Blogging science

07Feb10

A couple of weeks ago, I arranged for Ed Yong to come to the Trust for a lunchtime talk on science blogging. It was an interesting discussion and very timely given that we’re currently establishing a Wellcome Trust science blog. What was interesting from my perspective was that Ed is someone who blogs for his own highly successful site, but also for an organisation (he writes for Cancer Research UK’s Science Update blog in his day job).

Expecting a lot of questions on Ed’s Not Exactly Rocket Science site, I was pleasantly surprised that a fair number of people seemed interested in what blogging could do from an organisation’s point of view, which bodes well for interest in our own blog.

Ed talked about his reasons for blogging, how it differed from other media and gave his tips on how to run a successful blog. He made some excellent points:

1. Blogging, in line with new social networking tools, is reactive and interactive. You can publish something in minutes and, through comments, stimulate conversation with people interested in the same subject. Cancer Research UK (CRUK), for example, have used their blog to respond to confusing or misleading cancer stories in the media, not so much to condemn the reporter or newspaper but to point out the evidence for or against it and offer a more considered response with sources. Ed gave one example where a misleading story about red wine preventing breast cancer appeared. Within hours CRUK were able to write a response on their blog. It was soon appearing right alongside the main news story on Google search results.

2. Blogging is about community. Once you hit publish, that’s not the end of the process, it’s just the start. Comments allow you to interact with people interested in the subject, exploring it further and facilitating the kind of discussion that science thrives on. Of course, you may also attract less favourable comments, but, to me, as long as the criticism is fairly and intelligently argued, it’s not too different from the peer review that takes place in scientific publishing or journal clubs across the world. Except, of course, that it’s not just scientists who get involved.

3. You need to add value to a conversation. To make a successful blog, you just need to have something to say and be able to say it well. Offer value to a conversation.

4. Similarly, many people try to drive traffic to their blogs by commenting on other blogs. This is a good idea, but only do so if you can say something useful. Don’t just wade into a random conversation and say ‘I’m great!!’. You wouldn’t do this in real life, so why online?

5. And in another related point, vary what you write about. Ed spoke about how CRUK try to deal with different facets of cancer research, not just correcting bad reporting. (As Ed said, there’s so much misleading cancer reporting, sometimes it’s just too easy…).

6. You have to be thick-skinned sometimes, particularly if you write about controversial topics. Bear in mind too that if you write controversial  stuff, those are the types of commenters you will attract. And you can’t always predict what will be controversial and what won’t.

7. Having said that, think carefully before responding to comments (particularly if you are blogging on behalf of your organisation). You don’t want to enter into a dialogue with someone who’s just looking for a fight (or as I read once, “don’t roll around in the mud with the pigs – you both get dirty but the pigs love it”). Also don’t forget that, if you’ve built up a good community on your blog, other commenters will step in and deal with some comments/queries on your behalf. (Ross MacFarlane, the Editor of the excellent Wellcome Library blog, pointed out how this happened on one particular Library post, with the producer of a BBC radio show pitching in). You can direct dialogue by responding to those people who have something value or fairly argued to say (rewarding them with attention), while ignoring those who are just there to attack. This is something Ben Goldacre does fairly well.

8. Running an organisation blog can be different. People in organisations like to be in control — but you can’t sign off the internet! CRUK sign off each others posts, which are also checked by the Press team. In Ed’s opinion, that’s the maximum amount of sign off you can have a blog is to be successful. To repeat what he said earlier, a blog has to be reactive — you need that fast turnaround. A blog is a living breathing part of your website, the main part of which is usually static.

9. Factor in the time needed to moderate and market the blog. Also, from an organisation point of view, remember that people’s responsibilities and workloads can change. Unless you have someone whose entire job is the blog be prepared to replace or change bloggers as the team’s priorities change to ensure your blog doesn’t die.

10. Share and share alike. The CRUK blog has a CC license and all material is free for people to copy and redistribute elsewhere. (For the record so is all of the Wellcome Trust’s material — something that’s not always made clear. I’ll have to write a separate post about this some other time).

I was also interested to hear about how CRUK use different social media. CRUK are relatively good with ‘Web 2.0’ (for want of a better term) — they have a blog, podcast, Twitter and Facebook presence.Someone in the audience asked about the difference between a general blog and a blog on Facebook. Ed pointed out that Facebook is an enclosed network, designed to keep you within their site (one of the things I don’t really like about it). A blogs is more open and findable, particularly — and crucially —  via search engines (then again, with real-time search increasingly being integrated into the likes of Google and Bing, and Facebook changing seemingly every week, who knows what the future holds?).

Ed also mentioned how they took a conscious decision to make the CRUK blog a science blog, which doesn’t cover the fundrasing side of the organisation. The CRUK twitter is more of a free flowing stream of consciousness, encompassing everything the organisation does. (The Wellcome Trust twitter, by contrast, is much more restrained and less ‘interactive’ with its followers. I’ll write a post about the evolution of the Trust’s twitterfeed one day).

Finally, we had an interesting discussion about how blogging has developed and how it occupies a spot between various fields. Some of it is comment or opinion, but there is also straight news journalism. Some bloggers are professional scientists writing about advances their field or their day-to-day working process. Some bloggers are professional writers or journalists, others are just interested parties. And the boundaries are blurring. As Ed said:

“The line between blogging and other means of communication is collapsing. Blogging is just a channel; another way to talk about stuff. The only difference is it’s comparatively new compared to traditional media. In five years I won’t be giving a talk about what blogging is.”

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