Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Science Blogging: There are Plenty of Readers Out There

There is currently a blogging debate going on about the absence of science from science blogs (initiated over at bayblab). Why are the most popular science blogs full of religion, politics, and controversy?

Larry at Sandwalk has also weighed in on the issue and notes that his posts devoted to geniune science get only a fraction of the readers that his more controversial posts get. There is no doubt that the evolution and creation controversy draws people - I see that in my traffic stats too.

So what should science blogs be about? I agree with Larry's point that a blog should be about whatever the writer is interested in; if you want to write about religion, science, or maybe even Thomas Pynchon (check my labels), go for it. But do you need to avoid the science to draw readers? Are most readers just bored to tears by our blogging on peer-reviewed research?

Not by a long shot, but you have to go out and find those readers. There are millions of readers who love to read the NY Times science section, Scientific American, Discover, and a bunch of other magazines like it. Books like "The Best American Science Writing" do reasonably well every year. These publications cover controversies, but they primarily have really good science writing - and maybe science bloggers could learn something from them.

Those of us who are professional scientists are so used to writing for our colleagues or blogging peers, and we think that with a few tweaks, it should be easy to get the reader off the street interested too. If those readers aren't interested, we take it to mean that few people care about real science. But I don't believe it. It's hard work to write about science well for the average National Geographic or Discover reader, and those of us who are used to writing NIH proposals may have a lot to learn.

If your major goal is to have your posts linked to by most of the other science bloggers around, that's fantastic and admirable, but it's not the same thing as writing for a big popular audience. When we write science mainly for other bloggers, we're not going to get a lot of traffic for our serious science posts.

The other problem is being found in the overgrown jungle of cyberspace. It feels like there are more blogs than people out there, about all sorts of crazy stuff; so it takes a lot of work for an interested, non-professional science reader to dig up the good stuff. Things like Digg and reddit make it easier, but it's still hard. You probably know where I'm going if you've been following my blog - the other place I write for, Scientific Blogging, is focused on writing about science for a really broad audience. It has double the traffic of ScienceBlogs, so clearly it's reaching a different audience. The readers are out there. (And anyone can go sign up for a blog on Scientific Blogging.)

Money has also came up in the debate - should bloggers be paid? I don't do ads here, but Scientific Blogging does give the larger share of the ad revenue back to its writers, who are free to write what they want (as long as it is about real science - real being the key term here). So I write there, and get paid. But if you write a book, you get paid. If you write a science piece for the New Yorker or National Geographic, you get paid. The pay for blogging for me and most of the rest of us doesn't come close to the value of the time I put into it - those of use with day jobs are not about to get rich from this. I'm hoping to be able to head over to Amazon a little more often, and to not have to stop buying coffee at my favorite roaster when money runs out about a week before I get my pacheck. But I do this primarily to talk about science - if money was my major motivator for doing things, there is no chance in hell I'd be a postdoc right now.

8 comments:

Hank said...

Yeah, I didn't follow the grad students' complaint that money somehow made the difference. Most scientists do not do anything solely for money, especially blogging.

Now, in the responses to the guys article from scienceblogs, even those early writers now imply they are paid solely on traffic and thus do not get a fixed amount based on tiers like they used to get.

I remain skeptical on that but they don't come right out and say it that way, probably because they have brought in newer people based on a model like ours. I think if original people suddenly had their $300 fixed paychecks pulled after building scienceblogs to where it is, there would have been mass revolts. So methinks there is creative verbage being used in the denials.

The difference in mentality is we do it, as we have always said, to remain financially transparent. You know a magazine company isn't getting rich on your labor.

Seed is, very clearly, a venture capital backed organization that has to think about money. When they used to try to paint us as 'right wing bloggers' it was always a nifty irony that our independent commune/meritocracy that has no corporate offices, no sales force, marketing, or greedy VC funding was supposed to be right wing but the ones who have all that are left wing.

To them, that made perfect sense, which is why I don't understand politics, I guess. :)

Reverend Lowell said...

utI really enjoyed the post about Pynchon. It added some welcome depth to my understanding of the book.
i got to the article because I did a google search for
thomas Pynchon and links land in my mail everyday. Most not worth much,but every once in a while, a gem like yours lands.
I put up a link in the Fender Discussion Group about your article for "all us Liberal Arts majors...."
That's the thing....you get artists who also are interested in Science, but we lack the background to delve deeply. It's not because we don't care about science; it's just difficult for us!
Eagerly awaiting part II- Robert

Mike said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the Pynchon piece. I'm not sure which one you read - I have parts one and two up. I never got around to the next part, on Riemann geometry because of some weird health problems, but I'm now getting up to speed on the research for that piece. But I will get that third piece up!

I'm glad to help make the science accessible to the liberal arts crowd - I'm sure it's really not too difficult for you; the problem is that nobody has the time to learn everything. My B.A. is in music, and I only switched to science when I went to grad school.


my B.A. is in music, and I only switched to science when I decided to go to grad school.

PZ said...

There's something seriously wrong with your traffic statistics; Pharyngula alone brings in something over 1 million visitors and 1.6 page views per month, and last I looked it represented something under a third of the total traffic to scienceblogs.

Hank's comment about our revenues are nonsensical and entirely incorrect. We were all brought in on a pay-by-traffic basis, nothing about tiers. I think there was at one time some tweaking of the pay scale, but there have been no major changes. Nobody has a fixed $300 paycheck, and never has.

He is right that nobody is doing this for the money. He is entirely wrong that we'd revolt over that money -- our main concern, and one that I suspect every one of us made an issue when we signed up, is editorial independence. And that we've been given.

greg laden said...

I agree with PZ. These statistics are very strange indeed. The same mistake is being made here (with respect to this particular issue, about readership and "traffic" as was made on the hapless BlaBlaBlaBlog. Bad data, followed by foundationless conclusions.

One would have to search far and wide to find a statistic that made 'scientificblogging.com' larger in any measure than Sb. Apparently you found one, presumably by chance. This is why we replicate experiments, I guess.

Hank: WTF?

Mike said...

You're sounding just a little hysterical here, Greg. Go back and read the post - it wasn't all about scienceblogs vs. scientificblogging and traffic metrics. I doubt that Scienceblogs has more readers than the NY Times science section, Discover, Scientific American, National Geographic, etc.

The point is that there are millions of people out there reading science that bloggers could write for, but if you compare how Natalie Angier writes for general readers and how most science bloggers write, it's not surprising that science blogs don't get more readers of their straight science posts.

I'll confess that I'm a novice when it comes to web-stats. The compete.com site claims to be looking at unique visitors per month, only counting each person once per month, but then their 'visits' statistic doesn't seem to be in line with what you say you get, PZ. - so OK, there's something weird about compete.com.

greg laden said...

Mike,

I am sorry to have assumed that your post addressed "scienceblogs vs Scientific Blogging. I took the following:

You probably know where I'm going if you've been following my blog - the other place I write for, Scientific Blogging, is focused on writing about science for a really broad audience. It has double the traffic of ScienceBlogs, so clearly it's reaching a different audience. The readers are out there. (And anyone can go sign up for a blog on Scientific Blogging.)

to be about that. Silly me.

Either of these blog sites could be compared to, say, the NYT science section (of their web site) and so on, but I'm not sure why or how one compares a blog to a thing that is not a blog.

Here is an interesting comparison. Looking at the Technorati authority ranking, for the topic "Evolution" ... These are the top blogs, in order:

Pharyngula
Answers in Genesis
Curch of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
Wired Science-Wired Blogs
Talk Origins Archive
Agnosticism/Atheism
The Panda's Thumb
Respectful Insolence
A Blog Around the Clock
EVOLUTION fr 2007 = REVOLUTION 2008

Clearly, the term "evolution" relates to the discussion of creationism, on the blogosphere, more than "real science."

(And in this area, scienceblogs.com has a strong presence, right there along with a couple of the classic pro-science sites and the classic anti-science sites.)

For what it is worth, my own introspection regarding what I blog about is here. (well, there, at that link).

Mike said...

Greg, you quote from my paragraph that starts out with:

"The other problem is being found in the overgrown jungle of cyberspace."

- indicating that I was talking about something else before I got going on Scienceblogs.

It's useful to compare science blogs to what goes on at sites like the NY Times and Scientific American. These are publications that figured out long before Web 2.0 how to reach a broad science readership - not just by virtue of the fact that they have polished, edited pieces; they know how to present science so that it attracts general readers. These places have their own blogs as well, and those blogs have a tone and writing style very different from what you find at blogs that seem to write mainly for other bloggers, i.e. one that you judge on Technorati authority.