Royce Murray and the problem of science bloggers

CROSSPOST – This post appeared originally at my Terra Sigillata blog on the CENtral Science network on October 15. I wanted to cross-post it here today at PLoS Blogs because this network also exemplifies all that is good about science blogs. In particular, PLoS Blogs is home to the writing of John Rennie, former editor-in-chief of Scientific American, a publication almost specifically lauded by Dr. Murray (“popular science monthly magazines”).

In his October 12 Analytical Chemistry editorial, “Science Blogs and Caveat Emptor,” Editor-in-Chief Royce Murray submits that “the current phenomenon of “bloggers” should be of serious concern to scientists.

I agree.

I’m concerned that not enough scientists are bloggers.

Dr. Royce Murray has had a remarkable career in chemistry with over 440 publications and a h-index of 87, having trained 72 Ph.D. students, 16 master’s students, and 58 postdoctoral fellows, 45 of whom who have gone on to university faculty positions. The American Chemical Society just held a symposium in his honor at the recent annual meeting in Boston in marking 50 years since his first faculty appointment. That a scientist of his stature and influence holds negative views of science blogs is deserving of today’s discussion.

Several other bloggers have noted that Professor Murray castigates the entire community of “modern non-word ‘bloggers’” as a threat to scientific education of the public because our credentials cannot be evaluated by peer review and impact factors. Murray decries what he calls “blogging agencies” – to what he’s referring, I’m not entirely sure – where no formal qualifications are necessary. I honestly can’t respond to this statement because Professor Murray does not mention any specific blog or network. Indeed, he is correct that anyone can start a blog. Whether anyone reads that blog or whether that blogger develops a reputation as an expert depends entirely upon the quality and content of the writing. And people should indeed carefully evaluate the authority of any news source.

Murray also states that because our backgrounds and qualifications have not been reviewed by an employer such as a legacy news organization that this “frees the blogger from the requirement of consistent information reliability.” This statement is inconsistent with fact. Employment in a news organization does not necessarily ensure that a writer conveys reliable information – in some cases, professional writers can be consistently unreliable.

In fact, Murray’s next statement emphasizes that very point:

The magazine and newspaper media that disseminate science news have, however, been afflicted by financial challenges that have slowly produced a shrinkage of their flow of reliable information to the general public. This is a critical trend, since at least in democracies, the general public plays a strong role in the public financing of scientific research and the societal benefit that flows from that. We science scholars should care a great deal about how well the general public is served with reliable science news.

And it is for this very reason that I write on several science blogs and why I think that every scientist should be obliged to, and rewarded for, their outreach to the public through blogs. Scientists who can communicate effectively to the public are playing a crucial role in raising the quality of public science education that had long been the purview of magazines and newspapers.

Of course, there are some remarkable professional writers out there – my British colleague, Ed Yong, yesterday won the National Academies Communication Award for online science writing. Ed is a blogger – now at Discover magazine – who hung out his shingle originally as just another chap who signed up for a free WordPress blog.

Ed’s no longer a practicing scientist but he does spend his day writing on science for Cancer Research UK, making sense of reports on cancer laboratory studies in a manner understandable to the public.

But for every Ed Yong, there are hundreds of writers who are doing double and triple-duty on science and health, local politics, and community events who barely have time to distill a press release before having to go on to the next deadline. That a Briton won this National Academies award speaks volumes about the state of US science communication.

Science blogs now fill that gap. Scientists now have a medium to comment more deeply, and with very specific expertise, directly to the public both on scientific advances and refuting misinterpretation or misrepresentation of other science. Blogs such as Science-Based Medicine (where I contribute monthly) prides itself on its physicians and scientists who stand up to the pseudoscience movement that threatens public health.

Generalizations are difficult, of course, and I am surprised that a scholar of Professor Murray’s stature would make such a sweeping dismissal of science blogs. Certainly, some very popular science blogs cover very little science. But most science blogs are written by practicing scientists who do so as a hobby out of their love for their fields and enjoyment of engaging with the general public and other scientists. And as Hank Campbell pointed out, our beloved American Chemical Society’s C&EN hosts this very blog network, albeit primarily with staff writers (all of whom are scientists).

But I must admit some degree of embarrassment that Professor Murray doesn’t know more about the excellence and public service of science and medical blogs. Some of the fault for the content of his editorial may lie with this blogger himself. It turns out that he is in my real-world community, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about 10 miles from where I am writing this.

The Research Triangle area is known in online science communication circles as a hotbed of the science blogging movement. In fact, I’ll be on his campus next week to talk about science blogging to UNC medical and science journalism students. Our local organization, Science Communicators of North Carolina, is composed of professional science writers, book authors, and – yes – bloggers who share the common goal of raising public discourse on science. Professor Murray’s local newspaper, the Raleigh News & Observer, has been featuring science bloggers in their weekly Science and Technology section in profiles written by science journalist and fellow Gator, DeLene Beeland.

The wildly-successful ResearchBlogging resource of blogging about peer-reviewed research papers sprung up with Dave Munger down the road apiece in Davidson, NC. Together with Anton Zuiker and Bora Zivkovic, Dave helped launch the mega-science blogging aggregator site, ScienceBlogging.org. And in January, we will host again the international ScienceOnline unconference where some of the world’s top science writers, bloggers, and educators come together to share how they communicate science to the public. We should really encourage Professor Murray to attend.

That all of this goes around in Professor Murray’s community while he wrote his Analytical Chemistry editorial tells me just how far we have to go in demonstrating the value of science blogging to the scientific community. We are filling the gap left by financial cutbacks in legacy media outlets and providing added value to the public understanding of science by no longer relying on the intercessory of traditional journalism.

Science blogs are friends of science and scientists. We just need to do a better job of communicating this to accomplished senior scientists such as Professor Murray.

Others who have blogged about the professor’s editorial:

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4 Responses to Royce Murray and the problem of science bloggers

  1. Martin Fenner says:

    Thank you David. I already read your post at CENtral Science, and the post by Derek Lowe, but this post is very appropriate to also appear on PLoS Blogs. While I expect that only a small fraction of researchers will ever become interested in blog writing, I thought that science blogging by 2010 has become so mainstream that it has long become an important source of information both for scientists and the public.

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  3. What Royce Murray seem to have overlooked is that many practicing scientist are writing science blogs. He talks of bloggers as “new freelancers”, which may characterize some correctly, but many are simply scientist as they (or others) were 20 years ago but today with a megaphone.

    I agree with you, David, not enough scientists are bloggers. I want to read more – many more – blogs from first hand! However, they should then make a statement of conflict, if appropriate, as they would have to in a professional journal.

    Because we scientist also blog for a reason, don’t we?

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