You Aren’t Blogging Yet?!?
Maintaining a blog can be a boon to your career, increasing your profile in the scientific community, connecting you to collaborators, and helping you land new grants or jobs.
Microbial genomicist Jonathan Eisen had racked up an impressive publication record and thousands of citations long before he ever launched his über-popular evolutionary science blog, The Tree of Life, in February 2005. He had worked with Craig Venter at the Institute for Genomic Research, where he collaborated on early genome sequencing projects such as Arabidopsis thaliana and the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum.
Based on those scientific accomplishments alone, Eisen was doing quite well for himself. But in early 2005, he started a blog after hearing about the virtual world, Second Life. Eisen says that his eyes were opened to the nearly endless possibilities to be explored by taking scientific discussions to cyberspace. He started blogging that week, initiating his own collaborative discussion about science.
Fast forward to today—Eisen is the toast of the science blogosphere and the recipient of a new $1.3 million grant from the Sloan Foundation, which has tasked him with creating Web tools that cultivate a network of researchers working on the molecular biology of microbes that inhabit man-made environments such as homes and offices. The Sloan Foundation contacted Eisen and asked if he’d like to submit a proposal for the grant, in part because of his blog, he says.
Blogging may seem like just another extra task to add to your busy schedule, with its own pitfalls to navigate. But creating a site and finding compelling topics to write about (that won’t damage your image) can provide real benefits to your scientific career. Below, successful scientist-bloggers reveal the secrets.
Connect with collaborators
With a robust readership, blogging can be like commanding the podium at a conference attended by thousands of your colleagues, scattered across the globe. Massimo Pigliucci, former evolutionary biologist, now a philosopher of science at the City University of New York, says that his blog, Rationally Speaking, helped connect him with a grad student who would become his coauthor of a book about the philosophy of pseudoscience. “One post led to a couple of comments, which led to a paper, which possibly has led to at least one book.”
Eisen has used his blog as an idea generator to great effect. When the evolutionary biologist and his research group couldn’t figure out how to assess the diversity of a sample of organisms by comparing nonoverlapping short reads of specific genes, Eisen posed the question to his Internet readers. “We’d been working on this for, like, six months,” he remembers. “I said, ‘Screw this. I’m posting this to my blog.’ ” Eisen says that he was instantly bombarded with useful suggestions from evolutionary biologists who were considering the exact same dilemma. “I probably got 60 responses from hard-core evolution people,” he says. “In a week we had gotten more useful ideas than we would have come up with in a year.”
These days blogs can impact current events as much or more than traditional media coverage. University College London pharmacologist David Colquhoun illustrated this in 2002 when he started a crude precursor to his popular blog, Improbable Science, where he devotes much of his blogging energy to exposing what he calls the “quackery” that is homeopathy. Colquhoun’s blog has already led to the dismantling of several UK university degree programs in homeopathy. “Ten or 15 years ago you could write a letter to a newspaper and it may or may not have been published,” he adds. “Now you can just sit in front of the television your laptop and post something that the whole world can see. It could be the savior of democracy.”
Self-promotion is one of the key benefits of having your own blog. P.Z. Myers probably wouldn’t be nearly so well-known in his capacity as a biologist studying zebrafish development at the University of Minnesota, Morris if not for his wildly popular blog Pharyngula. Posting entries about your own papers and those written by your students is an excellent way to generate excitement about the work going on in your lab. Publicizing his lab’s work is “a responsibility that’s part of running my lab,” says Eisen.
In 2006, Bora Zivkovic was posting regularly at A Blog Around the Clock and coming off a graduate school stint, studying circadian rhythm biology when he heard of a job opening for an online community manager at PLoS. One weekend Zivkovic posted the job description on his blog under a heading that read, “I want this job,” and asked for comments on what he should do. His readers responded en force. “My commenters starting piling on about how I was the perfect candidate,” Zivkovic recalls. “Some addressed PLoS directly, saying they’d be crazy not to hire me.” By Monday morning, the comments had mounted, and an e-mail from a PLoS editor, Chris Surridge, topped Zivkovic’s inbox. “Should we consider this a formal application?” read the message from Surridge. Weeks later, Zivkovic had the job. “They told me that my commenters pretty much gave me the job,” he says. “It demonstrated to them that I already had a community and that I knew how to create one.”
Fulfill service requirements
Faculty members typically have to demonstrate that they’re engaging with the public as part of tenure reviews and grant applications. Blogs can be a great way to document and quantify the impact you’re having before review boards. Several of the authors who post on the evolution blog The Panda’s Thumb “have included [their blogging] in the service component of their tenure review,” says the blog’s system administrator Reed Cartwright, a University of Houston computational evolutionary geneticist.
Blogging can demand a lot of your valuable time. Striking the right balance between blogging and conducting your research can be tricky. Post too often and you risk neglecting students and projects in your lab; too seldom, and you run the risk of losing readers. One or two posts per week can keep readers engaged while not diverting too much of your attention away from your science. Some popular blogs, such as Colquhoun’s Improbable Science, are updated even less frequently. The University College London pharmacologist says that although sometimes he’ll spend an entire day working on his blog, he typically posts new entries “less than once a week, maybe every two.”
Negative perceptions from within
As a relatively new phenomenon—especially in the halls of academia—blogging can still rile administrators and some colleagues who strive to assemble productive, efficient faculties. “Your older colleagues and administrators are probably not going to look at it favorably,” Pigliucci warns. “There is a rift, but my sense is that that situation is changing pretty rapidly.” A good way to dispel negative perceptions, if they should arise, is to highlight the interesting work of your colleagues in your blog. Eisen, for example, once posted an interesting video that his UC Davis colleagues had made for an intro biology course. After science blogger Carl Zimmer reposted the video, it went viral on YouTube. “I write about stuff at Davis all the time,” Eisen says. “I confess, I do that in part not just because it’s interesting, but because it’s politically smart.”
Giving up punch lines
Eisen says that even journal editors are getting accustomed to the concept of research being discussed before it’s published, but he still urges caution. Though you want to provide readers with unique insights into your work, don’t give the whole story away on your blog. Eisen suggests that sharing incremental advances in your research is a good way to generate interest and possible collaboration. “I generally don’t discuss fine-scale details of ongoing work that people in my lab are doing. I talk in generalities,” he says, adding that he ultimately relies on his lab mates to tell him what they’re comfortable sharing on the blog. “I hope that they err on the side of openness,” he adds.
Topical. Pick a particular topic that interests you (the workings of fluorescence-activated cell sorting machines, or your experiences in grant writing, for instance). Your audience will be smaller, but more focused and probably more valuable to you. The secret here is to write about what you know best—your corner of the scientific enterprise—while still encouraging expansive comments from other disciplines that might broaden your research.
Group Blogs. These are blog sites where several authors contribute posts, usually on a rotating basis. Normally these blogs are focused on a specific topic, evolution or climate change, for example. The advantage of group blogs is that you can assemble several authoritative voices under one roof, which may be attractive to readers. They’re also great places to begin your foray into the blogosphere and avoid the pressure of starting your own blog.
Confessional. This is a tone employed by many nonprofessional blogs, where writers keep readers up-to-date on their lives. Using a conversational writing style can work in the scientific arena if you stick to happenings in your lab and professional life. But be careful: venturing too far into the personal realm can lead to unintended consequences, such as being perceived as a fluffy site that’s light on science or attracting fringe elements and stalkers, a problem reported by a few of the scientist-bloggers The Scientist spoke with.
Confrontational. Using your blog to expose inaccuracies or ineptitude can be a great way to incite changes in policy, academic administration, and other areas. But be sure to keep any criticisms you have on a professional level. Eisen says that he learned this lesson the hard way, after receiving angry letters from scientists whose research he criticized on his blog. “I still write things that are critical,” he says, “but now I’m much more careful about it.”
Instructive. Science blogs are excellent vehicles to make your research relevant to the general public and to deliver that message directly to the masses, fulfilling those service requirements. “To the extent that scientists want to communicate their science without the filter of the media, I think [having a blog is a] good idea,” says physicist Joseph Romm, editor of Climate Progress and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Post when publishing and speaking
Self-promotion is probably the most important service your blog can provide. Post a brief entry with appropriate links as soon as your latest paper is published or in advance of conference presentations. Here, a simple post works best. A brief note to your readers that says, “Hey, check out this new study I just got published!” with a link to the journal’s site will suffice. Blogs can also be used as virtual CVs, with links and information updated on a constant basis. Pigliucci links to all his work, including the several books he’s written, on his blog. “It’s now become sort of a portal or gateway to all the other things I do,” he says.
Post links to other blogs
Linking to other blogs that you find interesting is an important piece of blogosphere etiquette. Though it may seem counterintuitive to direct your readers to other authors writing in the same field, links are typically reciprocated. The more you link to the blogs of others, the more your own blog will get linked.
Urging readers to add their own two cents engenders a sense of community. “What I like to do is make it very obvious that I’m playing devil’s advocate and pushing things to the next logical conclusion,” Zivkovic says, adding that when writing about research, he’ll resist his urge to answer all the questions that spring to his mind and instead prod his readers for help. “One of the tricks is to leave some hole open, point it out in the post and ask ‘Does any one else know about this?’ Everybody has gaps, and use those gaps and instead of studying yourself to death, ask your readers to fill you in.”