A Year of Research Blogging

Research Blogging / by Dave Munger /

ResearchBlogging.org’s content editors on how they select the best blog posts, the value of research blogging, and their predictions for the coming year.

One of the best parts about my job as editor of ResearchBlogging.org is working with a dedicated group of editors who help identify the best research blogging on the internet. In addition to fourteen editors who verify that each registered blog meets our standards, we also have four content editors—specialists to select the most notable individual blog posts in their areas of expertise each week—Jarrett Byrnes, Vincent Racaniello, Travis Saunders, and the anonymous “Dr. SkySkull.”

After their first six months of culling out the very best work of research bloggers across the disciplines, I thought it would be worthwhile to ask our content editors for their thoughts about the past year in research blogging, and what they see as emerging trends in the future.

Please tell me a bit about yourself, your blog, and your research interests.
Vincent Racaniello: I’ve been Professor of Microbiology & Immunology at Columbia University since 1982. I have a lab that researches viruses, and I also teach virology. Our research is aimed at understanding how viruses multiply and cause disease; specifically poliovirus, which causes paralytic disease, and rhinovirus, which causes the common cold. I blog to give back to the general public everything I’ve learned about viruses in 30+ years of studying them.

Jarrett Byrnes: I’m currently a postdoctoral associate at the Santa Barbara Coastal Long Term Ecological Research site.  My research focuses on two big areas of inquiry. First, how are marine food webs shaped by the impacts of man? Second, given how we are altering the species diversity and interconnectedness of marine food webs, how will this alter the way the oceans function in the future? I started blogging as a way to keep a record of the goings on of my research projects, but it’s since grown to be a conversation for and about science. The blog’s name, ”I’m a chordata! Urochordata!” as well as a good bit of its content, is drawn from my love of tunicates.

Dr. SkySkull: I’m a professor of physics, specifically optical science, at a university in the southeastern US. My blog is a combination of physics research blogging, history of science blogging, and pulp fiction (horror and adventure stories) of the early 1900s.

Travis Saunders: I am a PhD student in Exercise Physiology at the University of Ottawa. My research focuses on the relationship between childhood sedentary time (e.g. time spent sitting) and the risk of obesity and chronic disease. Together with Peter Janiszewski, I use our blog to promote obesity-related research, critique pseudo-scientific weight loss gimmicks, and help people incorporate physical activity into their daily lives.

What do you look for in a post you select for ResearchBlogging.org’s Editor’s Selections?
SkySkull: I really choose posts by reading them and seeing what catches my eye!  Looking over those posts I’ve selected, I would say I choose Editor’s Selections by three criteria: broad interest, technical accessibility, and added value. Broad interest refers to a topic that would be enjoyed by anyone excited by science. Technical accessibility means that the post is written to be accessible, at least in part, to a layperson reading it. A post with added value gives some insight into the topic beyond that stated in the original article, be it historical background, personal reflections, or some other additional context.

Byrnes: I cover blogs about nature, and nature is infinitely awe-inspiring, often highly amusing, and frequently rather scandalous. I look for posts that embody these qualities and give clear guidance as to why a particular research result is of interest.

Racaniello: First and foremost, I look for a story that catches my eye—something I’ve never read before, perhaps in a field I don’t follow at all. As a biology editor I look for posts on molecular/cellular biology and virology. Then I make sure it’s written beautifully—it could be a great story, but if the writing isn’t stellar (or if the post is too short) it doesn’t make the cut. Illustrations are a plus but not needed.

Saunders: I look for posts about health, clinical research, and nutrition that add context to the research that they are discussing. The best posts don’t just describe the research itself; they also explain how those findings will affect other researchers, health care practitioners, and the general public.

What trends in have you noticed in blogging about your area of expertise in the past year?
Saunders: I think the most interesting trend has been the backlash that occurs whenever people perceive a lack of transparency. Whether it is drug companies ghostwriting articles in medical journals or governments allowing corporations to play fast and loose with medical claims, people are taking a stand when they feel that they are being deliberately misled.

SkySkull: It’s hard to say, as I cover a lot of research areas in my selections! In physics, astronomy seems to be the happening place to be, with lots of exciting discoveries such as water on the moon and the mega-ring of Saturn.

Byrnes: I think one of the most obvious trends is the strong conservation bent seen in many topics. This is not surprising, as it’s a big thrust of many research programs across the globe. But I’d argue that papers with a direct link to conservation goals or an understanding of just how humans are altering the environment are far more frequently cited in the blogging community. It reflects real anxiety and interest felt by many researchers out there.

Racaniello: Blogging has increased. I see more articles in virology/molecular biology/cell biology from new people. The articles are getting better, too: more creative and sophisticated.

What do you see as the role of active researchers in blogging? How should bloggers, researchers, and journalists interact to share scientific information with the public?
SkySkull: I would love to see more researchers blogging about work in their own fields! It is a great opportunity to have a dialogue about research in more-or-less real time outside of the limited contact in workshops and conferences, and in view of the general public.  I’ve always felt that bloggers and journalists have a somewhat complementary role, looking at research developments as “insiders” and “outsiders,” respectively, in the scientific community.

Byrnes: One thing that typically separates science blogging from science journalism is that many science bloggers are practicing scientists. Blogging is what they do in their spare time. This is great as it ends up highlighting the great diversity of people who are scientists, and how we think and live. It also means that research bloggers are close to the work themselves. Their ideas are drawn on the latest science available (sometimes from things that aren’t even published yet), and they have a tremendous amount of respect for getting their interpretation right. We’ve all seen science misinterpreted, or controversial ancillary results trumpeted over substantial but perhaps less sexy results. This care [among research bloggers] is a great boon to anyone who wants to know what is going on in science today.

Saunders: I think it is absolutely critical that researchers become involved in blogging—the best science is of little use if it’s not being read, and blogging is a phenomenal way to bring our research to the masses. I think that researchers need to work with journalists to ensure that the public is getting the most accurate information possible, and bloggers can aid that process by promoting research that they feel is of value to society, and by critiquing journalists when they get the facts wrong.

Racaniello: In my view researchers should blog to teach. A researcher is in a unique position because he or she has done one thing for many years, and knows more about it than most people. Journalists and non-researcher bloggers need to read these posts if they intend to write in the same areas.

What are some emerging trends we should keep an eye out for in 2010?
Byrnes: I’m intrigued by the growing trend of making authors a part of the discussion of their own work. I’m a big fan of Jai Ranganathan’s Voyage of the Beagle podcast, which discusses a lot of peer-reviewed science and actually interviews the authors themselves. I think making that direct connection between authors, their work, and the public is tremendously cool, and hope it continues at other new sites.

SkySkull: Science blogging is becoming much more mainstream, with even the American Physical Society producing popularized Viewpoints articles written about the most exciting developments in their journals. I expect we’ll start to see a lot more scientific organizations actively promoting such popular outreach. I may be biased on this, but I like to think I’m seeing a lot more interest in the history of science on blogs, as well.

Saunders: Blogs make research accessible to the public, but they also make it accessible to other researchers. I think this will lead to an increasing number of interdisciplinary discussions, and hopefully new areas of research. The ability to bring together researchers of different backgrounds is one of the things I find most exciting about research blogs.

Racaniello: There’s an old saying: It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. But I personally will be looking out for more new viruses in unusual places (extreme environments, for example), expecting more impact of genomics on biology, and watching the funding of basic science continue its downward spiral.

Anything else you’d like to add?
Racaniello: Thank you for ResearchBlogging.org. There are many blogs out there, but few that write about peer-reviewed scientific research. I think the site is very special because of this focus; and it allows me to learn about other research areas in one place.

Byrnes: Most science bloggers are relatively junior scientists—grad students, postdocs, or new faculty. I’m curious to see just what will happen as more research bloggers move up the hierarchy of academia. How will the science blogosphere evolve? Will blogging begin to be important for one’s academic career? It’s an open question, since for now many of us just do this out of the joy of sharing science.

Originally published January 6, 2010

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