Blogging about your own work.

Ok, so my titles aren’t nearly as inspired as Cath’s are.  This week hasn’t exactly been encouraging for puns, unless you consider massacring Danish pronunciation as a very complex linguistic joke.

Actually, I only have a glimmer of an idea tonight – but I’m writing because I need something to do to keep me up for an hour or so.  Sorry for the bad pun, but the clock *is* ticking and it’s only three weeks till I’m supposed to be in Denmark – and I still don’t have movers.  It’s driving me completely around the bend.  So, as a therapeutic device, I’m going to write my glimmer of an idea.  Please don’t be too harsh on it.

The idea for the post came from reading Jacquelyn Gill’s blog post, “Why did I start blogging?”  (By the way, please go vote for her to win CollegeScholarships.org Blogging Scholarship. She clearly deserves it!) Her post isn’t quite related, but at the same time, it is – you can go read it to see why, if you’re interested.

One of the things I struggled with for the past two years has been blogging about my own work. Of course, I interpret this as blogging about what you’re currently working on, not the stuff you finished months ago, which is always fair game.  (Blogging your own publications always struck me as blatantly endorsing yourself – something only politicians should need to do.)

Anyhow, blogging your own current work, showing the bumps and warts of science is something I love to do, and as a scientist, something I want to do as often as I can.  However, there are several problems with it.  It tends to tip your hand to the whole world about what you’re working on and that can have some disastrous consequences.

First, if you’re in a medical field, it can be difficult to talk about cases you’re working on, if there’s any form of patient confidentiality.  Many of the projects I’ve been involved in have required me to maintain complete silence about the nature of the project.  Blog + confidentiality = Instant ethics issues, methinks.

Second, if you’re working on a manuscript, presumably you’re going to have to keep everything you do quiet.  Heck, I’ve got a paper in the works for which the journal sent instructions that require absolute silence on whether it’s even been accepted or not, let alone contemplate communicating anything about the topic.  If I say any more about this, I’ll either jeopardize the publication or wind up in jail.  (Have I already said too much?)

Third, if you aren’t working on a manuscript, you’re either not an academic, or you’re working on an open science project.  I was fortunate enough that I my own project was open, allowing me to talk about my Chip-Seq work for the first three years of my PhD – but alas, that work never cumulated into a second paper.   That’s another rant for another day.

That leaves scientists in the awkward position that they either:

  1. blog about someone else’s work – as if they were journalists, describing their own fields,
  2. blog about their own work in vague terms so that their competition doesn’t scoop them,
  3. blog about work they’ve already published.
  4. blog about the unimportant stuff – or the stuff that they don’t plan to publish.

I can think of one exception: Rosie Redfield, who does a good job of writing about what she’s working on, although her recent work has all been about rehashing and verifying (or more accurately not being able to verify) someone else’s results.  (Yes, I’m referring to the arsenic bacteria fiasco.) I have to admit, I don’t follow any other bloggers who discuss their own data in public, but I’m sure there must be some out there…

Still, if this is a problem for academic bloggers, industrial bloggers face an even harder battle to discuss their own data.  I can think of Derek Lowe over at In The Pipeline as a great example of a blogger from industry.  I used to read his blog daily, and back when I was an avid reader, I seem to recall my favorite posts of his were from the lab – but were all about the strange mishaps and challenges faced by chemists, drawn mostly from the past.  Absolutely none of his current work was discussed, unless it ended in spectacular failure. (Those were good stories too…)

So, I often find myself wondering, when I hear people say that scientists should blog more about their own work, who exactly do they expect to follow that advice? (Btw, It’s something that pops up in conversation frequently, although I couldn’t think of a blog entry that makes that case specifically, off hand. If you need a citation, you’ll just have to settle for “personal correspondence.” Sorry.)

Are there a group of scientists who are willing to blog their own work at the expense of getting publications or being fired from their jobs?  Somehow, I have yet to meet this clique – although if I did, I’d have a lot of questions.  And I can’t imagine they’d be in a position to do this for very long.  You don’t get grants renewed without publications – and you wouldn’t have a workplace for very long either, if you kept blogging the secret sauce recipe.

Maybe, however, this is why some scientists chose to leave the lab bench to pick up the mantle of journalism.  Cue Ed Yong, for instance.  So, the solution isn’t that we need more scientists blogging about their own work, but that we need more scientists to leave science to blog about other people’s work…. or perhaps we should just ask them to stay in science and blog about other people’s work already.

Ahem.  Status quo wins again!

2 thoughts on “Blogging about your own work.

  1. Another way to see this is that your research does not belong to you, but it is a work that you do financed by public money.

    So, I think that it is good to blog about our own work, because it is a way to explain the research done to a broader public, which, although indirectly, is who is paying for our salaries and expenses. When I write a blog article to describe a paper published or an idea, it is as if I were saying: “Hey, (all people in the Internet), thanks to public fundings, I just published this paper. Let me explain you what it is about and what I did with the money you gave me”.

    Imagine what the people on the other side may think. Let’s say that you are worker from the industry, or a barman, or anything else. You pay taxes, and some small percentage of this money goes to fund the work of a PhD student in some lab. What would you like this PhD student to do, with her/his research? Would you prefer her/him to keep everything for himself until the work gets published, and then return to the ivory tower to work on another paper? Or would you prefer this PhD student to try to explain the work, look for possible collaborations, ask for feedback from other researchers, and try to explain the work to the maximum number possible of people he can reach?

    So, when I blog about something that I have done, I am just doing what I think the people who pay for my salary may prefer. I think that it is not enough to just publish a paper, it is also important to prepare slideshows about it and publish them online, blog a bit to describe what has been done, and in general avoid to keep it all secret. Of course I may be completely wrong, and the only thing that people expect from me is that I publish a lot of papers :-)

  2. I see what you’re saying. I always just figured that once it was out in the journals, there’s not a lot else to say – but in retrospect, that’s really not the case at all.

    Thanks – Your point is entirely correct!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *