Blogospheric navel-gazing: where's the chemistry communication?

The launch last week of the new Scientific American Blog Network* last week prompted a round of blogospheric soul searching (for example here, here, and here): Within the ecosystem of networked science blogs, where are all the chem-bloggers?

Those linked discussions do a better job with the question and its ramifications than I could, so as they say, click through and read them. But the fact that these discussions are so recent is an interesting coincidence in light of the document I want to consider in this post.

I greeted with interest the release of a recent publication from the National Academy of Sciences titled Chemistry in Primetime and Online: Communicating Chemistry in Informal Environments (PDF available for free here). The document aims to present a summary of a one-and-a-half day workshop, organized by the Chemical Sciences Roundtable and held in May 2010.

Of course, I flipped right to the section that took up the issue of blogs.

The speaker invited to the workshop to talk about chemistry on blogs was Joy Moore, representing Seed Media Group.

She actually started by exploring how much chemistry coverage there was in Seed magazine and professed surprise that there wasn't much:

When she talked to one of her editors about why, what he told her was very similar to what others had mentioned previously in the workshop. He said, "part of the reason behind the apparent dearth of chemistry content is that chemistry is so easily subsumed by other fields and bigger questions, so it is about the 'why' rather than the how.'" For example, using chemistry to create a new clinical drug is often not reported or treated as a story about chemistry. Instead, it will be a story about health and medicine. Elucidating the processes by which carbon compounds form in interstellar space is typically not treated as a chemistry story either; it will be an astronomy-space story.

The Seed editor said that in his experience most pure research in chemistry is not very easy to cover or talk about in a compelling and interesting way for general audiences, for several reasons: the very long and easily confused names of many organic molecules and compounds, the frequent necessity for use of arcane and very specific nomenclature, and the tendency for most potential applications to boil down to an incremental increase in quality of a particular consumer product. Thus, from a science journalist point of view, chemistry is a real challenge to cover, but he said, "That doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of opportunities." (24)

A bit grumpily, I will note that this editor's impression of chemistry and what it contains is quite a distance from my own. Perhaps it's because I was a physical chemist rather than an organic chemist (so I mostly dodged the organic nomenclature issue in my own research), and because the research I did had no clear applications to any consumer products (and many of my friends in chemistry were in the same boat), and because the lot of us learned how to explain what was interesting and important and cool to each other (and to our friends who weren't in chemistry, or even in school) without jargon. It can be done. It's part of this communication strategy called "knowing your audience and meeting them where they are."

Anyway, after explaining why Seed didn't have much chemistry, Moore shifted her focus to ScienceBlogs and its chemistry coverage. Here again, the pickings seemed slim:

Moore said there is no specific channel in ScienceBlogs dedicated to chemsitry, but there are a number of bloggers who use chemistry in their work.

Two chemistry-related blogs were highlighted by Moore. The first one, called Speakeasy Science, is by a new blogger Deborah Bloom [sic]. Bloom is not a scientist, but chemistry informs her writing, especially her new book on the birth of forensic toxicology. Moore also showed a new public health blog from Seed called the Pump Handle. Seed has also focused more on chemistry, in particular environmental toxins. Moore added, "So again, as we go through we can find the chemistry as the supporting characters, but maybe not as the star of the show." (26)

While I love both The Pump Handle and Speakeasy Science (which has since relocated to PLoS Blogs), Moore didn't mention a bunch of blogs at ScienceBlogs that could be counted on for chemistry content in a starring role. These included Molecule of the Day, Terra Sigillata (which has since moved to CENtral Science), and surely the pharmacology posts on Neurotopia. That's just three off the top of my head. Indeed, even my not-really-a-chemistry-blog had a "Chemistry" category populated with posts that really focused on chemistry.

And, of course, I shouldn't have to point out that ScienceBlogs is not now, and was not then, the entirety of the science blogosphere. There have always been seriously awesome chem-bloggers writing entertaining, accessible stuff outside the bounds of the Borg.

Ignoring their work (and their readership) is more than a little lazy. (Maybe a search engine would help?)

Anyway, Moore also told the workshop about Research Blogging:

Moore said that Research Blogging is a tagging and aggregating tool for bloggers who write about journal articles. Bloggers who occasionally discuss journal articles on their blog sites can join the Seed Research Blogging community. Seed provides the blogger with some code to put into blog posts that allows Seed to pick up those blog posts and aggregate them. Seed then offers the blogger on its website Researchvolume.org [sic]. This allows people to search across the blog posts within these blogs. Moore said that bloggers can also syndicate comments through the various Seed feeds, widgets, and other websites. It basically brings together blog posts about peer-reviewed research. At the same time, Seed gives a direct link back to the journal article, so that people can read the original source.

"Who are these bloggers?" Moore asked. She said the blog posts take many different forms. Sometimes someone is simply pointing out an interesting article or picking a topic and citing two or three articles to preface it. Other bloggers almost do a mini-review. These are much more in-depth analyses or criticisms of papers. (26)

Moore also noted some research on the chemistry posts aggregated by ResearchBlogging that found:

the blog coverage of the chemistry literature was more efficient than the traditional citation process. The science blogs were found to be faster in terms of reporting on important articles, and they also did a better job of putting the material in context within different areas of chemistry. (26)

The issues raised by the other workshop participants here were the predictable ones.

One, from John Miller of the Department of Energy, was whether online venues like ResearchBlogging might replace traditional peer review for journal articles. Joy Moore said she saw it as a possibility. Of course, this might rather undercut the idea that what is being aggregated is blog posts on peer reviewed research -- the peer review that happens before publication, I take it, is enhanced, not replaced, by the post-publication "peer review" happening in these online discussions of the research.

Another comment, from Bill Carroll, had to do with the perceived tone of the blogosphere:

"One of the things I find discouraging about reading many blogs or various comments is that it very quickly goes from one point of view to another point of view to 'you are a jerk.' My question is, How do you keep [the blog] generating light and not heat." (26)

Moore's answer allowed as how some blog readers are interested in being entertained by fisticuffs.

Here again, it strikes me that there's a danger in drawing sweeping conclusions from too few data points. There exist science blogs that don't get shouty and personal in the posts or the comment threads. Many of these are really good reads with engaging discussions happening between bloggers and readers.

Sometimes too, the heat (or at least, some kind of passion) may be part of how a blogger conveys to readers what about chemistry is interesting, or puzzling, or important in contexts beyond the laboratory or the journal pages. Chemistry is cool enough or significant enough that it can get us riled up. I doubt that insisting on Vulcan-grade detachment is a great way to convince readers who aren't already sold on the importance of chemistry that they ought to care about it.

And, can we please get past this suggestion that the blogosphere is the source of incivility in exchanges about science?

I suspect that people who blame the medium (of blogs) for the tone (of some blogs or of the exchanges in their comments) haven't been to a department seminar or a group meeting lately. Those face-to-face exchanges can get not only contentious but also shouty and personal. (True story: When I was a chemistry graduate student shopping for a research group, I was a guest at a group meeting where the PI, who knew I was there to see how I liked the research group, spent a full five minutes tearing one of his senior grad students a new one. And then, he was disappointed that I did not join the research group.)

Now, maybe the worry is that blogs about chemistry might give the larger public a peek at chemists being contentious and personal and shouty, something that otherwise would be safely hidden from view behind the walls of university lecture halls and laboratory spaces. If that's the worry, one possible response is that chemists playing in the blogosphere should maybe pay attention to the broader reach the internet affords them and behave themselves in the way they want the public to see them behaving.

If, instead, the worry is that chemists ought not ever to behave in certain ways toward each other (e.g., attacking the person rather than the methods or the results or the conclusions), then there's plenty of call for peer pressure within the chemistry community to head off these behaviors before we even start talking about blogs.

There are a few things that complicate discussions like this about the nature of communication about chemistry on blogs. One is that the people taking up the issue are sometimes unclear about what kind of communication it is they're interested in -- for example, chemist to non-chemist or chemist-to-chemist. Another is that they sometimes have very different ideas about what kinds of chemical issues ought to be communicated (basic concepts, cutting edge research, issues to do with chemical education or chemical workplaces, chemistry in everyday products or in highly charged political debates, etc., etc.). And, as mentioned already, the chemistry blogosphere, like chemistry as a discipline, contains multitudes. There is so much going on, in so many sub-specialities, that it's hard to draw too many useful generalizations.

For the reader, this diversity of chemistry blogging is a good thing, not a bad thing -- at least if the reader is brave enough to venture beyond networks which don't always have lots of blogs devoted to chemistry. Some good places to look:

Blogs about chemistry indexed by ScienceSeeker

CENtral Science (which is a blog network, but one devoted to chemistry by design)

Many excellent chemistry blogs are linked in this post at ScienceGeist. Indeed, ScienceGeist is an excellent chemistry blog.

Have you been reading the Scientopia Guest Blog lately? If so, you've had a chance to read Dr. Rubidium's engaging discussions of chemistry that pops up in the context of sex and drugs. I'm sure rock 'n' roll is on deck.

Finally, David Kroll's blogroll has more fine chemistry-related blogs than you can shake a graduated cylinder at.

If there are other blogospheric communicators of chemistry you'd like to single out, please tell us about them in the comments.
______
*Yes, I have a new blog there, but this blog isn't going anywhere.

3 responses so far

  • David Kroll says:

    As always, we can count on you to dig out the heart of an issue. One of the more interesting things about moving Terra Sigillata to CENtral Science is that my most-read post there was about Analytical Chemistry editor-in-chief Royce Murray carrying on about how bloggers threaten science. When the senior leaders of one's discipline have this kind of attitude, no wonder that less-seasoned chemists might not care to start a blog.

    I'm very optimistic that this discussion will stimulate more discovery and aggregation of chemistry bloggers and improve our work on making posts accessible to general readers, not just scientists.

    And as has been the case since I started my blog five years ago, thank you for your continued support - and the hyperlinks!

  • Matt says:

    Wow, Janet. Excellent stuff.
    This is the second time I've come across "Chemistry in Primetime and Online: Communicating Chemistry in Informal Environments" and will have to give it a read.

    As for my own blog, I think that there are a couple things that I need to change. 1) I do need to update our "mission" statement. I'm not sure if anyone will notice, but it would provide some clarity. And 2) Because I do aim to reach a broader non-chemistry audience, I need to start improving the look of my site and my attempts to reach that audience.

    The quote from Seed about the "secondary" role of chemistry in any story pervades even chemists. I have seen on more than one occasion in blog comments from chemists that "if you can't tell me how this work is going to affect me, then its not worthwhile". That may help at times. But, theoretically, I don't believe its necessary. We all just need to be a little more diligent in crafting our stories and explanations.

  • gyges says:

    There are many fascinating things worth blogging about in chemistry the problem is ... the journals are all closed source. Either you can only read the abstract of an article or nothing. Case in point, Chemistry World Blog have just blogged about a device to be used as an artificial lung but try and read the original article and you're hit with a fee.

    What would Oldenburg think of this situation?