Monday, April 17, 2006

Publishing hypotheses and data on a blog - is it going to happen on science blogs?


What is a science blog?

I guess there are as many definitions as there are science blogs, but in general, I see science blogs defined (by other bloggers) in two ways: by topic-matter and by authority of the author.

Thus, a science blogs is one that always, often, or at least sometimes covers science as a topic. Or, a science blog is one written by a person with some expertise in science, e.g., a practicing scientist, a student, or perhaps a science journalist.

You can sample the diversity of science blogs if you check out these linkfests: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, so you can make up your own mind about the definition.

So, I've been reading science blogs for quite a while now. How do they differ from other blogs? What, if anything is missing? Are there any trends that may predict the future of science blogging?

I was going to make a lot of links to a lot of blogs to provide the examples, but this post will never get finished if I tried to do that. Instead, I'll link to a few blogs where particularly relevant, provide some examples from my own blogging because it is easy for me to find around here, and for the rest, following the links in the linkfests just above will have to do.

So, what kinds of posts are found on science blogs? Let's see, very roughly in increased degrees of "professionalism", or "expertise":

Universal Fun Bloginess

Most science bloggers do stuff that all bloggers do. For instance, there may be an occasional personal post, a post about one's kids, a joke, some poetry, a cartoon, perhaps some memes, shout-outs to carnivals, Top 10 lists, and some online quizzes, often with commentary on the quizzing method. A 'Merry Christmas' post may be less frequent than in the rest of the blogosphere, though. Anyway, move on, nothing particularly sciency-interesting here.

Cute Animal Pictures

Friday Cat Blogging is an ubiquitious event on blogs. Science bloggers are, of course, animal lovers and pet-owners just as much as anyone and frequently post cute animal pictures. But, science bloggers are more likely to forgo the cats, and highlight some much cooler animals, like cephalopods on Pharyngula or Nudibranchs on Bouphonia.

Daily News and Events

If something newsworthy happens in the world, be it in science or politics or popular culture, science bloggers are as likely as anyone to chime in, linking to the media reporting and briefly commenting. Many science bloggers write a lot about politics, both as news-coverage and as more in-depth analysis.

Humor

Some science blogs are just plain fun. Some are snarky and raunchy all the time, like FrinkTank, appealing to an adult lay audience. Others are fun in a way that makes science appealing to a young lay audience, like Inkycircus, which is, for the most part, safe for work. Of course, if your work is not safe for FrinkTank, there is something wrong with your work.

Life in Lab and Field

Several science blogs, usually written by students and postdocs, detail the daily life in the laboratory or the field. YoungFemaleScientist, Disgruntled Julie and
Penn easily come to mind. Some of the posts (and occasional posts by other bloggers) are as good as anything on LabLit.com. Others are more "professional", e.g., the Gombe Chimpanzee Blog.

Book Reviews

These appear on science blogs quite often. I have written a few myself. Check, for instance, this one or this one.

Original Art

There are two outstanding examples I am aware of, Olduvai George and Rigor Vitae, of professional nature artists showcasing their art on their blogs, putting the subjects of their art in proper scientific context, and explaining the technical aspects of their work as well. There are also numerous photoblogs, with excellent amateur or professional science/nature photography on display in each post. Some of the best blogging nature art and photography regularly occurs on carnivals like I And The Bird and Circus of the Spineless.

Science in the News

This is often seen on science blogs - reporting on, perhaps with brief commentary - on new scientific findings as reported by the mainstream media. This is often accompanied by a critique of the way the research was portrayed by the journalist.

Science Journalism

Real analysis of the way media portray science is not easy and is thus not as common as just airing displeasure with a particular piece of reporting. But you should take a look at Matt Nisbett's Framing Science for an example of good media analysis.

Politics of Science

Several science blogs are almost entirely dedicated to the analysis of the politics of science, both in terms of science policy and in terms of politization of science and politically-motivated attacks on science and scientists. Chris Mooney, after blogging about this for a couple of years, wrote a book on the subject. Ed Brayton is also one such blogger, as are many others.

Science And Religion

Most scientists wish this question was resolved decades ago and are sick and tired of beating the old horse again and again. But, some - actually A LOT of - science bloggers thrive on debunking Creationisms of various stripes, including the Intelligent Design Creationism, other religiously-motivated assaults on science, or even the non-rationality and absurdity of religion itself. Do I really have to type all those "a href"s again to link to Pharyngula here? See also Evolutionblog, Austringer and Red State Rabble.

Skepticism

Some science bloggers specialize, and many others occasionally indulge, in debunking pseudoscience, claims of paranormal, or urban myths. You can find the best of such posts collected every two weeks on the Skeptic's Circle. Check out Archy for a good examples of a mix of science, politicsl and skeptical blogging.

Environmental Blogging

Nick Anthis of The Scientific Activist pointed me to an interesting article on envitonmental blogging, which argues that many environmental blogs write inaccurately about environmental science:
"We suggest the following responses, which are potentially applicable to all scientific disciplines. Environmental scientists should actively engage in blogging to increase the presence of informed opinions in the blogosphere. Research supervisors should encourage students to blog while providing training in science communication and dissemination. Senior scientists should set
up their own high-profile weblogs to help allay fears that blogging is somewhat disreputable. Blogging should be part of a portfolio of public engagement activities, even to the extent of including blogging as part of a researcher’s job specification. Examples of excellent, informative sites can readily be found (table S2), but more are needed."
Of course, many environmental bloggers are not scientists, but activists or lay-people. There are also many more bloggers who touch on environmental topics, at least occasionally, than on science. Still, the article is of interest (and suprisingly positive about bloging) to all science bloggers.

Nature Writing

Related to Environmental Blogging, as well as Blogging form the Field, is good nature writing. You'll find good examples of this on carnivals like I And The Bird. My favourites:Creek Running North and Sahotra Sarkar.

Blog Carnivals

A year ago, hosting a blog carnival was pretty easy and straightforward. Today, hosting a topical, specialized carnival requires expertise in the subject. I have recently hosted a number of carnivals and, more and more I have to do something akin to peer-review - checking with my blogging friends if a particular entry is suitable or not.

Hosting Tangled Bank, Grand Rounds and Carnival of the Green is becoming more and more like this. Entries get refused by editors (does everyone every week get a rant from RepSchmuel?) much more frequently as the carnivals are becoming more popular and more bloggers like to use them as the opportunity to get themselves better known.

I am hosting Skeptic's Circle in ten days, and the very first entry I got I had had to send to "peer review" (and in the end had to reject). Are specialized blog carnivals becoming more like scientific journals?

Yet, if you look at science-related carnivals the entries are nothing like what shows up on Philosopher's Carnival, History Carnival or Carnivalesque. Those posts are mini-dissertations! Carnival of Bad History also appears to be moving away from its original Skeptic's Circle-like template and more into the History Carnival territory. I bet hosts of those carnivals really feel like Journal Editors.

Group Blogs and Blogfarms

Having several experts in one place is an excellent idea. For debunking Creationists, one goes to Panda's Thumb, for physics to Cosmic Variance and for climate science to Real Climate. For a mix of a little bit of everything, go to SEED's Scienceblogs. Being part of such a team is a great way to blog and be noticed.

Science Education

This is an area where some science bloggers touch on Edublogging. I keep a separate blog for just this topic. See the latestCarnival of Education and a recent Teaching Carnival for some good examples of good SciEduBlogging.

Biomedical Science

There is quite a lot of overlap between Sciblogging and Medblogging. Orac of Respectful Insolence, Abel PharmBoy of Terra Sigillata and Tara of Aetiology are good examples of blogs that successfully wed science and medicine.

Science News

Birds In The News is an excellent example of a regularly occuring science-news round-up. It serves as a mini-science-magazine in itself, with loyal readers coming back for more every week. It covers quite a lot of news on various aspects of science (and politics) touching birds in some way or another, always accompanied by commentary by an expert blogger - an avian biologist. Others may not do this as regularly, but when they are excited by a new paper, they will go into great detail explaining the paper to the lay audience.

It is especially cool, when the blogger explaining the paper is the author of the paper him/herself. For instance, Martin Brazeau wrote a blog post about his own paper in Nature on the early evolution of the tetrapod ear. Likewise, Ricardo Azevedo wrote about his own paper in Nature on the evolution of sex and later provided some more background information on how the paper came about. Although, I am not sure if he ever wrote about another paper of his on Ontogenetic Depth, but the rundown by PZ Myers (that is where the link is going to) is an excellent example of the genre in this category.

Placing Science News Into Context

This is much harder to do, but some bloggers are excellent at doing this - using recent papers to teach the audience about a broader area of scientific research. I have tried to do this several times, with mixed results (some are listed here).

Science Reviews and Tutorials

I do not see this nearly as much as I think it should be out there: writing blog posts that explain the basics to the lay audience. Nothing brand-new or cuttin edge, just textbook stuff, but explained in a lively bloggy language. I have written a whole series of those but this post by David Ng is probably the best example to be emulated in the future.

Transitions is a blog designed as a repository of posts useful for teaching, and DarkSyde's Science Fridays on DailyKos are often in this format.

At a more advanced level, a blog post can be a good summary of literature. See Mixing Memory for many good examples of this.

Philosophy and Sociology of Science

There are a number of excellent blogs written by philosophers of science. Let me just highlight Adventures in Ethics and Science, hpb etc., Evloving Thoughts, Philosophy of Biology and What is it like to be a blog?. However, many science bloggers sometimes dig deep into philosophy, or at least dabble in it.

History of Science

Where, oh, where are the historians of science!?!? We laymen sometimes try our hand at it, but having a professional around as a shining example would be great. Can we persuade a science historian to start blogging?

Using a blog as a teaching tool

This is an area where natural scientists appear to be lagging behind social scientists. It is pretty easy to find a teaching blog of, for instance, a sociologist. But as far as natural science goes - and please tell me if I am wrong - I could only find PZ Myers' blogs for his courses in Neurobiology, Human Physiology and Genetics. I am thinking of using one next month, when my next class begins (Life Science for adults).

If you are interested in using online technologies (blogging, podcasting, vlogging, etc) in the classroom, your obligation is to peruse David Warlick's website, blog, podcast and book.

Using a blog as a scientific tool

Have you seen Casual Fridays on Cognitive Daily? Every Friday, Dave and Greta give their readers a test or a questionnaire (usually limited to the first 250 responders). Next Friday, they post the analysis with pretty graphs, possible explanations, some background literature summary, etc. What a nifty way to do pilot studies!

Blogging Scientific Hypotheses

I have not really seen a science blogger post an original hypothesis. Social scientists constantly post drafts of their papers, sometimes just sketches of idea, on their blogs, encourage commetning and discussion, and end up publishing the final refined version in journals. I do nto see natural scientists do the same. Why? Is social science unscoopable, in the sense that similar works, written by different people in different styles and with different emphasis still count as distinct pieces of work, while in natural science a simultaneous discovery of something by two people is still counted as a single piece of work (though the two papers are often published together in the same journal, or simultanously in two journals, the way two versions of the Human Genome were published simultaneously one in Science one in Nature)?

Every Discussion section in every paper contains seeds of hypotheses. Review papers are full of opinions that can be reworded as hypotheses. Talks and posters at conferences often involve publicizing one's hypothesis. There is even a journal called "Medical Hypotheses" which publishes data-free papers specifying hypotheses that people are interested in testing in the future. So why not on a blog?

I have often written opinions in my science posts that can be reformulated as hypotheses (e.g., this, this, this and this). More recently, I openly started stating hypotheses in the proper form of hypotheses (e.g., this, this and this).

What does publishing a hypothesis mean? I guess there are two possibilities:
A) "This is my hypothesis and I am staking the territory here. I intend to test this hypothesis in the near future and you BETTER NOT try to scoop me!"
B) "This is my hypothesis, but I have no intention to follow it up with actual research. However, I'd love to see it tested. Please someone test it! And if you do, you will have to cite me in the list of references as your source for this hypothesis"

And yes, a blog post can be cited in the List Of References of a science paper.

I have quite openly stated the B) version applies to everything I posted so far. Do I have the guts to write an A) type instead of keeping mum, actually doing the work and publishing it in a real paper first?

Have you ever seen a hypotesis on a science blog? Please let me know if you have. It will be very interesting to know.

Blogging Data

I have not seen anyone post unpublished data on a blog. That is, except me, (see this and this). Why is it so? Fear of being scooped?

But, putting data on a blog is a fast way of getting the data out with a date/time stamp on it. It is a way to scoop the competition. Once the data are published in a real Journal, you can refer back to your blog post and, by doing that, establish your primacy.

On the other hand, not seeing anyone else blog data, I am taking very small and careful first steps so far. I am not getting anywhere near my Dissertation stuff. That has to be defended and published before I mention it on the blog. The data I posted so far are from studies that nobody involved in is likely to follow up any time soon. It is not good enough or big enough data-set for the real publication yet, but I felt (and the students who did it with me agree) that the world should see it anyway, and hopefully replicate and follow up on. In a sense, these unpublished data serve as bloggable hypotheses with some data serving as pilot studies.

Bill Hooker wrote:
"Bora helps to usher in a new era of scientific publishing. I'm serious."
and in a comment to one of my posts writes:
"I particularly like the idea of blog post as scientific publication. I have been saying for some time that if we could get the competition down to a reasonable level in science, lab blogs (lablogs?) would be an obvious way to keep in touch with what's happening at relevant benches around the world. If ever I make PI, I plan to keep a lablog and use it to reach out to potential collaborators."
I'd like to see more bloggers post hypotheses and pilot (unpublished, negative or unpublishable) data. When is it going to happen?

Not even PZ Myers, who is master of every category listed here except the last two (which explains why he is the best and most popular science blogger), publishes hypotheses and data. Some people are specialists - they are really good at one or two of the above categories. Others are generalists, doing a little bit of everything. Each approach is equally valid and good. PZ does everything well. I keep trying, but I post as much good stuff in two years as he does in a month!

More than a year ago I wrote a starry-eyed vision of the future of science blogging, but, are we going in that direction at all? Shall we meet at a Science BloggerCon to hash this out?

Update: Ahistoricality and Terra Sigilata have posted responses to this post.

Also, I forgot to include blogs by editors of science magazines, e.g., Scientific American, or such unique blogs as Confessions of a Science Librarian.

In the comments, Ralph Luker points out some blogs by historians of science, some of which are excellent blogs, but none is what I was thinking of when I wrote that category, something more akin to serious essays often seen on other history and philosophy blogs.

Update 2: More responses, from Aetiology and Open Reading Frame.
Also: Confessions of a Science Librarian and The Greenbelt
Even more: Scientific Activist and Pharyngula.
Update 4: Cyberspace Rendezvous chimes in and Rigor Vitae thinks I need Ritalin. Also, I have more here and here.
And there is more: The discussion about science blogging continues on Terra Sigillata, Archy, Neurofuture, Nanopolitan, Jenna's MySpace blog, Ahistoricality, Genesalive, The Heart of Gold, A Geeky Girl Reads and Scientific Assessment. Comments are welcome everywhere.
Also on Public Rambling, Semciencia and Siris.
And another one on Open Reading Frame

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