Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
In academia, research and publication are essential markers for indicating your expertise. However, the publication process can take a long time and today it is possible for information to be spread almost instantaneously. For scientists the ability to share research quickly increases cooperation and potentially makes their research stronger. There are numerous science blogs now available covering a wide range of topics including environment, medicine, life science and more. The blog entries are written by scientists all over the world and cover topics from mundane life to in-depth analysis of their current research. This paper will go over the blogs available to scientists today, how science blogs can contribute to the e-learning process for all audiences, and the pros and cons of reading and writing a science blog.
Blogs, regularly updated web sites chronicling the interests of the author(s), have become possibly the most important of the new media made possible by the Internet. Beginning as nothing more than chronicles of day-to-day life, blogs today have become a way for individuals to publish without the restrictions of traditional editors and the time-consuming process of peer review and paper publication. However, the blog community (often referred to as the blogosphere) places a new set of rules and regulations on writers and forms a new role for people consuming the information. Successful bloggers need to understand the importance of interaction in their blogs, from creating a productive space for readers to comment, to including hyperlinks in their posts, to integrating new social media tools such as RSS feeds and Twitter. All these features move a blog beyond being a static block of written information and takes it into a faster paced environment, oriented toward rapid dissemination of information and hopefully progressing towards stronger collaborative knowledge. Additionally, blogs demand of their readers a level of Web 2.0 literacy; readers must be able to find the information they seek online, organize how they consume the information, and be able to assess the competency of blog resources. Blogs are only one small part of online identity today, but when examined closely it becomes clear that this niche is a complex and integral part of being an active participant in our ever expanding online world.
Science information is primarily distributed to two groups of people: scientists and the larger public. Between scientists, research is published after an intensive peer review process. Previously, these articles were assembled into journals, printed, and distributed; now, more and more frequently, journals only exist in electronic form and access is provided through online databases. Through journals scientists communicate with each other using the vocabulary of their field. However, this method does not help in providing science information to the larger public. Instead, the separate but related field of science journalism focuses on providing lay people with information about current scientific explorations and discoveries (Brumfiel 2009). The research being published by scientists is examined by science journalists, then written in a more understandable way and distributed through newspapers, magazines, and online. Changes in information consumption are altering these two traditional methods of spreading science information. The demand is for information to be available almost instantaneously. Peer-reviewed journals often take months to years to publish articles, at which point the information may no longer be current. Science journalists often lack the science background necessary for accurate portrayal of news within these restrictive time frames (Walejko & Ksiazek 2010). Instead, scientists can communicate with each other and the rest of the world more quickly by using tools such as email, forums, wikis and blogs. The focus here will be on science blogs.
The Internet is saturated with blogs on any topic imaginable. Even within the narrower subset of science blogs the amount of information is vast, and for readers it can seem that there are too many blogs to keep track of. Depending on a reader's area of interest, however, most blogs can be found through a simple keyword search. Since most blogs are generally themed around the contents topic, readers can utilize numerous blog search tools such as GoogleBlog to find a blog related to their specific science topic. The hyperlink capabilities of the online environment also benefit blogs by allowing several similarly-themed blogs to guide readers to another blog which they may also be interested in. Within the science blogs there are generally three ways information is presented: from an individual, from a name brand, or from an aggregator.
An individual blog is one written by a single person. For example, Watts Up With That is a blog written by Anthony Watts. While the blog does have additional contributors, Watts is the primary author. The tagline for what the blog is about is "Commentary on puzzling things in life, nature, science, weather, climate change, technology and recent news." Individual blogs are where bloggers generally begin blogging. Blog templates and publishing platforms such as Blogger and Wordpress make the self-publication process much simpler; however, single-author blogs still require a high degree of maintenance. The downside to having complete creative control is that one author is solely responsible for continually creating content to draw in readers and keep them there. Blogs require almost daily updates, along with interaction through commentary and feedback from the audience. Without a highly motivated author and a solid base of readers blogs quickly lose their purpose, and many science blogs have been abandoned because the author loses interest or does not keep a regular update schedule. The other types of blogs also face these challenges but have the advantage of starting with a stronger built in base.
A name brand blog is one which is attached to a recognized group, and can be authored by one or more people. This type of blog may be the most important for the future of science journalism, because as readers move online, they come to trust established sites more than blogs by individual authors. Science blogs are now being attached to news web sites such as Wired. These sites already have a large, established readership base and have more staff to help maintain the web site, monitor the content, and brainstorm ideas. However, name-brand science blogs tend to be more generalist in topic coverage and slightly sensationalized, covering more popular science news. This ensures readership, but not necessarily good scholarship.
An aggregated blog functions as a portal, containing information and providing access to multiple blogs. One of the largest examples of this is the aptly-named ScienceBlogs. ScienceBlogs edits and organizes its 80+ blogs into science subject categorizes including Life Science, Physical Science, Environment, Humanities, Education, Politics, Medicine, Brain & Behaviour, Technology, and Information Science. Within these broad topics, sub-topics vary widely, but the authors are primarily experts who are active within their field of science. The large concentration of high-quality bloggers within ScienceBlogs brings in a strong scientific community. The elevated quality of the blogs found here have allowed the aggregator to gather together some of the best entries and publish them in an annual book, "The Open Laboratory" which creates a stronger sense of validity and support for blogs as a legitimate science resource (Stevenson 2007).
The high number of science blogs make it possible for readers to find information on any number of topics. Readers' level of interest can range from simple curiosity to dogged pursuit of the newest research. The popularity of blogs today indicates they are an important resource which warrants further critical attention.
The casual and self-regulatory nature of blogging has benefits and pitfalls for the science world. Blogs are simple to start, and easy to publish, but in order to be successful they require much more. Blogs require that invaluable resource of time. Time to produce high quality material, time to interact with the readers, time to learn the technology and web design in order to make sure the blog is appealing. The question becomes, do the benefits outweigh the cost?
From a practical stand point, blogs provide an opportunity for improving writing skills. A large portion of science blogs are written by graduate students (Wilkins 2008). As graduate students enter the field of academia, having a place to practice organizing their research can help them become familiar with writing for journal publications. It can be argued that the casual writing styles of blogs may hinder writing for publication; however, the constant pressure to write blog entries and the effort needed to create high-quality entries help build strong writing skills despite the relaxed nature of blogs. For authors who are already well established in their fields, a blog can also be a learning opportunity to explore a new format and keep up-to-date on emerging technologies and research. The blog also functions as a basic archive for the author. Authors can go back through their work, and depending on how they have organized the blog (for example, by giving identifying tags to the entries), allow others to observe the progression of their work over a long period of time. The practical benefits of improved writing skills and archives are also tied to how blogs help create a community of people who help each other and improve knowledge through collaboration.
The blogosphere is a large community; however, bloggers with similar interests and audience bases are often connected in multiple ways. Blogs create a space where connections can be made easily and instantly through hyperlinks. This is similar to how articles in traditional publications cite primary resources to help support their findings. In fact a large difference between the science blog community and other blogs is that science blogs more often reference academic resources, making the blog a valuable science news resource (Walejko & Ksiazek 2010). Traditionally, blogs will link to other blogs and popular web sites. This increases the audience base of a blog and allows bloggers to create content collaboratively. Including links to academic resources makes science blogs viable resources for researchers. Scientists with similar interests can assess whether the blog is covering the topic thoroughly enough, and can also supplement their own research with angles they may have not previously considered. The review process is also sped up in a science blog; not only can the audience benefit from reading the blog, they can contribute by commenting. Fast feedback can help scientists as they blog about a concept they may later be experimenting with or writing an article about.
The instantaneous nature of the Internet alters how scientists can influence the world. Blogs allow scientists to respond quickly to science news they may disagree with, and to support their argument through stronger primary resources. The collaboration of science blogs gives scientists the power to support larger efforts, and could possibly give scientists greater sway over political agendas. This could be an area of possible study as blogs become a more integral part of a science career; however, there are still many hurdles and pitfalls which affect the quality and strength of science blogs.
A stigma still remains on blogs, as they are still often viewed as unprofessional (Response Required 2010). For scientists working in an academic setting, time spent blogging might not be considered a valuable use of time. "Real work" fits into traditional formats of research and publication and blogs are not a direct part of that process. While there are many examples showcasing how blogs can benefit science, there are just as many, if not more, negative models to be found. Opposing viewpoints are an inevitability of human behavior, and within the blogosphere authors can emphasize their own viewpoints on controversial topics. A prominent example of this is the debate over evolution which is taking place in blogs such as the one by the Discovery Institute. Blogs can be used for any purpose: all the work and effort put into creating a strong blog can also be put into creating a blog with false information. Those blogs which advocate inaccurate or unscientific viewpoints contribute to the perception that blogs cannot be trusted to provide a valuable service to the scientific community. Science blogs have an obligation, and often the authors are highly motivated, to counter unscientific statements and perceptions being spread by these alternative blogs. The ScienceBlogs which cover controversial topics, such as 'Respectful Insolence' are often more successful than those which deal with new research or findings within a specific field, because the entries are more oriented toward "popular" topics and non-scientist, rather than direct science research and those who have studied the field. This is a balance science bloggers must find in order to continue supporting blogs as a viable resource. Science blogs are fighting an uphill battle to establish themselves as a valid way for scientists to spend their time, to counter inaccurate or non-scientific information on other online resources, and to strike a balance between writing about popular topics and more research-intensive entries.
The beauty of blogs lies in their simplicity and immediacy. Today social technologies are constantly developing ways to increase communication. Blogs are a low-cost way for anyone to publish information and make it available to a global audience. Science blogs are an alternative way for people to explore and learn about the latest trends and research. However, the potential of science blogs is overshadowed by the numerous other blogs which disseminate false or misleading information. The reader must be able to judge on their own the reliability of the blogs they read. A stronger image is presented when science bloggers work together to create a community which recognizes and establishes high-quality writing and qualified experts. A necessary part of this process is making it clear that blogging is more than a casual writing process. Blogging improves science outreach by allowing authors, from graduate students to tenured professionals, to more directly and more rapidly interact with their peers and the rest of the population. Increasing communication channels through tools such as blogs builds a knowledge base that allows world-wide collaboration and active participation by the scientists, and ensures continual, immediate criticism of science research by both readers and writers.
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