A Dissertation on Science Blogging

My PhD dissertation, All the Science That is Fit to Blog, is now online and globally accessible via a downloadable PDF: http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-04072015-094935/

You can also access my full research survey instrument and other data and figures from my dissertation research on Figshare. Please do let me know if you have any thoughts, questions, suggestions for future research, etc.!

Summary Points (previously posted in a series of tweets, #MySciBlogSummary!)

  • For this dissertation, I conducted qualitative interviews with 50 science bloggers, and a quantitative/qualitative survey of 610 science bloggers.
  • Most prominently, science bloggers surveyed (MySciBlog survey 2014) blog to communicate science to non-specialist audiences. See other science blogging motivations here.
  • Audience-focused popular science and "blogging for myself" were the top two blogging approach themes that emerged from my qualitative interviews with 50 science bloggers in 2014. Blogging for oneself and blogging as a science "outreach" activity appear to often go hand in hand.
  • More than half of the bloggers I interviewed use an outreach approach to their blogging, for example blogging about the process of science, citizen science opportunities, etc. Other "outreach blogging" strategies include humanizing science, creating educational resources, talking about the realities of science and discussing scientific methodology. Many bloggers I interviewed emphasized education and science literacy as their blogging motivations/goals.
  • Bloggers who mentioned "outreach" approach themes tended to be scientists, students and academics versus for example professional science writers or journalists.
  • Only 1/5 of the bloggers I interviewed blog occasionally about their own research.
  • 31 of the 50 bloggers I interviewed mentioned choosing what to blog about by what falls within their area of expertise. I refer to this as blogging "as an expert."
  • Roughly 1/3 of the bloggers I interviewed mentioned engaging in media correction, countering misinformation in their "area of expertise." Many bloggers, most prominently graduate students and scientists, mentioned feeling obligated to correct media misinformation based on their expertise.
  • For nearly all science bloggers I interviewed, personal interest is the foremost and most basic criterion that shapes blog content. Writing freedom is another dominant feature of science blogging and emerged as a prominent theme during interview analysis. "Blogging for myself" is a strategy most bloggers use, even paid network bloggers, to stay motivated to write.
   Image: Blogworthiness Factors


Image: Blogworthiness Factors

  • Many science bloggers feel pressure to correct misinformation, but tend to enjoy content that is more "oh wow" popular science.
  • 49 out of 50 bloggers I interviewed mentioned in some way traditional journalistic routines or news values. This suggests science bloggers may be socialized into the news process, even if they don't stick to news values strictly. The most prominent journalistic routines in science blogging are selecting stories that are timely or topical, and interviewing. 16 of 50 #MySciBlogbloggers interview or talk to experts in preparing content. They tend to be network and/or news organization hosted bloggers.
  • Several science bloggers mentioned that interviewing experts lets them branch further outside their own area(s) of expertise.
  • Community-based learning (e.g. learning journalistic routines or news values from other science writers) was also a strong theme that emerged from qualitative interview analysis. In a theme I call "ecosystem blogging", science bloggers appear to pay great attention to the content their fellow bloggers are producing.
   Image: Ecosystem Blogging themes.


Image: Ecosystem Blogging themes.

  • The prominent "ecosystem blogging" theme is more about collaboration and filling in gaps in science media coverage than about any competition between science bloggers and journalists or other professional content producers. More than half of science bloggers I interviewed avoid topics or stories being covered (well) by others, favoring exclusive or unique contentQualitative data suggests that female science bloggers may be more prone to avoiding topics covered by others, than male science bloggers. Nearly half of the science bloggers I interviewed avoid embargoed or press-released papers, often giving the reason that these papers tend to be too heavily covered in the mainstream media. Many bloggers who do avoid press-released or embargoed studies expressed feeling that they can't compete with journalists in covering these studies, in terms of time and access.
  • Several bloggers I interviewed, predominantly women, told me they started blogging afterseeing a topic gap in the blogosphere they might fill.
  • A widespread science blogging routine, according to my interview analysis, is "value-added blogging" or gauging blogworthiness by whether one has a unique angle or contribution.
  • Science bloggers are predominantly interacting with readers through Twitter and FB, much less through blog comments. A little over 1/3 of science bloggers I interviewed at least sometimes get blog post ideas from reader requests or suggestions. 
  • The #1 logistical constraint for science bloggers is "time." Some bloggers avoid writing about breaking stories as they feel they lack the time to jump on these stories fast enough. Another oft-mentioned constraint was having a blog readership pre-determined by the network where one blogs. This constraint guides selection of potential blog content by the blogger.
  • VERY few bloggers qualify to receive embargoed information from EurekAlert and other journal publishers.
  • Different media organizations and blog networks maintain different philosophies or ideas of what blogs should look like. These "organizational philosophies" toward blogs appear to shape science blog content even when bloggers are not explicitly aware of it. But while organizational constraints and blog "philosophies" do guide blog content (for example at magazine blog networks), very few bloggers must go through pre-publication editorial checks. BUT while few bloggers are edited on a mandatory basis, more than 1/4 of the bloggers I interviewed seek out voluntary or peer editing on a case-by-case basis.
  • Science blogs are generally perceived by bloggers to be a place for personal commentary and interpretation/opinion. A subset of female science bloggers, however, are wary of blogging about things that are "too" personal.
  • For many freelance science writers, the blog is a place for "extras" or stories that don't qualify as paid stories. For many science writers, their blog becomes a place to express unedited opinions and be creative with storytelling.
  • Online vulnerability shapes blog content, particularly for female science bloggers. A little under half of science bloggers I interviewed avoid controversial, "hot" or political topics on their blogs. They often do this out of a "self-preservation" motivation or concern about reader incivility, trolling and stress. While female and male science bloggers similarly avoid "hot" topics, women do so more out of concern for online vulnerability. Female science bloggers are significantly more concerned about hostile comments from readers than male science bloggers(to a significant degree, according to survey data)Younger bloggers are significantly more concerned about attracting disapproval from other writers when writing on controversial topics.
  • Other emergent science blogging values include interactivity, humor, attribution and reliance on peer-reviewed evidence.
  • In summary from my interviews, a range of individual factors, emergent routines, organizational & extra-media constraints shape blog content.
  • The top perceived benefit of blogging is making connections (personal and professional) with others through science blogging. For most survey respondents, blogging drives paid writing and speaking opportunities more than it does academic output, however (self-reported).
  • The most-often mentioned drawback of science blogging is the TIME required, followed by negative/rude comments online. However, very few bloggers I surveyed (22 out of 610) think other academics see their blogging as a waste of time or unproductive.

Just a Few Survey Stats:

  • Science bloggers tend to be young (majority <44 yrs old) but nearly half of those I surveyed (a total of 610 respondents) have doctorate degrees.
  • Upwards of 47% of #MySciBlog survey respondents identify their primary occupational area as academic research. Less than 5% identify their primary occupational area as journalism.
  • Most prominent degree fields (bloggers' education) are in the life sciences and physical sciences (chemistry, physics, etc.)
  • 67% of survey respondents (610 total) indicate they engage in science communication / writing in other than blog form.
  • More than 1/2 of female bloggers I surveyed have formal education or training in science communication, while around 1/3 of male bloggers indicate the same.
  • Science bloggers who are writers by primary occupation engage less often as media critics, but more often as reporters and explainers, than bloggers who indicate other primary occupations. Male science bloggers report engaging as watchdogs and media critics more often than do female bloggers.
  • Most common sources of blog post ideas are 1. Peer-reviewed papers via browser search, and 2. Peer-reviewed papers via a social media link.
  • Science bloggers' TOP source of science news is other blogs, followed by online newspaper content.
  • A majority of the bloggers I surveyed have access to pay-walled journals, but 23% often, and 43% sometimes, blog about #openaccess papers.
  • Bloggers with more years of experience more often blog to correct current misinformation or to address poor media coverage of research.
  • A majority of bloggers I surveyed (66%) are blogging from once a month to once a week. Non-paid bloggers tend on lower end of this blogging frequency.

Visit my Experiment.com page or sign up for #MySciBlog research updates for more information on this research project.

Originally published at SciLogs.com