Thursday, April 3, 2008

Is Science Blogging Useful

The geoblogosphere is abuzz with a debate about blogging on peer reviewed science. Chris at Highly Allochthonous summarizes it here. My first reaction was, if you cannot blog about actual research what is left to blog about in science? I know this is an extreme reaction, I mean science ideas that you throw around at happy hour Friday are also fun to blog about but peer reviewed research represents the guts of science. Myles Allen the scientist against the idea of peer reviewed blogging is afraid that

criticism of peer-reviewed results belongs in the peer-reviewed literature. Direct communication over the Internet, far from creating a level playing field, just ploughs it up and makes the game impossible.

Blogs are often written in a hurry, ideas are put down in pixels without having thought through them, you can just have an angry knee jerk reaction to a result you did not anticipate or one that goes against your favorite theory. Allen thinks you should check informally with the researchers before blogging about it. He doesn't like this informal criticism of research and prefers it to be restricted to the comments and reply section of the journal. Let's be clear. I agree that science cannot be practiced in the blogosphere and the correct way to formally address your criticism is in the comments and reply section. But peer reviewed articles reveals the innards of the scientific method. The rationale for a hypothesis, the way data has been collected to validate it and how it is analyzed, a journal article is a way to formally present this inner working of science. Blogging about it makes the working of science transparent to just about anyone interested in it. Most of the general reading public do not have subscriptions to technical journals. Blogs written by scientists about science and peer reviewed research have opened up an immensely enriching learning avenue. I definitely have benefited from this.

Allen is fearful that a hasty reading of the research and airing of personal views by scientists may lead to confusion and bad press. This might occasionally happen, but scientists realize that blogs are not a formal means of communicating science and will read the blog as an informal assessment of the research and comment on it in that spirit. Yes, occasionally research does get misrepresented in blogs but the way ahead is to write another blog clarifying it. I prefer a feisty blog exchange than a sterile press report any day.

Update: Myles Allen has kindly clarified his position in the comments section. Kim Hannula who blogs at Shear Sensibility also has some good thoughts on this topic.


  1. Hi Suvrat,

    I couldn't help picking up on "Myles Allen the scientist against peer-reviewed blogging." I wouldn't be against peer-reviewed blogging at all, if there were such a thing. What troubles me is this relatively novel approach of publish-first-and-ask-questions-later. My experience is that any genuine scientist is more than willing to answer questions (probably in interminable detail) about their research, so I don't understand the blog "tradition" of shooting from the hip, when a simple e-mail is often all that is needed to straighten things out.


    Myles Allen

    (PS Apologies for the "anonymous" tag, but as you might imagine, I'm not a blogger...)

  2. Myles:

    thanks for clarifying your position. I don't see much to disagree when you say that people should check facts before blogging. But since you don't blog I can see how uncomfortable you are with the "hip shooting" aspect which is what makes blogs different from formal science communication. What can go wrong is when for example the media especially don't realize this difference and start treating blogs as their primary source of information for reports.

    Also I find the blogosphere to be quite competitive. Scientists who regularly write trash without checking facts will be found out and criticized and eventually lose readership.

  3. Blogs are often written in a hurry,

    That is the crux of the problem. If scientists or critics could put enough effort when they write their blogs as well, "peer reviewed blogging" could find good use among the readers.