The blogging professor manifesto: A morning-after perspective

Have social media seeded a communications renaissance in science and if so, what is limiting its growth? My colleagues Kevin Zelnio of SciAm’s EvoEcoLab (and Deep-Sea News), and John Bruno right here at SeaMonster, recently started a fascinating conversation on these topics. Kevin’s excellent essay noted that scientists have many reasons for going online, but most of the discussion focused on the critical issue of outreach to the general public, and the impediments facing it.

John in turn zeroed in on the seeming resistance of both university administrators and many faculty to online outreach. This is indeed a problem—or, perhaps more charitably, a time lag in uptake—but having wrestled with some of the same issues myself for some years, I have some additional perspectives to offer.

The jack-of-all-trades problem

Why don’t more scientists blog? Look around you: as alluded to by both John and Kevin, the best science bloggers are not professors or active researchers. And the best researchers are not active bloggers. By the best I mean, in both science and blogging categories, those that are producing both high quality content and a steady stream of it. There are a few prominent exceptions to this rule, of course, but the general pattern is quite clear. Why is this? Is it because the most prominent researchers are old-school types who speak internet as a second language, and haven’t yet got with the program? No doubt it is, in part. That will change, slowly, as the next generation comes into leadership positions.

But there is something more fundamental at work too. It is a general principle at the heart of economics, ecology, and evolutionary biology: in the struggle for existence, however defined, the jack of all trades is a master of none. In both science and communication, competition is fierce and distinguishing oneself takes a laser-like dedication. It is true that teaching and research synergize to some degree, as do research and writing about research for a general audience. But time is finite and at some point doing one thing means you can’t do something else. It is a zero-sum game.

In other words, your average mortal can be excellent at one thing, but generally not at multiple things. Again, we can all name prominent exceptions: E.O. Wilson has been one of the most influential biologists of the 20th century and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author. But how many E.O. Wilsons are there in the world? Again, we are talking here about average trends, not the superstar exceptions.

Why don’t more scientists blog? Another reason is the same reason that more people generally don’t blog. Noone is listening. That’s an exaggeration, but the online world is a huge, overpopulated, cacophonous realm. It is no simple matter to be heard above the din and the competition for audience is fierce, as many would-be bloggers soon learn (as Kevin Z memorably put it, “I’ve seen talented writers and communicators drop like flies in the chloroform by the dozens”).  Is it really worth putting in all this time to reach a few dozen or a few hundred people grazing for entertainment on their lunch hour? In some cases it is. But it’s not surprising that many scientists, who after all got into the business to do science, decide that it isn’t and bail out to return to doing the things they enjoy, have learned how to do well, and are rewarded for. The resultant scientific papers may reach even fewer readers than the blog, but those readers will actively engage with the content, which will influence their own research and, ideally, the future of the field.

Back in the heady days of 2006, on the heels of training as an Aldo Leopold Leadership fellow, I stated up a blog, the Natural Patriot. The stimulus that finally pushed me into the water was the essay by Ashlin and Ladie in Science (“Science adrift in the blogosphere”), which advocated:

“Environmental scientists should actively engage in blogging to increase the presence of informed opinions in the blogosphere. Research supervisors should encourage students to blog while providing training in science communication and dissemination. Senior scientists should set up their own high-profile weblogs to help allay fears that blogging is somewhat disreputable.”

Blogging at NP was fun and I learned a lot. But it was a hell of a lot of work and there is more than one scientific paper I did not write, and likely a grant or two I didn’t get, as a price of doing it. Fortunately I already had tenure. But I would be reluctant today to encourage my grad students to blog. I’ve learned through experience that blogging successfully, by which I mean crafting multiple substantive, interesting posts each week, is damned hard work. For most professors already working at 110% of capacity to build and maintain an innovative, externally funded research program, teach excellent classes, serve the community of one’s university and field, and generally negotiate the dynamic landscape of science on a daily basis, it will simply not be possible. Something will have to give. (Case in point: at this moment I’m away on family holiday service at an undisclosed location and getting disapproving looks for being hunched over my computer instead of visiting various Great Aunts- and Uncles-in-Law).

Maybe it takes a village

Why is outreach, including blogging, not valued by university administrators? Why do administrators only give credit for grants and research papers, and not for excellent teaching? Kevin and John both suggested this situation is incompatible with university mission statements that highlight service to the larger community and public.

Perhaps. But note that the documents they cite state that it is the mission of the University to reach out. They do not say that it is the mission of individual professors to reach out. By the University is meant, presumably, the university community at large (Thomas Jefferson’s idealized vision of a university was an “academical village”). I am of course not suggesting that individual professors should not reach out (it’s a big part of my own personal profile), only that these mission statements are not necessarily in conflict with the lack of rewards for individual faculty outreach. Many universities produce very slick and appealing outreach materials for alumni, friends and the general public (I know because I get them in the mail from universities that I don’t even have an affiliation with). These are produced by professionals and are generally more compelling than what many of my colleagues would have done on their own. Meanwhile those colleagues are doing what they do best, pushing back the frontiers of scientific research, unencumbered by having to write for the alumni magazine.

For me the bottom line question (also posed in Kevin’s first paragraph), which has yet to be answered, is: what will happen to cutting-edge research if the average professor, who is precariously juggling a competitively funded research program, teaching courses, mentoring grad students, serving on committees and editorial boards and agency review panels and so on (did I mention a family?), also takes on the substantial commitments of becoming what amounts to a journalist?

How are individuals and society as a whole best served—by having jacks of all trades or masters of their respective professions? Perhaps the answer is collaboration. Some years ago I learned the hard way that I could not be both a good ecologist and a good geneticist simultaneously. So I focused on ecology and began working with collaborators with expertise on the genetic side. That has been a highly rewarding, productive course and has saved me a lot of stress and headaches. Maybe something similar will ultimately be the answer in science outreach. We need the immediacy and personal experience of scientists in outreach, but scientists also need to the time and space to think about their research, that is, to do science.

Coda

Rereading this, I am afraid that some readers will take me to task for being old-fashioned and arguing against outreach by academics. I am not, and I hope that my record on that account speaks for itself.

I do enjoy blogging and support blogging, and outreach more generally, by academics. I do believe wholeheartedly that we need to communicate beyond our subdisciplinary microcosms to the people whose tax dollars pay our salaries and grant funds.  And I also believe that the voices of scientists themselves are critical to making that message real.

But I would also argue that all of that is secondary to producing good science. And if social outreach compromises the intense focus and effort that is unarguably needed for scientists to maintain careers producing the best science—which nobody other than scientists can do—we had better figure out a way to engage collaborators effectively to help do the other stuff.

10 Responses to “The blogging professor manifesto: A morning-after perspective”

  1. John Wares says:

    emmett, i think you’ve got it here (for me). while i found myself nodding my head at kevin’s piece, and john’s piece, i nodded harder here :) i have tried to blog, both non-scientifically and (a little bit) scientifically. the problem with outreach efforts, as always, is efficiency. i chose not to join the science blogging world (i saved you all, i’m not that great or interesting a writer!) though i did participate for a while in one (EEB and Flow) in part because there are SO MANY talented people vying for attention on the web. If I don’t have time to read all of them, or even a few of them, regularly (but SeaMonster is set to be my home page when I open my browser, FTW), what is the likelihood that many would read what I wrote? I chose instead that my writing for professional reasons would be publications and grants, and my writing for personal reasons would be aimed at a different audience (I write occasionally for bike magazines!).

    Anyway this is an excellent and intriguing discussion, SeaMonster keep up the good work.

    • John Bruno says:

      Hi John, wow, SM is your home page? Thank you! You do rock. Would you be willing to be the first to get the new SM tattoo?:)

      Just so the world knows (or at least the other dozen people that read this site) John Wares is one of the few people I know who actually does make big cash for his magazine writing, so just ignore his modesty.

      I agree w John too about agreeing with much in Emmett’s post. John, one thing the world lacks is a good marine pop gen blogger (as far as I know). Why not give it a whirl and write us a guest post at SM? We would even throw in a t-shirt with the tattoo!

      Emmett’s point about doing this collaboratively is key I think. I also want to try a slightly different model for myself in 2012 in publishing fewer, but higher quality posts, mainly evaluating newly published science. That works wonderfully at sites like Real Climate where they publish at most only a few dozen posts a year.

      • John Wares says:

        did you just ask me to get an S&M tattoo? i’m not sure my wife will let me :)

        i’d be thrilled to do a guest post. i’ll give it some thought as my egg nog settles. i was actually just the other day looking up the article i did on invasive species for Dirt Rag (a mountain bike magazine) for a different reason, it is worth keeping up this conversation to figure out what entities we as scientists can infiltrate to get our message out in focused ways.

      • Emmett Duffy says:

        JW, let me add my vote to the request for you to do a guest post! Operators are standing by! (but I guess nobody knows what that means anymore in the post-wired world . . .)

  2. Emmett Duffy says:

    Thanks John. Needless to say, I feel your pain! One thing I really like about the SeaMonster is that we have several great contributors so that when I go into deadbeat mode without writing much for a few weeks (as I have done recently . . .) I can rest assured that others like JB will pick up the slack (as he has done recently).

    The multi-author model seems to be gaining ascendancy, likely for this reason. Look at the excellent examples in Deep-Sea News, Southern Fried Science, and of course the SciAm blog group. Even several years inot the science blogathon I think we’re still in a experimental phase, seeing what will prove sustainable. I think the jury is still out, and likely will be for a decade as both the blogging community and the composition of university administrations evolve.

    Regarding use of SeaMonster as your home page: YOU ROCK!

  3. Steven says:

    I’m going to take this post as a direct challenge to be one of those exceptions you mentioned. :-)

    • Emmett Duffy says:

      Thanks Steven. After surfing around “A bit of behavioral ecology” it looks like you’re well on your way. I am optimistic that you and John and many of the other great science bloggers out there are growing an army of exceptions — Keep up the good work!

  4. Chris Petrone says:

    Emmett,

    As you point out, “it takes a village.” SM is a fantastic collaboration which allows the posts to have different [expert] perspectives in a range of disciplines, all within the same field. SM would not be as interesting or as thought-provoking if were just one of you posting here and there every few weeks. And as we know, time is always an issue, so the saying, ‘many hands make light work,’ certainly rings true.

    As an education/outreach specialist, I have to reiterate the importance of effective collaboration. Scientists do not need to be a jack of all trades and take on the often-perceived burden of education/public outreach fully on their own. Career outreach providers are trained, experienced, and actually enjoy getting the science out to broader audiences. You all keep doing your cutting-edge, amazing research, and from time to time, bring us in the loop and let’s discuss some ways of getting the word out–missions get upheld, the audience learns something, and you get to be seen as the rock stars that you are.

    As for the whole debacle that continues to surround outreach/service not counting towards promotion and tenure, I hope/believe a shift is slowly taking place. As early and mid-career scientists, who were mentored by those few old schools that bought into outreach, are now making names for themselves and doing some really cool (and effective) outreach, many are passing that science+outreach buzz to their own students; and perhaps not too far in the future, their “extracurricular” activities will be given more weight when evaluation time comes.

    As for this whole blogging thing, I think you all are doing a great job and SM will continue to gain momentum! Keep up the great work you all do.

    • Emmett Duffy says:

      Thanks Chris! Eloquently said, and excellent points. The farther along I get, the more I see the value of collaboration in a wide range of activities — I feel very lucky, for example, to have one of the top Science outreach groups right here at VIMS. One of the values of collaboration is that it gives one a more practical sense of how experts in other fields do what they do, and allows us to pick up tips, which helps us to be both better scientists and better bloggers.

Leave a Reply