A recent paper from I. Kouper entitled "Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges, and opportunities" has been receiving a fair bit of bloggy attention. Of the negative sort. Mostly because the paper purports to report on the state of all science blogging but then cherry picks a few blogs to generate data- which is not actually presented for the most part. Furthermore the paper ends up with a subjective review of blog tone, level and commentary that makes one wonder if the author actually reads blogs at all. It is just that detached from the experience of many of us.
Bora was particularly annoyed and held forth at some length. Additional thoughts were advanced at Cosmic Variance, Panda's Thumb andPharyngula.
Since this blog was included in the alleged dataset, narcissistically, I felt I had better point out some more flaws in this paper. Let's get the hilarious one out of the way first.
Kouper includes the following comment example from this very blog (awww...):
Insults, such as "Don't be an idiot.. rtfa" or "Could you possibly sound any more stupid with this comment?" were more common for some blogs than the others. Thus, Wired Science and Panda's Thumb were filled with insulting commentary. Offensive remarks regarding somebody's personality or intellectual abilities most often targeted other commenters and the characters of posts, but sometimes they were directed at blog authors as well, such as the following comment in DrugMonkey blog: "You are correct, I never read a post in which you claim not to be pompous and arrogant".
Now, of course, IMNSHO, that is pretty tepid stuff if it is supposed to be an example of rampant incivility. Which seemed to be the author's intent given the context within which the quote was placed. Nevertheless, the absolute context tone-deafness of the author is staggering. This was a comment from S. Rivlin! The comment, of course, was directed at Comrade PhysioProf who in that very thread gave all the evidence Kouper needed as to why a reader might direct rudeness toward the blog author. Now admittedly it would take a little more digging to figure out that S. Rivlin and Comrade PhysioProf maintain this cartoonish antagonism on the blog for reasons that are clear only to themselves (and possibly their therapists, if any). This exchange is by no means representative of anything. Not representative of comment exchanges on this blog and certainly not representative of the less....er, freely commented blogs.
In fact, looking at the list of blogs and blog aggregations/collectives listed in the Table 1, it is not clear why we were picked out for focus in the first place. This brings me to my main complaint about Kouper's take on "science blogs". One central thrust of the paper is that science blogs are directed at an audience of scientists, are not reaching non-scientists at all and therefore are doin it rongz. As the author concludes:
To become a tool for non-scientist participation, science blogs need to stabilize as a genre or as a set of subgenres where smaller conversations may facilitate more meaningful participation from members of the public
So if the goal was to review science blogs that were designed primarily to engage the nonscientist public, what in blazes is she doing selecting DrugMonkey, a blog which focuses in very large part on inside-science-baseball topics? When we're talking about how to succeed at the NIH grant game around here, we are most certainly not talking to nonscientists!
Now admittedly, I do post something on a more general interest topic now and again. Of course, if Kouper had focused her reviews on those posts, it would have been obvious that I reach greater number of nonscientists when talking about drugs. Let us back up and review the author's source of information on the demographics of blog readers:
Readers of science blogs also had some relationship with science, i.e., they were not exactly non-scientists
or lay persons. One author posted a message titled "Who are you?" and asked his readers for information about themselves and their background. The answers to this post as well as the overall analysis of readers' comments demonstrate that those readers who engage in commenting are almost always associated with science one way or another.
I'm not positive but I suspect, given the data were collected in "Summer of 2008" it was this post of mine, given my title. Unlikely that it was the related one at NERS that the author should have reviewed given that I linked it as my motivation! Or the similar threads from ScienceWoman, Coturnix and drdrA that I linked. Also see Janet Stemwedel's post. If the author had read with a close eye she would have seen that while scientists dominate the readership, they are by no means the only demographic. There are detectable numbers of non-scientist commenters. Kouper makes the further mistake of not understanding that comments are not equal to readers. In fact, many bloggers bandy around numbers that suggest reader comment numbers are only about 5% or less of the number of unique visits to a post. Perhaps the scientist/nonscientist ratio is similar between lurker and commenters but perhaps it is not. We simply do not know.
What we do know is that nonscientists are being reached, even if they are not the majority demographic. So the concluding tone in the article is a bit overdrawn.
There is one final, and critical, point that seems to have escaped the author's notice entirely. Scientists ARE the uninformed public. In my case, for example, I know very little about paleontology. So when I read Laelaps or Tetrapod Zoology, I learn a tremendous amount. Similarly, I go to the earth science folks to give me a little context for the latest earthquakes causing disasters around the world.
Now whether I inform them or not, it is indubitably the case that I have a lot of scientist readers that know very little about drug abuse. Beyond the typical user-level of knowledge that is. They are not working in substance abuse or related fields. Maybe, at best, we have an appreciable number of neuroscientists. And a lot of folks who work on biological systems in some way. We also have nonbiologists in the audience. When it comes to the topic domain of substance abuse, they are all more or less equivalently non-expert.
So just as I am in the "outreach" target demographic for the bone jockeys, my readers are most emphatically in the target demographic for any scientific education and outreach that might motivate my blogging.
Kouper seems to have missed this.