The Practices of the 'Most Popular' Science Bloggers

Just this week, a new paper came out in Public Understanding of Science on science bloggers’ practices, motivations and target audiences. I figured I would discuss the methods and findings, as they are relevant to my project on the science of science blogging. Check it out! Shutterstock:

Mathieu Ranger and Karen Bultitude, both located in the UK, start off this new paper with a discussion of the general popularity of science blogs, looking at them within the context of popular blogs tracked by Technorati’s blog directory. They conclude that science blogs have room for improvement in terms of readership. “[L]ess than 20 science blogs [are] ranked within the top 1000 blogs on the Internet” in early 2011.

“This work thus compares science blogging practices with those in other fields in order to identify any differences in approach and to provide indications as to how science blog readership could be increased.” – Ranger & Bultitude, 2014

[On a side-note, Technorati has killed its blog directory and rankings – a toll for many researchers who have been using Technorati blog rankings as a basis for sampling in studies of blogging and science bloggers.]

For their study, Ranger and Bultitude explore science blogging practices with a combination of interviews – to get at bloggers’ motivations and perceptions of their audiences – and a content analysis of blog posts. They describe doing semi-structured interviews (the same type of qualitative interviews I’ve been doing with science bloggers for #MySciBlog project) with seven authors of “five of the most popular science blogs, as identified during a 1-week period in April 2011.”

 “We explicitly focus on the outputs of the most popular science bloggers, comparing their practices with those of the most popular non-science blogs.” – Ranger & Bultitude, 2014

This is actually an issue I have with this paper, and previous scholarly research on science blogging. Many researchers have focused on the “most popular” science blogs, often skewing their samples of bloggers toward those who are most popular, who have been online longer than others, and who are often men. Just looking at the “top 10” blogs that Ranger and Bultitude pull from for their interviews and content analysis, we see mostly male-authored blogs/websites: Pharyngula, Wired Science blogs, Bad Astronomy, Watt’s Up With That?, Next Big Future, Universe Today, Mike the Mad Biologist, Dot Earth, Not Exactly Rocket Science. This is something I am trying to address with my own dissertation research on science bloggers, by interviewing and surveying diverse populations and “levels” of bloggers.

“their content can focus on anything from providing breaking science news to documenting life as a scientist…” – Ranger & Bultitude, 2014; Masters, 2013; Zivkovic, 2006

Of the seven bloggers that Ranger and Bultitude interview, none identify themselves as working in academia, three of them are female, and the majority identify themselves as professional science writers. This is a very small and selective sample of science bloggers.

Interviews with Science Bloggers: Results

The researchers looked at science bloggers’ motivations and intended audience.

“The most commonly reported motivation was intrinsic in nature, relating to personal interests and enjoyment. Blogging was related to a love of science and a love of writing. […] No mention was made, however, of communicating science to promote scientific literacy, awareness of science, science engagement or some other institutional, governmental or societal agenda related to science.” – Ranger & Bultitude, 2014

Interesting that no mention was made of public engagement with science when these bloggers talked about their motivations to write about science. But certainly, academic bloggers as opposed to professional writers might have mentioned these if they had been included in the sample?

“They also did not mention interactivity or two-way communication with their audiences (e.g. through comments to their posts) as a motivating factor.” – Ranger & Bultitude, 2014

When asked about their intended audience, science bloggers interviewed by Ranger and Bultitude mostly answered something akin to ‘the science-interested lay reader’ or the “mildly curious sort of science interested person like me.”

Content Analysis of Popular Blog Posts: Results

The researchers also looked at several design elements of the most popular science blogs listed on Technorati, and contrasted them with the design elements of the most popular non-science blogs. Their findings include:

  • Popular science blogs were updated less frequently (less posts per day) than popular non-science blogs. Blog posting frequency peaked around mid-week, falling off on the weekends.
  • Popular science blogs had significantly fewer blog posts containing at least one non-text element (image, video, audio, etc.) than popular non-science blogs, but science blogs used more graphics and tables.
  • 7 out of the 10 science blogs focused 90% or more of their content on science.
  • Posts from the most popular science blogs were longer on average (466 words) than posts from the most popular non-science blogs (274 words).

“’If a reader is entertained by what the writer has put up, then I don’t care how long it is.’” – Ranger & Bultitude, 2014

Ranger and Bultitude conclude that “the most popular science bloggers we interviewed resembled ‘transmitters’ (rather than ‘engagers’) who seek satisfaction through sharing their passion with other like-minded individuals.” But I don’t think the researchers can say much about the larger science blogging community, or its motivations and impacts, based on their results. After all, it would make sense if the “most popular” science bloggers on the internet are transmitters more than they are engagers, but I don’t think this characterizes the broader science blogging community fairly. It certainly doesn’t reflect my OWN experience as a science blogger, or the style of many other science bloggers I know to be popular.

While this paper presents some interesting findings for the top 10 most popular science blogs on the web in 2011, I think we have a long way to go in characterizing the broader science blogging community in all its diversity. I hope you’ll follow #MySciBlog project on the practices of science bloggers, to answer some of these broader questions.

Robert Couse-Baker,