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ScienceBlogs Network Reviewed – the A’s

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Science Blogs is a semi-professional network of people blogging about science. Most of them are in the university system as graduates or academics, but there is the odd journalist having their say. There are more than 50 blogs updated fairly regularly, and the network itself has been up for a year.

This is part 1 of a continuing series of reviews.  

Behind every large institution there are those who oil the wheels, line up the gears, set up the chess pieces. They are the administrators. Science is no different. There are scientists, there are those who write about science, and there are those who organise the people writing about science. A Blog Around the Clock can be considered an administrative science blog par excellence. The author, coturnix, describes himself as a "Serbian Jewish atheist liberal PhD student with Thesis-writing block and severe blogorrhea trying to understand the world". This mad torrent of words also characterises his approach to blogging. It reads like a true web log, a running diary of his day – organising Science Blogging Conferences, linking to new material, compiling an Anthology of the Best Science Blog Writing, passing remarks on whatever catchs his fancy. It's a fantastically busy hive of constant activity. But unless you are deep inside this insider's science world, it can seem all so haphazard and trivial. What's missing is a relevance to the general reader, something to bind all these disparate threads together, an overarching vision. In the end, all A Blog Around the Clock ends up doing is spinning around itself in dizzy circles.

Peoples, cities, cultures, all leave their tracks in time. It is the purpose of archaeology to make sense of that broken pottery, corroded coin, or barely defined glyph. Reconstructing the past from fragments of time – this is what the blog Aardvarchaeology is all about. The author is Swedish, a journal editor, and an archaeologist to boot. The blog is a fairly recent arrival to the network, but Martin was blogging for about 12 months at his previous site. He has developed a crisp, clean style – effective and to the point, but not blunt. Most posts are accompanished by a tactful image, and the text does not usually run to over a page – making it quite easy to navigate and browse through his blog. Martin also sticks quite closely to his chosen subject, something I applaud in a world of everpresent distractions. If I had to pick one word to describe this blog, it would be robust. Well done.

How one's conduct relates to a group is what is known as ethics. This is an all-pervasive feature of working science, although it's not well known to the wider public. It only really comes to attention when there is fraud on a massive scale, like some of the ones that have rocked the journals Science and Nature in recent times. Ethics starts with the individual, radiates outwards to his immediate research group, pervades the faculty and department, and eventually sits inside the institution of which he or she is part of. Adventures in Ethics and Science is devoted to examing this working interface. In her words "this is the blog where I muse on responsible conduct of scientific research, communication between scientists and non-scientists about the issues that matter to both camps, and teaching science and ethics." Does she succeed? Perhaps I was expecting something more rigorously argued, dealing with more serious issues, but all I ended up reading about was holidays, little schoolkids, and pretty ordinary chit-chat. The ethics stuff is there, but it's sparse, and you really have to go to the sidebar to dig it out. My major criticism of this blog is that it is personal first, and only professional by a distant second. In my mind, if you are blogging as part of a network, the group goal takes priority. Keep the personal stuff personal, or start another blog if you want a diary. A low rating.

Across vast stretches of times, spanning dynasties and kingdoms, fiefdoms and tribal warfares, empires and minor tyrannies, man has been under the constant burden and threat of disease. Borne by the water he so dearly needs, living amongst muck and vermin, breathing fetid air, consuming wretched food, illness struck regularly and swiftly. We now live in a golden age of health knowledge. Understanding the causes of disease enabled us to eliminate them, a field known as Aetiology, of which this blog bears the same name. Tara is an assistant professor, and is especially interested in the microbiological causes of disease, something better known as germs to you and me. We're talking flu, malaria, hiv, e coli, and various viruses and bacteria, the stuff most sane people run away from. But hey, someone has to do it, and she does it with cheerful alacrity. I just have a couple of niggling concerns about her blogging style – one is a tendency to tag articles with every category possible, which defeats the whole purpose of tagging things, and two, there is a lot of chit-chat which isn't reader related. It is her blog, and she can write whatever she wants to, but joe average has no idea what a blog carnival is and doesn't need to know. If every third post is just noise, people will eventually make a value assessment. Is it really worthwhile sticking to? It's a shame, because there is a lot of insight that can be garnered from this blog. An ambivalent rating.

What is 41 inches tall, weighs approximately 60 pounds, and has a cranial capacity of 410 cubic centimetres? It could be a little goblin, but in this case here, it is referring to Australopithecus afarensis, an ancestral human form from 3 million years ago, the ape that climbed down from the trees and started to walk. Afarensis also happens to be a blog written a hobbyist anthropologist, someone who earns his living outside the scientific world. Topics up for general discussion include fossils, evolution, the pseudoscience of creationism, and of course, all sorts of different primates. There is the occasional foray into politics, and what he describes as the "war on science". Posting is generally daily, and is done with a fairly light touch – with the minimal of jargon, and with the bemused eye of a curious, patient observer. Great for a general read, and it's almost worth leaving a comment on his blog to get the title of "Austrolopithecine", the name he gives to his commenters. A seven out of ten.

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About ggwfung

  • SilverTiger

    I am glad to see that your reviews of science blogs are to be published here. The reasons for my pleasure include an interest in your own blog, with its pithy observations on life, and the fact that science is so important and we, the public need to be better informed about it. While the world of blogs does a great job in publicizing every subject under the sun, it is also confusing, especially if you don’t know quite what you are looking for. It is great to have someone search through the morass and bring out the gems that lurk like diamonds in the sand.

    So thanks and well done and here’s looking forward to you completing the series!

  • Martin Rundkvist

    Many thanks, warms my heart!

  • ggwfung

    Thanks Martin.

    Martin is author of the Aardvarchaeology blog – which I’ve just realised I’ve embarassingly mispelled. Sorry Martin! At least I got the URL right. (there’s a typo in the fourth paragraph as well, it should read fiefdom).

    And cheers to SilverTiger. It’s nice having friends come in and pitch for you – although I don’t know how management feels about that.


  • alf

    I think you meant to write accompanied instead of accompanished :)

  • ggwfung

    and catches instead of catchs :-)

    I knew I should have run that spellcheck, but I thought it would choke on all those scientific terms. Always next time, and thanks Alf.


  • ggwfung

    A critique of my writing from Hot Cup of Joe

    Joe is “I’m a fourth year anthropology student focusing on archaeology and about to start my graduate work. I spent 12 years in the U.S. Army and 7 years working with juvenile delinquents in places like boot camps, after school programs, and even a wagon train.”

    Joe’s Critique

    I encourage you to read the two side by side, and compare points of quotation.

    I thank Joe for his contribution to the discourse.


  • Dlanod

    I have to respectfully disagree with your assessments of Aetiology and Adventures in Ethics and Science. It is the personal tidbits that humanize their blogs and allow us to relate to these scientists as people.

    Dr. Free-Ride’s Friday Sprog Blogging actually captures one of the stated goals of her blog: “communication between scientists and non-scientists about the issues that matter to both camps.” She illustrates a wonderful ability to work science into every day conversation and shows how to make it fun. I hope one day to be able to explain scientific concepts to my child as effectively as she has with her children.

  • Black Knight

    Heh. Good luck in your endeavour. Most people (and especially scientists) can not write, so I think you are in for a bit of a long haul.

    There seems to be an attitude among scientists who keep weblogs that all science weblogs are good and should be read because it’s Science, and Science is important, damnit! But Sturgeon’s Law applies here as much as anywhere, and readers need to cultivate taste and discernment. (It’s like wine or cheese or whisky: There’s a lot of crap out there, which keeps the punters happy; but once you try the good stuff you don’t want to go back).

    It is good to someone investigating the notion of science blogging, and questioning the motives and inspirations of the authors. Less heartening to read the predictable knee-jerk responses in other places, of course, but then cliques do not like to be challenged.

    The issue of ‘personal’ versus ‘professional’ is an interesting one. I agree it’s important that society’s preconceptions are challenged, that the ‘general public’ can see that scientists are no more special than anyone else, but I do wonder whether this has been emphasized at the expense of more meaningful intercourse. What is interesting, to me at least, is the personal in the context of the professional. If I want to be bored by science I’ll pick up the Journal of Biological Chemistry. If I want gossip! romance! taking little Jemima to school! I’ll go to the airport bookshop.

    There is a gap in the market. And it is not being filled by most ‘science’ blogs, especially the ones repeating the same, tired message over and over. What is the point in preaching to the choir?

  • ggwfung

    Hi there,

    there have been a couple of further responses to this article –

    Reviewing the “Reviewer” (from A Blog Around the Clock)
    ScienceBlogs under the microscope? (from Respectful Insolence)

    Disclosure: the above 2 blogs are part of the ScienceBlogs Network.


  • Greg Laden

    Nice review. I agree with many of your points. I will join the fray in opposition to your comments on personal vs. other sorts of posting. I happen to prefer blogs with meat (or is that meat with my blogs?) but I also like that there is variety.

    At this time, as a new blogger (of science … I’m not on Sceince Blogs) I would like to see less presumption by bloggers of what the reader knows (about the blogosphere itself). But that will probably change as I myself “know” that stuff.

    I will try to not forget my humble roots!

  • Christopher Rose

    ggw: I fixed those two typos for you!

  • ggwfung

    Thanks Christopher! Although the more I keep looking, the more I keep finding. I’m just going to stop looking. :-)


  • Thomas

    Coturnix does well enough to get noticed by Nature

    I’d say it looks more like you were more concerned with getting your “review” written than actually delving into the blogs you covered. I’ve been reading the blogs at ScienceBlogs for over a year now and, while there are some I don’t particularly care for, each of the ones you covered above have a lot of very in-depth science posts.

    And if you think there should be a separation between “personal” and “professional” blogging at scienceblogs, I think you might need to re-evaluate what it means to blog to begin with. The lay-public doesn’t want to read post-after-post of technical reports and essays. We want it broken down and made relevant. We want to know that the people who are active in science aren’t so different than us.