Blogging, open science and the public intellectual

For the last half-year I’ve been keeping TheEGG to a strict weekly schedule. I’ve been making sure that at least one post comes out during every calendar week. At times this has been taxing. And of course this causes both reflection on why I blog and an urge to dip into old unfinished posts. This week I deliver both. Below is a linkdex of 7 posts from 2016 and earlier (with a few recent comments added here and there) commenting on how scientists and public intellectuals (whatever that phrase might mean) should approach blogging.

If you, dear reader, are a fellow science blogger then you might have seen these articles before. But I hope you might find it useful to revisit and reflect on some of them. I certainly found it insightful. And if you have any important updates to add to these links then these updates are certainly encouraged.

The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals by Corey Robin

There is a renaissance of public intellectualism with graduate students and faculty taking to the blogs. But is this sustainable? Is academic blogging only for young people with naive dreams and without serious responsibilities; and tenured professors with job security? Is there a way to realign the academic incentive system to promote and sustain the new generation of public intellectuals?

How blogging helped me write my dissertation by Maxime Larivé

Sometime people paint blogging as eating up valuable time or energy that could be used for other scholarly writing. But this has not been my experience. In general, I agree with the following sentiment by Larivé:

I’ve found that blogging didn’t detract at all and actually improved the quantity and quality of my scholarly writing. Most important, writing online gave me a feeling of accomplishment that is necessary for every writer. Short-term confidence boosts are especially helpful when you’re writing a doctoral dissertation or a book, which are lengthy processes that can seem endless at times.

I have not been too proactive at networking, and when I have ideas to bounce around, I often find myself without an ear. In fact, I first started TheEGG as a way to keep in touch with collaborators at McGill while I was away in Waterloo. Blogging has provided an outlet for some of my ideas, and a reward mechanism for sharing. Since I am particularly susceptible to gamification, the stats features is particularly good at motivating and giving me little confidence boost when I’m stressed.

However, there are downsides. I have noticed a shift in my writing away from preliminary ideas and math heavy notes to more accessible and response pieces because they tend to garner more views and a more salient reward signal. Or sometimes I find my self-imposed blogging schedule too strenuous and switch to linkdexes like this post instead of writing new ideas.

Are these outweighed by my improvements in writing and communication skills? Sometimes it isn’t obvious, mostly because I find growth in writing hard to measure or even notice. A part I need be more cautious about though, is stats-obsession and too much time spent on promotion. These are things I could investigate though, based on my system of time tracking. But Larivé says it well:

[J]oining an already-established blog connected to an organization is a much more beneficial experience than starting your own blog… [it] is the easiest way to get your posts circulating in the larger world…

… work required to maintain your own blog is too great, as opposed to … a larger structure … doing the promotion for you. While joining a larger structure may be constraining … you do receive more comments, which you can then use to improve the quality of your writing and the content of your work. That feedback loop is critical to becoming a better writer and thinker.

This is why it might be better to start writing on group blogs or StackExchange rather than on your own. I was certainly active on SE before starting the blog.

Blogging as post-publication peer review: reasonable or unfair? by Deevy Bishop

Another role for academic blogging: post-publication peer review. This is the role that I have mostly focused TheEGG blog on, abstracting and reviewing published papers. I think this is the best use for blogs and the one that brings the most value to academics. Outreach is great, but that can be coordinated through the huge super-star blogs. For smaller bloggers, I think discussing recent papers and tools is great!

Current Biology Interview with Jingmai O’Connor

Of course, not everybody agrees with blog-based post-publication peer review. One of the most notable examples that circulated in early 2016 was this interview with Jingmai O’Connor. I was first pointed to it by David Basanta. In particular, the last question:

What’s your view on social media and science? For example, the role of science blogs in critiquing published papers?

Her response, which I think expressed a sentiment shared by a number of scientists:

Those who can, publish. Those who can’t, blog. I understand that blogs can be useful in affording the general public insights into current science, but it often seems those who criticize or spend large amounts of time blogging are also those who don’t generate much publications themselves. If there were any valid criticisms to be made, the correct venue for these comments would be in a similar, peer-reviewed and citable published form. The internet is unchecked and the public often forgets that. They forget or are unaware that a published paper passed rigorous review by experts, which carries more validity than the opinion of some disgruntled scientist or amateur on the internet. Thus, I find that criticism in social media is damaging to science, as it is to most aspects of our culture.

Of course, this sentiment is not nearly as popular among scientists on twitter or those that blog. So it received a great deal of both backlash and reflection. To look at some of the best articles that came out just on February 2nd, 2016 from NeuroDojo, Dynamic Ecology, and the Spectrascope. I, too, wanted to join this parade of reactions. But I didn’t, not out of any wisdom but simply out of not finding the time and energy.

Now that over two years have passed, I don’t want to pile on. I just want to share this article to remind you, dear reader, that there are scientists who oppose blogging and social media. Sometimes they opposite it very vehemently. But given the medium, it is unlikely that we will hear from them in blog comments or on social media. As such, we need to find other ways to listen to them and to assess for ourselves which parts of their arguments are relevant and which are a fear of change or a fear of losing authority.

I guess this fits into a broader theme that I try to advocate for: As a scientist, don’t speak to the public. Listen to the public.

Research on academic blogging: what does it reveal? by Deborah Lupton

I am glad to see in the start of the second to last paragraph that attitudes toward blogging among non-blogging academics are becoming more positive:

In the early years of academic blogging, there was often suspicion of the practice on the part of other academics, and people who maintained blogs were in some cases discriminated against when seeking tenure or promotion or otherwise viewed with disdain for being self-aggrandising or wasting time (Gregg 2006, Kirkup 2010, Maitzen 2012). Although negative views of academic blogging have certainly not disappeared, they appear to be slowly changing as universities seek to prove that they are engaging with the public and conforming to open access mandates and policies.

My only issue with much if this discussion is that blogging is always treated as a supplement. As far as I understand, the goal of academics isn’t to publish papers but do develop and share knowledge. Blogging and Q&A sites are just another way to do so. Some even have communities with higher standards than journals. For example, I would trust a highly voted cstheory answer over most things that Nature or Science publishes in computer science. Of course, I am singling out a very niche field.

If you support open science then I think that you should have a blog and contribute to Q&A sites in your field if they exist. Not for public outreach, but as part of your workflow.

Why grad schools should require students to blog by Maria Konnikova

I agree with this article, but would also add that blogging doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘popular’ or outreach centered. Although this is possible in fields like psychology, there are many areas of inquiry where a large popular audience doesn’t exist. However, technical blogging should also be encouraged, especially the presentation of preliminary results to facilitate open science. I’ve been trying to do this with my own mentees, strongly encouraging them to contribute to this blog or to start their own.

And if a blog does happen to have a popular or outreach focus then C. Titus Brown suggests that “you can put their blogs down as evidence of your outreach component for your NSF grants. Yes, this works.” I wonder if anybody else has experience with this. Can professors list their students’ blogs as outreach on grants and thus benefit from it?

Crowd-Funding for Research Dollars: A Cure for Science’s Ills? by Jai Ranganathan

Of course, if you’re blogging and on social media, you also have funding sources other than grants. Crowd funding of research has the potential to address two pressing problems that scientists and the community at large face (1) More sources of funding for individual scientists, and (2) Better incentives for outreach among scientists.

To me, these two points feel a bit double-edged. Ranganathan’s article focuses on the positive aspects, so I will just add the bits of cynicism it is missing:

If getting money through crowd-funding becomes standard and expected then I can see politicians and granting agencies using this as an excuse to shrink science budgets further (“well, look, scientists can turn to the public directly, let the free market take care of it”). It feeds especially well into the rhetoric of those who are already least inclined to fund science. Just like it is completely unacceptable that in parts of the US, gofundme serves as replacement for accessible government healthcare, we shouldn’t let crowdfunding replace official support for research. Even if that official support might force us to ask if we’re working for the Class that pays us.

It is simply impossible for certain types of research to get funding directly through the masses because it requires too much background to understand what the research is about. I am thinking about math here. It also seems like it is too easy to get the public to fund certain kinds of hypetastic but fundamentally flawed research. We just have to turn to SV start-ups for examples.

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About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

One Response to Blogging, open science and the public intellectual

  1. Pingback: Cataloging a year of social blogging | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

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