Today, The Open Notebook is pleased and proud to announce a partnership with the authors of Science Blogging: The Essential Guide. The book, forthcoming on March 1 from Yale University Press and funded by grants from the Sloan Foundation and from the National Association of Science Writers, is aimed at science journalists, scientists, and anyone else who has something to say about science and wants to do it on a blogging platform. It features contributions by more than two dozen leading bloggers and offers guidance on topics such as deciding whether to blog, building an audience, blogging about controversial topics, dealing with trolls, using a blog for personal storytelling, measuring a blog’s success, and much more.
TON will act as the online home for Science Blogging, hosting a set of resource pages, information about the editors and chapter authors, and, in time, a collection of Q&A interviews with chapter authors. We believe these online offerings (editorially independent from TON) will deepen and extend the book’s value.
Why did you decide to do this book?
Bethany: The Internet has completely changed the way both science communicators and scientists share science. Scientists can now easily and directly communicate about their own work to millions just by hitting “publish.” Science journalism and communication has changed, too. The Internet has made it possible for more people than ever to have access to scientific news, in formats from text to video to interactives and beyond. But getting started, and doing it well, is challenging.
Many people have written how-to guides over the years, from how to set up a blog to how to improve narrative style. But like everything on the Internet, these pieces are diffuse and often hard to find. We decided it was time to gather all you needed to know to blog about science in one place. The book’s advice can guide bloggers no matter where they are in their careers. The website that goes with it, here at The Open Notebook, will prevent the book from becoming obsolete, by keeping the resources up to date. And the chapters themselves, from some of the biggest names in science writing and blogging, help get people started in the online science world with names they recognize and follow.
Jason: When the three of us each decided to take up blogging, you could almost read every new blog post written about science every day, or at least it felt like you could. The blogosphere was smaller, and social media was only starting to become the monster it is today. You could screw up or make mistakes without fearing for the rest of your career. Plenty of niches were available, and if you couldn’t find the blog posts you wanted to read, then you could write them yourself.
The Internet is a different place now. The party is a bit more crowded, and it seems somewhat more difficult for a new blogger to find his or her place in the online science communication ecosystem. I wanted to provide a bit of a field guide so that folks who may want to dip a toe into science blogging could do it with confidence and without feeling completely overwhelmed.
Christie: I think science blogging is one of the best tools available for science communication, in part because it is so versatile and can be used by people with all kinds of career backgrounds with very diverse goals. But there are many who are hesitant to take advantage of what blogs have to offer because they don’t know where to start or feel frustrated with their current efforts to blog. My hope is that this book helps science communicators of all flavors, whether they be journalists, scientists, or simply enthusiasts, navigate the sometimes-murky waters of the blogosphere.
Science blogging has been a big part of my life for almost eight years now. When I first set up my blog, I had no idea what I was doing or how to do it, and I often wondered what the “secrets” were of all the successful science bloggers. For me, a good chunk of my desire to be a part of this book was to provide others with the kind of advice I wish I’d had. Sure, they can hunt down articles on one topic or another, but to have a guidebook where all of those tips and tricks are in one collection saves time and energy.
Talk about your process in choosing contributors—what were your main goals?
Bethany: Our first goal was to cover a large slice of the science blogging world. There are so many people out there putting information about science on the internet, and coming from a huge variety of perspectives. So we took care to have science journalists, communicators who work in multimedia, press officers, scientists on the tenure track, graduate students, artists, and people who study and work on how science is communicated.
Our second goal was to showcase some of the diversity of the online science world. Eleven of our 27 chapters are written by women, and two of the editors are women. We have chapters devoted to writing as a minority in science and to writing as a woman in science. The chapter authors come from four countries and span 15 time zones. Looking back on it, I am disappointed that we didn’t get a more diverse group of people, with more minority representation. We could have done it.
Jason: As Bethany said, the top priority was diversity—certainly in the ways we usually think of diversity, but also in more subtle ways, like the career trajectories of our authors, the types of places they work and the outlets they write for, the tools they use to communicate science on the internet, and so on. By doing so, hopefully we communicated the notion that a blog is nothing more than a tool for spreading ideas online. They aren’t representative of a particular sort of person, writer, style, tone, or goal.
What are some of the key skills that you hope your readers will take away from your book and from your online offerings at The Open Notebook?
Bethany: I hope that the book offers people a helpful guide to creating their own site and finding their own niche in online science communication. There’s a lot out there, yes, but there’s always space for more. It’s not limited to writing, there’s audio and video and art and combinations of all of these.
With regard to our online offerings at The Open Notebook, we are already offering lists of extra resources for each chapter, including more articles and links that people can read and use as they enter the world of science blogging. We will also be contributing posts to the site that specifically focus on engaging in social media. I hope they will help people learn more about successful engagement platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Jason: I believe that most of the skills surrounding blogging and online science communication are ones that come with practice. I hope that readers both of the book and of our contributions to TON will take away the confidence to try new things, to experiment with different ways of telling stories about science, to be eager to figure out new tools and new software. If we can achieve that, then this book will still be useful even long after Twitter stops being the social media platform of choice, or once blogs become such a natural part of the communication landscape that the chapter on how to set one up becomes useless.
Christie: I hope that readers find the information they need to make their blogs successful and worthwhile efforts, whatever that entails for them. But the guide is information, not training. You don’t get good at the skills mentioned in the book by reading about them; you have to try them, fail at them even, and then master them. So the real benefit of the book—and the accompanying website hosted by TON—is that it brings together the best resources available to help someone get started blogging about science or try something new.
What insights about blogging did you gain in the process of shepherding this book?
Bethany: Everyone does it differently. I tend to approach my blogging the way I approach my life, constantly coming up to people and saying, “Did you know that…” But some writers think in terms of narrative, or in terms of images. Some have academic goals in mind. Some are purely educational. The only thing they all really have in common is that they share science and the experience of scientists. It’s a beautiful thing.
Christie: It really hammered home for me how diverse and flexible blogs are as a tool for communication. Our chapter authors are writers, journalists, teachers, scientists, students, press officers—basically, everyone you can think of that might have an interest in science. And the content they share with their blogs varies widely, from short news pieces to long personal narratives, and everything in between. But all are able to mould their blog into the perfect tool to achieve their goals.
Jason: I think my biggest insight came long after we submitted the final manuscript to our publisher and began work on our corner of the TON website. I thought it would be neat to create a map showing (approximately) where each of our contributors lives—which you can see on the bottom of our authors page. That’s when I realized how powerful science blogs can be for spreading accurate, scientific information and delivering compelling stories about science to just about every corner of the planet. At the moment, we’ve got contributors from North America, Europe, and Africa. If we ever decide to do an update of the book, I hope we can include even more contributors, from South America, Asia, and Australia … and maybe even Antarctica?
What are some of the biggest misconceptions that science journalists tend to have about science blogging?
Bethany: I think the big one still is that blogging somehow takes away from journalism or threatens it in some way. As one of our chapter authors, Carl Zimmer, put it so eloquently, “The idea that some pajama-clad basement-lurkers could destroy a major section of the media is absurd.”
Blogs aren’t a challenge to science journalism. The challenges to science journalism are the sites that keep jettisoning their science sections, the lack of funding for science news and the proliferation of press releases as news substitutes. The public often has no idea what makes journalism journalism and why it is important, and upvotes and reads accordingly. None of these things happened because someone was blogging.
A blog or a website is a platform. That’s all it is. Some blogs are journalism. Some aren’t. Some complement it. A science blog can be a laboratory, a place to develop new ways of writing. Or it can be a place to show off science that might not necessarily make the front page. It can be a place to air opinions and think through difficult scientific challenges.
I should note, however, that many of us get dressed and go to work. I swear that I write in my PJs less than 50 percent of the time. And I never do it in my basement.
Christie: Well I don’t have a basement or pajamas, but I work like a boss in yoga pants! All kidding aside: It’s sad to me that there’s still this sentiment that blogs are somehow trying to destroy journalism, or that anything on a blog is low quality. Some of the best science journalists I know have fascinating, detailed, scientifically accurate blogs which put the churnalistic news—which so many online magazine and newspapers seem to be fond of—to shame.
Science blogging has evolved a great deal in the last decade. What changes do you think have been most important, and what changes do you see emerging now?
Bethany: I think one of the biggest changes I have seen in the past few years has been the professionalization of science blogging by science writers and journalists. Many have been absorbed into mainstream publications, which now have blog sections. More recently, I’ve begun to see those blog sections get pared down as news outlets continue to worry about their science budgets. I see freelancers with no shortage of work, but getting paid less and less for each piece, again as budgets get trimmed.
On the other side, I see large new magazines focused on long features and with grant funding, such as Mosaic and Nautilus. And I see sites like BuzzFeed exploding onto the science news scene. I wonder, in the end, how it will all balance out.
Jason: I agree about the increasing professionalization of the activity, and it’s a change that I think has bifurcated the community of science bloggers.
Maybe it’s a bit too simplistic a categorization—we humans love to find patterns amidst chaos—but it seems to me that most professional science writers are increasingly writing blogs for mainstream media outlets, publications for which at one time blogging was thought of as an antidote, an alternative. To take but one obvious example, one of our chapter authors, Ed Yong, now writes blog posts for National Geographic (he is also a staff writer at The Atlantic). Bethany’s blog, Scicurious, now lives at Science News. I don’t even have my own blog anymore; the financial incentive to maintaining it as a freelancer was simply too low. Instead, I contribute to the blogs of Conservation Magazine, BBC Future, Earth Touch, and so on.
Meanwhile, the independent blogosphere—those on WordPress and Blogger and the like—remains as strong as ever, but seems more and more to be composed of folks who blog on the side: professors, postdocs, graduate students, and so on. These are folks who do science as a living but who find online outreach professionally or personally fulfilling.
I suspect that divide will only continue to increase, with those who do not rely on blogging for their income perhaps eventually giving up traditional blogs for platforms like Facebook, which increasingly offer users the ability to do something that appears at least superficially like blogging.
Christie: Way back when, the first blogs were more like diaries; since then, they’ve become melting pots of all kinds of writing and expression. It seems to me, the only thing separating a blog from magazines, newspapers, or other publications is that you have the ability to change what you share every time you post. You can be a news reporter one day, and a feature writer the next. And because of that, blogs are creating and cultivating multi-talented communicators that are able to fluidly switch between mediums. I think that is and will continue to have a big impact on the media ecosystem.
How might this book have been different if it had been written five years ago?
Bethany: Five years ago, the science blogging world was a lot more consolidated than it is now. It was mostly centered around ScienceBlogs.com, a single site with a large set of bloggers, and a diffuse network of people on personal blogs. Now, there are many different networks to choose from, and many different outlets that accept blog articles from freelancers. I think the “community” of science bloggers has become similarly fragmented. It’s a different set of challenges and a different set of opportunities.
Christie: I think the meteoric rise of social media has changed a lot. People have moved discussions away from comment threads to Twitter or Facebook, for example, making it more difficult for bloggers to see how they’re engaging their audience. But those social media platforms also provide access to new readers and new audiences that may not have found a blog five years ago, and they’ve opened the possibility for posts go “viral” and receive an unprecedented number of eyeballs.