The benefits of blogging

This is something that I wrote for the British Ecological Society’s membership bulletin. I’m using the fact that that’s only published in hard copy to reproduce a (slightly amended) version here, even though if you’re reading this you are probably already persuaded by the arguments… There are several people to blame. Most directly, Glasgow-based evolutionary biologist and all-round online sage Rod Page. A year or two ago he gave an entertaining Departmental Seminar here in Sheffield at which he asked something like, ‘How many of you blog?’ and, after a pause in which a hand or two was raised, added, ‘you should’.

But while Rod provided the final push, my urge to pontificate goes deeper than that. In the introduction to his collection of miscellaneous writing, Anglo-English Attitudes, Geoff Dyer notes:

When writers have achieved a high enough profile they are sometimes prevailed upon to publish their ‘occasional pieces’… The author agrees, reluctantly, modestly… because this kind of put-together is considered a pretty low form of book, barely a book at all. My own case – and my own opinion of such collections – is a little different… If we’re being utterly frank, there were times when it was only the prospect of one day being able to publish my journalism that kept me writing ‘proper’ books: do a few more novels, I reasoned, and maybe my obscurity will be sufficiently lessened to permit publication of the book I really care about, a collection of my bits and pieces.

And thus it dawned on me that some of my own favourite reading experiences have involved such compendia. Collections of ‘bits and pieces’ from the likes of Will Self (Feeding Frenzy), Hunter S. Thomson (Kingdom of Fear) and David Foster Wallace (Consider the Lobster), as well as Dyer himself – and not to mention more sciencey stuff from Peter Medawar (Pluto’s Republic) to Richard Dawkins (A Devil’s Chaplain) – well, it’s not necessarily that I preferred these to the ‘proper’ books by the same authors; but I’ve always enjoyed reading good writers set loose on random topics.

So, typing fingers loosened by various pieces of what I guess could loosely be called ‘journalism’ (minus the paycheque), and brimful of things to say and the gall to presume them deserving of an audience, I bunged off an application to write a blog on Nature Network, online arm of everyone’s favourite science weekly. Following a rigorous selection process (one assumes), I got the OK. And so in May 2010, Mola mola was spawned.

Mola mola_, of course, is the scientific name of one of nature’s weirdest fish, the ocean sunfishsunfish, and in my first post I attempted to justify it as a name for my blog (having really just decided I liked the name), thus:

I suppose I could argue that it’s all because mola is Latin for millstone, and I’m writing from a city littered with the things… But in fact there is some logic to my choice… First, I needed something to reflect the major themes I intend to write about – biodiversity, marine biology, human impacts on ecosystems, and a bit of science-policy, and indeed the politics of science, too… As for the more political side of science, well… Trawling an old fish book for bits of life history data in my first job as a fresh-faced biology graduate, I read a remarkable fact about the sunfish. Its skin, apparently, will resist a .22 calibre bullet, which sounded pretty impressive at the time… Now, of course, after years of PhD, post-doc and now fellowship work, I realise that deflecting bullets is the minimum requirement for an academic scientist’s skin, which must also contend with habitual rejection of papers and grant applications, constant criticism, petty squabbling and back-biting and other forms of ‘healthy debate’. The sunfish, then, seems a reasonable role model.

Now if over the months my posts have tended to stray more towards the politics than the ecology, then I apologise – I have reported some basic science and (especially) natural history, but I have learnt too to be shameless in my search for comments, which means periodically writing about the peer review system (which online etiquette demands be referred to as ‘broken’ or ‘in crisis’), the ineptitude of any funding body which has the temerity to bounce applications, and anything to do with unfairness in career prospects, publications, and life in general. But I hope that I’ve covered these things in a reasonably entertaining manner, at least, and with fewer sour grapes than some.

As to the benefits of blogging, well, they are manifold. First, practice makes perfect: I think I write better, as a result of having written often. (At least, my average sentence and paragraph length has decreased!) And it’s certainly nice to get things off one’s chest, rather than simply rehearsing arguments in one’s head. But there are more substantial benefits too.

For instance, it was only really through writing a blog myself that I tapped into science’s thriving online culture. I’ve since learnt a great deal from the blogging of others. Sometimes this is very specific, technical knowledge – often little nuggets of statistical goodness gleaned from contributions collected on the R Bloggers site. On other occasions, the nourishment has been to my political understanding – especially surrounding issues that get the online science community impassioned, including the openness of data and publications, and the accuracy of claims made in parliament and the media. It’s worth noting too that the successful Science is Vital campaign was started by people active in the science blogging community, so there is some evidence at least that blogging can make a difference.

Finally, just getting information about (and commentaries on) the latest research can be invaluable. As a recent Nature editorial put it:

Through online forums, blogs and Twitter, a cottage industry has grown up around instant criticism of dodgy scientific claims and dubious findings. This parallel journalism is increasingly coming to the attention of the mainstream press — as demonstrated by the rising number of stories in the press that were first broken by blogs. It may seem thankless at times, but the army of online commentators who point out the errors, the inconsistencies and the confounding factors, and from time to time just scream ‘bullshit’, have the power to hold the press to account. This ongoing war of attrition against those who would put their own agendas above the facts cannot take away their platform, but it can chip away at something they prize even more: their relevance, and with it their pernicious influence.

So, I’m a convert, and I hope this might convince some of you to read more blogs too – there’s some crazy stuff online, of course; but once you know where to look there’s plenty of sense, insight, innovative ideas, and good writing too. Perhaps you might even begin writing. I’m not quite with Geoff Dyer yet, only writing papers to give me the chance to blog. But I certainly agree with William Laurance, who – offering his secrets of success in the Bulletin last year – urged us to write often, and in as many different forums as we can. The blog is somewhere for me to try things out, to write up stuff which would never make a paper but which may yet prove to be of some use to someone. And to post kayaking videos too, naturally.