A science blog is not a Science Blog

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“Blogging […] – once seen as a fringe activity carried out by journalistic amateurs – has been actively embraced by traditional media organizations that now employ a variety of paid bloggers. We often think of blogging as somehow opposed to traditional journalism, or a form of newswork that undermines it in some way.” – S.W. Anderson, Blowing up the Newsroom, in Making Online News, Volume 2

We often debate the role of science blogs in science journalism, science, science outreach, science education and more. But while we debate who science bloggers are, whether or not they are journalists, and how their blogging impacts the way we do science or journalism, we often forget: a science blog is not a Science Blog.

“blogs are now diverse and ubiquitous, and have hit the mainstream.” – Mary Garden, Defining blog: A fool’s errand or a necessary undertakingJournalism 2012

By this I mean, there is no single concept of a science blog, or science blogging. We could say that a science blog is any continually updated online webpage or platform, with dated entries in chronological order, discussing science (and maybe throw in the requirement of a comment steam – but that is debatable). But looking at the roles, functions and characteristics of science blogs under this definition would be problematic, because of the VAST differences in content and authorship under that definition. And I’m not just talking about different approaches to science blogging, although these are also diverse. Research blogging, journalistic blogging, “personal science journal” blogging, educational blogging, environmental activism blogging, science communication outreach blogging, myth-busting blogging… The authors and institutional structures of science blogs are just as diverse.

“Scholars in their definitions need to be cognizant of contemporary changes and the shifting boundaries within the blogosphere.” – Mary Garden, Defining blog: A fool’s errand or a necessary undertaking, Journalism 2012

One of the problems of taking a technological structure approach to defining a science blog is that the underlying technology, as well as the blogging interfaces that we interact with, are constantly changing and evolving. Is someone who shares links, comments on science news, and shares research articles on Twitter considered a science blogger? A science “micro-blogger”? Kirk Englehardt, director of research communication at Georgia Tech, recently started creating long-form posts about science and science communication at LinkedIn, and I would certainly call him a science blogger (note: he also posts to Tumblr). What about the science writers publishing their thoughts on new digital platforms (Medium.com, for example) that bridge the functions and structures of news sites and traditional blogging tools like Wordpress and Blogger? It seems that the technological definition of a science blog is only becoming hazier.

“blogs have become more diary-like and the format has evolved due to supplementary technologies such as RSS (Really Simple Syndication) which allows readers to subscribe to a blog and linkbacks or pingbacks which ‘ping’ or notify a blogger when another blogger has linked to their post.” – Mary Garden, Defining blog: A fool’s errand or a necessary undertaking, Journalism 2012 “blog software developed the facility for comments; blogs that utilized this option took on the characteristics of internet bulletin boards, newsgroups and forums. The comment-facility means blogs can be interactive and dialogical, transforming them into an online space where discussion and debate can take place.” – Mary Garden, Defining blog: A fool’s errand or a necessary undertaking, Journalism 2012

Ok, so maybe we ditch the technological structure-based definition of a science blog, and instead define it according to its content. Many science writers, especially professional science journalists, will tell you that a science blog is a place for science writing that is not edited (in the traditional news story sense) and that prominently includes the opinions and personal thoughts of the author. Ok, so science blogs are essentially science-related opinion columns. Well, no, this definition doesn’t cut it either. While science blogs do allow more freedom of (opinion) expression than news stories typically do, scientists bloggers expressing their expert opinions on a piece of research is very different from your typical “opinion” column. In fact, there are science blogs that do incorporate elements of editing and fact-checking. Sometimes editing is built in to the science blogging community a blogger writes for, but sometimes it is actually voluntarily pursued by the blogger. For example, a blogger and colleague at the NC Environmental Education blog recently sought my advice and content editing before posting a story about a lancetfish picture that went viral. And then there are bloggers, including bloggers employed by traditional media organizations, who essentially do professional science news reporting on their blogs. And then there are bloggers who predominantly aggregate content and hyperlink to other science blogs and science news stories. In fact, some scholars maintain that hyperlinking is “the central defining characteristic” (Garden, 2012) of blogs. By why all this hand-wringing about not being able to define a science blog? After all, we could just follow the advice of journalist and blogger Jeff Jarvis:

“There is no need to define ‘blog’. A blog is merely a tool that lets you do anything from change the world to share your shopping list. I resist even calling it a medium; it is a means of sharing information and also of interacting: It’s more about conversation than content … Blogs are whatever they want to be. Blogs are whatever we make them. Defining ‘blog’ is a fool’s errand. – Conniff, 2005, Just what is a blog, anyway?; Cited in Garden, 2012

I do agree that we are “past” having to argue whether blogs are journalism and whether bloggers are journalists (which they often ARE). The problem comes when a scholar, like myself, wants to study science blogs, their roles in science and science journalism, and the routines, roles and practices of science bloggers. To do this, I need a working definition of a science blog. The key point is that how I define a science blog will depend upon my approach to my research questions. Personally, I’m interested in how a wide variety of science blog authors – from scientists, to journalists, to graduate students, to freelance science writers, to science communicators and educators coming from a broad swatch of backgrounds and training – practice science blogging in different ways. Are there systematic differences (and/or similarities) in the routines and story decisions of “independent” science bloggers compared to those writing within science blogging communities for more traditional news organizations? of scientist bloggers compared to journalism-trained science bloggers? To answer these questions, I have to adopt a very broad conceptualization of science blogging. But as you read science blogs and discuss science blogs with other bloggers or communication scholars, just remember: a science blog is not a Science Blog. You have to consider who the author is, what field his or her background is, what his or her purpose or goals are in science blogging, whether he or she blogs independently or as a member of a larger blogging community, and how she or he integrates blogging with other traditional or non-traditional forms of science reporting or storytelling. All of these factors will determine your conclusions about whether and how science blogs are having a significant impact on science journalism, the conduct of science, scientific research publishing, and more. How do YOU define a science blog?