Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Martine Fugère, Eric Vander Wal and Mark Vellend. Mark recently led an ecology discussion group on blogs in ecology, using Dynamic Ecology as one of the examples. I heard about it because of discussants following a link to us, and so I invited the group to do a guest post summarizing their discussion. I’ve talked a lot about why I blog and why I think ecologists should read blogs (and even written a paper on these topics). So I thought it would be interesting to hear some thoughts on blogs in ecology from folks who aren’t themselves bloggers (or in many cases even regular blog readers). Thanks very much to Martine, Eric, and Mark for taking the time to share their discussion.
At francophone institutions across Canada, such as the Université de Sherbrooke, communicating science in English creates an additional challenge for graduate students above learning their specialty in biology. Here at the UdeS, to exercise this skill an indomitable group of ecologists meet to discuss ideas in English. Much like some blogs, one purpose of his fortnightly gathering is to discuss diverse topics related to science.
This week the topic was “Blogs in Ecology”. Are they relevant? Who reads them? And what motivates someone to read them? What are the possible returns on investing time in blogging over other tasks, for example, writing a peer-reviewed article? Here is what came out from that discussion.
Did anyone in the group read ecology (or evolution) blogs? 3/20 of did – hardly a sample size large enough to detect demographic trends. To prepare for the discussion, however, pretty much everyone skimmed the suggested blogs. Nearly everyone enjoyed the entry about field gremlins. To capture the attention of new readers, humour appeared to be a key factor, albeit one that did not necessarily maintain interest. But if you’re not Stephen Leacock, a blog at least needed to be written in a casual style that offered respite for eyes too tired to continue reading journal articles, but not yet sated on science for the day. As a result the blog itself needed to capture a sense of the general in an idea, somehow relating to natural world and the processes that shape it.
Other possible roles of a blog we could think of included communicating a research group’s dynamic and congenial lab atmosphere. Or a blog could be used to spread new ideas about teaching methods, or lab exercises, and their outcomes among students and faculty. The group, however, questioned whether there was a role for the blog as a popular essay in ecology; a tool to communicate results of research out beyond the walls of academe, common in economics.
Ultimately, the cost of blogging in is borne by the writer. Is it a ‘trade-off’ against more traditional measures of success in science? A number of examples were cited. Of note Fox’s blog entry that was converted into a TREE article, which was likely an exception rather than a rule. But the value of the blog as a sounding board for ideas and the possibility of its extended and casual reach were generally appreciated, even among those who were unlikely to dedicate time to reading them. In the end, whether they are or are not relevant correlated more closely to one’s proclivity toward reading blogs than to the contents of the blog itself.
“The group, however, questioned whether there was a role for the blog as a popular essay in ecology; a tool to communicate results of research out beyond the walls of academe, common in economics.”
I think you’ll find that blogs that are intended to reach the public are not going to be the ones that are generally read by other ecologists and vice versa. These for-the-public blogs exist (and some are very successful), but perhaps were not included in your survey of blogs to skim for the discussion, as they’re not often cross-referenced by other ecology blogs.
Having written for both ecologist-audience blogs and public-audience blogs, I find that my tone and language are quite different depending on the audience. I assume a smart public audience, but not one that necessarily knows ecology jargon. Because blog posts should be reasonably short (in my opinion), I might spend a good chunk of a public-audience post talking about what different types of diversity metrics we can use to figure out a problem or what the difference is between a type I and a type II error. I expect these sorts of posts to be boring to professional ecologists, and when I write for that audience, I expect familiarity with jargon and so cover more science per post.
“a blog could be used to spread new ideas about teaching methods, or lab exercises, and their outcomes among students and faculty. The group, however, questioned whether there was a role for the blog as a popular essay in ecology; a tool to communicate results of research out beyond the walls of academe, common in economics.”
There is another function of blogging that falls between these statements: communicating results of research and other academic activities to our students (including alumni). That’s certainly one of the reasons why I blog, so that my students get a sense of what I do when I’m not directly interacting with them. Whether they actually care is another matter….. 😉
I’m very surprised that the group “questioned whether there was a role for the blog as a popular essay”; that’s exactly what I’m trying to do with my postings and, based on feedback, it seems to be appreciated amongst the readership.
Re: ecology blogs as popular essays and whether there’s an audience for that, I think it depends what you mean by “popular” and what sort of audience you have in mind. Margaret has it right, I think (and I think the posters might actually agree, if I’m reading them correctly). I think there’s a real gap between the sort of material academic ecologists will want to read (the sort of stuff on Dynamic Ecology, EEB and Flow, BioDiverse Perspectives, etc.), and the sort of stuff the educated general public will want to read. This is in contrast to economics, where there’s much more of a continuum from an academic to a non-academic audience. I do think that’s part of why the academic economics blogosphere is so vibrant–it’s not just academics who read it, it’s also policymakers, people in business and finance, keenly-interested amateurs (who are numerous), etc. The place to look in ecology for the equivalent of that sort of thing would probably be in controversial applied areas of significant public and policy interest, like climate change science.
As to the costs and benefits of blogging, it depends. I write fast (writing Dynamic Ecology doesn’t take me as much time as you probably think, though it is a non-trivial time investment), I like to write, I’m tenured, I’m in Canada where the federal granting system is different (so I don’t have to chase money all the time), and I’ve already made the initial investment to build up an audience for my blogging. Even if I hadn’t gotten any papers out of blog posts, I’d still consider blogging to be a net benefit for me. It’s certainly raised my profile in the field and given me influence I otherwise wouldn’t have had, my head of department likes that I’m doing it, etc. But the cost-benefit calculation would be very different if I wrote slower, wasn’t tenured, wasn’t in Canada, etc. Meg and Brian should have some interesting thoughts on this. For instance, I believe Meg has used Dynamic Ecology as a “broader impact” in grant applications.
In passing (and this is really an inside baseball remark), audience size is part of the cost-benefit calculation for me, and I’m sure for Brian and Meg as well (though they can speak for themselves). You can’t really claim to be having a “broad” impact in a grant application or an annual performance review if you don’t have many readers. Ethan White recently did a post over at Jabberwocky Ecology where he said that the only reason ecologists would ever care about how much traffic their blogs draw would be if they were making money from ads. I’m sure Ethan was speaking for himself, which is absolutely fine, people blog for all sorts of reasons and many of those reasons have nothing to do with how much traffic one draws. But while I don’t consciously try to draw traffic by thinking “Hmm, what can I write that would draw lots of traffic?”, personally I do care how much traffic we draw. For instance, my head of department gives me credit on performance reviews for my blogging because I can show him our traffic data to make the case that Dynamic Ecology is widely-read and influential.
I also agree that readership of ecology blogs mostly comes from academics who read other sorts of blogs too, and that blog readers are still a minority of academic ecologists. As big as Dynamic Ecology’s audience is, we only reach a pretty small fraction of ecologists. Of course, I prefer to think of that as “room to grow”. 🙂
Couple of comments on this:
1. “The place to look in ecology for the equivalent of that sort of thing would probably be in controversial applied areas of significant public and policy interest, like climate change science.”
I think you’re right, which is a bit sad. The most feedback I had on a blog post was when I talked about a public debate I had with a creationist a few years ago. It seems the public responds to controversy and sensationalism. No surprise there of course, but it’s the day-to-day work we’re doing in relation to conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services that’s the really important issue. Perhaps I need to tag all my posts with “climate change” 🙂
2. “I believe Meg has used Dynamic Ecology as a “broader impact” in grant applications.”
Certainly in the UK this would not be regarded as “impact”, rather it would be “reach”. Impact as far as Research Councils are concerned involves a significant change at some level: has the fact that other academics have read the blog made a difference to how they do their research? Difficult to evidence. But even more difficult to evidence is the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework’s definition of impact, which is wholly non-academic. The impact has to be made at a societal level.
Yes, whether a blog aimed at academics (or indeed a blog of any sort) would be considered a “broader impact” by a funding body totally depends on the policies of the funding body. And similarly for what sort of evidence one needs to provide in order to demonstrate “impact” as defined by the funding body.
I would be interested in seeing a blog post about your stats and how that relates to your interaction with your department head. I think it would be interesting for other bloggers to know what is considered “good” in terms of traffic. Even if it is a little shallow to compare numbers. I’ve done similar posts on my blog, since I don’t see it done often enough. However, my example is not very useful for other bloggers, since I don’t get any professional academic benefits from blogging (yet!).
I’ve done summaries of our traffic in the past. I usually do them once/year. The most recent one is here:
I don’t know that it would be very informative for me to talk about my interactions with my head of department. It’s too anecdotal. He certainly doesn’t have a specific number in mind as to what’s considered “good” traffic, and I think he basically takes my word for it when I tell him DE is probably the most widely-read ecology blog of its kind. But our numbers sound “large”, and jive with his own anecdotal experience (apparently he was once in South Africa when, out of the blue, one of his South African collaborators started talking about how he loves Dynamic Ecology). Plus, my blogging is just one element among many in my annual performance review, and far from the most important one. My head of department cares much more that I’m publishing regularly in journals like TREE and Ecology, for instance, or about the job I’m doing as chair of the Ecology undergraduate program, or about the teaching evaluations I’m receiving. If my blogging came at the cost of my performance in those other areas, I doubt my head of department would be happy with me.
The benefits I get from blogging are real, but mostly are less tangible than “a better performance evaluation from my head of department”.
Do you have a sense of how these visitors and followers break down in terms of professional ecologists, students, interested members of the public, other kinds of academics, etc. Given what’s been said previously about blog reading by ecologists being in the minority, does this mean most of the visitors are not ecologists? If so, what are they getting from the blog, why are they reading it?
Yes, we did a poll on this a while back:
Thanks Jeremy, I’d forgotten about that. But I think this raises more questions than it answers. Although you say that “grad students comprise the single largest proportion of readers”, as you acknowledge, it’s not a random sample, so in reality “grad students comprise the single largest proportion of readers who responded to the survey”.
Given the thousands of hits you get for every posting, who are these individuals? Are they really mainly ecology grad students? It’s a rhetorical question, I know, as it’s impossible to be certain, but it does intrigue me.
OK, back to REF writing….. 😦
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