Is blogging revolutionizing science communication?

There’s been a lot of talk about blogging changing the nature of science communication recently that I think is completely missing the mark.  And, given that I see this really often, I thought I’d comment on it quickly.   (aka, this is a short, and not particularly well researched post… but deal with it.  I’m on “vacation” this week.)

Two of the articles/posts that are still on my desktop (that discuss this topic, albeit in the context of changing the presentation of science, not really in science communication) are:

But  I’ve come across a ton of them, and they all say (emphatically) that blogging has changed the way we communicate in science.  Well Yes and No.

Yes, it has changed the way scientists communicate between themselves.  I don’t run to the journal stacks anymore when I want to know what’s going on in someone’s lab, I run to the lab blog.  Or I check the twitter feed… or I’ll look for someone else blogging about the research.  You learn a lot that way, and it is actually representative of what’s going on in the world – and the researcher’s opinions on a much broader set of topics.  That is to say, it’s not a static picture of what small set of experiments worked in the lab in 1997.

On the other hand, I don’t think that there are nearly enough bloggers making science accessible for lay people.  We haven’t made science more easily understood by those outside of our fields – we’ve just make it easier for scientists inside our own field to find and compare information.

I know there are a few good blogs out there trying to make research easier to understand, but they are few and far between.  I, personally, haven’t written an article trying to explain what I do for a non-scientist in well over a year.

So, yes, blogging has changed science communication, but as far as I can tell, we’ve only changed it for the scientists.

11 tips for blogging talks and conferences

While I’m still not quite recovered from the jet-lag from the flight home, I thought I’d take a quick shot at answering a question I was asked frequently last week:  “How do you blog a scientific conference?”  So I thought I’d take a stab at some of the key points in case anyone else has any interest in trying.

  1. Focus! The hardest thing about blogging a conference is the amount of attention it takes.  If you are easily distracted, you’ll miss things – and it can be really hard to get back into a talk once you’ve missed a couple of key points.  Checking your email, twitter or surfing the web are all bad ideas.
  2. Listen! The speaker is really the best source for getting the key points.  If they’re doing a good job, then you don’t even need to see the slides – they’ll summarize the main points and make your job easy.
  3. Know your limits. If you don’t understand something, you’re not going to be able to summarize and explain it.  Frankly, product talks are pretty much impossible to blog – just point to the catalog.
  4. Read the slides.  A really bad speaker can make it hard to blog their talk, but fortunately, that’s what slides are for: summarizing the presenter’s points.  If you can’t follow along with what they’re saying, you can always interpret the slides for yourself.
  5. Know what to omit.  A really good speaker can be incredibly distracting, wandering away from the main point of the talk to tell stories or insert asides.  You don’t need to write down everything, especially if you can’t reproduce it well.  Capturing speakers jokes can be next to impossible.
  6. Think! It may sound odd, but the process of writing notes is about what you think is important.  You have to carefully interpret what the speaker is saying and decide what is that you feel is central to the arguments.  Blindly copying things frequently fails to tell the story well.
  7. Don’t guess! It’s easy to miss something (and yes, you will miss things), but how you handle the things you miss is important.  If you can’t remember a number or an exact phrasing, just summarize it – if you guess about the value or quote someone incorrectly, it can really upset both the speaker who’s work you’ve misrepresented or the audience, who may rely on what you’ve told them.  If you’re not sure on a point, be clear about that as well.  It’s better to err on the side of caution.
  8. Keep your thoughts separate. This can be challenging.  With all that’s going on, it’s easy to mix up your opinions with the speaker’s points, since your notes are really just your interpretation of what you’re hearing.   However, to preserve the integrity of the speaker’s points, you need to ensure that they don’t get confused.  I use a system of brackets to do so but any other clearly marked system will work as well.
  9. Type fast! This should be obvious.  The faster you can type, the more complete your notes will be.  Conference blogging is not for slow typers.
  10. Use the right tools. I blog directly in my blog’s editor, but you can use any other system that works for you.  The most challenging part is to make sure you have autosave on, and that it works well.  There’s nothing worse than losing something you’ve written – especially since you can’t go back to ask a speaker to do their first 10 slides over if something goes wrong.
  11. Practice! This isn’t a skill you develop overnight – the more you do this, the easier it becomes.  Start with a single talk and learn from your mistakes.

So, there you have it.  The top 11 tips I’d give for anyone who would like to blog a talk – or even a whole conference.   And, of course, don’t forget to enjoy the talks.  If you’re not getting something out of listening to someone else speaking, why are you taking notes on it? (-:

Most enlightened blogging policy…

I really have to hand it to the Copenhagenomics foundation – they have an incredibly enlightened blogging policy, in three different directions.

  1. They encourage blogging and twittering – the best way to open communications and conversations in the science community and to give people who can’t attend an opportunity to participate in the discussion.
  2. They’ve invited a blogger to ensure that the science does become recorded.  It’s not enough to assume that having an open blogging policy will push the discussion out into the internet, you need to ensure it gets there. (In full disclosure mode, I’m the blogger they’ve invited, so I guess it’ll be my fault if the conference doesn’t get a lot of followers. doh!)
  3. They’ve prepared the speakers by ensuring they’re all familiar with the blogging/tweeting policy.  With an open default position, it’s up to the speakers to restrict where they don’t want the blogging to cover, rather than to open it up. This makes much more sense, as science should be an open endeavour rather than peeking out from closed doors.

I encourage anyone who’s interested in hosting a conference to follow the CPHx lead.  Here’s the post on their web page about their “sharing is caring” policy.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re reading my blog over the next few days and happen to catch the occasional “ø” instead of an apostrophe, it’s because I’ve gone native with a Danish keyboard, thanks to the great people at CLCbio.  My own laptop will be visiting the apple repair store next week, when I get back to Vancouver.

Copenhagenomics, here I come

In 24 hours, my wife and I will be boarding a plane for Toronto, to start our trip to Copenhagen.  I’m incredibly excited and have been looking forward to this since the invitation to go out that way arrived.

Unlike other trips out of Canada that I’ve done, this one is mostly about business.  I’m surprisingly excited about being an official conference blogger – that’s an experience that I doubt many people have had an opportunity to try – and I’m all ready to give it a shot. (I’ve even downgraded the kernel on my laptop to 2.6.37 to try to extend the battery life, just to get an edge on computer time between charges – how’s that for nerdiness?)  Copenhagenomics is looking to be an awesome conference, and the organizers are doing a great job with the web page, building some of the suspense for me.  I’m anticipating a great time – and a lot of “instantaneous blogging”.  (It’s one thing to write posts and sit on them for a few hours, and another to post blogs as an event is in progress.)

I’m also not going to pretend I don’t have other reasons to be excited.  I’m really looking forward to doing some photography in Denmark.  I’ve got my camera all packed up and ready to go, although I’m only bringing my stripped down gear: one body and two lenses.  I don’t expect to do a lot of photography during the conference, but we’ll see how it goes.  I’m not bringing the outboard flash, tho, so no conference party pictures, in case anyone was worried.

I’m also going to visit CLCbio, which I’ve been looking for an excuse to do for a long time.  If you’re not familiar with them, they’re one of the best independent bioinformatics/nextgen companies around, and only a train ride away from copenhagen.  I had seriously considered moving FindPeaks to their platform at one point, but in the end, decided it was a project that wouldn’t work towards my thesis – but I’m still excited about the platform and learning more about the company.   As you can imagine, I won’t be blogging this part of the trip, but it’s one of the standout highlights we have planned.

Finally, there’s also Copenhagen itself.  I’ve never been to Northern Europe, so it should be great fun.  Obviously, I don’t speak danish, but it’ll be fun to learn a little while we’re there.  I always try to pick up a few native words wherever I travel to somewhere non-English speaking. (My favorite word from our Tahiti trip, by the way, is Moh’oh’poh’pah’ah, which means frog.  I don’t get to use that in conversation often enough, so I thought I’d slip that in here.)

Oddly enough, I’m also looking forward to the plane ride itself.  Given 5 hours and 8 hours of travel time on the two legs, in which I’m stuck in about 1 m^3 of space, I figure I should be able to work on my paper/thesis without any interruptions.  With some luck, I’ll be able to finish off the paper, and maybe toss in a few pages of Chip-Seq discussion into my thesis.  Good times.

In any case, this should be a fun and productive trip.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go stuff a few socks into my bag.  See you in Copenhagen!