Academic blogging as “inreach”


People have been saying “blogging is dead” consistently for the past decade. Yet, fellow readers, here we are, on this blog. Individual blogs retire, yet academic blogs are thriving as much as ever. Blogs have evolved.

Dinosaurs are not extinct, either — we have about 10,000 species of of dinosaurs flying around the planet, though now we call them birds.

What is a “science blog?” I have no idea. If someone calls this site a science blog, I guess that’s fine? But I don’t think it says anything about what you might find on the site. Online writing has diversified so much that the term “science blog” is only vestigially informative.

As I recently shared, a bunch of bloggers who are ecologists teamed up to write about the impact of our blogs. We realized there wasn’t a generally accepted term for what our sites do. We called ourselves “science community blogs,” — which are markedly different from whatever people might call “science blogs.”

I think a lot of folks consider blogs to be a form of outreach — to bring science and the process of science to the public. On the other hand, science community blogs are what I consider to be inreach. We’re not reaching out to the public, we’re reaching in to our own academic community for dialogue. We’re not trying to explain science to the public, but to contribute to the professional growth of our own scientific communities.

In the earlier days of science blogs, many sites were a hodgepodge of outreach, inreach, and nonacademic stuff. The blogging market has fragmented, so that we have clearly distinct 1) outreach blogs, 2) inreach blogs, and 3) personal blogs. (I suppose there are a lot of other ways to classify blogs, but I think most blogs can be tidily lumped into one of these three categories. though of course some defy a simple label.)

Outreach blogs have waned, as science writing for the public can be done online through more journalistic outfits. Personal blogs have retained their limited appeal. (In the sciences, the most enduring personal blogs seem to often involve doctrinal atheism and anti-religious fervor, it seems to me.) I think academic inreach blogs are having their moment, and continue to grow. In my book, the archetypal science community blog is Female Science Professor. She hung up her blogging spurs a few years ago, after inspiring the origin of many newer sites, including the one you’re reading now.

In the era when “science blogging” was emerging, a lot of writers were on the ScienceBlogs network. (That was long, long before I entertained the idea of blogging.) Now, word has recently come out that the ScienceBlogs network is shutting down, with a mere whimper. This is the end of an era, as many highly visible writers were early members of this site. If you just look at the list of archived blogs that used to be on the network, you might notice a bunch of sites that evolved into their own elsewhere, at first glance I see Myrmecos, Deep Sea News, Laelaps, and Not Exactly Rocket Science. Some authors have made outreach a huge part of their academic careers, and others have developed made a career of science communication.

If you’re trying to explain this site and similar sites to fellow colleagues, I suggest calling it a “science community blog,” or “academic community blog.” If they ask what that is, you can say that we do inreach. Writers and readers of academic community blogs have experiences and perspectives that are different from one another, and here is where we can learn from one another. Maybe, just perhaps, this is why the comment sections in science community blogs tend to produce far more light than heat?

9 thoughts on “Academic blogging as “inreach”

  1. Terry, where do you see journal blogs fitting in? And are there any that particularly impress you?

    For my own part, I never look at journal blogs that just post popsci-style paper summaries. Even if they have pictures, or also give a bit of background on how the research reported in the paper was conducted, or are done as an audio interview with the author rather than as a blog post. If I want a summary of a paper, I’ll just read the abstract, that’s what it’s there for. But I do look at journal blogs that complement the journal’s papers rather than merely summarizing them or talking about them. Molecular Ecology’s blog often does this sort of complementary stuff.

    • I’m not really familiar with the journal blogs out there. The only one I regularly read is Insectes Sociaux, , which has regular interviews with researchers and profiles interesting parts of papers in the journal and the field.

      I would say journal blogs are academic community blogs too? Because gosh knows they’re not being read by the general audience. They might not focus on some of the issues that we have in our own blogs, about academic life and everything else, but it’s still for the academic community to discuss their academic stuff. When you left the Oikos blog to strike out on your own, if I recall correctly, you were the only one on the ed board posting to the blog anyway, so it just made sense to have your own site? Because the Oikos blog was there just for the editors to contribute to, and most of the editors didn’t set it as a priority.

      I like the InsSoc blog because it’s essentially the voice of the social media editor of the society, Marianne Peso or the authors who are highlighting their own articles.

      In general, I think institutional blogs are usually less interesting or informative — with the exception of the NSF blogs, which are both. Because writing for an institutional blog seems like a chore, but writing for your own blog (single-author or multi-author) can be more of a hobby.

  2. Yes, I agree that journal blogs are academic community blogs. Even when their posts (or author interviews, or whatever) purport to summarize their papers for a broader audience, in practice I’m sure the vast majority of their readers are academics.

    Yes, you recall my experience at the Oikos Blog correctly.

    I bet if you looked at traffic numbers (perhaps relativized to some measure of “potential traffic”), you’d find that the most trafficked journal blogs and institutional blogs are the ones with a voice. I don’t know the InsSoc blog. But Molecular Ecology’s blog is mostly the voice of Jeremy Yoder, who of course is an experienced blogger. And NSF DEB’s DEBrief blog has more of a voice than you’d expect an institutional blog to have, which is a credit to the staffer(s) who write the posts. And back when I was at Oikos Blog, it was mostly my voice–which is why traffic there cratered when I left. And which is why independent blogs with a voice, like Small Pond, Scientist Sees Squirrel, Dynamic Ecology, etc., surely draw much more traffic than most journal blogs, especially relative to how often they post. Most blog readers want to read writing with a distinctive voice.

    I do think the original vision of the Oikos Blog–a big group blog on which all the editors post their interesting thoughts about science, with no one editor needing to post more than once every few months–could still be a great blog. Most of the posts could even use papers the editors handled as jumping-off points, since those are the easiest sorts of posts for editors to write. Though they’d need to go well beyond just summarizing papers or commenting very superficially on them. Commentary on individual papers would need to be a lead-in to commenting on topics bigger than any one paper. But the challenge is getting every one of your, say, 50 editors to write 1-2 good posts/year.

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