There’s been a rash lately of articles and blog entries pleading with scientists to enter the blogosphere. One disturbing aspect of this has been how many of them have been written by various aspects of the Nature Publishing Group. Three recent articles (here, here and here) all make the case that scientists should start writing blogs because science journalism is on the wane, and that science blogs can fill the void left behind for educating the general public about science. Coincidentally, Nature just happens to run one of the biggest centers for science blogging. Does their desire to have this venture grow and succeed have any influence whatsoever on their opinions about the need for scientists to take on this extra workload? From Nature’s own ethical guidelines:

“In the interests of transparency and to help readers to form their own judgements of potential bias, Nature journals require the authors of most articles to declare any competing financial interests in relation to the work described…”

Interesting how that applies to authors but apparently not to their own editorials.

Now, as to the meat of the subject matter presented–are science blogs going to replace science journalism? I have my doubts, which I’ll explain below. The whole thing reminded me of Clay Shirky’s recent article, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable. While I’ve strongly disagreed with Shirky in the past, I thought this was a perceptive piece, and I particularly liked the open-endedness of his argument. Essentially what Shirky says is that things break quickly, then it takes a while for something new to develop to replace those things. There’s not an immediate fix on the horizon for our disappearing newspapers. I like that instead of the usual vague cliches most Web 2.0-proponents spout for suggestions on how to proceed, Shirky leaves the question up in the air and doesn’t try to pretend there’s an obvious answer:

“No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.”

The one caveat I’d add is that the article assumes that good journalism is something our society values enough to preserve, which may be more of an open question. Sometimes things don’t get fixed after a revolution, they get worse. Time will tell.

That said, some thoughts on why science blogging is a poor substitute for science journalism:

1) Journalism is a real profession that requires training and a difficult to master skill set when done properly, as I discussed in this posting. Scientists, and science bloggers are not trained in that skill set. One can certainly make the argument that what passes for science journalism these days is far from ideal, but replacing it with something equally flawed does not strike me as an improvement.

2) Aside from the obvious problems with newspapers’ economic models, the reason journalism is on the wane is the dropping quality. Newspapers have systematically tried to cut costs over recent years, placing economic pressures on reporters. This has resulted in much of what passes for journalism becoming regurgitation of press releases (see Churnalism). Given that many science blog entries are just links to other articles, isn’t this much the same thing? Furthermore, if the nature of so many blogs (often including this one) is to provide links and commentary on original published works, what are bloggers going to write about if those original stories no longer exist? Do away with published news articles about science and you do away with a huge chunk of the subject matter of the science blogosphere.

3) The other big problem with the current state of journalism is the substitution of opinion for factual reporting. As noted here:

“Journalists report much less than they used to, and much less than they should, as the papers have switched over to a reliance on columnists and opinion.”

I can’t think of a single blog that I’ve ever read that wasn’t opinionated. Blogs are more like the editorial page of a newspaper than the front page.

4) As Larry Moran recently pointed out, most scientists are never going to blog. Reading and writing blogs appeals to a limited percentage of people in general, scientists being no different. Start with the subset of scientists deeply interested in communication, education and outreach, and then remove those who don’t enjoy the blogging process and you’re left with science bloggers. Factor in Jakob Nielsen’s 90-9-1 rule (online content is created by 1% of users, 9% occasionally contribute a little, 90% never contribute) and you’re talking about a tiny fraction of scientists. Does this give a balanced view of science? Anyone who regularly reads science blogs can quickly point out some of the general biases and viewpoints held by most of the blogosphere. Remember also that those doing really interesting research, the people you’d most like to hear from, are the least likely to blog. They’re too busy doing that research.

5) The world of science blogging is filled with navel-gazing. I think this is one of the main reasons you don’t see the mainstream of scientists writing or reading science blogs. The vast majority of blog articles I see are either about blogging (or other online communication tools) or about what other bloggers are doing/blogging about. Another big chunk is about life as a scientist. Then there’s a small percentage of posts about actual science. All this is great for building community and feeling a part of a connected group, but I’m not sure how interested the general science reading public is going to be in these cliques.

Phew. I seem to have quite a few rants in me as of late. Bottom line, let’s all keep blogging. It’s fun (at least for those of us who are into it) and no doubt it serves a solid educational purpose and opens lines of communication between scientists and between scientists and non-scientists. But I don’t expect it to become a required activity for most scientists. And let’s be honest about what it really is. The majority of these enjoyable personal diaries and spaces for voicing our opinions are a far cry from well-researched, well-written professional journalism. And I’m with Shirky on this one. New business models and new forms of communication will emerge to continue the process of journalism. We just haven’t seen them yet.

Edited to add–the one point I forgot to add. It’s interesting that the tools that were originally being sold to us as a means for scientists to interact, to troubleshoot techniques and experiments, to find collaborations, are now being pitched as a means for scientists to educate the general public. I always thought the original plans were a bit far-fetched (if every graduate student starts posting daily blog entries about their experiments, who’s going to read them all, let alone offer advice?), and it goes to show you that no matter what your intentions when you create a tool, users often find it better suited for something else. Which I guess explains why a tool created to help college students know their fellow students is now used by grandparents to show pictures of children to their former high school classmates.