Chris Rowan, a geologist at the University of Chicago who co-authors the blog Highly Allochthonous, drafted a fascinating list of “elephants in the room” at this year’s ScienceOnline meeting. Among them: “Not all bloggers want to be journalists.” According to Rowan:
Whilst advice on clearer writing and reaching a wider audience can be valuable, underneath it all seems to be the almost unconscious assumption that everyone is in this game because they want to be a journalist or a popular science writer. But some of us are scientists first, and science writers second I think that perspective needs to be better articulated in these discussions, lest we lose sight of the fact that science blogging is most valuable when it spans the entire continuum between scientific journals and popular exposition.
Bora Zivkovic, who organizes ScienceOnline and is the blogs editor for Scientific American, expressed a similar sentiment in a recent interview with a science journalism student at New York University. Zivkovic contrasted journalistic writing, which focuses on short summaries of “what’s new,” and blogging, which places more emphasis on explanation, no matter what the length. The latter, he argued, can be just as captivating.
That’s important. Although not all bloggers desire to be widely read journalists, many at least want to be widely read. With that in mind, Carl Zimmer—who writes about science for just about every medium there is—keeps a continually updated list of words that everybody should avoid while blogging their way out of the echo chamber. According to Zimmer:
anyone who wants to learn how to write about science-and to be read by people who aren’t being paid to read—should work hard to learn how to explain science in plain yet elegant English—not by relying on scientific jargon, code-words, deadening euphemisms, or meaningless clichés.”
The current iteration of the list includes obviously alienating words and phrases like “Anomalous,” “Anthropogenic,” “Modulate,” and “Et al,” as well as less obvious turnoffs like “Context,” “Food source (when just ‘food’ will do),” “Literally (even if it’s used accurately, the word is generally useless),” and “Multiple (as in many? Then just use many).” (It’s also worth reading another of Zimmer’s posts at his blog, The Loom, headlined, “Death to Obfuscation,” where he expands on the difference between good science writing and bad.)
New media are not only about breaking out of the echo chamber, however. They should also aim to improve upon traditional science coverage. In a column for The Guardian, former Scientific American editor John Rennie, wrote that his enthusiasm for new media:
sprang not just from enthusiasm for the improvements possible through linking to primary sources, fostering dialogues with readers, incorporating multimedia and tapping the awesome explanatory power of LOLcats. Rather that online reporting could offer a fresh start - the opportunity to correct major defects in the existing coverage of research.
Rennie went to explain a fundamental difference between news and science news:
Most categories of news are built around discrete events. A building burns down; a law is passed; a sports team wins a match: these things happen once and they cannot unhappen. News media race to inform the public quickly about these events and the consequences that unspool from them There is rarely a distinct moment when a finding or theory comes to be accepted as canon by a consensus of scientists Yet journalism typically treats the publication of a paper in a journal as a newsworthy, validating event.
Rennie complained that because of the mad rush to report any new finding, a lot of the ensuing coverage is identically unimpressive. The antidote, he argued, is delaying coverage and sacrificing the “newness” for thoroughness and context, and while he did not explicitly say that help bring science out of the echo chamber, there is every reason to believe that it could. A week after penning his column for The Guardian, Rennie wrote a post at his PLoS blog, The Gleaming Retort, that highlighted reporting by Yong, which “keyed off a new paper on induced pluripotent stem cells,” but broke the “usual mold” by doing two things. First, Yong reissued an older story he’d written, updating it with information about the new paper:
Then, even more creatively, he used the online tools at Dipity.com to create an interactive timeline recapping the history of reprogrammed stem cell research. In fact, the timeline was noteworthy enough that Ed was instantly able to syndicate it to the Guardian.