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Dialogue, debate and new horizons for science blogs

May 19, 2014
Catalonian mountain stream.  Image: Nuria Bonada

Catalonian mountain stream. Image: Nuria Bonada

In Part One of their discussion, Paul Jepson and Rob St. John covered the practicalities and possibilities of running a science blog.  In this second, and final instalment, they discuss the role of dialogue and debate in science communication through blogs, and sketch possibilities for future developments in the field.

Rob St. John: We’ve talked about different types of blog posts – features, interviews, multimedia content – I’m interested now in what happens when a blog post is published.  PLOS science blogs published an article at the end of 2012 entitled ‘Ten Essential Qualities of Science Bloggers’ – which included qualities such as a distinct voice, enthusiasm and an awareness of audience which we’ve covered here. One of the qualities that interested me was ‘to engage in civilised debate’. In a lot of ways, I think this relates to the dialogue and engagement based models of science communication (a good Alice Bell blog on the topic here) that we used to help guide our approach for setting up the blog.

I’ve two questions on this: first, how successful has the blog been in facilitating debate? Second, how does the blog as a focus for debate help us form the communities and networks that you mentioned right at the start of the interview?

Paul Jepson: Given my experience with BioFresh I feel that facilitating on-line debates is one of the real challenges for science blogs – they’re time consuming and require expertise and tact to facilitate and moderate. Discussion flowed when we re-posted Martin Sharman’s 2013 post on ecosystem services on a freshwater related LinkedIn group, which brought a new community into the debate. As we know the blogosphere can be open to some pretty sharp and opinionated comment, which you have to be either think-skinned or experienced (or both) to with.

At the moment my thinking is that science blogs such as ours work well in the sense of traditional media – providing a collection of stories, perspectives, reports and responses that may be discussed in the analogue world – chatting over coffee, on the phone, at meetings – and this is when they help strengthen epistemic communities and networks.

RSJ: So the blog is one node in a set of information, which stimulates debate and information exchange both online (LinkedIn, Twitter etc) and in real life?

PJ: I see them as sitting among a scientific assembly of journals, conferences, workshops, project meetings and so forth. But they offer something new – the ability to connect, provide regular reminders of community and shared interest, and to engage the wider scientific, cultural and recreational interests public audiences in the field..

Screenshot from 'Water Lives...' animation (2012)

Screenshot from ‘Water Lives…’ animation (2012)

RSJ: Following on from Martin Sharman’s much discussed post on ecosystem services, I wanted to ask whether you think that a story needs to be controversial in order to find an audience? Can important, but non-headline grabbing stories bring people to the blog and stimulate debate?

PJ: I don’t think a post has to be controversial to be engaging, no. And absolutely, I think there is a public information role for blogs in communicating the stories that don’t grab the headlines elsewhere. One of the pieces that you commissioned about the mayfly’s life cycle (by the Riverflies Partnership scientist Craig Macadam) is our most popular post ever – and I think will continue to be so – because it provides a great answer to a commonly asked search engine query: ‘What is a mayfly?’ and now tops the Google result for that questions.

Leafpack in the Cuisance River (France) Image: Núria Bonada

Leafpack in the Cuisance River (France) Image: Núria Bonada

RSJ: So search engine optimisation is useful in bringing people to the blog. The post has also been listed as an authoritative source on the Wikipedia page for the mayfly.

PJ: I think the potential of building on these posts as interactive information resources on other social platforms is something we haven’t fully explored yet. For instance, the post by Szabolcs Lengyel on wrapping bridges for may fly conservation was eye-opening and fantastic, and these sort of posts could be linked to places on Google Earth and even Google Glass in such a way that when somebody is on the bridge (in this case of the Tisza) or sees the phenomenon in real life, these engaging scientific accounts might pop up.

RSJ: I wanted to bring a set of different people together with the mayfly series to create a set of posts with wide appeal, which I think was pretty successful. On your last point about extending the blog with new technologies, the platforms we use such WordPress do set limits on what we can currently create in terms of interactivity without engaging with programmers. I wanted to ask you what you thought about what’s on the horizon for future blogging and science communication projects?

PJ: In think you a right. In a sense we’ve been exploring the new frontiers of science communication but that frontier is only just opening up with new technology. As the potential of natural language data processing and predictive analytics becomes more widely known I think we are going to see much more integration of blogs and other on-line platforms. The Guardian data blog is interesting to follow in providing pointers, not only for the sort of material that science blogs are likely to carry, but maybe in predicting the fusion of data, narrative and reader preference in the future.

For me, working on the BioFresh blog since 2010 has helped me scope future possibilities and purposes of science communication. I am not entirely sure where things are going, but I am much more aware of what to track and read, who to network with and what to respond to, as a result.

Lilla Fargen, Sweden.  Image: Wikipedia

Lilla Fargen, Sweden. Image: Wikipedia

RSJ: I think for me, one of the overarching benefits or values of the blog has been what Sarah Tomlin called ‘an insight into the academic coffee room chatter that the public is not usually privy to’. I like the potential of the blog in profiling and discussing journal articles, research threads, even large EU projects that otherwise go unnoticed.

PJ: In many ways is also all about accountability.   Transparency in different forms is become more and more important in maintaining the legitimacy of science in society, and I think science communication work through blogs helps shed light on aspects of big research projects that might otherwise be missed by the public. And now the BioFresh blog is transitioning to the MARS project and the Freshwater Blog. It’s a real strength of these science blogs that they can be passed on and maintained as one project finishes and another one starts. They are a transferable ‘asset’ for science, policy and, I hope, society.

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