Andrew Gelman on why he blogs, plus thoughts on independent blogs

Statistician Andrew Gelman has a new post in which he talks about how he got into blogging and what he’s gotten out of it. His remarks were in response to a reporter asking him to comment on a political science group blog in which he’s involved (The Monkey Cage) becoming part of the Washington Post newspaper.

This move by The Monkey Cage blog is part of a longstanding trend in parts of the blogosphere. Many of the pioneers of blogging were commenters on politics and economics. But now the most widely-read of those previously-independent, unpaid bloggers have mostly become paid professionals who in many cases blog for major media outlets (e.g., Andrew Sullivan, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Nate Silver). Something similar has happened with some previously-independent popular science bloggers. For instance, as far as I understand (please correct me if I’m wrong!), Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer used to blog independently, but now are associated with National Geographic (while continuing to do freelance writing work for various venues).

Idle thought: Could you ever see an independent science blog (by which I mean, one aimed at scientific professionals and science students rather than the general public) going a similar route? For instance, someone’s blog becoming an “official” part of a journal or something? Of course, there are some journal-associated blogs, such as Oikos Blog. But in every case I’m aware of, they were founded by the journal. And if a journal were to bring a previously-independent blog on board, the blogger probably wouldn’t get paid; the benefit to the blogger would presumably be access to a larger or different audience. I wonder about this in part because there is precedent for it. John Lawton used to have a regular column in Oikos, called “View from the Park”. It was sufficiently blog-like that the memory of it was part of what inspired both Brian and I to blog. And a couple of years ago an Israeli ecology journal invited Bob Holt to write a series of informal commentary-type papers that read like blog posts. Interestingly, both of those blog-like columns were quite different from existing journal-associated blogs, the content of which tends to be tied to the papers the journal publishes. I’m speculating, but probably part of the reason both those blog-like columns happened, despite not being tightly tied to the journal’s papers, is that they were written by very prominent, widely-respected ecologists. I’m speculating here, but I suspect that’s part of what was attractive about them from the journal’s perspective. You can trust that you’ll be happy to publish whatever someone like John Lawton or Bob Holt writes, and you can trust that readers will want to read it. I wonder if someday another science journal will try to do something similar, either with a prominent scientist who’s also a blogger (hi, Rich!), or a scientist who’s best known for their blogging.

11 thoughts on “Andrew Gelman on why he blogs, plus thoughts on independent blogs

  1. Interesting thoughts. I wonder why people move and why some people don’t. I wonder how much, if any at all, that money matters.

    I can’t imagine an organization that would want to absorb my own blog. If one exists, would I want to move it over? I honestly have no idea. I haven’t considered all the factors, and I wonder whether it would matter as much. Even with totally independent editorial control, a blog sponsored by some big organization is then identified, perhaps principally, by that organization. That represents a growth opportunity but also a constraint. Hmm.

    • Click through to see the post where the fellow who leads The Monkey Cage, John Sides, talks about why they’re moving. Basically, they think they’ll have a much bigger audience. Maybe also an audience including more people with political influence. I think that was more or less the thinking for Nate Silver and Ezra Klein as well. Although as you say, there clearly are various considerations. Nate seems to be moving from the NY Times to ABC/ESPN in order to have more freedom to do what he wants, like write about sports (apparently, at the NY Times an editor had to approve all posts). I’d guess he’s probably getting more money too.

      When I was at Oikos Blog, there was discussion of various ways to tighten the link between the blog and the journal, for instance by republishing the best blog posts as a column in the journal. But none of those discussions ever really led to anything concrete. And of course, I eventually decided to go my own way because I wanted to try things that couldn’t be tried unless I had my own blog. But I don’t want to give the impression that the association with Oikos was a bad thing for me; it wasn’t. I’m sure I benefited from the association with Oikos, especially early on. I’m sure blogging under the Oikos banner gave me credibility and attracted readers, even if in practice no one at Oikos was exercising any editorial oversight on my posts. Whether the journal got anything tangible or intangible out of my blogging, I don’t know.

      The question of identification is a tricky one. I think that by the end of my time there, the Oikos Blog had become identified with me rather than the journal, which I could see being undesirable from the journal’s perspective. But I don’t know that that’s because, or just because, they were trusting enough to let me write whatever I wanted. For instance, I think if all the Oikos editors had begun blogging (which was the original vision for the Oikos Blog), I think the blog would’ve been more identified with the journal, even if the editors had all been writing whatever they wanted. But that’s total speculation on my part. The same issue of identification crops up elsewhere. I read a profile of Ezra Klein which touched on how his Wonkbook blog remains identified with him even though he’s at the Post. Apparently he draws so much traffic (I think it was described as “f*** you traffic”) that the Post basically has to let him do what he wants. He needs the Post, or at least benefits from being there–but the Post needs him more.

      I guess in the end, the most fundamental issue isn’t identification but mutual benefit. Would there ever be a case where both a journal and a science blogger thought it was to their mutual benefit for the blog to have some sort of “official” connection to the journal? Maybe, I have no idea. As you say, it’d depend on a lot of factors.

      • I loved Lawton’s View From The Park. And it was the first thing I thought of when you started the Oikos blog. But honestly, your pieces there were better than John’s and I think Oikos certainly benefitted from the blog: it, for a short time at least, returned a once edgy but now boring and stuffy journal to its former glory.

      • Wow, thanks John. That’s one of the most flattering and humbling things anyone’s ever said to me about my blogging, or about anything really. Seriously, thanks.

  2. Not sure if it fits in exactly with what you’re getting at, but it makes for an interesting (and possibly incorrect, being based on my dodgy memory of events) history of the career path of a group of science bloggers.

    Some of the bloggers who set up Occam’s Typewriter started with independent blogs; were invited to blog at the (now defunct) NPG group’s Nature Network (blogs now hosted by the painfully slow SciLogs dot com; went off to set up their own network at ; and have now branched out into the ‘formal’ publishing world with a blog network column at the online Guardian, Occam’s Corner.

    So, it’s possible that the movement to a journal/newspaper from a more independent background has happened twice in this example. Nature Networks had many faults (perhaps so many that it finally collapsed under the weight of them. Disclaimer: I posted there for a couple of years, but wasn’t as frustrated with the niggles as some people) but it had some fans for some time, at least, and set quite a few of them off on an interesting journey.

  3., Discover blogs, PLOS Blogs, Scientific American blogs, Phenomena, Scilogs, Scitable, Science2.0 blogs, Science3.0 blogs, Lab Spaces, Scientopia, Fields Of Science, Guardian blogs, Wired blogs, Ars Technica (started essentially as a science blog Nobel Intent, then later fused with the rest of the site), are just some of the places where both academics and science writers write alongside each other. Forbes, Slate, NYTimes and New Yorker have science bloggers and columnists, some of whom are also active researchers. Many bloggers are paid, or professionalized in many other ways. There are also similar networks in other languages.

    See and and

    • Thanks Bora, I was remiss in not mentioning these various sites in the post.

      One thing many (not all) of those sites have in common is that they’re aimed at the general public. The question I posed at the end was intended more narrowly, concerning blogs aimed at academics. Although I freely admit that there’s no hard and fast line there.

      • True. Tetrapod Zoology is a great case in point – an academic writing for other academics, using heaps of Latin terminology, yet super-popular with lay audiences. Which is exactly why we wanted him on Scientific American blogs. There are many others who try to do that, write at a slightly higher level than the newspaper articles, educating their audiences in the process.

  4. Quickly browsing news and popular science sites for science blogs should turn up a number of such examples, where they exist. I mentioned this post on twitter, specifically towards a couple of folks like Bora Zivkovic (a name most science bloggers likely recognize?) and Sam Arbesman (who now blogs for Wired).

    Hopefully they’ll stop by and leave comments.

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