From the Bench to the Blogosphere: Why every lab should be writing a science blog


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In a media dominated by celebrity sound bytes and misinformation, science has been poorly represented. This presentation explains in detail why it is important for scientists and professors to engage the public about important scientific concepts. With the advent of the internet, this kind of outreach has never been easier. Tips on starting a blog, generating an audience, blog etiquette and best practices, and ideas for writing topics are presented.

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  • First of all I’d like to thank Dr. Schafer for inviting me to give this talk. Hopefully you all are inspired to start blogging as a result.
  • I wanted to start out by showing a video that depicts how I think a majority of the public views scientists. It’s a clip from the movie Flock ofDoDos which is a documentary about the battle between creationism and evolutionary theory. The first person you’re going to hear from is an evolutionist, followed by an opinion from a woman who serves on the Kansas school board
  • So if we’re not teaching the science, then who is? Crackpot celebrity doctors, soccer moms who tout retracted science and gut feelings, and politicians with an anti-science agenda
  • We don’t just hear from politicians themselves, but we also have political lobby groups who use soundbytes to attack science. Some of you may remember this commercial put out by AARP a few months ago.
  • Let’s break down this commercial into its main pieces and then look at the facts. So this Brazillian cotton institute that we pay for is actually the result of litigation between Brazil and the United States. The World Trade Organization says that the US farm bill is illegal, and instead of having trade sanctions imposed on us by Brazil, we pay them off to the tune of $147 million a year. Trade with Brazil amounts to $64 billion annually, so this appears to be a small price to pay.
  • Poetry in Zoos was a $1 million dollar grant to update exhibits at 5 zoos to include poetry about ecology and environmental awareness. The program was called the language of conservation and it was essentially a marketing program that used poetry to get kids and adults interested in habitat conservation. You may have seen some of these exhibits if you’ve been to the Jacksonville Zoo recently. The infamous shrimp on a treadmill study was actually a tiny $1,000 side experiment that was a part of a much larger study that assessed the health of the shrimping industry. The treadmill was used to test the effect of water quality on shrimp health. And finally, the AARP commercial closes with a jab at pickle technology, however, this is another grant that was given to insure the safety, quality and determine the environmental impact of the pickling industry as a whole.
  • So to summarize this mis-infomercial, the cotton institute funding is basically unavoidable unless we want get slapped with trade sanctions, poetry in Zoos may seem a little excessive in these harsh economic times, but scientific studies on how two major industries are impacted does not seem like wasteful spending. The problem is that the brevity of the soundbytes doesn’t provide enough information for the viewer to make an informed decision, and the tone of the commercial is obviously set to make the viewer angry. Can you imagine if your science was the target of a political sound byte?
  • Let’s do a short case study. The lab I run now works with a couple of different herpes viruses. One of them is an important virus that infects mice and can serve as a model to study herpes virus infection so that we don’t have to spend a ton of money on human or primate experiments. However, the research probably sounds absolutely absurd when taken out of context if the only story that is presented is that of curing mouse herpes. Let’s pretend for a second that some political action group runs the above ad. I’m going to combat the soundbyte with blogging.
  • To show you an example, I wrote a blog post this morning about mouse herpes and why it’s an important model system. I titled the post: MHV68: Mouse herpes, not mouth herpes, but just as important
  • I then posted it to the website, and let google do it’s magic.
  • One hour after posting, my blog post is the SECOND result that shows up in google. In the past, links to articles I have written stay within the top ten search results for a week or more
  • Ok, so you may be thinking that this hypothetical situation is completely artificial and that since mouse herpes isn’t a hot topic of discussion that it makes it much easier to get within the top ten google results. Another example of how powerful blogging is can be represented by a blog post made by a former blogger of mine. He stumbled across a cancer cure which uses antineoplastons. These are proteins naturally found in urine that are said to battle cancer. The problem is that 3 NIH and NCI funded research studies have found that antineoplastons have no cancer curing power, however the researcher who “discovered” this treatment has since opened his own clinic and is administering the therapy on his own.
  • This post was made over a year ago and is the third result in google when you search for antineoplastons. It is third only to the Wikipedia entry and a summary by! Before I closed the comments thread, we would get posts from people at the cancer clinic nearly every week trying to deflect the message of the blog post. It makes me happy to know that if someone is considering antineoplaston therapy, that the top 3 articles on the subject all talk about how it’s an ineffective therapy that has been scientifically proven to not work.
  • Finally, I made a second post today about the AARP commercial that we just watched. An hour after posting, it is the FOURTH result on a google search.
  • I hope these case studies help to show you the power behind blogging as a form of outreach. Instead of screaming at the TV or silently complaining about the stupidity, you can have an instant impact on the conversation and direct people to accurate information!
  • Of course blogging isn’t without it’s criticisms, but most of the criticisms of blogging come from how blogging is represented in the media.
  • The word blog is short for web log. The media presents blogging as form of writing used by teenagers to put out bad poetry, or whine about how much they hate school. It’s also not helpful that some of the most popular blogs only cover celebrity gossip, however, blogging isn’t just about bad poetry and gossip! Blogging is a writing form and can represent a wide range of topics. As far as science blogs are concerned, they’re written by scientists, grad students, undergrads and journalists.
  • One of the other critiscisms I hear most often is that blogging will destroy your career. Unfortunately, some of the most popular blogs have given blogging a bad name because their main goal is to attack people or they have extremely outspoken opinions on controversial topics. This is only one form of blogging and it doesn’t have to be the form that you follow. Having an opinion is not illegal, but I would suggest that you be very careful about how you present your arguments. Especially if you are an early career scientist or graduate student. Blogging will only destroy your career if you make bad choices.
  • Another criticism I hear is that there’s no incentive. Blogging can be a lot of work in the beginning and a lot of people want to know that their work won’t go unnoticed. Blogging generally isn’t considered as a part of a tenure package, although having a popular blog that is well read can be icing on the cake. More recently, granting agencies have started to highlight greater impact. The NSF now has a specific section of each grant application that requires the researchers to state how they are going to inform the public about their work. Blogging is an acceptable form of greater outreach and I hear rumblings that the NIH is going to have a similar requirement. Starting a blog now can get you ahead of the game.
  • Blogging definitely takes time, but as scientists, we’re masters of balancing busy schedules. Writing a blog post only takes an hour or so. There’s really no excuse. One other way to balance the time issue is to not go it alone. Start a blog with a friend, or better yet, get your whole lab involved!
  • Obviously, I think blogging has a ton of benefits. I’ve already mentioned some of them while refuting the criticisms, but here’s a few more that I think are important!
  • Going back to my introductory example of the anti-science soundbytes, I don’t think scientists are bad at engagement, we just haven’t done enough of it to be awesome at it. We have no problem talking with our students or our colleagues, and making the transition to communicate effectively with the public is really only an issue of repetition. Science is constantly changing, so we can’t rely on the public’s high school education to keep them well informed and up to date. Greater interaction with scientists can only help to improve science literacy and doing this by presenting easily digestible bits of science can go a long way in achieving this.
  • One of the biggest obstacles we need to overcome is finding a way to translate our highly technical jargon into words that the public can understand. Initially, this can be really hard but practice and writing for a different audience will make you a much better communicator.
  • I know, we should all be reading papers constantly, but a lot of us don’t. One other great way to stay up to date and always have new blog material is to write blog posts based on the papers you read. The easiest thing to do is pick the most important figure, explain why it’s important, and how it impacts the bigger picture of science. Blogging on research is also great for students, because it forces them to read papers and also understand them well enough to explain the concepts to a novice.
  • Blogging also forces you and your students to write. Now, PIs might think they already do enough writing, but their students probably don’t do much at all. Blogging forces your students to constantly stay up to date about the discoveries happening in the field and write about them clearly and intelligently.
  • In an academic environment, I think the best way to begin blogging is to do it as a group. Since writing a post a week can be a lot of work for one person, you should think about sharing the activity with everyone in lab. If each person only has to write a post every month or every couple of months, then the work load is minimal and you’ll have a blog that’s constantly full of new material. An easy way to get started is to just summarize your weekly journal club article. That way, you have all discussed the research and you’re killing two birds with one stone.
  • Blogging can be a free for all, but there are some best practices you should employ
  • First and foremost, if the main goal of your blog is outreach and making people feel welcome, you shouldn’t be a jerk. Many bloggers, even science bloggers, have made careers out of being trolls. A troll is someone who fishes for responses to comments or blog posts by misrepresenting or taking quotes, data, or other statements out of context to make people look foolish. The sole goal of a troll is to insult or anger a person or a group and feed off of those responses. I’ll talk later about the best way to deal with trolls, but for now, make it your goal to not be a troll. Especially if you have your real name associated with your writing. The last thing you want is for a google search to point potential collaborators to a crass post you made about someone else’s research.
  • Again, be smart about what you write about. This goes hand in hand with not trolling. You can be critical of people or research, but don’t be negative for the sake of being negative. The internet has longevity and your posts will always be searchable in some form. The best rule of thumb is an old one: If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t write about it!
  • Everyone gets negative comments. It is very important that you distinguish between actual gripes and trolls. Its really easy to tell the difference, but it’s important that you address any real comments professionally. The whole point of blogging is engagement, so you’re going to come across other opinions that might be different than your own. As the blog owner you always need to be professional. Never delete valid criticism, these comments can be really helpful in generating a discussion. Troll comments which typically consist of crass or obnoxious posts that don’t add to the discussion should be deleted. You can warn trolls if you want, but my experience is that a troll is always going to be a troll. They’re a distraction and they make your blog look bad. Having a militant commentor can scare away other readers who don’t want to have to potentially deal with an attack. Troll comments will never be missed and if a post is bad enough, you can always ban the person from making comments. One technique that some blogs employ is comment moderation which means you have to approve any and all posts that are made on your blog before they become visible to readers. But I’ve found that this stifles the discussion, and I just delete troll comments as I come across them.
  • The best way to maintain a readership is to engage your readers. Always answer their questions! You don’t have to respond to every comment, but discussing your posts with your readers is very important in building a relationship and showing your readers that you aren’t there to just drop content and run. Blogging should be as much about dialogue as it is about content.
  • Posting regularly is also important. It shows readers that it’s worth visiting your page often to check for updates. Typical posting schedules are once a week or once every two weeks. Some bloggers opt to make many small posts on stories they’ve read multiple times a day.
  • Blogging should be about spreading information. You should always link to your sources and provide links to further reading. Linking to other blogs or responding to blog posts is a great way to establish a relationship with other writers and gain access to their readers.
  • Science blogging is typically very technical, so having pictures that explains what you’re saying can be extremely helpful in making your readers understand the complex ideas you are presenting.
  • It’s also crucial to decide who you are writing your blog for. Is it for public outreach or is it a more technical blog that targets scientists? This is also important because it determines how technical your posts can be and how much you need to explain
  • There are a lot of great writing topics. Of course you should write about the newest coolest research or debunk bad science and soundbytes. A lot of readers on my site are undergrads or grad students, so every once in a while I’ll make posts about mentoring. And you should definitely write about your own research when you publish papers. This is a great way to get more people interested and excited about your work! But be sure that you don’t only talk about your own stuff, and don’t make your blog a free university advertisement. Additionally, readers always love narratives and personal stories. Try to make your posts real, or relate the science back to your own experiences.
  • Finally, you want to be sure to avoid certain topics because they draw negative attention to you and your blog. Don’t write about religion or politics. Don’t be overly critical of other people and always be professional. Try very hard to not become a troll, unless you’re already well established and won’t ruin your career by having a very strong opinion that harshly criticizes other people’s work. Remember, you can usually control the type of attention your blog gets. Make good decisions. Not all pageviews and comments are positive ones.
  • One of the hardest parts of blogging is actually getting an audience. My opening blogging scenario was slightly disingenuous. My website has a really strong google rank and is scanned by google every 30 minutes. We see a lot of traffic everyday because of the hard work I’ve put in over the last 5 years in establishing the site. If you’ve just started your blog, you probably won’t get similar results and this can be very disheartening. Writing blogs takes time, and there’s nothing worse than having no readers! So how do you fix this?
  • You fix it by cultivating an audience! This takes time and a little bit of work up front.
  • For starters, tell all of your friends about your blog. Even your mom, never underestimate the PR capabilities of mothers!
  • Second, Exploit social media sites. I’ll go into this in a little more detail, but this can be a tedious and time consuming process because you have to interact with these people too. Otherwise they won’t see you as a valuable asset to their community!
  • Twitter is a great way to spread your content and interact with readers. Making an account is easy and to get you started I have 4 lists with over 500 scientists in each that you can follow to flesh out your twitter account from the very beginning! Following other bloggers and scientists is also another great way to find readers. Twitter, like blogging, is usually presented in the media as something only used by socialites and teenagers. This isn’t really an accurate picture. Every major government institution and granting agency has a twitter feed, and they post valuable information about grants and deadlines here.
  • You should also make a facebook page. Millions of people use facebook, and once they fan your page, any post you make will show up in their profile. This is a great way to tell your readers about new content you have posted!
  • If you’re writing about peer reviewed research, you should sign up for a research blogging account. Research blogging is an aggregator of research blog posts and can be helpful in bringing in new readers who browse the research blogging feed
  • It’s also important to interact with other bloggers you respect. Make quality comments on their posts and you will be rewarded with the ability to leave behind a link to your own blog. This is great because it can bring in new readers to your site and build strong relationships with other bloggers
  • Finally, use social bookmarking sites. The point of these sites is to link to content that you find interesting. Links on these sites can bring in hundreds of thousands of readers. Most of them are grazers, meaning they don’t stick around, but a percentage do and this can be a free and easy way to expand the reach of your blog. The only thing to keep in mind is that these are communities and they know they have power. They don’t like people who just drop their own content and run, you need to become a valuable member of the community to be successful, and this can be a lot of effort up front.
  • So I’ve shown you how powerful blogging can be and given you tips on how to conduct your blog and generate an audience. You’re probably wondering how you actually set one of these up?
  • You have a few options. There are a couple of open blogging platforms such as wordpress
  • And blogger. Both of these sites provide essentially the same service. They give you a free place to write and handle all of the dirty details of managing the server. Eventually, once you become bigger, you can create your own domain name or move your blog to your own server.
  • Another option is to blog for a science specific network. There are a few of these around. Two of the biggest are scienceblogs and scientific american
  • The great thing about blogging for a network is that they do a lot of the hard work for you and provide you with an instant audience. They already have social media contacts in place and can leverage these to bring more readers in to your blog. Additionally, someone else is responsible for the technical side of running the server and is around to help you if stuff breaks. Networks also bring the network effect which means that by virtue of writing with other bloggers, you have access to their readers. Many readers browse the main pages of these sites, so someone that reads a superstar blogger’s page will stumble onto your posts because you’re on the same network. Many of these sites give you free access to high quality image galleries, and others pay you to blog for them. The only problem is that science specific networks are invite only, and you usually have to have a proven track record to write for one of them.
  • In conclusion, blogging can be a very effective way to combat soundbytes and affect the course a discussion takes. The process can be enriching for both the scientists writing the stories and their readers. In the grand scheme of things, starting a blog is actually pretty easy, the hard work comes in generating an audience, but there are simple ways to do this as long as you’re persistent and don’t give up easily.
  • Finally, I think it’d be really cool if there was a science writing club here at UF. I’ve been talking to Mickey about this and it’s really just in its planning stages. If you’re interested, please take a minute to write down your email address so we can contact you about the details in a week or so. The writing club will likely meet every other week in the evenings. We’ll review each other’s posts and help each other setup blogs, facebook pages, or twitter accounts. Since getting an audience is by far the most limiting factor in blogging, I will be happy to open up my community to you as long as you meet a few minimum requirements for posting frequency. And you have to promise to never become a troll.
  • From the Bench to the Blogosphere: Why every lab should be writing a science blog

    1. 1. From “Flock of DoDos,” 2006
    2. 2. Who does the public get their science from?
    3. 3. What’s the truth behind the sound bytes?• Cotton Institute – The US government pays Brazil $147 million a year because of the US farm bill. The world trade organization says that the US domestic subsidy of cotton is illegal and Brazil is entitled to sue, so instead of getting nasty trade sanctions, we pay off the Brazilians…
    4. 4. What’s the truth behind the sound bytes?• Poetry in Zoos – $1 million was spent to update zoo exhibits as a part of the “Language of Conservation” program to help raise environmental awareness using poetry.• Shrimp on treadmills - $1,000 was spent on a shrimp treadmill as a part of a $500,000 study to explore the health of the shrimp industry. The treadmill was an insignificant part of the greater industry study.• Pickle Technology – Another ongoing industry grant to insure safety, quality control, and determine environmental impact ($700,000)
    5. 5. What’s the truth behind the sound bytes?
    6. 6. Battle the soundbytes with bloggingMouse herpes?! Whyare we spendingmillions of dollarscuring mouseherpes when peopleare struggling tomake ends meet!?
    7. 7. Battle the soundbytes with blogging
    8. 8. Battle the soundbytes with blogging
    9. 9. Battle the soundbytes with blogging
    10. 10. Battle the soundbytes with blogging• Antineoplastons – Urine proteins – Researcher says they can cure cancer – Numerous government studies have shown they can’t – Continues to promote the therapy and administer it through his clinic• Former blogger wrote a critical post on the technology
    11. 11. Battle the soundbytes with blogging
    12. 12. Battle the soundbytes with blogging
    13. 13. Battle the soundbytes with blogging • Instead of screaming at the TV or silently complaining about the stupidity, you can have an instant impact on the conversation and direct people to accurate information!
    14. 14. Criticisms
    15. 15. Isn’t blogging for kids?• Blog – Short for web log• Many think bloggers only write bad poetry or express teenage angst• Blogs cover a wide spectrum of topics from an equally wide variety of viewpoints• Science blogs are written by scientists, grad students, undergrads, and journalists
    16. 16. Blogging will destroy your career! • Blogging has a bad rap • Some people use it to attack others or be extremely crass about a wide variety of topics • Having an opinion is not illegal, but be smart about how you present your arguments • Blogging will only destroy your career if you make bad choices
    17. 17. There’s no incentive• Blogging isn’t considered as a part of a tenure package – It may be icing on the cake, but not nearly as important as publications or grants• Grants don’t require it, if I can’t make money then what’s the point! – The NSF considers blogging an acceptable form of greater outreach – The NIH is looking to emphasize greater impact too
    18. 18. I don’t have enough time! • Scientists are busy people – But you somehow have time to write grants – And manage a lab – And watch YouTube during lunch – Blogging only requires a small amount of effort every week • You don’t have to do it alone! – Write with a colleague – Start a lab blog
    19. 19. Benefits
    20. 20. Increase science literacy• Scientists and professors aren’t bad at engagement, they just don’t do enough of it• Science is always changing and evolving, experience with science in high school is not enough to keep the public educated• Presenting bits of easily digestible science goes a long way in battling soundbytes and bad science
    21. 21. Learn how to explain science to novices • Scientists are too jargony • We need to learn how to explain what we do in terms that are easy to understand yet still get the point across • Repetition through blogging can make a huge difference in your ability to explain science to non- experts
    22. 22. Forces you to read papers• One of the best blogging topics is to write about stuff that interests you!• We all read papers• Start by summarizing a cool, new, or important paper every week• Pick the two most interesting figures and explain them• Forces students to read and understand papers too
    23. 23. Forces you to write • Writing for novices improves all writing skills • This is especially important for students • Writing a blog keeps you up to date and your writing skills sharp
    24. 24. But I still don’t have time!!• So start a lab blog!• Blogging doesn’t have to be a singular activity• Labs consisting of 4 people have enough man power to easily keep a blog fresh with new content every week – Summarize your journal club article – Pick a paper of the week at lab meeting and write a post on it
    25. 25. Best practices and etiquette
    26. 26. Don’t be a jerk • Some bloggers, even science bloggers, have made a career out of being trolls – A troll fishes for responses by misrepresenting or taking quotes, data, etc out of context with the goal of making people look foolish – Comment or make blog posts with the sole intention of insulting or angering a person or a group • Don’t be a troll, it gives blogging a bad name
    27. 27. Be smart about what you write• Goes hand in hand with not trolling• You can be critical of people or research, but don’t be negative for the sake of being negative• The internet has longevity, your posts will always be available in some searchable form• Rule of thumb: If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t write about it
    28. 28. Deal with negative feedback immediately • Everyone gets negative comments • Important to distinguish between actual gripes and trolls – Address real comments professionally • Don’t delete criticisims, address them – Crass and obnoxious posts should be deleted • They are a distraction • They make your blog look bad • Troll comments will never be missed • If the post is bad enough, ban the user from making comments (I’ve only done this once…)
    29. 29. Respond to comments• The best way to maintain a readership is to engage your readers• Makes people feel welcome and creates an inviting environment• Blogging is about dialogue
    30. 30. Post regularly • Making regular updates lets people know that they should stop by often • How often is regular? – Once a week or twice a month is pretty standard – Some bloggers post short clips or links multiple times a day
    31. 31. Link to sources and additional information• Blogging should be about spreading information• Always link to your sources and provide links to further reading• Linking to other blogs or responding to other blog posts is a great way to establish relationships with other writers and get access to their readers
    32. 32. Use a lot of pictures • Science blogging is usually really technical • Pictures are worth a thousand words • Diagrams and figures can help readers better understand complex ideas
    33. 33. Know your audience• Decide who you are writing for• Is this a blog for scientists or the public? – This is important because it determines your voice and how much you’ll need to explain – Also determines how technical you can be
    34. 34. What should I write about? • Your favorite research – Write about cool new stories – Debunk bad science • Mentoring – Career advice – Graduate school tips – Postdoc tips – Grant writing help • Your own research! – Always summarize new papers – DON’T just write about your research – DON’T make your blog a university advertisement • Readers love narrative and personal stories
    35. 35. Don’t• Don’t write about Religion• Stay away from politics that don’t relate to science• Don’t be overly critical and always be professional – Unless you want to be a troll – Or unless you’re well established (Don’t ruin your career)• You can usually control the type of attention you get based on the topic
    36. 36. So, I posted my first story, and only two people read it• Hardest part of starting a blog is getting readers• Very disheartening to spend time writing, and have no one read it• How do you fix this?
    37. 37. Cultivating an audience
    38. 38. First, tell all of your friends about the blog, even your mom
    39. 39. Exploit social media (PIs, ask your grad students for help)But you need to interact with people here too!
    40. 40. Setup a twitter account
    41. 41. Create a Facebook page
    42. 42. Submit to ResearchBlogging
    43. 43. Comment on other blogs, leave a link to yours behind
    44. 44. Use social bookmarking sites
    45. 45. Where to write
    46. 46. Wordpress
    47. 47. Blogger
    48. 48. Science specific networks
    49. 49. Benefits of network blogging• An instant audience• Already have all of the social media pages and contacts• Someone else maintains the site• Have access to other writers’ readers• Free access to high quality image galleries• Some networks pay per pageview• However, most are invite only
    50. 50. Conclusions• Blogging is a very effective way to combat soundbytes• Blogging is an effective way to communicate with the public• The process can be enriching for both the scientists writing the stories and their readers• Starting a blog is pretty easy
    51. 51. Science writing club• Plan to start a science writing club at UF – Meet twice a month – Evening – Place, day and time to be determined• Will review and critique each other’s writing• Can help you set up a blog, facebook page, twitter account• Open access to the LabSpaces network – Free ShutterStock image gallery account – 5,000 visitors a day, 300,000 pages viewed a month – Minimum posting requirement is one post a week
    52. 52. QuestionsEmail me: