The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Why I spend so much time on the internet (#ScienceShare)

Internet Forever! (Image from: Allie Brosh at )

Internet Forever! (Image from: A. Brosh

During the course of an average day, when I’m working on any number of academic pursuits from my home office, I visit a bunch of web sites: library data bases, insect identification aids, online scientific journals, statistical software help pages, how-to lab/procedural pages, etc.

I also spend time on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Flickr and a big ol’ pile of blogs.

I’ve been thinking about the title of a talk I’d like to give. It would sound something like, “Why I spend so much time on the internet.” Lately, I’ve had a number of very interesting discussions with other grad students, faculty members, and online sciencey-folks about the roles and effects of social media on the way we think about science, do science, and communicate about science.

Let me be frank: I’m really, really excited by the buzz about the topic (Morgan Jackson provides a great round-up of blog posts at his blog Biodiversity in Focus ), not only in different social media venues, but also in more traditional, academic forums.

A recent paper in the journal of Innovative Higher Education by D. Powell, C. Jacob and B. Chapman provides strong arguments for the benefits to academics of blogging and other social media, with implications for research, teaching and learning, and outreach. I get the sense that academics can more intuitively appreciate how social media can be used in outreach activities, and even in teaching, but many are still very resistant to the notion of incorporating social media in their research activities.

Here are some reasons why scientists should embrace social media:

  • Social media can be used to identify research opportunities and find collaborators.
  • You can get real-time feedback from other researchers, helping you refine your research questions, methods, and interpretation of experimental results, well before the formal publication stage.
  • You can easily get this feedback from a larger, more geographically and disciplinarily diverse base of expertise than you would likely reach via traditional means.
  • From a more altruistic perspective, other researchers can benefit from online transparency and accessibility, often in ways that cannot happen in traditional media. For example, lab methods or data collection instruments can be demonstrated in photographs or video (saving other researchers the trouble of trying to decipher complex methods sections if they’re interested in replicating specific protocols in their own work).
  • Blogging can help you become a better communicator, by improving writing skills and language proficiency.
  • Sometimes journalists get it wrong. You can tell the public about your research in your own words.
  • Blogs, by their very nature, permit the rapid distribution of information to a very wide public audience. Your new paper will get more attention and readership if it gets cross-posted on multiple blogs and Twitter than if it only gets delivered to paying subscribers of a particular journal.
  • You can access alternative modes of funding for your research.
  • It is fun; also personally and intellectually rewarding.
  • Soon, everybody will be doing it: get with the program.

I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek, but I mean it in all seriousness. I will even go so far as to say that scientists must embrace these new tools. I think that social media are going to be the catalysts for a major paradigm shift in the scientific community, in terms of who we perceive as being the audience/receptors of science and who we perceive as being our collaborators.

P.Z. Meyers at Pharyngula cautions researchers not to be dismissive about the role of blogging/blogs in scientific discourse, and highlights the need to develop the pertinent skills:

I can imagine a day when this kind of presentation [blogging about a new study] becomes de rigueur for everything you publish, just as it’s now understood that you could give a talk on a paper. It’s a different skill set, too, and it’s going to require a different kind of talent to be able to address fellow scientists, the lay public, and science journalists. Those are important skills to have, and this kind of thing could end up making them better appreciated in the science community.

Boraz Zivkovic at Scientific American’s A Blog Around the Clock discusses the evolution and future of this paradigm shift in his post, “The scientific paper: the past, present and probable future” more eloquently than I ever could; please take some time to read the entire post.

This evolution will not happen overnight. There is still considerable resistance to the notion that blogs and other new media might have a role in “real” science.

Take, for example, this comment left on the Tree of Life blog (Jonathan Eisen, UC Davis evolutionary biologist), by the author of a paper that was critiqued by both the blog author and commenters:

I would like to provide my response to several comments that have been mentioned here that will not arise in a peer-review setting and that make blogs a dangerous venue for information delivery as it reduces the credibility of findings regardless of scientific support [emphasis mine].

To which I say: “Really? Reeeaaallly?” Blaming the medium for the message (which could have easily been shared between professors in a lunch room, by grad students participating in a journal club discussion, or by a dissenting colleague in a conference talk) is, frankly, asinine.

Blogs encourage discussion, the sharing of ideas, and open debate. We may not always agree with or appreciate what is said (especially if someone is criticizing our own work), but that’s life. Sometimes statements may be made that are not based on factual information, but you can bet your bippy that if misinformation is published (either in the form of a comment or a post) readers will be quick to point it out. Edits or retractions can happen immediately, and we don’t have to wait for the next issue of X journal to come out to hear other opinions or see corrections made.

What is unique, and arguably better, about blogs compared to more traditional discussion venues is that blogs allow real-time discussion in a public forum. To quote Powell et al.:

Conversations about scholarly work that in the past have been restricted to faculty hallways, conferences…publications and response in subscription-based journals are now also occurring in openly accessible online spaces, opening up the dialogues to a broader audience…

Said another way, social media is just another kind of “hallway talk…in a really, really, long hallway”. (Thank you Bug Girl  for that most excellent insight.)

I think nay-sayers need to understand that no one is suggesting that we do away with traditional means of publication (journals, books, conference proceedings, etc.). Rather, social media should be embraced as a compliment to these traditional communication tools.

There are, of course, some kinks to iron out. There are issues of copyright, intellectual ownership, co-authorship, and the risk of being “scooped” by other researchers (although, regarding that last point, read this: “On getting scooped in ecology“). Although Powell et al. mention some of these concerns, no suggestions for addressing them are offered.  While these factors certainly present challenges, surely they are not insurmountable; it simply speaks to the need for additional discourse and the establishment of standards for these new media forms.


Douglas A. Powell, Casey J. Jacob, & Benjamin J. Chapman (2011). Using blogs and new media in academic practice: potential roles in research, teaching, learning and extension Innovative Higher Education

17 responses to “Why I spend so much time on the internet (#ScienceShare)

  1. George Sims December 13, 2011 at 2:41 PM

    I have nowhere near the knowledge or skills necessary to publish a real “scientific paper”; however, I have used social media to transmit lots of smaller, more informal information I have discovered. In more than one instance, recognized experts in the field of entomology have pointed out errors or omissions (always kindly) in my observations, and I have gratefully and quickly incorporated their corrections/suggestions/advice into my work.

    The access I have to these experts/colleagues/friends is one of the most satisfying and enjoyable aspects of “social media”, and I’m terribly glad to have discovered this community. My day is incomplete until I “make the rounds” of various bug blogs, to see what “some friends of mine, and some that I don’t know” are up to.

    • TGIQ December 13, 2011 at 7:44 PM

      This comment speaks volumes about another big reason I think blogging, etc. is so important. I think that all too often scientists get hung up on this crazy notion that they’re only doing science…for other scientists. They forget about everybody else for whom their research findings might have meaning, the people who are funding their research and who will ultimately (hopefully) benefit from it, those who would probably really like to be engaged in the process but are kept out of the process by people content to sit high in ivory towers. It drives me nuts. I know plenty of perfectly capable, deep-thinking, intelligent, articulate people who may not have a science degree (or three) but who know an awful lot about an awful lot and are excellent teachers. Academic recognition does not necessarily preclude good science. I’m glad that other people are engaging with you on your blog and chiming in on the discussion and discovery process. That’s really what it needs to be about.

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  3. africagomez December 13, 2011 at 4:10 PM

    Wonderful post, I really enjoyed reading it.

    • TGIQ December 13, 2011 at 7:45 PM

      Thanks 🙂 I had fun writing it (very hard not to turn it into an extraordinarily long dissertation – I get a little excited about this stuff.)

  4. streepie December 13, 2011 at 7:46 PM

    This is a very timely post – I am teaching a class of MSc students on science communication later today.
    Thanks for the insights – they will be shared!

    • TGIQ December 13, 2011 at 8:28 PM

      If this post has helped in any way with that dialogue with your students, then I’m very happy. Thanks so much for the kind feedback! Also, do check out some of the other blog posts I linked to: there are some really excellent discussions going on about this subject!

  5. Kevin Zelnio December 13, 2011 at 9:38 PM

    Hi! I am working on a complementary post along these lines as we speak (check out EvoEcoLab tomorrow)! Nice to see more scientists thinking about these issues. I have been discussing them for a while. If you are interested I’ve archived them on my personal site: But mostly, I just wanted to draw your attention to a chapter colleagues and I have forthcoming on Digital Environmentalism. I have a preprint available at my website here for download (pdf): I hope it is useful to you are your colleagues!

    • TGIQ December 16, 2011 at 4:35 PM

      Thanks, Kevin! I’ll have a look for that post now. I think that this whole idea of using social media as a routine part of Doing Science is becoming more prevalent, especially (dare I be so bold to say it) among younger scientists. I’ll check out the other links you’ve got there, and hopefully some other readers here will find them useful too!

  6. Ted C. MacRae December 14, 2011 at 10:10 AM

    I can’t add much, other than to emphasize your point about those who have embraced social media for science communication – we carry on without giving the detractors a thought. Frankly, takes me aback every time I remember that science blogging even has detractors. They better get with the program, because it’s happening whether they like it or not.

    Nice post – it’s been fun watching your transformation from disaffected government employee to a front-line thinking entomologist (although it was also fun reading the rantings of the former)!

    • TGIQ December 16, 2011 at 4:37 PM

      I agree, Ted; I’m always really shocked when I read some of the really vehemently oppositional stuff out there (I’m thinking, too, of the talk that Morgan was subjected to at ESA by a really anti-social-media-anti-all-kinds-of-stuff guy). Yeesh. There’s so much potential for really great stuff to happen, so I just don’t get it. And yeah, I just stick my fingers in my ears and go la-la-la and smile to myself because I know ten years from know I’ll be miles ahead of the curve 😛
      Glad you liked the post, Ted. I’m having fun writing about more Doing Science stuff lately. 🙂

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