On the need for public academic blogs

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Anybody can set up a blog and write a post, yet the reach of these posts varies dramatically.

Let’s say you have an interesting or important idea for fellow ecologists. For example, you want to report on a great symposium, or just read a really cool paper with a big idea and want to discuss those further. Or you want to review a book, or share safety tips for fieldwork, or write more broadly about a new paper of your own. Or perhaps a response to an absolutely horrid op-ed piece that you read in the Washington Post last week. You’re not going to write these in a peer-reviewed journal, but what would you do?

At the moment your options are:

  1. Post an email to ecolog-l
  2. Write on social media
  3. Write a post on your personal site
  4. Be friends with someone who runs a blog
  5. Do nothing

I think there’s a missing option, and I’d like to fix this.

I’ve grown uncomfortable with the notion that to have a blog post reach a broader audience, you have to have a connection with one of a small number of blogs.

A lot of you have a great short 400-word posts inside ready to get out, but don’t have the venue. While anybody can create a blog, audiences grow steadily over time with regular feeding, and that investment that isn’t well suited to most people with great ideas that they want to share.

I posted about this on twitter last week, have recevied interest and useful feedback, and now I’m planning to take the next steps.

The fix to this problem isn’t with existing blogs — we need a new way.  The way science community blogs are run right now, content is determined by the owner/editors. I run this site, and two Corresponding Editors post whatever they wish. Once in a while, I’ll run a guest post, but ultimately this site features the voice of a few people. This blog is about doing science in all kinds of institutions, and I think keeping that focus is why the blog has grown. I imagine other blog owners aren’t going to change their editorial focus either. There are blog “aggregators” out there, but those aren’t fulfilling this role either. I imagine that a single blog designed with the purpose of letting everybody contribute, without having one or more people be the dominant voice, could transform our community.

Here is what I am picturing:

A website that publishes posts from any member of the academic community, with posts filtered for only for relevance and civility. A volunteer editorial board to help develop editorial guidelines and help communicate about the site and collect content (a number of folks have already expressed interest). An Editor-In-Chief to handle submissions and make sure they are ready for posting (consulting with the editorial board when necessary). Perhaps a limit on posting frequency by a single individual, so that individuals aren’t allowed dominate the conversation. I am envisioning posts that are similar in theme and approach to what you see on existing science community blogs (like the recommended ones at the bottom of this page).  While the editorial filter wouldn’t be screening like peer reviewed journals do based on ‘impact’ or whatnot, a post would have to be of some actual substance, so the guidelines would have to be developed with care.

I’ve got a snappy name for the site, URL, twitter account, and email all set up. I’ll be glad to pay the cost of operating the site and commissioning banner art. I realize that joint ventures and group projects fail when there aren’t individuals who are there to take responsibility for it. A diffuse group of volunteers could crumble — that happens in group blog all the time. Since this isn’t being run out of any official academic society, the site would clearly need an EIC who really makes it happen, and some Ed Board members who are proactive. I guess I’m okay with being EIC, because I can’t really expect anybody else to step into this role unpaid and still do what it takes, I’d be fine with support from other folks. Though if anybody else is really jazzed to do it and can invest time in the long haul, then I’d be overjoyed. I’m thinking about slowly developing a team and plans over the next six weeks, and launching in the spring.

Do you think this is a worthwhile endeavor? Would it improve the diversity of viewpoints and broaden access to discussion about current issues for ecologists? Would you commit to contributing? Do you have thoughts about how it should — or shouldn’t — be run? Are you invested in being involved? Please do leave a comment.

Update 29 Nov 2017: Since one misperception has come up a number of times, I should put this here. What I am proposing is not a group blog. I’m proposing the opposite of a group blog. A group blog is a site where a bunch of people who own/run the site post what they want, and everybody else can read or comment. That’s been around for a long time. What I’m proposing is a site where everybody can post, with limitations so that a single person cannot post frequently. Group blogs are designed to give a voice to the owners of the group blog. This, on the other hand, is designed to give the bullhorn to anybody who want it, especially if they don’t have their own blog.

35 thoughts on “On the need for public academic blogs

  1. Hi Terry, I support your idea on the face of it, but I am unsure how your vision differs the website ‘The Conversation’ (www.theconversation.com), which is expanding into new territories from the original Australian site.

    Content for those websites are written by university researchers, but are curated and edited (for clarity, not content) by professional journalists. All their content is published under a creative commons license and their websites are non-profit and advertisement-free.

    My experience is that their only editorial restrictions are that authors may only write within their own domain of expertise (so geologists may not contribute with pieces on feminist literature, for example). They also don’t publish personal narratives (i.e. “I attended this conference and heard an amazing talk…”), and prefer the post to be about the topic, not the author.

    So maybe that should be your niche? A group blog that reflects the opinions and experiences of researchers as individuals, rather than focusing on more impersonal topics?

    • Gallo, The Conversation is radically different. It’s highly selective, has very specific requirements for submissions, and isn’t designed specifically for ecologists. This site l suggest will be for conversation among ecologists.

  2. I think this is a worthwhile endeavor. It takes a lot of effort to generate a blog that teaches a meaningful number of people, which has been a barrier for many of us who are motivated to blog but who have be unable to sustain one on our own.

  3. Hello Terry: I think this is a great idea, and should be followed up. Most of us do not have the energy to invest in our own blog, but could contribute from time to time to a community. And I think there is room for more than one community, but we could perhaps be inspired by «The Conversation» and how it works. I would be interested in being involved to some extent, by contributions, editing or other. Thanks for the idea!

  4. I think this is a great idea, and one suggestion I have it that you allow academic bloggers that already blog re-blog posts on your site. I m interested in being involved in a low-level way.

  5. As a non-scientists who already follows scientists in social media and reads (some of) their blogs, I think this is a great idea. I’m an amateur with a biology background (B.A., most of an M.A. but then LifeStuff Happened) and 80 acres on which we’re doing wildlife management and native plant/prairie restoration. (All that stuff I learned in an applied ecology graduate class…has been great for bringing back an overfarmed, then overgrazed, eroded, piece of ground.) So an ecology-focused blog would be perfect for me. I would certainly want to read (and perhaps comment on) such a blog, hoping to pick up ideas to use on our place and find more scientists to follow on social media.

    I’m also a professional fiction writer (28 novels, lots of short stuff) who, at 72, is slowing down on the fiction production to have more time for other things. Which means I have some expertise in writing and editing, and a small but persistent platform in social media with which to spread the word about this proposed blog to other science-interested followers of mine. Although you want it to be a conversational area for professional ecologists, it can still function as an accessible outreach to nonprofessionals (unless you don’t want that. Your blog; your choices.)

  6. Hi Terry, As someone at times pondering a blog but unsure about whether I have the activation energy required, I think this would be great. I wonder if you might consider having a sworn-to-secrecy person (I’d do this) to curate occasional anonymous posts by postdocs/students that may be important and high quality but authors feel uncomfortable posting publicly at their given career stage for various reasons.

  7. Hi Terry, I think this is a great idea. I think such a blog would have the potential to showcase a wider range of viewpoints than are currently expressed in the ecology blogosphere. I’d be interested in contributing and/or being involved in other ways.

    I also like the above suggestion of having a standard operating procedure for anonymous posts. I think this is especially important for encouraging early career scientists to express viewpoints that may not be popular among the more established member of our community, as well as for posts on sensitive topics such as sexism and racism.

  8. The anole annals blog (http://www.anoleannals.org/) is an interesting model for this idea. It is run by Jonathan Losos, who reviews all submissions, but as far as I can tell, any post related to Anolis lizards is accepted.

  9. I second the suggestion of anole annals as a model for this project. It immediately sprang to mind as I was reading the proposal.

  10. Interesting idea Terry, good luck with it. Only way to find out if it’ll work is to try it. I think if it works it would be a great addition to the ecology community blogosphere.

    I know you’ve already thought about this (and everything else I say below), but I agree that it’ll be important to put together a keen editorial board who will both beat the bushes for posts and write posts themselves as needed to cover for lack of submissions from others. Our experience at Dynamic Ecology is that lots of people eagerly agree to write guest posts, but few of them ever follow through, even if we gently nag them.

    I’d be very interested to see whether Anole Annals works as a model for an ecology community blog. I’m not sure it will (again, only one way to find out!). People who read and write for Anole Annals have a shared, strong common interest in anoles. One could imagine, say, a Threespine Stickleback Annals blog succeeding for the same reason. Do ecologists actually have a shared common interest in “ecology”, where “ecology” is operationally defined as “posts summarizing the author’s recent research?” Or is the shared common interest of ecologists actually a shared interest in topics much broader than (and different from) any one person’s research–e.g. the sorts of broader topics that Small Pond Science, Dynamic Ecology, or Scientist Sees Squirrel covers? If so, it might be harder to drum up posts. The number of people who want to write up their own research and publicize it probably far exceeds the number who want to write posts on broader topics.

    Journal blogs seem to me like a more relevant precedent for an ecology community blog to which anyone can submit posts for consideration, at least if those posts are mostly about the authors’ own research. It’s my anecdotal and possibly-incorrect impression that most journal blogs in ecology don’t have much of a readership compared to established ecology community blogs like SPS, and hardly draw any comments. The exceptions being those journal blogs that work hard to produce content that’s not just authors summarizing their new papers–think the Molecular Ecology blog.

    Another possibly-relevant precedent for your idea is The Monkey Cage blog, after it got bought by the Washington Post and turned from a small group blog into an open blog to which any political scientist can submit posts. They don’t lack for submissions. But that’s because The Monkey Cage is widely read by US federal elected officials and their staffers, and so has come to be seen by political scientists as a way to get their research in front of that very specific and important audience.

    Successful blogs tend to have a distinctive “voice”–a characteristic writing style and topic coverage. I think it’ll be an interesting challenge to make diversity of voices itself a “voice”. I think it can be done. Crooked Timber is an example from the humanities, though that’s a big group blog rather than a blog to which anyone can submit one-off posts.

  11. Is the focus going to be on research findings or on academic community issues? I imagine I’m not the only non-ecologist scientist who reads this blog for the latter, and would be interested in contributing posts on a range of non-research topics. So my question- does it have to be exclusive to ecology? From what I can tell, you folks have a more active blogging community than many other disciplines, and something more broadly open to the scientific community might help fill a gap many of us feel!

    • J, the way I am picturing it, it is by and for ecologists, including both technical matters and broad academic issues facing ecologists. Which is what we see in private ecology blogs. I think blogs that are narrow focused but have enough of an interest pool will have the most success (e.g., Anole Annals) and if it gets to be too broad, then interest gets diluted and it doesn’t grow. I think Dynamic Ecology hits a sweet spot for ecologists, and this one does for folks who care about science in teaching-focused institutions, but if it just becomes about ‘everything academic,’ with anybody posting, and without a quality filter, then it would soon not have any of its target audience tuning in on a regular basis. There are a variety of blogs that deal with academic community issues, such as Tenure She Wrote and Conditionally Accepted and ones hosted by the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed.

      So if I end up helping run a public blog for ecologists, I’d view that as entirely separate than Small Pond, which is my own blog, that I share with contributing editors. That won’t change.

  12. Hi Terry. I second J. Many of your posts are thought-provoking, beyond disciplinary boundaries, that I rarely see in my other communities. So I would personally appreciate a blogging site that hosts academic community posts from diverse backgrounds (research and otherwise). The posts could range from discussion of norms (e.g., author order or peer review) to inclusive practices (e.g., teaching or resource availabilities) that affect all disciplines, across different institutions.

  13. This is such a great idea! I have considered starting my own blog but I’m not sure I have the time to build a decent following. Anyway, I would be willing to contribute on a regular basis (goodness knows I have enough ideas!). And I’d consider helping in other capacities too.

  14. Just a suggestion; you will generate maximum value if you concentrate on posts expressing opinions that push the envelope a bit. Steer away from posts that support anything or anyone that already has wide exposure, spray the inside of the echo chamber with sound-absorbing foam.

    And a small additional point on Falko’s comment about The Conversation – it only accepts posts from academics (and sometimes that really shows) and so it carries nothing from anyone in government, industry or independent research organizations.

  15. Great idea and happy to contribute when (not if) I have something to say I want others to hear and respond to. Thanks!

  16. One entity missing from most of the ecology blogs are ecologists (and biologists whose work overlaps ecology) with boots on the ground. The end consumer and applicator of academic research. Their voices in the ecology community seem lost and relegated to around the table during coffee, small local symposiums and workshops, or loud expletives in the field. Coming from experience in both, there is a disconnect, and the grumblings about that disconnect are loud on the ground.
    Just a consideration. 🙂

  17. Thanks for all of the very helpful suggestions! In the coming weeks, I’ll be contacting people who have expressed an interest in being involved, and will see if we have enough people together with enough commitment to make this happen.

    I’d like to shoot for an Editorial Board of 25 people. The notion is the Ed Board members would be responsible for at least one post every six months (either by a referred post or by themselves), evangelize for the site, be a part of developing the site policy, and updating it as need arises. Of course, as I discuss things with people who’ve committed to being involved, these plans themselves hopefully will evolve.

  18. Dear Terry,

    I believe it would be a great idea. And I’d be glad to help. There may be the need for a “small” amount of dough, to run the website, and similar things: are you/we thinking to apply for some grant? Your offer is super generous, but it sound unfair to rely on a long term commitment from your side…

    In any case, great idea and good luck with it!

    Best,

  19. I’m interested!

    I’ve been working on the team that writes for the AFS Habitat blog and could provide some tips on structure that we use to spread out the responsibility and make sure that no one person ends up with too much of a burden. Am happy to discuss more!

  20. I’d love to get involved with something like this! I tried curating some blog posts on papers I found interesting on my personal website, but it became quicker to just retweet. I’d love the opportunity to get back to writing, and also meet some new and diverse scientists in the process.

  21. Great idea! I see this as a very important step towards making ecology more inclusive and bringing in different viewpoints. Would it be an idea to extend our discussions about creating a more diverse future of ecology to your blog? Count me in!

  22. This is an outstanding idea. My area is primarily evolutionary biology and plant systematics, but I have done research in ecology. My website needs work but I was considering adding a blog but reluctant for all the reasons you list here. I would be very interested in making a commitment to this project. I also have some ideas I would be willing to share with you. Thank you for doing this and thank you for your commitment to being a feminist. I know the core values of this blog will be very thoughtful.

  23. Hi Terry! I think this is a brilliant idea! I found myself as other people commented before me, with some ideas to write a blogpost, but not enough ideas or time to start a blog from scratch, so I would definitively be up to help with anything, moderate or write! My background is in entomology/climate change/symbionts.

  24. Here’s an update:

    If you’re interested, please do email me.

    The good news is that it looks like I’ve probably generated enough interest from folks wanting to help launch and run the site that I’ll be able to move forward with this. If you’re interested in committing to join the Editorial Board (being responsible for at least one post every six months, by you or someone else, actively evangelize for the site, develop site policy), I still want to hear from you. I am anticipating a launch in spring 2018, as long as the people who have expressed an interest in committing deliver on the goods. And we’ll see if there’s enough momentum for this thing to take to the air.

  25. Sounds something in the direction of Daily Kos (shared platform) with some light editing and topicality. Might be worthwhile to find some veterans from there for lessons learned.

  26. Hi. I don’t often comment on blog posts (and indeed seldom read them unless someone draws them to my attention), but I’ll make an exception here because I think this is an awesome idea, and I appreciate the remark that ‘to have a blog post reach a broader audience, you have to have a connection with one of a small number of blogs’. Those who appear regularly as authors, guest-posters and commenters on some of the more established blogs come across as a non-random subset of the broader ecological community, do not in my opinion represent a particularly diverse range of voices (or even of points of view), and are not always those that have the most interesting things to say. Lonnie Aarssen’s excellent online journal ‘Ideas in Ecology and Evolution’ serves as a nice outlet for some of these sorts of contributions, but there is in my opinion also a definite niche for an outlet for slightly less formal posts that present interesting perspectives on a broad range of topics that appeal to grassroots ecologists (including those of us that seldom read the established blogs), and from a diversity of contributors. If this exercise was managed in a fair and inclusive way, yielded posts that were interesting, and encouraged diversity, I could see it as being enormously successful. Finally I couldn’t help but remember a remark you made a couple of years in SmallPondScience about something I published in ‘Ideas in Ecology and Evolution’ on Altmetric scores -– ‘I wish he’d have put this in a blog post, more people would be reading and talking about it’. Perhaps that underscores the need for the type of blog that you’re proposing; my article could have fitted right in!

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