In a post Abel Pharmboy wrote giving some linklove to our old site on WordPress, he lamented:
However, NIH/NSF/other-big-agency grant-funded PhD researchers who spend most of their bandwidth talking about the business of conducting biomedical research are less frequently found as bloggers; DrugMonkey is one of the few out there.
It strikes me that beyond the obvious issues of time, disinterest and career worries there lies a morass of ethical implications that may pose a barrier. The raising of ethical questions is most certainly not to suggest that there is an ethical problem at hand. Certainly, blogger ethical situations are going to be as varied as the bloggers themselves. However it may be worth exploring some commonalities for the scientist blogger.
I had a couple of initial thoughts. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Using colleagues as blog fodder: We all love to read Female Science Professor's interactions with her Most-Trollish colleague. Lou's accounts of Dr. Strauss and other lab fauna were hilarious. And really, who can't appreciate this story. Additional stuff from "out" blogger Crystal such as this and this start to creep me out, however. They really point out the hazards of blogging a little too personally. I dunno, maybe this blogger is young enough to have grown up with reality tee-vee as the standard. Maybe she's obtained permission from her colleagues in advance. Maybe I'm old fashioned. But I find myslef a little leery of the idea that, against their will or absent their knowledge, we bloggers are lampooning people we work with. It consequently strikes me that this invasion-of-privacy factor may dissuade people from blogging.
Peer-review anonymity and trust: Issues related to the peer-review of manuscripts and grant applications tend to be of universal interest and popularity because it is easy to draw generalizations across sub-disciplines. Certainly I ended up do a lot of career-related blogging including much on peer-review. Now, of course, we are all bound by confidentiality expectations anyway. One is not supposed to share the content of manuscripts or grants one has reviewed with anyone. And so the scientist blogger needs to be careful to first, not reveal any confidential details. So one must try to generalize and anonymize if one has has points that derive from specific reviewing examples. Where to draw the line? Tricky.
Taking another part of grant review situation, I note that it will surprise nobody that I have...opinions. Opinions that might concern some applicants to my section. Now, of course, everyone else on my study section has their own opinions, many of which would be highly concerning to some applicants. I imagine that in the absence of knowing what other study section members may think, applicants may think there is no point in getting worked up. Ok, check that. Applicants always theorize about the biases of the study section members. However, since I do let my opinions be known on certain issues...I can see where this would make things more sticky. It is a little different to say "I think Reviewer Jones probably was biased against our great work" when one doesn't really know for sure this is the case. In contrast "Drugmonkey thinks New Investigators should be treated fairly...no, really" is a bit firmer in the way of evidence.
Now obviously I have taken the position that pseudonymous blogging and sticking to generalizations about applications lets me maintain an appropriate balance. This does not mean that everyone would see it the same way.
Self-blogging and professional axe-grinding: If one chooses to blog on science that is of personal interest, it is not inconceivable that one would be motivated to discuss one's own work in one way or another. The nakedest case would be using the blog as a PR campaign. Not entirely unusual, after all, the lab website is often used to present recent or interesting data and for sure to brag on publications, recognitions, awards and the like. A seminar or conference presentation of one's data is not at all dissimilar from self-blogging since it is not really peer reviewed. So perhaps there is an analogy for precedent purposes. And yet... we have seen concerns in recent years related to scientists issuing press releases for major, seemingly exciting results prior to the acceptance of a peer-reviewed manuscript. So there is some potential for abuse if one chooses to use the blog to promote un-reviewed science with regularity.
A subtler case is that in which one chooses to review work from other labs that might be seen as competing. Often we have criticisms of competing laboratories' work. In fact, I would argue that some of the best progress gets made when a few labs are really working over a related problem, trading peer-reviewed manuscript "blows" until much truth is revealed, some dozen or so papers later. The key to keeping such a process on the up and up is the influence of other peers with a less-direct "interest" reviewing the papers. In my view. The temptation might be there for a blogging scientist to use the blog to go after the competing lab in unjustifiable ways. This notion makes me uncomfortable.
Okay, that's all I have for now. I'll re-iterate what I said at the top. I don't think that asking the questions and exploring the issues should be taken to mean that there is necessarily a problem with scientists who blog. This should be self-evident. It is worth noting, however, that the professional ethical (and social) implications definitely contribute to how I blog.