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Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

Conversations about Science: The Role of Blogs and Social Media

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ESOF2012

ESOF2012

Writing about science for the last eight years has changed dramatically for me with the advent of blogging and social media. In fact, at many science conferences blogging is what we are asked to do by our editors throughout the five or six days of the event that we attend. These are not personal blog posts, but posts on blogs which are officially part of the publication. We are expected to write in a more relaxed style for the blog and look for stories which are lighter than what we usually report on in science.

So, when I covered ESOF2010 (Euroscience Open Forum) in Turin, I blogged for Scidevnet and the posts were all on light topics like ‘Motorbikes fuel savers or killers on the road?’ Or about how ‘Science attracts or repels'

That is why I was keen to attend a session at ESOF2012 in Dublin, about the role of social media in science. The session connected with me instantly and I was keen on knowing how other science journalists use blogs and social media, too.

According to the panel of speakers, science blogging has become a significant part of professional and public communication about science in certain sectors. An example given was of Biochemistry, where new developments were discussed and bloggers forced a retraction of the claim that certain bacteria live off arsenic. In fact, most scientific institutions today maintain blogs written by professional bloggers, attached to their websites. These blogs contain postings on conferences, work-shops and additional information on already published findings.

During the session, Bora Zivkovic the Blogs Editor at the Scientific American [thus the editor of this very blog], revealed that one of his personal highlights of becoming a blogger was when he translated his own ‘heavy’ and detailed scientific articles and turned them into blog posts, softening them for the regular reader. In one case, he was contacted by a researcher from Cornell University about one of his posts, which subsequently led to a collaboration and a publication of a new paper. “Today I can publish papers without getting out of my pyjamas,” he said, “and I have been the first blogger ever to have a blog post cited in a paper. There are official ways of citing a blog, just like you cite a published paper,” he said.

Dublin onvention centre

Blogs open interesting avenues for discussions between other scientists, students, thinkers and the public. Blogs are open to immediate responses, where people can comment on a writer’s piece. This is what most writers look for - constructive criticism of their work. In the regular print medium, most often, we science journalists never get any responses to our published work, as the letters to the editor focus mainly on responses to political stories or front page news.

Ulrike Brandt-Bohne, a biologist and science journalist from Germany said that, “Blogs help Science meet Society and you can showcase your work by writing a blog. While Felix Bohne, a virologist and immunologist, who was another speaker on the panel said a lot of people suffered from HIV denialism and he blamed it on pseudo science. “A lot of people think vaccines are bad and there is no way of stopping the negative hype in their minds.” However with blogs, he has found posting on topics to do with viruses has helped increase credibility and allay the fears one has to conquer with regard to vaccines. Ulrike said people still held measles parties in the hope that they get infected together. They are not uneducated people and sadly believe what they are doing is right. “I will go on blogging,” says Ulrike, “in the hope of educating them.”

It was interesting to hear Martin Robbins, a science journalist from the Guardian, UK say, “ I am fed up with mainstream coverage of certain topics, so blogs are a great way to get the message out. There needs to be an attitude change in mainstream media with regard to blogging.” He went on to say that Science communication and Science Journalism were quite different from one another. Science journalism needed to challenge findings and put them into context, rather than just be the voice piece of the scientist. He also said that authors of blogs should act as moderators and in discussions one can get both nasty and brilliant reponses to a debate. "That is why a blog helps to engage with the public and fire their curiosity", he said. Blogging also is social communication, where a bunch of like minded people participate in a discussion which can be very fulfilling.

Blogging has caught on in a big way in India as well and all mainstream publications sport blogs which have ‘professional bloggers’ loading information on them every day. In fact, when we science journalists cover a conference, we blog on a daily basis, and then subsequently write the longer stories with a lot more work and time put into the effort, once we reach our home countries.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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