Ethical Considerations for the Scientist-Blogger

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.

12 responses so far

  • drdrA says:

    On 'Using colleagues as blog fodder', I have a rule which I learned in veterinary school for writing in patient's charts- don't write anything that you wouldn't want read OUT LOUD in a court of law... this seemed to work at the time, but now my rule is a bit more specific ... Don't say (or write on a blog) anything negative about anyone that you wouldn't say directly to that person...
    I have hot-button issues with my colleagues like everyone does, but they know what these are as I have been a pain in the @#! about them in person.

  • Scott Belyea says:

    Don't say (or write on a blog) anything negative about anyone that you wouldn't say directly to that person...

    I'd extend that to say that a blog is no different than e-mail or conversation in that regard - say nothing about someone that you wouldn't say to them face-to-face. There's very little that's unique about blogging compared to lots of other means of communication.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The trouble for drawing a personal standard is, how do you know what you would "say in a court of law" or "say to them face-to-face" is congruent with the feelings of the subject? How do you know now to adjust your tone should the "profile" or "audience" of your blog change significantly?
    There's very little that's unique about blogging compared to lots of other means of communication.
    Scott, the thing that is unique about blogging is the potential magnitude of the audience. There are any number of stories about my colleagues that I would razz them about, talk about within our group, relate to my spouse etc that said colleagues would have no problem with. Elevate that to the blogging level and they might feel a little peeved.

  • drdrA says:

    Right- blogging has an immediate and potentially huge audience, I agree its different than an email in this sense. But- I believe that emails have the potential to be made public under certain circumstances- if you work in a public institution and use their servers/email accounts they are public record and can be obtained as such, for example. And this might occur under circumstances you couldn't anticipate necessarily.
    As for having a personal standard about what to say and not say- what I said above is the baseline, then of course I have to make an additional determination based on the situation/person. I am sufficiently scared of this to stay away from it for now.

  • Scott Belyea says:

    Scott, the thing that is unique about blogging is the potential magnitude of the audience.

    If you're suggesting that this changes "appropriate behaviour," I disagree. I should have been specific that I was referring to appropriate behaviour; in that sense, I maintain that there's nothing unique about blogs.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Are you really suggesting you wouldn't relate some amusing co-worker anecdote to your spouse if it didn't meet the "appropriate to mention on the 6 o'clock Network Tee-Vee News" standard? pshaw....

  • juniorprof says:

    Part of the reason it took me so long to start blogging was that I wanted to set a number of rules to keep myself in line.
    Rule number 1 is no blogging about colleagues unless it is to tout their excellence.
    Rule number 2 is no blogging about reviews of my grants or papers.
    Rule number 3 is try to point out problems with the system without complaining and offer what I think are reasonable solutions whenever possible.
    I have equal concerns about maintaining an ethical standard and feel that those simple rules can go a long way to helping me maintain it.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Lighten the fuck up dude. Why you gotta be such a killjoy?

  • That's funny, JP, my rules are totally similar:
    1, No blogging about colleagues, unless they did something REALLY fucktwittish.
    2, My science kicks ass and you will hear about it (in general and non-identifiable terms) on a regular basis.
    3, From my Biblical education, I seem to remember something about not hiding my light under a bushel, and unless the Hebrew word for "bushel" can also mean "blogonym," this may be the only Old Testament command I got right.

  • Thinking about some of your points, I am surprised that we have yet to see a general gossip blog about scientists like we have for celebs (although the audience for sci gossip is much smaller). Subversive use of a blog to start rumors or undermine competitors is VeryBad and I certainly hope that such behavior would be policed (ridiculed and scorned) within the sci/med blogging community.
    I agree that a great deal can be shared about the peer review systems (grants, papers, etc.) that help others in their career development without compromising trust and confidentiality. An example would be for applicants to not guess as to whom their application was assigned when looking at the study section roster. I've sat in study section and wondered why applications in my precise field of expertise were assigned to others while I instead get assigned apps that are peripheral to my expertise. That is a general comment that is useful to folks who might want to go off on a specific panelist who they think may have reviewed their app unfavorably. Making this statement gives interested blog readers some insight to the review process without compromising the confidentiality of the proceedings. These are the kinds of things you guys do so well here at DM.
    btw, I share some of your concerns about Crystal's too-personal blogging about others. One of my earliest blog influences, BotanicalGirl, shut down after being outed for her presentation critique of a seminar speaker/faculty member. While I am not certain of the influence of this episode, she was shortly thereafter deemed unworthy of Ph.D. candidacy on her second pass through quals and withdrew with a master's.
    However, I have to give Crystal a good deal of respect for blogging about her colonic evacuation and colonoscopy. Takes guts, as it were.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I've sat in study section and wondered why applications in my precise field of expertise were assigned to others while I instead get assigned apps that are peripheral to my expertise. That is a general comment that is useful to folks who might want to go off on a specific panelist who they think may have reviewed their app unfavorably.
    Yeah, what Abel said. And as I like to add to this, we don't do very well with our assumptions about who is going to go to bat for us and who is going to tear us apart either.
    The funny thing is that I had a few older colleagues tell me all this stuff about how the study section wasn't really out to get you, how you frequently had someone really fighting for you, yes there were very good applications getting triaged, etc.
    I didn't really believe it until I sat on study section.... 🙂

  • DSK Samways says:

    "I agree that a great deal can be shared about the peer review systems (grants, papers, etc.) that help others in their career development without compromising trust and confidentiality."
    At this point in my career I've got a lot out of reading this sort of stuff from sci bloggers. It doesn't necessarily bring automatic, career-boosting enlightenment, but it puts certain things into context.

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