Notes from the science blogging conference

This is another archival repost, originally written in september 2008.

It was great to meet everybody at the London Science Blogging Conference. Before my dissection of what I thought were the important themes, I should just apologise for the accident with my facial hair — it was only this morning that I noticed just how bad it was, and it pains me to know that there are now dozens of cool people who, whenever I meet them online, will believe that I routinely leave the house looking like that.

Ben “chew my own knob off” Goldacre.

The first theme, then, was communicating science to the public, which mostly involved criticising professional writers. Certainly, the poor quality of much of the mainstream media presentation of science is a major motivation for most science bloggers. Ben Goldacre started the ball rolling by claiming that we need less science writers and more editors who can work with real scientists — a reasonable enough comment (actually, I’d say we need more of both professions, and less science-illiterate writers trying to write the science pages). Others were not so reasonable, dismissing professional science writing altogether. I like to bitch about poor science writing as much as the next blogger, but most of the attendees seemed to have forgotten that are good professional science writers too! Indeed, of those science writers that I know, many were themselves motivated to join the profession because of their own concerns regarding science communication.

Henry “yer aaht of awdah” Gee.

The second theme was communicating science to other scientists. On this subject, there seemed to be widespread agreement that blogging is just a part of a larger ongoing revolution, which also includes journal publishing and peer-review, and even the structure of academia itself:

  • There was an awful lot of dissatisfaction all round — both from the academics and from the publishers — with the old fashioned methods of communication and publishing. It was great to attend an event where a dozen different people will independently start a rant about impact factors over a pint, each with a different perspective, but all with the same fundamental hatred of them.
  • Some people called for more formal acceptance of blogs in academia. Richard Grant‘s institution were progressive enough to waste spend money on sending him all of the way from Sydney to attend, but GrrlScientist pointed out that many bloggers still have to maintain anonymity because their seniors do not see blogging as a constructive use of time.
  • Methods of formally measuring and acknowledging the impact of blogs were then mentioned — Google pageranks, Technorati, and so on. But, fresh from ranting about impact factors, everyone was skeptical about how helpful these can be — after all, how do you make a fair impact comparison between a blogger who writes fifty short items about religion each week, and a blogger who writes a single thoroughly researched item about their field each week?
  • Peter Murray Rust, seen here writing a paper with an invisible floating keyboard.
    Peter Murray Rust, seen here writing a paper with an invisible floating keyboard.
  • When it was suggested that blogs should feed back on individuals’ careers and even the prestige of the old-fashioned journals that are cited in them,[1] Nature editor Henry Gee pointed out that blogs are just a place for half-baked ideas. Everybody else retorted that so is Nature are journals! Science is never complete, and peer-review is not a rubber stamp of truth.

“Open lab notebooks” were also considered to be part of the conference’s remit, with a talk from Jean-Claude Bradley. Under my own definition of “blog”, I’m not sure I’d classify open notebooks as blogs — as far as I’m concerned, what makes a blog a blog is about more than just the software it’s published on (which is why I would exclude most corporate “blogs” from the definition). That’s not to say that I didn’t think the issues raised were not interesting. But I was rather surprised by how underdeveloped the software was — just a standard free blogging platform and a wiki, no integration or lab notebook specific features — and how underdeveloped support for it was. I think I overheard a couple ofBadScienceBloggers mumbling about “asking scientists to give away their work to their competitors”. Guys: this is why we need a revolution in how we evaluate academic careers. People need to be given credit for having fantastic creative ideas and/or competent experimental skills; people do not need to be given credit based on the average number of citations made to other people’s work.

Scott Keir and Professor Steve Steve.
Scott Keir and Professor Steve Steve.

Finally, a couple of random observations:

I have to disagree slightly (and only slightly) with Ben Goldacre when he defends Andrew Wakefield. Ben raised three ideas, which I don’t think are entirely compatible:

  1. Scientists should be free to have bad ideas
  2. The media is to blame for the MMR-autism fiasco
  3. Scientists should take a more direct role in communicating science

The modifier that I would add to make the three work together is that scientists must act responsibly when communicating their ideas to those who may not have access to the skills or literature required to independently evaluate the ideas being presented (“the public”), and, even if they feel strongly about a subject, avoid making claims that they can not substantiate. I would therefore suggest that one should be free to share one’s bad ideas with colleagues, in journals, and at conferences, but that one should avoid giving the world advice in a press conference.

Mo, casually enjoying a beer over a 1900 volume of <i>Nature</i>.
Mo, casually enjoying a beer over a 1900 volume of Nature.

I don’t think that anybody ever thought to try to define “blog” when discussing them. As previously mentioned, I think that a record of experiments is a lab notebook, whether it’s written in a hardback book of square ruled paper, or on a freely accessible blogspot page. A corporate “blog” which announces with delight the company’s exciting new venture each morning is not, in my opinion, a blog. When it was asked what the top 10 science blogs were, the instant reaction of everybody in attendance was “they can’t be ranked like that!” The reason of course, is that there is such variation: the lighthearted, the serious-but-chatty, the campaign blog, the popular science writer, the collection of work-related notes and links, and the pure technical science[2]. The reason that I mention this is that I think that acknowledging this variation will be important when taking action on the other issues raised in the conference, such as persuading institutions that blogging is a constructive use of time, or persuading our favourite Nobelists to get a blog.

In conclusion, we are all agreed that blogs are fantastic, that much is wrong with the world, and with science communication in particular, and that blogging is the solution, if only everybody else would wake up and realise this!


  1. Ohes Noes! Please, think before you implement this! Imagine the number of ways you could cheat under such a system.
  2. Sadly, I couldn’t actually find a pure technical science blog by a conference attendee, so had to pick one from myblogroll instead — please let me know if I missed one!

Comments on the original


Nice summary Joe, and fantastic photographs as usual (except for the awful one of me).

As for the facial hair – it always looks like that!

Posted at 2008-09-10 23:00:07
Frank Norman

Joe – I totally agree with what you say, especially

“what makes a blog a blog is about more than just the software it’s published on”. I think the Open Notebook Science stuff is interesting, and there is some kind of link to blogging generally – it’s all part of new ways of communicating science – but it’s quite a distant link.

Posted at 2008-09-11 09:25:33

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