In this excellent blogpost from Damien Debecker we hear about what researchers might gain from reading scientific blog posts, but also we can glean some ideas about why and how to write about science in blog posts.
In addition to the regular scientific literature, the world-wide-web is now full of alternative forms of scientific narration. Among those, I find that blog posts written by the authors of scientific papers are particularly noteworthy. Here is why.
1. Story behind the paper
Scientific publications usually report solely on successful experiments. Reading a paper from the literature, you have no clue about how difficult it was to get to that point. Quite the opposite! Authors tend to write scientific papers as if everything went smoothly. And we – researchers – all know that this is everything but true, most of the time.
I love to read how a particular result has been acquired, how a project was built, how an innovative idea was born. Very often, if you ask, scientists can tell a funny anecdote about their paper. In blogs, authors share these details, tell the story behind their paper, and by doing so, they make the science more personal and bring it to life.
2. Pre-digested science
Daily scientific production is huge. You don’t read every single paper in your field down to the detail level. You need a filter to select the papers into which you are going to invest more time to decipher every detail of the experimental procedure and gauge the significance of every conclusion. Reading a good blog post may give you additional motivation to study a paper this way.
When nicely written, a blog post is easy and fun to read. It can be read at the bus stop or while your eggs are boiling! Good blog posts are those which remain scientifically correct but at the same time manage to step away from the austere canvas of classical scientific publications, thus further spawning curiosity.
3. Information overload
Good scientists usually don’t manage to write a blog post about every single paper they publish. Let’s be honest: it takes time and it is an additional effort of outreach that we cannot always afford. Thus, when a prolific scientist I follow writes a blog post, I tend to believe it is about a work he/she is really proud of. A piece they really want to promote widely, with results that they think will be useful, or at least interesting, to a broader range of readers beyond that of the journal.
We might need to admit, as researchers, that we are not equally proud of all the papers we publish. Who has never published a paper “because after all the effort put into this project yielding only poor results, at least something has to come out”? Who has never been the co-author of a paper by a colleague, after a modest contribution, thinking “gosh, this is not rocket science but I did my part, so I deserve my name on the author list”? Or perhaps not blogging could be down to a simple realisation that you have better pieces in preparation and you don’t want to invest more time in the promotion of your latest paper.
Therefore, if authors take the time to blog about their own paper then it must be one of their recent masterpieces! So I am impatient to read on.
4. Multidisciplinary science
We live in an era where research is largely multidisciplinary. Cross-disciplinary research is often yielding important scientific breakthroughs. From a personal standpoint, I can confirm that some of my own research realisations have found their foundations in collaborations with scientists whose background was different from mine. To do this, you must be able to communicate with scientists from different fields. This does not mean you should become another expert in their field. You must be able to understand the essence of their work, and of course, to make them understand yours!
An open mind, fierce curiosity, and good communication skills are essential. With this in mind, a good blog post can be the catalyst to the birth of new ideas, collaborations, or projects. Blogs can be written in a specific and rigorous, yet accessible way, so that “non-specialist-scientists” can understand them and get inspiration for further work.
5. Social-media compatible
It has been a while, now, since I have been systematically deleting the table of content emails from the journals in my field. I used to pay attention to the content lists, reading one by one the 50 titles of the monthly issue for a set of preferred journals. However this was when I was a PhD student, focusing mainly on one specific topic. Back then, it was easy to skim those lists. Now my list of preferred topics has expanded and I should ideally be reading 20 papers a day. Impossible!
Today, like many of my colleagues, I tend to spend “some” time on social media – and especially on Twitter. Following selected hashtags, and building my own lists, I regularly come across interesting posts. Some online blogging platforms, like for example External Diffusion which I have launched recently, share scientific blog posts very effectively within the community. Looking at a tweet or a Facebook post, you know almost instantly whether the blog post will be worth a read or not. I do click through to read a paper when curious. And I often send links to my colleagues who might like to read the post. Through blogging – as an author and as a reader – I also built myself a little network, sharing and commenting on each other’s posts. It is funny when you first meet a scientist at conference after having regularly read his/her tweets and blog posts! Blogging creates links.
Please feel free to share this post, and add your own personal reasons for reading (or writing) science blog posts!
About the author: Damien Debecker is a bioengineer in chemistry by training and has received his PhD in the field of heterogeneous catalysis. He is now an Associate Professor at the University of Louvain, in Belgium, teaching physical chemistry and separation processes. His research focus is on the preparation and study of new heterogeneous catalysts and biocatalysts to design chemical processes in a greener way. Damien is an occasional blogger and quite active on Twitter.
Recently, Damien has launched a science blogging hub called “External Diffusion” that offers authors of scientific publication the possibility to talk about their findings through engaging online contents and social media.