Online science communication
There are as many outlets for science communication as there are scientists doing it. They range from traditional press releases and media interviews1 to science cafes, public debates and lectures, museums, open days, TV programmes2 and films. However each comes with its own specific limitations; many preach to the converted. Many people visiting these events are already interested in science3. Scientists are limited by a lack of training, opportunity and time (we can’t all be the next Brian Cox). These events often offer only a limited time to explain key concepts and deliver powerful arguments.
Why should you blog?
The internet offers new possibilities for science communication. PEW records rapidly increasing internet use over the last few years; nearly 90% of American adults are now online. And these online users are using the internet to do research. 87% of Americans have used the internet to research a topic4. And it’s even more amongst people under the age of 30 – they are as likely to get information about a topic from the internet as from the TV (PEW). They use the internet for fact checking, because it’s immediate, fast, and convenient.
The internet therefore offers new opportunities for science communication. Blogs are highly responsive, adding value to science journalism, offering critique and commentary, providing rich context, and linking to other recent findings5. But it’s not that simple; research shows that science blogs are largely read by other scientists (again, we’re preaching to the choir), they fulfil the knowledge deficit model, often have limited understanding of their audience, are rarely evaluated as to their effectiveness, and they are time expensive.
So, you’ve read all about it and, with these caveats, are keen to get involved. You want a science blog of your own. You’re enthusiastic about communicating your science to your peers, and perhaps even to the general public. Before you get started, here are some things that you should think about.
Why do you want a blog?
Before you dive in, it’s important to think clearly about why you want a blog. What do you want to get out of it? How will it benefit you? What do you want to achieve? What niche or gap are you filling? What would make your blog different? It’s no good setting up a comprehensive website or blog if someone else is already doing something very similar. It’s also important to consider how much time and effort you want to commit to your blog.
Write down the specific aim of your blog. This will help you find your voice and clarify your audience. It will keep you focused and help define your niche. For example, the specific goal of AntarcticGlaciers.org was to deliver key scientific concepts to the general public. My objectives were to,
- Explain and illustrate key concepts in Antarctic glaciology;
- To support and enhance school and university learning;
- To encourage user engagement and discourse;
- To be aware of, and well aligned with, the needs of the audience.
Who is your audience?
Evidence shows that in order to be effective, a science communicator must clearly understand his audience and know what they want. Why would people look at your website? What would they get out of it? Ideally you should think about who you want to communicate with (teenagers? Children? Undergraduates? Your academic peers?).
Each audience will have its own specific needs and will require a different voice. Ideally you should meet with a representative sample; have a focus group and ask them what they look for. If you want to support your undergraduate teaching, have a meeting with students and ask what would be most helpful. If you want to support younger learners, then contact a school and ask if you can hold a focus group. If it’s the general public, then ask your friends and family and anyone else you can get hold of.
In order to understand the target audience of AntarcticGlaciers.org, I visited a school and held focus groups with A-Level students and their teacher. I found that the key things they look for are a simple and easy to navigate website, personal stories, photographs of wildlife, and careers advice and study tips. I have therefore attempted to align the website to reflect these values, have a section devoted to Students with careers advice and study tips, and regularly blog about my own personal experiences in the field and as an academic.
What kind of blog do you want?
Websites, blogs and Twitter
Do you want a website, blog, microblog feed (Twitter), or a combination? Each has specific advantages and disadvantages. Websites are arranged topically. They provide a great information resource, they’re easy to navigate and they’re perfect for fact checking. A good science website therefore clearly has a role in online science communication. However, dialogue and commentary is usually limited.
Blogs are fast, responsive and flexible. They are arranged chronologically and often provide commentary and critique of new science, complementing science journalism. Comments on blogs encourage dialogue, and they’re a great way to include a personal narrative.
Twitter, a micro-blogging service, is fast and responsive; people comment on that day’s news stories and new research findings. It encourages direct dialogue and engagements. However, it’s poor for fact checking and basic research.
Clearly, a combination of these basic website types is ideal for science communication; each offers something different.
Single author or multi-author
Do you want to do everything yourself, thereby reaping the best career benefits, or do you want to set up a multi-author website? These vary from blogs encouraging a large number of guest posters (e.g. RealClimate), to smaller group-author blogs (e.g. Bogology and Climatica). If you have a set of keen friends and colleagues and can see a long collaboration between yourselves, then a group-authored blog may offer the best value in terms of effort invested and reward gained.
Network blog or personal site
Do you want to maintain control of your blog/website, setting up your own domain name and organising your own hosting (like I do on AntarcticGlaciers.org), or do you want to take advantage of the excellent hosting and promotion possibilities offered by a network blog (e.g., Occam’s Typewriter, EGU or AGU blogs, PLoSOne blogs). A network blog takes control of a lot of the techy website development, meaning that you can concentrate on writing good content. They will also help promote your blog and help you build traffic and a good following. They also give you credibility. However, you lose a lot of control over your website/blog’s look and feel. Which one is best for you depends on your personal circumstances and choices.
If you decide to take control of your own website/blog, you’ll have to consider costs in terms of domain names and hosting. WordPress.com offers free hosting and domain name in exchange for advertising space on your site. Is this acceptable to you, and how much time and effort do you have to learn about wordpress and its various plugins? There are clear advantages to each choice.
Anonymous or named
Some people choose to blog anonymously (e.g., Andthentheresphysics; tenureshewrote). This can allow you greater freedom of speech, without compromising your career. However, you lose many of the career and networking advantages that maintaining your own site in your own name can bring. Remember that anonymity can be difficult to maintain and you may well be found out.
If you choose to identify yourself on your blog, take care to write only those things that you would say in public. Do not defame your employer or colleagues, and write nothing that you’ll be embarrassed by in the future. I would advise not to release unpublished data or work in progress – this is a dangerous game to play.
Writing effectively for science communication
I’ve written about this before, such just a brief comment here. A good quality science site (website or blog) needs to first understand its audience and its needs. A website/blog should be as interactive as possible. There are many ways to do this, and Web 2.0 technologies that encourage sharing (e.g., Prezi, Google Maps, Twitter, Facebook) make this ever easier. Dialogue and commentary is key, so make it easy to people to contact you via Twitter, comments on posts, Ask A Scientist and any other way you can think of.
Public science communication should be engaging, drawing in people with personal narrative and stories2, 6. You must demonstrate the importance and relevance to the audience, and put this upfront and first in your post. Remember that people get ‘scrolling inertia’; the final parts of your post are read by few people. So put the concluding remarks first as well – this of this like a lay person’s abstract. Avoid jargon and technical term, and illustrate your pages richly with images and photographs. Blogs need to add value, not simply repost or summaries recent publications. A good blog provides commentary and critique, and links to other recent discussions.
Personally, I try to adopt a professional stance in my science webpages and a slightly more personal approach in my blog posts. I use my blog to bring in personal narrative, stories, careers comments and commentary on recent papers.
Building your audience
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Good search engine optimisation (SEO) is essential if you want people to actually find your site. As mentioned before, people go to the internet to do research and for fact checking. You want them to land on your site. Most traffic on this site comes from Google searches. So learn about SEO, provide unique and engaging content, and promote your blog on Twitter. Ask other sites, particularly high profile sites, to link to your blog to improve its PageRank.
Do you have any tips or suggestions to new would-be science bloggers? Add them in the comments box below!
1. Allgeier, J., Dunwoody, S., Brossard, D., Lo, Y.-Y., and Peters, H.P., in press. Journalism and Social Media as means of observing the contexts of science. Bioscience. 63: 284-287.
2. Stewart, I.S. and Nield, T., 2013. Earth stories: context and narrative in the communication of popular geoscience. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association. 124: 699-712.
3. Nisbet, M.C. and Scheufele, D.A., 2009. What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American Journal of Botany. 96: 1767-1778.
5. Wilkins, J.S., 2008. The roles, reasons and restrictions of science blogs. Trends in ecology & evolution (Personal edition). 23: 411-413.
6. Somerville, R.C.J. and Hassol, S.J., 2011. Communicating the science of climate change. Physics Today. October: 48-63.