In December 2010, a paper in Science made a revolutionary claim that garnered the swift and loud skepticism of science bloggers. The authors of the paper claimed that they had found a bacterium that could use arsenic, a toxic compound, in its DNA in place of phosphorus, an element known to be essential for all forms of life. Initial news based on a press release heralded headlines such as The Telegraph’s “Life as we don’t know it could prove the existence of aliens.”
Science bloggers began to discuss the controversial claim on their blogs and on Twitter using the hashtag #arseniclife. For example, a few days after the big announcement, microbiologist Rosemary Redfield wrote on her blog RRResearch that she thought the researchers’ work was unreliable, turning the media attention from the faulty but headlines-worthy claims to the criticisms she and others were raising. Redfield and other scientists also posted data on Redfield’s blog that they argued refuted the arsenic life paper. Subsequent studies also refuted the original paper’s claims.
Science blogs serve a variety of important functions in today’s world of science media. Science bloggers break smaller news stories as well as provide personal insight on and noteworthy criticism of published research. The post-publication peer review provided by science bloggers has resulted in numerous refutations and retractions of research papers. Scientists’ blogs today can be sufficiently influential to set scientific agendas, write Sara K.Yeo and colleagues in a recently published report on the role of blogs and Twitter in the discrediting of the 2011 arsenic life paper.
For more than a decade now, scientists have been moving online to share their research, insights and expert opinions, and blogs played a major role in that movement. Today, professional science writers, major news outlets, and research institutions are also increasingly recognizing the value of blogging about science. Legacy publications including National Geographic (and this very one, American Scientist) have brought science bloggers into the fold, recognizing the power of blogs to promote more regular readership of science.
But what is a science blog, after all? What is motivating scientists and science writers to take to blogs? What are they blogging about, and how are they making that decision? The answers to these questions have remained amazingly mysterious even as blogs have grown in popularity over the last decade. Thanks to research in the area of mass communication, we know a lot more about the sociological factors that guide journalism and journalists’ work. Shoemaker and Reese’s 2013 “Mediating the Message in the 21st Century” (a sample of the book can be found here) outlines the news values, routine practices, and organizational and institutional influences that shape what becomes news. For example, factors of newsworthiness, such as timeliness and conflict, have evolved and become accepted guidelines for journalists’ selection and presentation of stories. But the influences that shape science blog content have not so often been investigated.
I thought it was important to investigate what shapes science blog content at a time when scientists, media outlets, and scientific institutions are trying to maximize their impact in the blogosphere, or even simply trying to justify their blogging efforts. If I could reveal shared guidelines that cut across various science blogs, I could help scientists, media outlets, and scientific institutions understand whether and how science blogs uniquely contribute to the mix of online science content.
So in 2014 and 2015, I conducted in-depth interviews with more than 50 science bloggers and a survey of more than 610 science bloggers. I asked bloggers questions about their motivations, how they decide what to blog about, who they consider their readers to be, and what communication roles they perceive themselves fulfilling. The complete results can be found in my dissertation and in one subsequently published paper.
To Blog or Not to Blog
One of the questions I’ve tackled in my research on science blogging practices is the question of why bloggers do so? Recent research by Gregory Masters, which remains unpublished in the peer-reviewed journal format, suggests that science bloggers “are motivated mainly by enjoyment.” Other motivations to blog about science might include the desire to contribute in the public arena as a public intellectual or subject-area expert, the desire to be an educator, and the need to network with colleagues and peers, as noted by communications researcher Maria Luzón in a study published in 2013.
In 2015 I asked more than 50 science bloggers to describe their motivations to blog about science. The most common answer was to communicate science to nonspecialist audiences (31 out of 51 bloggers) through fun, cool, or interesting content. Making science accessible to a broader audience was also often mentioned as a motivation. But bloggers are not only writing for an audience, but also for themselves. After outreach, internal motivations (“for myself”) were some of the most common reasons bloggers gave for their blogging. In other words, we enjoy blogging about science. Blogging is a form of self-expression and a means of having a voice in larger media and public conversations about science.
Indeed, blogging for oneself and blogging for a broader audience may go hand-in-hand more than previously thought. Internal motivations may keep bloggers going when they can’t easily quantify the impacts of their outreach efforts. But there is also a more interesting link between these internal and external motivations to blog. For example, scientists blogging to entertain themselves often use their blog as an excuse to explore topics beyond their narrow field of science. When they find or read about something that catches their attention, it is not only entertaining to them to blog about it, but following this intuition also happens to result in content that is geared toward a broader audience. Additional motivations to blog about science are explored in the figure on the right.
How Science Bloggers Perceive Their Roles
Now that we know a bit more about the motivations that drive the activity of science blogging, we might want to explore the communication roles that science bloggers see themselves fulfilling. Do they see themselves as reporters and watchdogs, roles that overlap with traditional news functions? As educators and explainers? Or rather as public intellectuals?
In a study published in the Journal of Science Communication, I found that science bloggers tend to be young and highly educated. Nearly half of the bloggers I surveyed in 2014 and 2015 indicated academic research as their primary occupational area, while 5 percent indicated education, 8 percent indicated science writing, and less than 5 percent indicated journalism. Roughly 20 percent of the science bloggers I surveyed identified as students in their current occupational status.
Given the large representation of academic researchers and students in the blogosphere, it may make sense that science bloggers most frequently perceive themselves to be engaging in the roles of explainer and public intellectual, and least frequently in the role of investigative reporter. As defined in the survey, an explainer “explains or translates scientific information from experts to nonspecialist publics,” while a public intellectual “synthesizes a range of complex information about science in which he/she has a degree of specialization and presents this from a distinct, identifiable perspective.”
These self-perceived roles depend on individual factors, including the science blogger’s primary area of occupation, the blogger’s gender, whether he or she blogs independently or for a media outlet, and whether he or she has training in science communication. But overall science bloggers’ self-perceived roles overlap but compliment more than compete with the roles of science journalists (PDF of the study here).
Blogworthiness: All the Science that is Fit to Blog
On average, science bloggers tend to be engaging as explainers of science and as public intellectuals, writing to communicate science to nonspecialist (but usually science-interested) audiences, to open up scientific conversations, to put research in a broader context and to share their expertise to “get the word out” about science.
But a piece is yet missing from the puzzle of understanding science blog content, and that is what science bloggers consider “blogworthy.” How do science bloggers decide what to blog about?
This was a question I was particularly interested in answering, because the answer could reveal a lot about why people would read science blogs.
In my survey of science bloggers, mentioned earlier, the most prominent factors participants cited as determining blogworthiness, or whether they would decide to blog about a given topic or idea, were passion for the topic and whether the blogger was able to add context to it. Another prominent factor of blogworthiness was if a blogger thought a topic deserved more media attention. In other words, science bloggers are often deliberately choosing to write about research that isn’t being covered elsewhere or that isn’t being covered with the contextual information they think it should be.
From the Reader’s Perspective
Many science bloggers, especially scientists, are blogging with scientific outreach in mind but also simultaneously looking to express and entertain themselves. When they are deciding what to blog about, personal interest, adding value (“Do I have personal expertise or context to add?”), and contributing to the larger ecosystem (“Do I have a unique angle or something to contribute?”) are some of the most important factors science bloggers consider. But what does this mean from the reader’s perspective?
I’m pursuing the answer to this question as I write this blog post. I’ve conducted a survey of nearly 3,000 science blog readers, to investigate their motivations to read science blogs. One of the things I’m most curious about is whether readers’ motivations and patterns of using science blogs match some of the blogging practices revealed in this blog post. If science bloggers are blogging predominantly for outreach and to fill gaps in media coverage of science, are the readers of these blogs also looking to them as educational resources and sources of information not found elsewhere?
I’ll be discussing some of my findings in a subsequent blog post, so stay tuned!