. I will have additional commentary at the end of the post as well.
Digital information and communication technologies (ICTs) are novelty tools that can be used to facilitate broader involvement of citizens in the discussions about science. The same tools can be used to reinforce the traditional top-down model of science communication. Empirical investigations of particular technologies can help to understand how these tools are used in the dissemination of information and knowledge as well as stimulate a dialog about better models and practices of science communication.
With the Internet being over 26 years old, the World Wide Web 19 years, and blogs 12 years, I don’t think it is correct to still, at this day and age, call ICTs “novel”.
This study focuses on one of the ICTs that have already been adopted in science communication, on science blogging. The findings from the analysis of content and comments on eleven blogs are presented in an attempt to understand current practices of science blogging and to provide insight into the role of blogging in the promotion of more interactive forms of science communication.
Analysis of blogs has been done before, so this article needs to focus on what new it brings to the literature – the analysis of comments.
So far the discussion about science blogs develops primarily in the form of journalistic and scholarly commentary rather than research-based analysis. It focuses on what blogs can and cannot do and why blogging can be a promising tool for scientists (Butler, 2005). Most often the analysis relies on a few examples of science blogging and uses these examples to contextualize general considerations and descriptions (Wilkins, 2008). To better understand challenges and opportunities science blogs can bring, it is necessary to analyze current practices of science blogging. To date no attempts have been made to do that. The present study is the first step in this direction.
Together with Wilkins 2008, this paragraph should also probably cite Goldstein 2009 which did a similar analysis (including even some of the same blogs as used in this paper). This paragraph should also accentuate the analysis of comments to differentiate it from other papers that have analyzed blog posts alone.
The data for this study consist of posts and comments from eleven blogs that write about science and technology. The blogs were sampled via the Internet search for “science blogs” and “blogs about science” and by following scientific news on the moment of data collection in Spring, 2008. Below is the list of blogs with their titles and URLs from which the posts and comments were sampled:
This needs to be clarified. Internet search for “science blogs” and “blogs about science” brings up thousands of blogs (some of which are not science blogs at all). How were these particular 11 chosen? What search method was used: Google Blogsearch, Google Web Search, Technorati, other?
This is an interesting collection (see the Table). It is, first, very small, thus missing some important subsets of the science blogosphere (medblogs, nature blogs, skeptical blogs and, importantly due to cluster analysis by Christina Pikas, the female science bloggers which have a very different pattern of both posts and comments). All or most of the authors of these 11 blogs are white males, which also affects the analysis. A number of these blogs are multi-author, with each author having a different style and blogging mode (Note: the Table was modified for publication, adding the number of authors per blog, but no discussion of the importance of this appeared in the text). Please note here, up front, the potential drawbacks of your sampling methods.
Before sampling blogs were examined for posting activity. As it was determined that some blogs posted one or two messages per week and others posted several messages per day, it was decided to save 30 days of activity from less active blogs and five days of activity from very active blogs. For feasibility of qualitative analysis, the number of comments was limited to 15 comments per post. Overall, 174 posts and 1409 comments from 11 blogs were saved and analyzed.
Please justify the cut-off at 15 comments. On busy blogs like Pharyngula, the first 15 comments are likely to be quick one-liners while deeper discussions happen later, once readers had sufficient time to read and digest the content of the post, often with long, well-informed comment threads that go on for hundreds of comments per post.
The findings suggest that science blogs are too heterogeneous to be understood as an emerging genre of science communication. The blogs employ a variety of writing and authoring models, and no signs of emerging or stabilizing genre conventions could be observed. Even though all blogs mentioned science or a particular scientific discipline in their descriptions, they differed in their voice representations, points of view, and content orientation. Some bloggers emphasized the first person perspective and presented themselves through religious and political affiliation (e.g., “The blog is about whatever we find interesting” at Cosmic Variance or “Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal” at Pharyngula). Others shifted the focus from their personalities to the content and featured more neutral forms of presentation (e.g., “… the latest news about microbiology” at MycrobiologyBytes or “… your source for news and commentary on science” at The Scientific Activist). Differences in sources, topics, and modes of participation among blogs are discussed below.
The small and thematically narrow sample of blogs limits the value of this paragraph. What is in an “About Us” section may have been written years ago and never revisited although a blog has evolved in a different direction in the meantime?
Personal experience and news from other media were used to discuss predominantly non-scientific, often political, matters. Thus, the blog authors commented on the issues of sports doping (Pure Pedantry), children’s medical care and religion (BioEthics), creationism versus evolution disputes (Panda’s Thumb), US presidential elections (The Scientific Activist), and the life of the former Serbian president Radovan Karadzic (Cosmic Variance). Other examples of using experienced events as sources of blog posts included reporting about conferences and public lectures, commemorating events from the past, or noticing the appearance of new material on the web.
Radovan Karadzic was never any kind of official in Serbia. Before the unification of Bosnia, during the war, he was the president of the self-proclaimed enclave of Bosnian Serbs called Republika Srpska which was never, officially or unofficially, a part of Serbia proper.
As can be seen from the figure above, science blogs cover a variety of issues and topics beyond science. Among the topics related to science the most frequently covered topics were evolution, health, and space. The prominence of the topics of evolution and creationism can be explained by the dominance of two highly prolific blogs Pharyngula and Panda’s Thumb, which consider the promotion of evolutionary theory as their main focus. Among other scientific topics bloggers discussed genetics, physics, and biotechnology. More often, though, science bloggers discussed what has been posted on other blogs and websites and reflected on the practices in academia, on their and others’ blogging, and on the issues of their personal life.
The range of topics seen suffers from the small sample of blogs. A different sample (e.g,. if all the blogs were sampled from Nature Network) would result in a completely different word cloud.
Each larger group of participation modes was equally noticeable in the sample, therefore it is difficult to claim that one form of communication or the other is more common for science blogs. Being a more fluid and personal genre of communication, blogs allow for greater variability of expression, and it seems that the authors of science blogs eagerly utilize this fluidity and variability. It was observed though, that certain blogs favored one mode of participation more than others.
Do you have numbers, percentages? Can you provide a complete dataset of raw data so others can reanalyze?
The writer of this post freely interpreted the findings of the study and substituted alcohol-containing nectar mentioned in the original research with beer. This way the news becomes more entertaining, yet it may prevent the readers from getting accurate information and forming their own opinion, thereby making it difficult to rely on this form of reporting as a source of accurate information.
Potential explanation: Wired Science blog is an official blog of a magazine and most Wired bloggers are trained journalists – this may explain a number of differences seen between Wired Science and other blogs.
“Antimatter is just like ordinary matter in every way, except that every quantity you can think of (apart from mass and spin), is reversed. As an example, the electron is a particle with a specific mass and carrying a specific amount of negative electric charge. The antiparticle of the electron is a positron, which has the identical mass to an electron, but precisely the opposite charge. The thing about particles and their antiparticles is that, if one puts them together, the net value of any quantity (called a quantum number by physicists) carried by the pair of them is zero. Therefore, a particle and an antiparticle together are merely mass which, thanks to Einstein’s E=mc2, can be converted entirely into energy. As a result of this, when matter and antimatter come together, they annihilate, producing energy in the form of light (photons).”
As you note later, most readers are scientists. Physicist tend to read physics blogs. Thus, the author has correctly identified his audience and is writing at the level expected from his audience. Other posts on the same blog may be more directed towards lay audience. Also, John Wilkins has collected a large number of ‘Basics Posts‘ written specifically for lay audience by a large number of science bloggers over a period of almost two years.
Emotional and often insulting evaluations are very common for this and some other blogs that seem to be eager to demonstrate not only their rightness, but also to distinguish their group of reasonable and worthy individuals from others, who are wrong, unintelligent, and overall worthless. The frequency of such evaluations and mockery undermines the goals of rational debate and criticism. Such activities can foster solidarity among the like-minded individuals, yet at the same time, they may spur hostility in those who are undecided or hold a different opinion.
This statement (last 2 sentences) is often repeated but has never been studied and does not have, thus, empirical support. While alienation of the ‘opposing side’ is likely, it does not make a difference as the ‘opposing side’ is regarded as ‘unmoveable’ and is not the target audience. The undecided, on the other hand are a big unknown and there are some indications that they are likely NOT to want to join the side that is mocked.
Less complicated common forms of author participation in science blogs included announcements and summaries of documents. Announcements publicize events and sources of information (e.g., “The Kaiser network is hosting a live webcast to discuss the influence of the blogosphere on health policy” or “Tonight, on the History Channel… It’s the much anticipate first episode of a new series, Evolve – Eyes”). Summaries provide elaborate descriptions of research papers and essays and often use very specific terminology such as dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which would require the reader to have some background in a particular field. While such summaries somewhat popularize the content of research papers, the amount of minimal background necessary for a lay person to understand and follow the research news varied among different science blogs.
Most bloggers write for their own amusement and not with a specific goal of popularization of science, and, after a while, tend to adapt to what their audience actually is. Thus, a knowledgeable audience will result in further posts being written at their level of interest and understanding.
Readers of science blogs also had some relationship with science, i.e., they were not exactly non-scientists or lay persons. One author posted a message titled “Who are you?” and asked his readers for information about themselves and their background. The answers to this post as well as the overall analysis of readers’ comments demonstrate that the readers are almost always associated with science one way or another. They are graduate students, postdoctoral associates, faculty members, and researchers from a variety of scientific and research fields including biology, physics, neuroscience, and medicine. Wired Science was probably the only blog in the sample where non-scientists formed a considerable portion of the audience. Nevertheless, even in this blog commenters often took the position of authority and talked as experts who are quite knowledgeable about the subject.
Remember again that Wired bloggers are journalists.
After this comment a thread of comments developed defending or criticizing Barack Obama and his approach to science, religion, politics, and so on. These comments were completely unrelated to the topic of Louisiana creationism law provided by the blog post.
It is important to note the history of these blogs. Wired Science is a blog owned by a media company. Media in general, due to a bad case of misreading of an old legal case, tend not to moderate their comments. Unmoderated comment threads tend to get unruly and attract trolls and hit-and-run comments. Panda’s Thumb evolved out of an old Usenet group, where the conduct is traditionally different than on modern blogs. This is also a group blog with minimal moderation. Pure Pedantry was a relatively small blog, but a Britney Spears post got on digg.com and most of the comments they got after that are one-time hit-and-run visitors from Google searches, not the regular commenting community of the blog. On the other hand, Pharyngula is a carefully moderated blog – community votes for the Commenter of the Month (the “Molly”) to reward intelligent contribution and PZ Myers has over time banned several disruptive commenters (whose names are listed on his blog, as example). He will sometimes personally interfere – by deleting and by commenting himself – if someone is disruptive. As a result, Pharyngula is a community of commenters. They tend to talk to each other much more than to Myers. To some extent, but not as much as on Pharyngula, commenters on Panda’s Thumb, Cosmic Variance and perhaps Wired Science, may be seen more as a community that talks among themselves than commenters addressing the owner of the blog.
Insults, such as “Don’t be an idiot.. rtfa” or “Could you possibly sound any more stupid with this comment?” were more common for some blogs than the others. Thus, Wired Science and Panda’s Thumb were filled with insulting commentary. Offensive remarks regarding somebody’s personality or intellectual abilities most often targeted other commenters and the characters of posts, but sometimes they were directed at blog authors as well, such as the following comment in DrugMonkey blog: “You are correct, I never read a post in which you claim not to be pompous and arrogant”.
See my commentary above about the importance of the history of individual blogs and the importance of moderation policies. Also worth noting in this example is that DrugMonkey blog is written by two authors, one of which (the one I presume was addressed in the comment you quote) is PhysioProf who very effectively uses profanity to get readers out of their comfort zones, with predictable responses.
In addition to personal attitudes and obvious digressions, where commenters would take an element from a blog post and develop it into an independent topic of conversation, a large portion of comments offered humorous and sarcastic remarks. Thus, the Wired Science post about nuclear weapons as a way to destroy asteroids got the following comments among others: “Got Bruce Willis?”, “You don’t want to destroy or deflect comets or asteroids, you want to capture and harvest them…”, and “Like the SF writers of yore knew: Resistance is Futile”.
Again, keep in mind that Wired Science is a corporate/media blog, written by journalists, with almost no comment moderation. Thus the Wild West feel of their comment threads is to be expected – it is more like YouTube than a blog in regard to expected commenting behavior. This usually does not happen on personal blogs.
Science blogs examined in this study are very heterogeneous. They provide information and explain complicated matters, but their evaluations are often trivial and they rarely provide extensive critique or articulate positions on controversial issues. Kenix (2009) analyzed political news blogs as alternative news sources and found that the blogs offered binary, reductive analysis and dependent reporting. She also found that readers often provided caustic commentary and argued that comments can be considered a separate communicative sphere more akin to a neighborhood bar than to the Habermasian public sphere. It appears that science blogging can also be characterized as relying on reductive analysis and dependent reporting and drawing caustic and petty commentary.
Small sample, omission of blogs that almost entirely write posts for ResearchBlogging.org aggregation (eg, Not Exactly Rocket Science, Tetrapod Zoology, Neurotopia, Neurophilosophy), omission of highly technical blogs which are a center of that discipline’s online community (e.g., Sauropod Vertebra Picture Of The Week, or Deep Sea News) and omission of some of the blogs with the most developed feelings of community – the female scientist blogs and Nature Network blogs, makes these points moot. This is akin to analysis of political blogs and omitting Firedoglake, Talking Points Memo, Huffington Post and Hullabaloo – the blogs that do heavy lifting, independent reporting, expert analysis, etc. Many such blogs exist in the science blogosphere but they were not included in this paper.
In their current multiplicity of forms and contents science blogs present a challenge rather than an opportunity for public engagement with science. Lack of genre conventions, which for the audience translates into broken expectations and uncertainty, impedes the development of stable readership and participation from the larger public. The “neighborhood bar” or “water cooler” commentary creates a sense of community with shared context and culture, but at the same time it creates a barrier that prevents strangers and outsiders from joining the conversation. As a community of scientists or individuals close to science, the existing readers may enjoy the entertaining nature of science blogs and not need science blogs to serve as a place for discussion and rational debate. Relying on such community of readers, bloggers may reduce their interpretive activities and resort to copying, re-distributing, and re-packaging of the existing information, which is still quite rewarding given the background of the majority of current readers and yet requires much less time and effort.
Blogs are technological tools, platforms. They can be used by corporations and organization for PR and news delivery, but that kind of blog does not attract much audience. Most blogs are personal blogs. It is the personality of the owner, combined with her/his expertise, that draws in the audience. A personal blog is a personal space for personal expression. Bloggers are likely to strongly resist any attempts by any group to influence the way they spend their free time conversing with friends online. In other words, they are not meant to be vehicles for science engagement with the public by design, but they serve that function very well precisely because of the personality of the blogger, (often self-deprecating) humor, often juicy language, and strong opinions. Scientists are supposed to be cool-headed, anti-social recluses – blogs show they are anything but, break the stereotypes and show the humanity of scientists. With this, comes the trust. And science engagement is all about trust – not the memorization of knowledge of scientific trivia.
This study has a number of limitations. The study is based on a limited sample, and the applicability of its findings and conclusions needs to be tested further. The findings can serve as an initial step in the investigations of the relationship between science blogging and public engagement with science and in the development of the taxonomy of modes of participation. Due to the small number posts and comments, certain important modes of participation could have been overlooked. A more elaborate taxonomy of participation modes could serve as a basis for further genre analysis of science blogging. The role of humor in science communication and collective interpretation of knowledge also needs to be examined. Finally, the study would benefit from extending the analysis to lurkers, i.e., those readers who follow the content but do not post comments.
These limitations should be stated at the beginning of the article as well as here.
So, this article was supposed to be the analysis of comments on science blogs, but did not actually study comments – it studied a tiny and unrepresentative sample of blogs, one of which is dead (Pure Pedantry) and thus slowly accuulating unmoderated spam comments.
I think it is important to read this article, as well as my commentary, in the light of recent discussions on The Intersection and Bioephemera.
Five years ago, I read every science blog in English language. I could, as there were only dozens of us. The science blogosphere was small and tight at the time. But remember where these blogs came from – they evolved out of political, atheist and skeptical blogs. There was ‘Intersection’ where Chris Mooney was collecting material for “Republican War on Science”, there was ‘Deltoid’ fiercely fighting against Global Warning denialism, there was ‘Pharyngula’ providing a voice for atheists who until then thought they were alone (and who were then, after a series of anti-religious rants, delivered to some of the best written science posts ever, over and over again), there was my blog ‘Science and Politics’ where politics posts outnumbered the science posts at least 9:1. Not much more. Most science blogs were primarily focused on something else – politics, religion, skepticism, etc. – than on science. In many ways, early science blogs were really political blogs with a scientific twist.
Today, there are thousands of science blogs. Most of them are really science blogs – covering science in every, or almost every post. The ratio of science:other topics is much, much higher today than it was then.
I think everyone who focuses primarily on the old blogs, the same Google Reader list one had in 2005 without having it revised in the intervening five years, has no grasp of the current science blogosphere. Check out all the blogs registered at ResearchBlogging.org for starters. See the blogs on German, French Canadian, Brazilian and New Zealand science blogging networks, on Nature Network blogs, Nature Blog Network and Scientificblogging.com. Heck, if you ignore five or six blogs here on scienceblogs.com that are mainly focused on non-scientific topics and look at the remaining 70+ blogs – that’s ScienceTM! Five years is eons on the Web. Any analysis of blogs and/or comments that is still in the 2005 mindset is missing everything.
Also remember that what was once a homogenuous, tightly knit group has split. There are now separate medical blogosphere, atheist blogopshere, skeptical blogosphere, birding blogosphere, green blogosphere, nature blogopshere, etc. All of those were once part of a single group. Each now has its own group, its carnivals, its unofficial leaders, its histories and customs and tone. Judging the science blogosphere by a few examples of ancient blogs that have changed a lot over the years, using old personal impressions about them to state what they are now, is misguided. There is plenty of blogs now for everyone’s taste. Nobody is forcing you to read a blog that offends you. Move on, find blogs you like – there are so many good science blogs around today, there is not enough hours in a day to read them all even if you limit yourself only to those that do not blemish your thin skin.
Update: Cosmic Variance and Panda’s Thumb, two blogs analyzed in this paper, chime in on it as well. And then DrugMonkey and David from The Atavism also comment.
Inna Kouper (2010). Science blogs and public engagement with science: Practices, challenges, and opportunities Journal of Science Communication, 9 (1) Link
Update: Of course, this discussion is nothing new, either in science blogosphere, or in blogosphere as a whole. We have had, over the years, many (some heated) discussions on related topics: what makes a blog a ‘science blog’, what good it is, what is a purpose or goal of a science blog, why should one blog, is it good or bad for one’s career, as well as topics that in some ways touch on this, e.g., framing science (which we do on blogs and as it relates to science outreach), pseudonymity vs. anonymity, the whole quesiton of ‘tone’ on blogs, not to forget the most recent “carpet” discussion about comment moderation. So this is nothing new to science blogs and much of what some bloggers said over the years is much more detailed, thoughtful and even scholarly than what is in this paper. Not to mention that some very similar discussions also occured in other blogospheres: academic, techie, political, feminist, etc. Here, I just want to give you a sampling of some ancient posts that most directly address the questions of this paper, all posts being between two and four years old:
Science Blogging – what it can be
Blogging in the Academy: Batts et al, 2008
How Many (Science) Blogs Are There?
How much science does a science blog blog ….?
Role for Science Blogging
A postcard from academe: my tenure dossier.
Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy
Bridging the blogging gap
Where will science blogging go from here?
The Value of Science Blogs
Advancing Science Thru Blogging
Feedback on ‘Advancing Science Through Conversations’
Update: additional commentary by Janet, Dr.Isis and Bluegrass Blue Crab provoked some good comment threads as well.