Science blogging: the new frontier in science communication
The new tools offered by the internet, which centre on user-supplied content and are often dubbed Web 2.0, are changing the way we communicate. Fortunately, scientists are catching up with these developments and are making use of these great tools as never before.
Take, for example, the game called FoldIt that makes use of the gaming skills of scientists and non-scientists alike in solving the mysteries of protein folding. Then there is the Journal of Visualized Experiments which allows scientists to publish video clips of real laboratory procedures, allowing new researchers to learn cutting-edge skills quickly and avoid mistakes. Also, there is the burgeoning community of science bloggers who aim to make science more relevant to the public.
While renowned scientific journals have been slow at adopting the new tools that the internet offers, science bloggers are at the frontier. Efforts by Seed scienceblogs and Ars Technica have both recently helped raise money for environmental causes by appealing to the science community. ResearchBlogging is a popular resource which allows for the aggregation of blog posts on peer-reviewed research. The science blogging community Scientopia, with no prior experience in running a media organisation, has successfully gained a grand following only because of great science writing.
It is generally considered that traditional media outlets filter information and provide a more accurate story. After all, that is what we pay for. But often the system seems to be rigged by hidden commercial purposes or censored by the corporate giants. In the Equazen fish oil case, a private company funded biased research that was published in multiple newspapers, even though it was false. Or there is the fear of libel, especially in England (see article on libel reform), that stops the media from criticizing quackery and stifles scientific debate in a public space. In both these cases, it is heartening to see that science bloggers are more than making up for our biased media.
In a recent paper published in Journalism Studies it was reported that, in comparison to science journalists, science bloggers make use of a greater diversity of sources, particularly primary academic literature. Science bloggers are mainly individuals with advanced scientific training and expertise. Ideally, they are less prone to bias because of their training in science which, by its very nature, looks at the world from an objective stance.
One criticism of the blogging community is that it does not enjoy the wide readership that traditional forms of media can boast, and is unable to influence public opinion in the same way. This is valid, but bloggers are making every effort to change this situation. Many science blogging networks have emerged in the recent years like ScienceBlogs.com, Nature Network or Field of Science (where Ashutosh and I have a blog), which are managed by professionals from the traditional media industry and are beginning to gain a sizeable readership.
On the other hand, one great advantage that blogs have over traditional media is the opportunity to interact. Readers may not always understand the science behind an article or would like to know more about it. On blogs, readers can ask these questions to scientists themselves by making comments. Although the comments feature is also enabled on some traditional media websites, very rarely does the author or the media outlet respond to the questions directly posed to them. This gives the public an easy, quick and direct way to contact scientists.
The community of science bloggers has stepped forward to fill a gap in the supply and demand of science in the media, providing good food for scientific thought. A recent survey showed that science accounts for 10% of all stories on blogs but only 1% of stories in mainstream media coverage. Traditional media companies are realising that the appetite for science in the media is growing by the day and this has led to initiatives such as The Times’ Eureka science magazine which was launched late last year, or the introduction this year of a science blogs section to the websites of Discover magazine and The Guardian.
The most fundamental research is funded by taxpayers’ money and the public attitude towards science influences its progress. This progress is essential if we want to solve the big problems that humanity faces like climate change. Science needs to gain renewed respect amongst the masses rather than be the bearer of bad news. By harnessing the power of science blogging, the scientific community can continue to demystify science and make it relevant to a greater proportion of the world’s population.
This article was published in Bang! Oxford University’s science magazine.