Thursday, December 01, 2005

Science bloggers make Nature (and vice versa)

First pandemic flu in a fictional blog, now real blogging. Last December, Nature (the science journal, not the natural world) broke new ground by dramatizing the dangers of an influenza pandemic using a fictional blog (but in print, not electrons). The journal now has a news story about the significance of blogging for scientists and Effect Measure was honored to be recognized in it. The story was written by one of Nature's senior correspondents, Declan Butler, who by no coincidence was the real author behind the fictional blogger Sally O'Reilly in December's special section on avian influenza. Declan now has his own blog, but more on that in a bit.

Declan's piece is part of a three article series, Science in the web age. Besides Declan's article there are two more, one on digitizing libraries and the other on a new Google scientific search tool. All are subscription only but the series introduction seems to be freely available. I'll have to wait to get to a connection with a subscription to see the other two, but I have read Declan's piece which is very interesting. It explores the barely scratched surface of the web revolution as a virtual space for conducting science. Several scientists noted the paradox that a field where the sharing of knowledge is a valued norm and new techniques are eagerly embraced has also been very slow to adopt--and accept--new means of collaboration and communication offered by internet technology. While it is now common for scientists to work with colleagues a half a continent or half a world away (my closest research collaborator is thousands of miles from me), even writing textbooks together via email or ftp, the social side of the equation has often been a barrier rather than a help to further use of collaborative technologies. Among the reasons is a need to assimilate a shift in how credit is assigned and how the coin of the scientific realm, data, is shared.

Because the incentives have yet to catch up with the technology, much of the activity among scientists is taking place beneath the disciplinary radar screen, in virtual venues such as the blogosphere (which thankfully I don't have to explain because you are in it as your read this). While there are an estimated 20 million blogs, a vanishingly small percentage are written or edited by scientists. Effect Measure is in an even smaller slice of this small slice of pie, the medical blogosphere and its really, really tiny corner, public health blogs, of which there are only a handful.

Most of us who are blogging scientists are aware of the difference between blog diction and professional scientific diction (here I am using diction to mean "word choice"). Needless to say I never use profanity in my scientific writings and adhere to the usual conventions. I might say, in responding to a critic, "We read with interest the comments of Drs. Peckerhead and Shitforbrains concerning our latest paper," followed by a response to the good Doctors. On the blog we can just say, "Drs. Peckerhead and Shitforbrains have earned their names honestly. What a load of crap. Here's why." Of course there are dangers to this approach, especially if Peckerhead and Shitforbrains review your grants or are government bureaucrats who control the grant money.

That's one reason why some scientists blog anonymously, but the more important one is that blogging allows the kind of potent political commentary that can have adverse effects not only on the blogger but on his or her students, colleagues and institution. Sharp political commentary couched in pungent diction is an intoxicating brew, with the danger that it is easy to blog under the influence with disastrous consequences--unless wearing the seatbelt of anonymity. Many scientific bloggers blog under their own names, of course, and Declan mentions one of the best, PZ Myers of Pharyngula. His blog is a model of what the form can be. If you haven't visited it, by all means do so. The writing is piquant, the topics and links superbly chosen, the passion evident and energizing.

Declan raises a lot of issues concerning data sharing, credit, career effects and more. If you can get access to the December 1 issue of Nature I recommend it. Meanwhile you can visit his new blog site. Right now there is only a single post on it, announcing the Nature articles. But there will be more to come, so bookmark it or get yourself an RSS subscription. I don't need to welcome him to the blogosphere since he has been around it for a long time and is an experienced denizen of these quarters. But I can welcome his new blog. Long may it inform, stimulate and agitate.

Addendum: All the articles in the Nature series are now available through Declan's blog. Check it out.