Scienceblogging: The Lay Scientist (and The Guardian) – a Q&A with Martin Robbins

This is the series of interviews with people doing interesting things in the current science blogging ecosystem.

Today I got to ask Martin Robbins of The Lay Scientist a few questions.

Hi, thank you for taking your time for answering a few questions about the past, present and future developments of the science blogging ecosystem. Let me begin with you – can you tell our readers, please, who are you, where you come from and how you got into science blogging? Before the launch of the Guardian science blogging network, what did you do?

I am Martin Robbins, I have a background in science and I currently work in a research job which I try to keep apart from my public life due to the nature of some of the people I write about. I’m also a freelance journalist and writer with a column at The Guardian, and a blogger, and at the moment I’m contracted by the Guardian to work on the development of their blogging network, and produce a report on its future (and by extension to some extent the future of science blogging). I got into science blogging though basically annoyance at poor coverage of science issues, combined with a passion for researching things and finding out more about them, and then thanks to some helpful editors and Twitter I ended up where I am now.

Everyone seems to agree that the summer of 2010 saw some big and important changes in the science blogging ecosystem. What are your own thoughts on this? Where do you think it will go next, over the next couple of years?

I actually don’t agree. I think the changes have been happening for the last few years, but for whatever reason people didn’t notice them happening, or chose to ignore them. All of the things we’re talking about now – proliferation of competing networks, the commercialization of science blogging, bloggers merging with mainstream media, and issues between business and editorial – are things that people were talking about in 2009. What happened in 2010 with ‘Pepsigate’ and the aftermath was that people finally decided to talk about the elephant in the room, and act on it.

I think a lot of people are in denial about their position too, or cling to labels that are increasingly irrelevant. Once ScienceBlogs started being aggregated by Google News, bloggers there became to some extent subject to the same ethical considerations as mainstream media journalists, whether they are willing to accept it or not. Bloggers will be placed under much more scrutiny as the playing field levels and they become indistinguishable from columnists and journalists

In the next couple of years I think the trends of 2008-2010 will continue. Blogging will become increasingly commercialized and increasingly affiliated with mainstream media outlets. Social media will increasingly act as people’s editor of choice. Networks which thrive will be those who support good writers, and give them freedom and space to explore and innovate, and I expect to see more sophisticated editorial approaches developed in terms of how networks of blogs are developed and managed.

On the downside, I think the issue of editorial control won’t go away. I suspect we’ll see a whole series of battles similar to Pepsigate over the next 24 months as battles which were once fought in print media over things like the division between editorial and business management are refought on the internet.

How do you personally read science blogs? Do you use feeds, or social networks, or some other ways of keeping track of the science blogging world? How do you find new blogs?

Twitter has become better than me at finding interesting stuff to read, and has taken over to a large extent from my news-reader, as there are very few bloggers worth reading every single day. Twitter is like having six hundred and fifty brains filtering content for me, catering to my interests. Social media has transformed the way people access the internet and news websites, and will continue to do so.

That said, I also try to subscribe to other, more diverse sources to try to prevent myself falling into the trap of existing within a news bubble or echo-chamber – Google alerts are useful, and also specialist aggregators like AllAfrica.com.

Tell us a little bit more about The Lay Scientist – it used to be your own personal blog but is now a group blog. How and why did you make the decision to make this change? How did you assemble the bloggers – did they apply, did you hand-pick them, or some other way? What is the goal and vision of the site?

I wanted the site to be bigger and better, but couldn’t achieve that on my own. I could also see that the existing blogging model doesn’t work for a lot of people. There are many people who occasionally have something interesting to say, but who don’t want to start a blog of their own because they’d only write once a month and it’s too much hassle. My aim was to provide some of those people with a platform.

Where do you see The Lay Scientist within the blogging ecosystem – what is its position, how does it differ from others, what unique service does it provide?

The two sites should work quite nicely together once I can find someone to take over layscience.net and run it day to day. My aim is that the old community site will be an open platform, while the site at guardian.co.uk/layscience will be used to showcase people and issues which I think deserve a wider audience, as well as being a supplement to my own column and journalism. I don’t think it’s particularly unique, but I think I’ve managed to provide a conduit between the wider blogosphere and mainstream media. So for example I’ve been able to help unknown bloggers get issues like ‘bleachgate’ into the mainstream media via The Guardian.

What prompted The Guardian to add a science blogging network to their already prolific and high-quality science reporting? Did #PepsiGate have any effect on decision-making or timing of the project? What is your role, apart from blogging yourself, in the new Guardian blogging network?

My role is initially as a consultant for the launch, and I’ll be setting out how I think the network should develop once the launch is out of the way and the site has settled down. I hope to take a long term role developing the site, but we’ll see. (I’ll leave the rest of the question for Alok to cover as I’m not sure how much I should say).

Do you notice any geographical differences in topics, styles etc. between British, US, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, continental European and other science bloggers? If so, any explanations you can come with?

I think there’s been a disappointing lack of communication and collaboration between especially British and American bloggers, and that’s disappointing because many of the issues we tackle are global or international in nature, and could benefit from a coordinated attack.

British and Australian/NZ bloggers seem much more willing to take things offline and engage in real-world activism, whereas Americans either aren’t bothering, or haven’t managed to convey what they’re doing to an international audience. Certainly getting Americans to take part in or even promote international campaigns like 10:23 was a thankless task.

I wonder if it’s entirely a coincidence that in recent times campaigns on things like the atheist buses, 10:23, libel, science funding and so on have starting in London and Liverpool rather than New York or Boston, and US atheists are relying on Brits like Dawkins and Hitchens to rally the crowds.

Thank you for the interview. We’ll keep being in touch and I hope you can come to ScienceOnline2011 so we can discuss the future in person.

Name of the site: The Lay Scientist
URL: guardian.co.uk/layscience / layscience.net
Feed URL: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/rss
Owner (if corporate): The Guardian / Martin Robbins
Founder(s): Martin Robbins
Current community manager: Martin Robbins
Geographical location: London, UK
Date of launch: February 2008 (layscience.net) / September 2010 (guardian.co.uk)
Number of bloggers on the day of launch: 1 (around 30 by time of Guardian launch)
Maximum number of bloggers in the history of the site: ~30
Current number of bloggers: ~30
Software/Platform: Drupal (layscience.net) Proprietary system (guardian.co.uk)
Average monthly traffic (visits/pageviews): Only have stats for both sites for September, combined total was ~ 700,000 page views, but probably closer to 200k on an average month, though that’s a complete guess as the Guardian site is so new, and growing.

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3 responses to “Scienceblogging: The Lay Scientist (and The Guardian) – a Q&A with Martin Robbins

  1. Homeopathy is not part of the usual protocol for American physicians. Insurance doesn’t even recognize it to cover it. While some people really believe in it, I expect, percentage-wise, the use of homeopathy in the US is low, hence our seeming lack of interest in the 10^23 day. It is a relative non-issue here.
    The bigger issues in America are the Christian fundamentalists who oppose evolution and stem cell research. This is a fairly weighty group with a lot of pull. They are a tenacious bunch and getting through to them about science is a bit of an undertaking. I cannot speak scholarly on why American bloggers don’t engage in activism, but it is a big place where it is a trick to make an impact. We do have Phil Plait, of course, but if I went out around campus here today and took a poll, I’ll bet many people would not know who he is, as so many people, even science majors, are unaware of science communicators beyond Adam and Jamie of Mythbusters. Even fewer would know of Carl Zimmer, unfortunately. The apathy of Americans towards science is astounding.
    I can only speak for myself. I will just keep pointing people to good science books, good videos, good articles, all put out by writers and communicators much more talented than I am. I feel a contentious activism campaign on my part might drive away the very crowd I would like to gently draw closer to science.

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