“The current phenomenon of ‘bloggers’ should be of serious concern to scientists”

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:

Author: David Kroll

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  1. I read a number of internet science blogs and in my opinion the ones I go to have a higher standard than most newspaper and TV science coverage. And sometimes even better than what I read in newsstand science magazines.

    Maybe Professor Murray’s been reading the wrong blogs.

  2. Bravo!

    Murray really should attend Science Online, to get a better sense of who bloggers are. And perhaps he should also take a look at ResearchBlogging.org

    I wonder how much research he did before writing that commentary.


  3. I sincerely hope that you’ll drop Professor Murray a note about next week’s talk and invite him to come learn about this venue (i.e. blogging) for spreading science 🙂

  4. Prof Royce Murray has been well served by the current system, and possibly feels that the platform he uses to disseminate his findings is being undermined by the blogging and pre-print site culture. Using blogs as an info source needs more sophisticated media literacy skills than reading a journal article, just as using Wikipedia effectively requires a much more critical reading than using a print encyclopedia. I wonder are these skills which we should be introducing chemistry students to?

    • Ahhh, media/science literacy. One of my favourite topics. I’d love to teach an intro bio/biochem course if/when I become a prof/teacher/PI because I can truly say I only developed critical thinking skills when I was in my mid-years through grad school. And I’m still developing them, and sometimes when you talk to undergrads and even grad students they are still clueless as to what to believe, what is/are the correct source/s for information and how to critically read each piece and examine it carefully. This is not taught (to my knowledge) in any courses, unless you take a really thourough methodology/reseach methodology type of course, which is not always taught or not enough people know about it, or aren’t simply interested. I for once would have loved one, rather than learning as I went in addition to collecting data/presenting/attending seminars. I think it would make for a better, more rounded group of students who really know their stuff from the beginning of their undergrad (or even earlier).

  5. Whilst I appreciate the call for more scientists to blog, Dr Murray’s point about the non-accountability of bloggers is valid, as is his claim that lack of editorial control “frees the blogger from the requirement of consistent reliability” – your claim that this goes against fact is not logically supported by pointing out that this happens in newspapers too – this simply means that some newspapers are failing in their duty.
    The question is really what blogs can do – explain to a general audience about peer-reviewed research which has been published elsewhere. It would be great to see more scientists doing this. But the concern about the lack of editorial review of blogs surely means one must exercise more critical judgement when reading them than one may otherwise do.

  6. Early scientific and philosophic societies and journals evolved out of letters and coffee house conversations. How are current blogs different from those early communications?

    I suspect that most of what was said in those early exchanges was less than stellar scientific thought. We have preserved the unusual outcomes of conversations over the centuries because the particular results have stood the tests of analysis and experiment. The rest did and will fade away.

    Science is a conversation.

  7. science is the new religion

  8. Thank you all for your comments. I’m particularly struck by the perspective of Ward Hills relating to the history of scientific discourse. Dr. Murray’s editorial is a perfect blogpost length (almost 600 words) and it would be great if the online version had a commenting function so that he could directly engage in this conversation.

    And I do agree with Matt in that we must now be vigilant about the source of all content, not just blogs and not just legacy media. Most science blog networks do require some degree of qualifications as a scientist and/or writer, even for those writing with pseudonyms, but there are also some exceptionally fine indie bloggers out there who accumulate audiences over time by consistency and referral from broadly respected writers. The self-policing nature of science blogs and the vigilance of science blogs readers and commenters definitely raise the level of discourse and accuracy.

  9. Beautifully crafted, as always. This editorial really hit a nerve, mainly because my partner is in media and techno-culture department and we always talk about new ways to educate people, to reach out, to get people involved into what we do. To show them that we are not some alien creatures with mega-developed brains, that scientist are normal people and have a normal job, that involves explaining, understanding and pushing for cures for all the things that surround us, from the biological problems to materials, to nanotech, to why countries and people behave the way they do (I do think peeps in the social real of studies are scientists too). And since not everybody can pick up a journal and learn about some of the convoluted things some of us do, then there has to be a way to get the message out, to spread why it is we study what we study, and where are your and mmy tax dollars going. It’s so immature so say the things he said. I certainly hope he sees the light. Thanks for writing this :-). Funny thing is, since Anal Chem seems to be part of ACS, ACS has been advertising jobs for writers, web developers to educate the public at large. Seems some people are disconected from the places that emply them. My two cents.

    • Thanks so much! I also agree about the value of demonstrating that scientists are (mostly) regular folks who happen to be passionate about science and that science can be a career for anyone.

  10. I may have been reading too many blogs myself but my first thought after reading the editorial was: “GAH why can’t I comment on this!”

    And “28 and a PhD” is correct about the critical analysis. When I read papers I kind of assume they are ‘true’ because a) i’ve only just stopped being an undergrad and b) they’ve been peer reviewed and all. When reading a blog post I am *highly* critical and end up reading it a lot better and often checking the citation if it’s something im particularly interested in.

    • I do the same with blogs! I think we should do it for both, papers, and online … especially with all those retractions as of late.

  11. This is undoubtedly a dude who ranted about people wasting their time with that “email” stuff in the early nineties and about “homepages” in the mid nineties. People who fear change without even bothering to understand what the change *is* can be summarily dismissed.

  12. Hear hear!

    >This is undoubtedly a dude who ranted about people wasting their time with that “email” stuff in the early nineties

    And the printing press…

    Interesting to see here in the UK that the mighty BBC website has only just started linking to primary research papers… Most science bloggers worth their salt have been doing that for years.

    • Hiya Kat! Thanks so much for finding me here. For my readers, Kat Arney is a recovering PhD bench scientist and superb science communicator at Cancer Research UK’s award-winning Science Update blog together with my aforementioned colleague, Ed Yong.

      Dr. Arney also helps produce The Naked Scientists weekly radio show on the BBC. She is the epitome of the passionate scientists who have seized upon these new media, and adaptations of radio, to broaden the reach of accurate, comprehensible scientific information for the general public.

  13. “I am surprised that a scholar of Professor Murray’s stature would make such a sweeping dismissal of science blogs.”

    This seems to be an old guy affliction – Science magazine legend Don Kennedy did that same thing at an AAAS meeting I was at. He happily reads leftwing politics and economics blogs but hated science ones and said they were ‘journals of announcement’. It was an odd claim and showed that he was taking a gut feeling and mapping his data to reinforce it, which didn’t feel all that scientific.

  14. It’s a little funny that an editorial in an ACS journal is now being rebutted by an ACS blog.

  15. Blogs are free and anyone can set one up – that is the beauty of them. I agree that it could be dangerous if people that are unqualified/ Ill informed but who have a large network communicated opinions/information that they are not properly qualified for or do not understand fully. However, that is the nature of free speech it often happens in mainstream media that information is communicated badly by someone with influence/personality (Gillian mckeith as one example in the UK).

    The more people that are involved in a network can help matters by picking up on people that are possibly misleading their followers. For example, an alternative blogpost can offer someone a difference in opinion and more information.

    So I think more the more people that are involved the better.

  16. Blogs are free and available for anyone to set up – that is the beauty of them. I agree that people posting opinions/information that they are not properly qualified for or do not understand properly with a large network/large number of followers could be dangerous – as people do not know who to trust. However, this is not a problem unique to bloggers – mainstream media also has the same problem – one example being Gillian McKeith in the UK.

    Increasing the number of people in a network (e.g. the ‘blogging community’) should dilute this by giving readers differing opinions – also comments on blogs are key – so people can question/praise the content.

    I think more people should engage in blogging as a way of communication but it is not the only way nor are the problems with it unique.

  17. Anyone that has read Royce Murrays editorials in Analytical Chemistry over the years knows that he is sort of a blogger and he doesn’t know it. He does just what bloggers do: writes about interesting things and his opinions about them. The difference is that his “blog” is monthly, has appeared mostly in print until the past few years and there is no place for others to comment. I feel it important to point out that his editorials are also not peer reviewed and therefore fall into the same category as the blog entries that he decries. Please read his editorials with the same critical mind as any other blog entry.

  18. Someone needs to tell Mr. Murray that just because a person doesn’t have a lot of initials after their name, it doesn’t mean they are clueless. I’d be willing to bet that many of the names he reveres in science’s past never attended formal schooling.

    Besides, I get more useful information out of blogs like Anthony Watt’s Watts Up With That and several European and Asian health blogs than I ever have out of stuffy journals which are often full of pointless studies into nothingness so that the writers can get their print quota for the year and keep their tenure.

    • Aaron, your points are well-taken but I must disagree vigorously with your recommendation of Watts Up With That. This blog is routinely cited by climatologists as a AGW denialist blog.

  19. That editorial has probably gotten Analytical Chemistry more page views than it has had for some time. Maybe Murray’s a cynical web genius?

    • Very good point, Barney – Derek Lowe and Hank Campbell both make similar observations in their posts or comment threads!

      • I clearly need to do a better job of reading the literature! Maybe we can get CAS to index the blogs, too? (I’m joking, but maybe it will seem like a good idea 5-10 years from now.)

  20. Wonderful post, David. I certainly agree with comments above regarding a bias against new forms of communicating science by those whose careers were built solely using the old model. When Travis Saunders and I started blogging in grad school, we quickly noticed a vast divide in opinions from the faculty regarding our efforts. The younger profs and admin folks saw the clear benefits of what we were doing, and would openly encourage others to do the same – we even gave a presentation on academics moving beyond peer-review publications to our faculty, and a grad student blog was initiated. On the other side were senior profs who saw our activity as a waste of time that was simply getting in the way of us doing ‘proper scholarly work.’ As a young scientist, the value of blogging and engaging others online is tremendous. I can publish a paper in a medical journal and wait for a few years before a handful of people cite the work. Or, the day the article appears online ahead of print, I could blog about it, tweet it, share it on Facebook and within a day thousands of people become aware of the broad implications of my research. And, if I’m lucky, I may even bring media attention to my work, as happened recently and the public exposure becomes even greater.

    • Peter – and Hank Campbell above – I share the general impression that the perceived value of blogging as a legitimate science communication medium is generational. However, there have been noteworthy exceptions such as the tremendous writing at the now-defunct Effect Measure blog that was written by Revere, not quite Royce’s age but definitely in the Social Security range. And a quick glance at my blogroll reveals a lot of writers in their 40s. I’ve equally had younger faculty comment that this is a waste of time – for those folks who want to have blogs, you still must focus on the metrics for appointment and promotion but blogging is an exceptional public service.

      And as Peter points out, its a remarkable medium for making one’s work more widely known. Look at this example now – Murray’s editorial hasn’t yet appeared in print but I’ve now had over 5,000 viewers come to this page. I’m fairly certain that Derek Lowe has had four times that number read his post.

      Blogging has also brought me almost weekly inquiries from mass media journalists to comment on some aspect of drug discovery or drug safety. I believe that I make a much broader impact on understanding of science through my blogs than I do in my discipline with students and fellow scientists.

  21. I see the point about the potential for misinterpretations in unedited science blogging. The plus side is that it is much more relaxed and discursive — in terms of sharing, critiquing, praising, or refuting a study or research program. And funny (e.g., Language Log). So I guess it’s sort of kind of like an 18th c. coffeehouse.

  22. Dear David,

    When you get a chance to speak with Dr. Murray, would you please mention that science education and advocacy also happens at the grassroots, via blogs?

    I offer as exhibit A Shannon Rosa’s post, “Why My Child With Autism Is Fully Vaccinated” at Shot of Prevention, which currently has 472 comments.


    As I am sure you know, the anti-vaccination believers use sciency-sounding allegations to advance their beliefs.

    A cadre of people (ahem, including myself) have been patiently

    *illustrating how to read and evaluate published literature
    *pointing out logical fallacies in commenters’ arguments
    *doing some “how studies have to be constructed” education

    And a couple more grass-roots science education chores.

    Science blogging cannot and should not replace formal publication of papers. But it does fill other previously-empty niches.

    • Liz, this is a great example. You are, in fact, a perfect example of how useful blogs can be to foster science education and combat pseudoscience in our schools and communities. I’m grateful to you for your longstanding support of our efforts here and at the various iterations of Terra Sig. You’re a gem!

      Science blogging cannot and should not replace formal publication of papers. But it does fill other previously-empty niches.

      Very well-said!

  23. Great Post!
    I think the following two comments you made are worth repeating:
    “Dr. Murray’s editorial is a perfect blogpost length (almost 600 words) and it would be great if the online version had a commenting function so that he could directly engage in this conversation.” and “The self-policing nature of science blogs and the vigilance of science blogs readers and commenters definitely raise the level of discourse and accuracy.”

    On a previous thread, I brought up my status as an ACS dropout and how, at the time I quit, the ACS did not seem relevant to my needs. An broad and open discussion on the role of chemists in our society could have been, and still could be quite useful in defining and expanding the role of the ACS in these changing times. Blogs are an excellent venue for this sort of conversation.

  24. I believe that chemists concerned about the future of chemistry and blogging in particular should also be interested in issues raised by Randy Baum in his latest post at:http://cenblog.org/the-editors-blog/2010/10/chemistry-alive-and-well/.

    Although, I do have to concede, that if we hope to encourage these people to blog, that perhaps even politely pouncing on them is not the best tactic (see my comment there).

    I am interested in engaging others on the general topic of how the field of chemistry, as represented by the ACS, can successfully navigate into the future.

  25. As a physician, I see that some of the medical blogs critique stories in a way that seems right to me, and others seem way off. Either way, I’m glad for the open discourse, which allows others besides journal editors to delve into what’s out there and renders it more likely that problems (assumptions, flaws in data, COI) will be uncovered.

    I wish, really, that more academic physicians would blog about substantive issues, like what’s wrong, and right, with published papers by their colleagues. That doesn’t happen much, for obvious reasons.

  26. Dr. Schattner, thank you for coming by to comment. I’d recommend that you take a look at a couple of physician bloggers I know and have read for several years:

    White Coat Underground by PalMD
    Respectful Insolence by Orac
    Science-Based Medicine a group blog by several physicians and a pharmacist, plus an occasional contribution by yours truly.

    • David,
      Yes, I follow those blogs and wish there were more, in different styles, with different perspectives and covering different beats. There should be an oncology blog, for example, that’s not written by a pharmacist (no offense) and that’s not PR. But it’s hard to do that kind of thing non-anonymously, especially if you’re a practicing physician.

      With respect,

  27. Prof Murray needs to study the blogging technology and spend some time exploring the science blogosphere.

    The argument about whether blogging is better or worse than traditional print is a big red herring. It’s a whole different animal, and the very wide-openness of the blogosphere will show that there are enlightened genuiuses who are really moving science forward with their blogs, and at the same time there are mis-informed lunkheads spreading inaccuracies. You cannot therefore conclude that blogging is either one or the other of those things.

    With all due respects to someone of Prof Murray’s stature and accomplishments, the fact that he has a half-century of professional academic science under his belt tells me that he is (sorry I don’t know of any more deplomatic term for this) ‘old-school’.

    Even myself, although I made a point to try to stay current with the new messaging and computer-based communications techs, as a 50-year old, am swamped by the ease and speed with which the 20-somethings trade info over their devices.

    So that brings up the other relevant point: regardless of whether authority figures in academia like it or not, the sea-change has already happened. We are not reverting back to print-only because of quality-control issues (even if such was possible). Not to mention that academia, with it’s early adoption of and technical contributions to the internet, helped start this whole explosion in the first place.

    This is a new epoch in electronic communication. It’s not going back to the good/bad old days. So I respectfully suggest that honorable Prof Murray accompany some of his proteges to blogging conferences and get in the loop and begin to start ferreting out the good from the bad. Perhaps he at least can use his clout to help fight the battle of keeping science-blogging accountable to respectable standards.

    So far there has been a lot of self-correcting since scientists who blog are quick to jump on posts that smell bad. At the very least we can hope this trend continues and science bloggers themselves will try to uphold high standards for their postings.


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