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The title of this essay is re-used (as is much of what scientists do and write about) from an article in Cell by Laura Bonetta where she describes the Twitter service and some of the scientists using it. She leaves it open if scientists should tweet, but I will be answering my question right away: yes, as a scientist you should be blogging.

A few years back, David Glanzman, Professor at the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology at UCLA, once asked me: "I see you write a blog. I read it every now and then, but I've never understood why you do it. I've never seen any reason why I or any other scientist should start a blog." Back then, I tried to answer it, but I don't think I did a very convincing job. At least, not convincing enough to make David start one of his own I'll use this blog post to try and provide some more coherent and compelling reasons.

There are a number of good reasons why scientists should be blogging. For one, a blog is a good way to bring early ideas into a coherent form and maybe get a discussion going in order to develop the idea into a potential research plan. As such, a blog can also help establish primacy, at least in terms of ideas. However, I usually have many more ideas than I could possibly try and experiment on. Maybe someday someone stumbles over these ideas and thinks they're worthwhile. This constitutes another benefit of a blog: get ideas and hypotheses out there for others to pick up. An increasing sector of the public is also developing an interest in how science works and what we, as fellow scientists think of the scientific discoveries of other colleagues. Blog posts about peer-reviewed research are aggregated at researchblogging.org.

I also think that the public deserves some insight into the work of scientists, as they pay most of what we do. I also blog about my own research and write about our discoveries before they appear in the scientific literature: I post PDFs of posters and presentations and provide summaries of the content. Not only does this help establish primacy (this time for the experiments and the data) if there ever was a dispute, I also think that this sort of openness is a good way to improve the way we do science. I agree with Rosie Redfield, Professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver Canada, who said in an interview (see also a more recent one here):
My other reason for writing a research blog is that openness fosters good science.  That is, I believe that the more openly we do science the better the science is going to be.  One example of the benefits of open science that we now take for granted comes from back in the 1970s.  When the very first DNA sequences were being determined, the National Library of Medicine made a decision to set up what became Genbank, and journals made the decision to require that authors who published DNA sequences had to deposit this data in GenBank, where other people could have access to it free of charge.  This was a pivotal decision, but they could just as easily have decided that sequences should be treated as confidential information so the researchers who generated them get all the benefits. This decision to be open was responsible for all of the research that used these sequences and all of the genetic resources we have today.

Science, in a lot of ways, is simply a market or ecosystem of ideas. The more transparent and open this market is, the faster ideas can find each other and produce news ideas and discoveries. Much of human history is characterized by an increasing information-flow between people accelerating the rate of discoveries and developments. Using the internet to connect billions of people is the afterburner on which the development of mankind will fly beyond the 21st century. Keeping your ideas from other scientists is akin to throttling the fuel supply to the afterburner.

But the ever increasing speed of innovation and research is only one aspect: another is the process by which we make sure each new scientific report is reliable. Again, Rosie Redfield's widely read blog post kick-started the criticism and scrutiny of a paper published in Science reporting the discovery of a arsenic-based life-form in Mono Lake. Blogging is starting to establish itself as an alternative mode of communicating science not just to the public, but also within the scientific community. Can you afford to be silent any longer?

In the last few years, realizing the shortcomings of the traditional way in which we communicate science, I've started to comment more and more on the various movements driving publishing reform: open access in particular, but also less visible movements such as those pushing to drive publishing away from journals run by corporate publishers and towards a single, de-centralized, peer-reviewed, open-access database of all scholarly literature and primary data. In these years, I've learned that the publishing industry rakes in just under five billion US$ each year in adjusted operating profits from scholarly publishing and related activities. I think these tax-funds could be more effectively invested in implementing the existing, modern communication technologies assisting scientists in the filtering, sorting and discovering of scientific publications, rather than to line the pockets of international shareholders. I use my blog to voice these opinions and to do my part in driving the spread of these ideas through the scientific community. It is exciting to see that these sorts of strategies and tactics work even on a much grander scale throughout the world today: spreading ideas brings change even to the most rigid regimes.

The communication technologies mentioned above already exist. I'd like to highlight a social service which incorporates a few crucial aspects of these technologies, FriendFeed. FriendFeed is a service which shares all of the features of Twitter but few of its limitations and provides many additional features valuable for scientists, in particular more effective filtering of scientifically relevant information. In her Cell article, Laura Bonetta quotes Jonathan Weissman, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at UCSF: "I could see something similar to Twitter might be useful as a way for a group of scientists to share information. To ask questions like 'Does anyone have a good antibody?' 'How much does everyone pay for oligos?' 'Does anyone have experience with this technique?'" It is precisely for such and many more purposes that scientists use FriendFeed, which allows the collection of many kinds of contributions, not just short text messages. In fact, I receive many more comments on my blog posts on FriendFeed than I do on my blog itself.

Comments to each contribution are archived in that context (and without a time limit), providing a solid base for fruitful, threaded discussions. In your user profile, you can choose to aggregate any number of individual RSS or Atom 'feeds', including scientific publications you bookmark in your online reference manager (e.g. CiteULike or Mendeley), your blog entries, social bookmarks (Google Reader, del.icio.us, etc.), and Tweets; and any other items you wish to post directly to your feed. You then look for other users whose profiles are relevant to your work and subscribe to them. Every individual item posted in your subscriptions will then appear on your personalized FriendFeed homepage, plus optionally a configurable subset of the feeds you subscribed to. You can choose to bookmark ('like') any of these items (Facebook copied this 'like' functionality just before it bought FriendFeed), comment on them, and share discussion threads in various ways.

At first, this aggregation of information and threaded discussions might seem daunting. However, the stream of information can be channeled by organizing it into separate sub-channels ('lists'; similar to but more versatile than 'folders' in email), according to your personal preferences (e.g. one for search alerts). In addition to individual users, you can also subscribe to 'rooms' that revolve around particular topics. For example, the "The Life Scientists" room currently has 1,477 members and imports one feed. Another very useful room is the “References Wanted” room, where colleagues are sharing hard to obtain scientific publications. Usually, a request for a paper is answered within 1-2 hours, sometimes even in only minutes. There are currently 282 subscribers to this room.

The feature that makes FriendFeed truly useful is its social filtering system. Active discussions move to the top of your FriendFeed homepage with each new addition, which automatically brings them to the attention of you and everyone else who reads those feeds. In a sense, the most current and the most popular entries compete for attention at the top, making notifications unnecessary. This means that your choice of both rooms and subscriptions affects and filters the content you see. In that way, for instance, you could set your preferences such that you would only see papers with a certain minimum number of 'likes' among your colleagues. Alternatively, you can opt to hide items with zero likes or comments, ensuring that only those that someone found interesting will reach you.

Thus, I find blogging already valuable for my research, especially when combined with social technology such as FriendFeed: I can get ideas and opinions out there and get feedback, comments and criticisms from other scientists. I've met new colleagues this way and developed new ideas, concepts and interests because of them. I have even been invited to write articles, present at conferences and to join editorial boards because of my blog. My work as a scientist would be poorer without blogging.


Acknowledgments: The FriendFeed portion of this article has been partially modified and re-used from a blog post which has received input from a number of FriendFeed users and was jointly blogged not only by me but also by  Allyson Lister and Daniel Mietchen just over a year ago.
Posted on Monday 28 February 2011 - 16:50:31 comment: 0
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