Scientists who want to raise their profiles, build their careers and help ensure that policymakers and the wider public have access to genuine research findings now need to be effective bloggers.
Yet there are many challenges. What are the best ways of setting up a blog, gaining a following and measuring your impact? How should one deal with material that is genuinely difficult or controversial? And how can one cope with trolls and “deniers”?
Many suggestions appear in a new collection, edited by Bethany Brookshire, Jason Goldman and Christie Wilcox, called Science Blogging: The Essential Guide. Even now, they admit in the preface, the internet is “still very much a frontier for science communicators. It’s the Wild West. Each time the scene threatens to become too settled, someone or something new arrives, keeping us all on our toes.”
Yet there is really no choice. In her own chapter, Wilcox, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii, notes that “start[ing] the conversation yourself” can help “make sure your research is talked about”. Yet “if your research is already being talked about widely, you definitely want to be blogging” – to correct misconceptions and keep some control over the debate.
It is also highly useful for expanding scientific networks and for demonstrating key skills: “while it’s easy to say you’re a good writer, hard-working or committed, showing it is much harder to do – and so means a good deal more”.
Science writer Ben Lillie, who has a background in theoretical high-energy physics, argues that scientific bloggers should beware of “default[ing] to a writing style [they] know”, namely the detached, analytical style appropriate to journal articles. Instead, it is often worth trying to engage readers through “personal storytelling”.
Taking on the trolls
“Make sure we know how you’re feeling,” he writes. “Narrative” may be “incredibly difficult to get right, and fraught with the dangers of oversimplification”, but “it’s also how we, as human beings, relate best to each other”.
Kate Clancy, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, considers the specific problems faced by female science bloggers.
Although she admits that she has suffered from writer’s block, spent days dealing with "a single drive-by rape tweet, and been slowed by internalized sexist bullying from women”, she is also confident that it is possible to tap into a support network: “You will very likely develop a posse. We women science bloggers stick together, so find us online. We will support you and viciously attack your trolls, and empathize with your struggles, in our common desire to say delightful things about science.”
Those who want to address controversial topics, notes medical writer Emily Willingham, had “better line up [their] data ducks – facts swimming along in accessible, flowing prose – and leave the feelings for those who react to [their] words”.
They should be scrupulously accurate, provide links to authoritative sources and remember that “even a hint of a conflict of interest or a failure to be intellectually honest can torpedo trust”. Any alteration or update to a live post should be clearly flagged up as such so to avoid any “accusations of sneakiness”.
Willingham herself refuses to “respond to ad hominems” such as claims that she is a “pharma whore”. More generally, she believes it is more effective to “stay poised” online. Lashing out at a particularly stupid or nasty critic may be tempting, but remember who you are really trying to convince: “if your goal is to make compelling, evidence-based arguments that reach information seekers rather than true believers, then why alienate those sincere knowledge seekers by acting that way?”
Other contributors consider the advantages and disadvantages of blogging within an established network and creating one’s own independent site.
For those who do decide to remain independent, Zen Faulkes – a neuroethologist at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley – suggests how they can nonetheless “interact with the larger community”: “Write posts that are reactions to other people’s posts. Do not be afraid to write about the same stuff other people are writing about, like the latest scientific controversy. Just make sure that you have your own voice and your own angle.”
Science Blogging: The Essential Guide, edited by Bethany Brookshire, Jason Goldman and Christie Wilcox, has just been published by Yale University Press.