Searching for great blogs
When I was a grad student studying pharmacology, I started blogging about science. Later on, my interest in writing and reading research blogs drew me into the altmetrics world. Since joining Altmetric as the data curator and blog editor, I’ve written a lot about the impact of blogs. In contrast, the data curation side of my job involves manually collecting news and blog sources for Altmetric. We require manual curation to ensure that the sources in our database are of good quality and have reliable scholarly content.
Over the past year, my manual curation tasks have led me through thousands of blogs from various disciplines. Getting to know how people use blogs in different ways has been a fascinating process. In this post, I’ll share a couple of things I’ve learned along the way. This certainly isn’t any kind of comprehensive analysis – these are just some observations. Closer to the end of the post, I’ll also explain how Altmetric tracks blogs, and point out our new initiatives to give back to the blogging community.
The educational value of blogs
If you regularly consume academic content on Twitter (or other social media platforms), you probably find yourself browsing blogs quite frequently. It’s no surprise at all, because many academic blogs are rich sources of scholarly content. You’ve likely noticed that a lot of the time, especially in the life sciences, blogs are created to describe research in engaging and accessible ways. Some of these blogs act a bit like news outlets, and tend to feature newly-published research. Examples of some great science communication blogs include Spoonful of Medicine, Empirical Zeal, Not Exactly Rocket Science, and Neurophilosophy. These kinds of blogs have immense educational value, as they can promote the latest research to all audiences, inspiring public interest in science. Moreover, these blogs can help to keep academics up-to-date with interesting papers from subjects beyond their own fields.
As a side note, very little research has been done on the usage of academic blogs or the motivations behind them, but this 2012 PLOS ONE paper made a good start on analysing the features of a sample from the blogosphere, and uncovered some pretty interesting insights.
Scholarly communication on expert-led blogs
Science communication blogs are constantly competing for the attention of the general public. This isn’t necessarily the case in expert-led blogs, due to the specificity of most of the topics. Expert-led blogs tend to be more niche, and are used for reporting on progress, analysing papers, discussing issues in the field, providing reasoned opinions, self-promoting and so on. (The term “experts” is incredibly broad, and might include people like scientists, scholars, clinicians, and librarians.) These blogs generally tend to demonstrate serious scholarly discourse. For example, check out this post on The Mermaid’s Tale about interpreting DNA sequencing data and this post about a brain training study on Dan Simons’ blog.
Blogs in some disciplines tend to feature highly technical posts, which are targeted at fellow experts. The ability to produce posts freely and quickly is appealing for many academics. When it comes to digital scholarship, blogging speeds up the process of communicating and discussing new ideas. Structural biologist Professor Stephen Curry (who blogs at Reciprocal Space) has written eloquently about his own journey into blogging, and says rather aptly that “[t]he openness of the form … gives blogging a scholarly edge: writing in public disciplines your thinking and challenges it by exposing you fully to the counter-views of your commenter critics.”
The acceptance of blogs as platforms for scholarly communication has grown in many disciplines, likely due to the presence of high-profile blogs. For example, many mathematicians follow the blogs of Fields Medalists Dr. Terence Tao and Sir Timothy Gower, whereas many chemists may be familiar with Derek Lowe’s In the Pipeline and John Spevacek’s It’s the Rheo Thing. Now, with an increasing number of researchers taking up blogging, some universities, including Princeton University, are even making a point to list faculty member blogs on their websites.
This rise in expert-led blogs is important, and in some cases, is encouraging authors and readers to participate in meaningful exchanges about new research. Many authors of papers do care what’s being said in blogs, especially if their peers are among those who are commenting. These online comments are sometimes enough to prompt back-and-forth discussions between the authors and their online readership. Expert-led blogs aren’t just for discussing and opining, though; I’ve seen other creative uses in a Microbiology Twitter Journal Club, and even a chemistry blog that was created as a companion to a published textbook.
Experts who cast a critical eye on published research find the blog medium useful for discussing papers in minute detail. In theory, the public nature of blogs means that the authors of a potentially questionable paper can be held accountable for any mistakes. There have been many examples of bloggers flagging up critical flaws in published papers (and flaws in media attention), and on a regular basis, retractions are covered in the excellent Retraction Watch blog. Whether exposing fraud or problems in manuscripts should really be done on blogs is still up for debate, and the complexities were briefly explored in this recent post by Tom Philips on The Sceptical Chymist.
How does your blog contribute to a paper’s online impact?
If you’re a blogger and you’ve mentioned a scholarly paper in one of your blog posts, then you have contributed in some way to increasing the visibility of that paper online. This is shown through Altmetric’s article details pages, where we link out to blog posts that mention papers. In this way way, authors can see all the blog posts about their papers, alongside any media coverage or social media buzz. In turn, having your blog post listed in the Altmetric details page of a journal article can attract new readers to your blog.
To find out if your blog posts are being picked up by Altmetric, just go to the page of the journal article you mentioned, and try the Altmetric Bookmarklet. (You could also try putting the journal article’s DOI into the Altmetric Explorer.) Just click through to the article details page, and you should be able to see whether any blog posts have been collected.
Two things determine whether or not we do find a paper mention within a blog: 1) We need to be tracking the blog in our database, and 2) You need to have included a hyperlink to a scholarly paper. The link could be to a DOI, PubMed entry, or journal article page – our system just needs to be able to figure out which paper you’re talking about.
So if you have blogged a paper but your mention doesn’t appear in the ‘Blogs’ tab of that article’s details page, just get in touch with us.
Giving back to the blogosphere: supporting current and future bloggers
Each of us at Altmetric writes a blog of some kind, so we all understand how important blogging is. To give back to the science blogging community, we have tried to support both current and future bloggers. First, we provided a donation to ScienceSeeker.org, a community-run science blog aggregator, in order to support the project and the science bloggers who create so much fantastic content. We are also offering free Altmetric Explorer accounts to all bloggers whose blogs are registered on ScienceSeeker. We hope that bloggers will use the Explorer to find out how their blog posts have contributed to the online impact of scholarly research. Just check out this page for details on how to get a free Explorer account.
Our second initiative is a little experiment that will expose a group of graduate students to research blogging. We partnered with Dr. Melanie Kelly and PhD candidate Elizabeth Cairns at Dalhousie University’s Department of Pharmacology to bring a special blog component to their Introduction of Pharmacology I course. The “blog project” has been assigned to graduate students, and involves writing pharmacology-related blog posts in a similar style to the Interactions series of the Altmetric blog. All students were provided with Altmetric Explorer accounts to help out with the assignment. After the semester concludes, a selection of student blog posts will be published on the Altmetric blog, so be prepared to read some great writing.