The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

Chemistry blogging and journalism: Eat the fruit, don't count the trees


I have been blogging about chemistry and related topics since 2004. Since then I have had the chance to witness the rise of the chemistry blogosphere. What started as a small, loose collection of opinionated men and women has turned into a group of serious and well-informed bloggers who blog with authority and nuance. Partly because blogging about chemistry is not as attractive as blogging about cosmology or evolutionary biology, the chemistry blogosphere has relatively few blogs. However in my view this has also translated into an unusually high ratio of signal to noise. Speak to people who frequent this world and ask them who they think the good bloggers are, and you will usually hear lists of names that are not only similar but also exhaustive. My own contributions to this world have been very modest but there are others who have set high standards and who will undoubtedly continue to guide the high-quality discourse.

With this background in mind, I was a little disappointed to see a parting editorial by Rudy Baum who has served as editor-in-chief of Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN), the flagship publication of the American Chemical Society. C&EN has been the main source of chemical information and analysis for the chemical community for almost a hundred years. In his capacity Mr. Baum has contributed valuable input to the magazine. He has done an admirable job in keeping the whole enterprise together and has also been very active in interacting with the chemical community, including chemists who write blogs. In fact his own team of outstanding writers, scientists and journalists publish their own blog which has consistently produced insightful, high-quality content.

In his parting editorial Mr. Baum had the following words to say about blogs:

"Technology has profoundly changed journalism during my tenure with C&EN. Much of the change has been positive—who can imagine doing research on a topic without access to the Internet?—but the business model for journalism remains very much in a state of flux. The silly mantra, “Information wants to be free,” overlooks the fact that quality information requires effort, and effort costs money.

Blogs are all well and good, they add richness to the exchange of information, but they are not journalism, and they never will be."

Blogs also made an appearance in another discussion arising from a university library's decision to cancel their subscription to ACS journals because of high prices. A post by the librarian about this was met with the following response by the ACS's Director of Public Affairs

“We find little constructive dialogue can be had on blogs and other listservs where logic, balance, and common courtesy are not practiced and observed,”

I would like to address the C&EN editorial first. I was not aware of the source of that "silly mantra" that "information should be free" until a few fellow bloggers pointed out that it originated with Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, the same lavish volume which inspired Steve Jobs during the early phases of his career. It was reiterated by Richard Stallman who started the open software movement at MIT. The quote is more subtle than what it appears in Mr. Baum's editorial. The point is that throughout human history, for reasons related not just to cost but also to availability and censorship, information has had to tread the fine line between being withheld and being widely available. Stallman made it clear that by "free" he was not talking about the price but about availability. He was alluding to the fact that information by its very nature is like a restless beast that wants to spread around through the human medium. History has amply demonstrated that we as a society want to know, and at some point we do. And Stallman was saying this in an age when the internet was still very limited and access to information was severely constrained compared to today.

The age has changed but information is still restricted or expensive in many cases where it should not be so. Unfortunately, simply quoting the "information wants to be free" gives the impression that consumers of information really think that it doesn't cost anything to produce it. That's simply not true. Almost every person who I have talked to about open access realizes that it takes cost and effort to edit, referee and produce information. However we are also aware of how much cheaper this process can be compared to what it is, especially because of the exceedingly low costs of bandwidth and storage space. These low costs make it possible for enterprises to be supported mainly through volunteer donations. The fact is that journals and magazines as a whole are still mainly stuck in the old model where a group of editors make it their full-time job to finely craft, edit and publish information. Although the technology for disseminating information has changed, the mindsets find it hard to let go. There is of course still a prominent role for official high-quality information that is carefully vetted and journal editors still do an admirable job of striving for quality, but the fact is that there are now multiple ways of producing and accessing the same information, with blogging being one of the simplest. This proliferation of content creation and production channels has resulted in the entirely reasonable mantra that "most information should be very cheap, and at least some information should be free".

The difference between free and cheap is huge; it's the same as the difference between zero and any finite number. And it's this mantra that is the source of the campaign against publishers like Elsevier who practice unfair "bundling" and sport huge profit margins. More importantly though, I think there's at least some evidence to refute Mr. Baum's statement that "quality information requires effort, and effort costs money". By now Wikipedia has been proven to be a resounding example of the fact that quality can come without money through the efforts of millions of volunteers who contribute knowledge and information for a variety of reasons. Most of these contributors have contributed an immense amount of their time without asking us for a penny and the Wikipedia servers are mainly maintained through volunteer donations. Articles on Wikipedia have been vetted by experts in their respective areas (including Nature) and have been consistently found to contain high-quality information.

However I find myself more disappointed to hear Mr. Baum's thoughts on blogging. What exactly does he mean when he says "science blogs will never be journalism"? I see journalism defined mainly in three terms; news, opinion and analysis. As far as I am concerned, science blogs have contributed to each of these phases of journalism over the last decade or so. High-quality content not driven by money has been an outstanding feature of the chemical blogosphere.

Let's start with opinion. Opinion has always been a principal function of blogging; in fact that's why many of us started our blogs, to hold forth in all our self-important erudition on a variety of topics. As far as news is concerned, those of us who are reporting on the latest chemical breakthroughs, safety issues, chemical controversies and the human side of chemistry are communicating exactly the kind of news that magazines like C&EN report. I am not saying that magazines are not doing a good job of reporting the relevant news, just that bloggers can also be equal to the task.

And then there's analysis. I believe this is an area in which bloggers have been outstanding. Whether it's Derek Lowe analyzing the state of the pharmaceutical industry, Chemjobber analyzing the state of the job market, Chembark analyzing the state of chemical publishing or SeeArrOh analyzing the state of chemophobia, I believe that bloggers have repeatedly subscribed to the highest standards of fact checking, careful thinking and clear exposition. Sure, we all make mistakes, but I think many of us can agree that when it comes to episodes like the sodium hydride "oxidation" debacle or the structure of hexacyclinol, chemistry bloggers have been at the forefront of sounding the alarm and of meticulously charting the flaws, often before more "official" news sources scoop the story up. This is even more true of the rest of the science blogosphere where bloggers are fighting creationism, climate change denial and the anti-vaccination movement. In some cases their analysis has been far more thorough and well-informed than the official sources. Even a preliminary look at some of the major blog posts written by chemistry bloggers would convince the ACS's PR director that "logic, balance and common courtesy" are not just alive but are thriving in the chemical blogosphere.

The benefit of a magazine like C&EN is of course that all this information is in one place instead of being scattered around various sites and it has done a great job in achieving this goal, but this is hardly a general argument against the ability of blogs to do good science journalism. Perhaps what Mr. Baum means that all blogs don't contribute to journalism, but that's a far cry from saying that they can't and that they never will. Surely Mr. Baum is familiar with the high-quality service that veteran chemistry bloggers have provided over the last decade. Surely he is aware of the fact that members of his own very capable staff have often featured and linked to posts, both their own and others. At the very least his opinion should have been tempered by a recognition of the good that has come out of chemistry blogging during the last few years.

I will leave you with an excellent post regarding this very perceived distinction between science blogging and science journalism written by Ed Yong, one of the most accomplished science bloggers around. It seems that Ed really hits the nail on the head in locating the source of criticism of science blogs:

To an extent, I get why it’s played. I think people are rightly worried about their industry. As I said at the start: massive sinking ship. People see a profession in trouble, they want to save and protect it. They see these random interlopers trying to claim a stake and they think that it somehow devalues this noble thing that they’re trying to defend. I certainly agree that good journalism in all its forms is a necessary thing that is worth defending. But no one has ever saved something by playing with definitions. You protect journalism by trumpeting its values, criticising people who do it poorly and supporting those who do it well, regardless of the medium they happen to use. You won’t buoy up journalism through taxonomy.

Indeed, you don't buoy up journalism through conventional, narrow-minded classification. You buoy it up by recognizing high-quality content in your field, irrespective of the source. There's an old proverb which roughly says "Enjoy the fruit, don't count the trees". If the fruit is sweet and satisfying, do you really care where the trees come from and how many there are?

This is an updated and revised version of a post I wrote on my FoS blog The Curious Wavefunction.

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

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