Advice: why should an academic read blogs?

If you’ve read this (or any) blog more than once or twice before, this post isn’t for you. It’s for your colleagues who don’t read blogs. It explains what blogs are, why you might want to allocate a bit of your scarce time to reading science blogs in your field, and addresses some common misunderstandings about blogs. So email this post to your non-blog-reading colleagues!

I emphasize that, in writing this post, I’m writing from the perspective of the old traditionalist I basically am (e.g., this). Reading and writing blogs is pretty much the only thing I do with my time that my supervisor wasn’t doing with his time back in the mid-90s, when email was about the only significant way in which the internet had affected most ecologists’ day-to-day lives. And I still very much believe in the value of doing science the way I was trained to do it. So this post is totally not about explaining to folks who don’t read blogs why they’re primitives who ought to join the 21st century. For me, reading (and writing) blogs is not a different way of doing science than I was trained to do. For me, reading (and writing) blogs is low-hanging fruit: it’s an easy way to be better at being the sort of scientist I was trained to be.

I’ve structured the post as a series of questions that scientists who don’t read science blogs might have about them, and my answers.

What are blogs?

A blog is a website where someone (or someones, if the blog is a group blog) periodically posts pieces of their writing for anyone to read. Each piece of writing is known as a “post”. For a typical science blog, these pieces are maybe 100-1000 words long, though they can be shorter or longer than that. Sometimes they’re illustrated (e.g., with figures or photographs), and they ordinarily contain links to related material (e.g., other blogs, scientific papers, etc.).

Frequency of posting varies among blogs and over time. A typical ecology blog might post once or twice a month. Dynamic Ecology is atypical; we post multiple times/week. You can find out about new posts either by visiting the blog, or by subscribing to a free service (like automated emails or RSS) that notifies you when a new post is published.

Most blogs also allow anyone to make comments on the posts, and these comments also are public. Typically, comments can be posted under your real name, or anonymously. In contrast to the little-used commenting systems now provided by some scientific journals, many science blogs have an active “community” of regular readers who comment frequently, as well as a larger number of readers who comment only occasionally or not at all.

The writing style varies with the author, but ordinarily is conversational. Not that technical material isn’t covered, but if it is, it’s typically in a conversational style rather than in the style of a journal article. Some bloggers have quite engaging writing styles.

What kind of thing do ecology blogs write about?

Lots of different things–it depends on the interests of the blog author. Common topics for ecology blogs include:

  • Coverage of ecology- and conservation-related news, as with the Ecological Society of America’s EcoTone blog
  • Non-technical summaries of new papers, as at the blogs associated with journals like Oikos, Molecular Ecology, Methods in Ecology and Evolution, and Journal of Ecology. Such summaries often include material that enriches one’s understanding of the work, as when authors provide the “story behind the paper”. For instance, here’s my fellow blogger Meg’s story of how her Mercer Award-winning paper initially was rejected by Ecology.
  • Commentary on new papers, much like Faculty of 1000
  • A first look at new ideas that eventually become published papers. For instance, I have a new paper at Trends in Ecology and Evolution, arguing that the intermediate disturbance hypothesis is fundamentally flawed both empirically and theoretically, and should be abandoned. Blog readers heard about the ideas in that paper and had the chance to comment on them long before the paper was even submitted. The first post in the long series that eventually led to that paper is here.
  • Advice for students, postdocs, and faculty, on everything from grant writing, to teaching tips, to how to choose a good research project, to how to network at a scientific conference. Here’s a recent compilation of all of our “advice” posts.
  • Statistical or programming advice, especially for R. Numerous statistically-minded ecologists, like Ted Hart and Steve Walker, use blogs mostly as a way to keep notes to themselves about how to get R to do things. They keep those notes in blog form as a way of making them available to anyone who might be interested.
  • Instructional pieces explaining some difficult idea. For instance, I’ve done a post explaining all the different sense of “stability” in ecology, and a series of posts explaining the modern theoretical understanding of coexistence in fluctuating environments.
  • Coverage of scientific meetings, both big and small.
  • Descriptions of the author’s own research in progress, often with pictures from the field site, anecdotes about the challenges of field work, preliminary results, etc. Some blogs that do these sorts of posts are written by lab groups, and are mainly a vehicle for group members to keep up with one another’s work. But the posts are public in case anyone else happens to be interested in the group’s ongoing work.
  • Commentary on ecological ideas and issues broader than any single paper, such as whether ecologists are doing enough predictive science, or whether they should focus more on model systems, or why fundamental research is worth supporting. Here at Dynamic Ecology we do a lot of these sorts of posts.
  • Personal stories and anecdotes. Besides just being interesting and fun to read about, these stories can be very useful. For instance, Meghan Duffy and I are both established ecologists who came very close to quitting (see here and here). It’s my impression that many students really appreciate hearing about the challenges that even established ecologists like Meg and I have faced, and how we dealt with those challenges.
  • Links to other items (journal articles, news articles, other blog posts…) that the blog author found interesting or useful or provocative or funny or etc. For instance, every Friday this blog does a “linkfest” post linking to and briefly commenting on items that we think are worth reading. Often, we link to items that aren’t specifically about ecology, but that are relevant to ecologists.
  • Summaries of ecological research aimed at the general public. People who write blogs with many of these sorts of posts often consider their blogging as a form of outreach.

Blogs aren’t peer reviewed. It’s just vanity publishing and self-promotion. Why would I want to bother reading science that hasn’t been vetted? Plus, I’m really busy. Why would I want to spend even a bit of my valuable time reading blogs?

Thinking of blogs as vanity publishing, as a way for people with flawed ideas to try to avoid the rigors of the peer review process, is in my experience a fairly common misunderstanding. Believe me, if that’s what science blogs were, I wouldn’t waste time reading them either! Fortunately, as far as I’m aware, no one who writes a science blog intends it as a substitute for peer reviewed papers. Certainly, nobody lists their blog posts as publications on their CV or anything like that! And as far as I’m aware, no one who reads science blogs sees them as a substitute for peer reviewed scientific papers.

Here’s a better analogy: blogs are like the talks, posters, and face-to-face conversations we all attend, deliver, and participate in at scientific meetings. Those aren’t peer-reviewed either, yet we all find them incredibly useful! The difference is that blogs can be read by anyone, anywhere, anytime. This makes it possible for blog readers to hear from and engage with more and different people than they could by attending conferences or talking to people face-to-face.

So if you find listening to talks, going to posters, and conversing with colleagues useful, then you’re likely to find reading blogs useful, for the same reasons. In our talks, posters, and conversations, we often hear about and discuss unpublished science that hasn’t been peer reviewed (or was peer reviewed and rejected!) We also hear and talk about other things that are worth hearing and talking about, but that aren’t ordinarily the subject of peer-reviewed papers. For instance, readers of Dynamic Ecology report reading our blog because it helps them stay current with the latest thinking in the field, exposes them to interesting ideas and opinions they wouldn’t otherwise encounter, and provides advice on a range of scientific and professional issues.

Obviously, it wouldn’t be a good idea to allocate all of your time to reading blogs, any more than it would be a good idea to allocate all of your time to attending conferences and conversing with colleagues. But it might well be a good idea to allocate a bit of your time to reading blogs. Especially since blog posts, by virtue of being fairly short and easy to read, lend themselves well to reading over a meal, or on the bus, or etc.

As for whether blogs are just “self-promotion” on the part of their authors, you probably don’t think of someone who gives a talk or poster at a scientific meeting, or has a conversation with you, as a self-promoter. And if you do encounter a blogger who you feel is a self-promoter–don’t read their blog!

Here is a peer-reviewed paper I recently published that further discusses the role of blogging in scientific communication.

As an aside, I think it’s interesting that concerns about the value of non-peer-reviewed writings long predate blogs. For instance, here’s chemistry Nobel Prize winner Harold Urey writing in 1964 to the editor of a psychology journal that had published material Utley thought should not have been published:

I am terribly concerned at present about the lack of control in scientific publication. Science has always been aristocratic. Not everyone could get his ideas published in effective journals…Today anyone can publish anything…[T]here is often so much noise that one cannot hear the signals.

So if you’re not convinced by my suggestion that blogs be seen as a complement to, rather than a substitute for, peer-reviewed papers, all I can say is: don’t be so sure you’d have been any happier with the state of science communication 50 years ago! 😉

Do many academics even read blogs? I mean, besides a few students?

You’d be surprised! This blog got over 7000 unique visitors in January. For an admittedly apples-to-oranges comparison, that’s about twice as many people as attend the ESA annual meeting in a typical year. So thousands of people read this blog at least occasionally. Many hundreds read it more than occasionally. For instance, as of this writing (Feb. 4, 2013), a total of 768 people are sufficiently interested in this blog that they subscribe to some service (email, Twitter, RSS, WordPress “follow” system) that instantly notifies them whenever we publish a new post. And our total subscriber base is growing rapidly (it’s more than doubled in the last five months).

In terms of the composition of our readership, while graduate students comprise about 40% of our readers, about 20% of our readers are faculty (the majority of the rest are postdocs; data here). And the faculty who read at least occasionally include some very established, successful academic ecologists (e.g., Jon Chase, Robin Snyder, Luke Harmon, Peter Adler, Michael McCarthy…). Not to mention all the established, successful faculty who find it worth their time to write this and other ecology and evolution blogs, as well as read them! Folks like me, Brian McGill, Meghan Duffy, Marc Cadotte, Morgan Ernest, Ethan White, Joan Strassman, John Bruno, Andrew Hendry, Simon Leather, and more.

Of course, different ecologists allocate their time in different ways, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is no one right way to allocate one’s time. My point here is simply that many ecologists read (and even write!) blogs, indicating that they find these activities a worthwhile use of their time.

And while I don’t have data for other ecology blogs, from conversations I know that there are numerous other ecology blogs that have substantial readerships, the composition of which probably broadly resembles (and overlaps with) our readership.

You can also look at readership on a per-post basis. Even the least-popular posts on this blog are read a few hundred times. The most popular are read thousands of times. This is as or more often than ecology papers in high-impact journals. I mention this not because blog posts are a substitute for peer reviewed papers, but purely as a way of measuring the readership on a scale that people who don’t read blogs will be able to appreciate.

So if you think nobody you know reads blogs, don’t be so sure! (either that they don’t, or that the people you know are a representative sample of all ecologists) 🙂 Not too long ago, it would indeed have been unusual for an academic ecologist to allocate time to reading blogs. But times, and the reading habits of even many well-established ecology faculty, have changed. So if you decide to allocate some of your time to reading blogs, don’t feel like you’re allocating your time in an unusual way, because you’re not.

Would I be expected to comment, or even to read the comments?

No. The majority of blog readers never comment, and of those that do, only a small fraction comment regularly. Blog authors hope for and welcome comments, and are always happy to get comments (even critical comments). But there’s certainly no expectation that you “should” comment. In fact, you don’t even have to read the comments if you don’t want to. Though in my experience, the comments on good blogs are themselves often well worth reading.

Would I be expected to click on all the links?

No. Most readers never click any links, and nobody clicks all the links they encounter. The links are there if you want to follow them up, but you don’t have to. Much as with the citations in scientific papers.

Aren’t the comment sections just people arguing with and insulting each other?

No, at least not on science blogs. Sometimes the comments on a post will turn into a vigorous debate, but in my experience with science blogs, such debates are almost always professional and productive. And rather than disagreeing with a post or with one another, it’s more common for commenters to add their own ideas that build on those in the post, provide links to related material, ask questions, etc. When it comes to science blogs, overheated, uninformed, and unproductive arguments are only common on blogs devoted to “hot button” issues with a significant political dimension, like climate change, evolution vs. creationism, etc.

What’s the difference between blogs and Facebook or Twitter or other “social media”?

Blogs aren’t really like Twitter, Facebook, or other “social media” tools. Increasing numbers of ecologists use those tools (though I don’t), but mostly for different purposes than blogs. It’s quite possible you might find those tools useful as well, but I’m not the best person to ask about that. But I can point you in the right direction. Ecologist Jarrett Byrnes (Asst. Professor, UMass-Boston) did a talk at the 2012 ESA meeting on the various online tools out there and how scientists can use them in their work. The slides from his talk are here. And here’s a post from my fellow blogger Meg on why she uses Twitter.

I don’t have time to read everything. In fact, I don’t even have time to sort through a bazillion blogs to identify the few I might want to read. So how do I decide what blogs to read?

Start by reading this one! 🙂

In seriousness, that’s a good question. Just googling, say, “ecology blog” is only semi-helpful–it throws up a mix of good academic ecology blogs like The EEB and Flow and Jabberwocky Ecology, and very different sorts of blogs like one about open source software development. And there’s no agreed list of the “top blogs” in ecology, the way there’s a more-or-less agreed list of the top journals in ecology.

Jarrett Byrnes has compiled a pretty comprehensive list of blogs about ecology and other related topics (e.g., statistics, evolution, data visualization, academia…), so that’s one starting point. But I admit that it’s a dauntingly long list for someone who’s never read blogs before and is just looking to try out one or two for starters. You can also ask your colleagues or students if they read ecology blogs, and if so, which blogs they read. Once you find a blog you like, look at its “blogroll” to find other blogs you’ll probably like. A “blogroll” is a list of blogs that a blogger likes; it’s usually on the right-hand side near the top of the blog’s homepage. You can also find new blogs by following links in posts. If there’s a link to an interesting-sounding post on another blog, click the link and check out that blog. Finally, you could also use author identity to help you decide what to read. Perhaps you know someone’s papers, and so decide to read their blog as well. Although the limitation of just going by author identity is that you might miss some good stuff. The vast majority of readers of this blog didn’t discover it because they know who I am from reading my papers. And some very good ecology blogs, like the new The Lab and Field, are written by students or postdocs who you may well not have heard of.

27 thoughts on “Advice: why should an academic read blogs?

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  2. I really like your analogy of blogs to scientific meetings.

    And I would add to your topic list: commentary and opinion on the *culture* of academic ecology. This would include posts about the status of women and other underrepresented groups in academic ecology, as well as posts considering the effects of NSF DEB’s change in funding system. These posts are generally not “advice” nor “news” per se, though they’re often inspired by news items.

    My gateway blog was also FSP.

  3. A blog about blogging, brilliant and actually really timely for me so thanks for this. At our Faculty discussion group last week we discussed the role of blogs in science and I admitted to having never read one, didn’t have the time etc. Then colleagues emailed me a list of blogs and well, here I am with you answering so many of the questions I have (all while having lunch at my desk!). Nice one thanks Jeremy.

    • Wow, thanks Roddy! It’s good to know that this post reached at least one person in the intended audience and had the hoped-for effect! Because I certainly was aware of the potential futility of using a blog post to talk people into reading blogs! 😉

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  6. Another vote for FSP as a gateway blog!

    About the “new ideas that eventually become published papers” and “descriptions of the author’s own research in progress”…I’ve heard tall tales about Researcher A poaching from Researcher B. My first question is: do people in Ecology behave like Researcher A? And if so, how do you — as Researcher B — communicate your ideas and research in progress such that you are “safe” from the Researcher As of the world?

    • I have an old post on getting scooped in ecology:

      It’s never happened to me, before or after I started blogging. I don’t worry about it, for a bunch of reasons. I think Researcher A’s are really rare in ecology and evolution. My blog posts are really far from published paper form, meaning anyone who wanted to steal my ideas would have to do a fair bit of their own work to get an actual paper out of doing so. Plagiarists are mostly lazy; that’s the whole point of plagiarism. Plagiarizing a public piece of writing like a blog post is really risky, because it’s easy for others to detect the plagiarism. Finally, I’ve done several posts where I’ve *encouraged* people to take up my ideas and run with them. These are the “free idea for a provocative review paper posts”. And no one ever has (although I have heard from one student who says she’s writing one of the reviews I suggested, so that may be about to change).

      And while I basically never post about empirical research in progress, I have absolutely no worries that anyone would ever be able to read a post, repeat an empirical study of mine, and then beat me to publication. In ecology and evolution, pretty much any substantive experiment takes many, many hours of effort and lasts months, if not years. Stealing an idea from someone else is never a way to get a “quick” paper in ecology & evolution! Plus, ecology & evolution experiments are mostly difficult to impossible to truly replicate, making scooping someone else’s fieldwork more or less impossible.

      I think much of this goes for preprints posted to places like arXiv. The main difference there is that, while the preprint is close to a final paper and so easy to plagiarize, it’s also extremely easy to detect said plagiarism. If you plagiarized someone’s arXiv preprint and published it under your own name, you’d be really likely to get caught.

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  9. “Blogs aren’t peer reviewed. It’s just vanity publishing and self-promotion. Why would I want to bother reading science that hasn’t been vetted? Plus, I’m really busy. Why would I want to spend even a bit of my valuable time reading blogs?”
    — I have often faced these exact questions when trying to get my peers to start reading or even just telling them that I am a blogger. Your writing here is a great stimulator and has provided me with some really cool ideas to convince them. I’ll be sure to show your post to anyone who questions me again! Thanks!!

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