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Web 2.0: friend or foe?

With the development of Web 2.0, science communication has entered a new era.

Here at Nature, for example, we now have almost 20 blogs covering various topics in science, we own islands in Second Life where we host lectures, we produce our own podcasts and in the past year, we have launched a range of interactive sites such as Nature Reports.

While all of this enables us to reach our audience in new ways – and to communicate science in a more engaging and rapid manner – the scientific community remains divided on whether Web 2.0 is good for science communication.

That’s one of the topics under discussion in this month’s issue of Nature Geoscience (subscription) which features a pair of Commentaries, one by Gavin Schmidt of NASA GISS and one by Myles Allen of the University of Oxford, giving their respective opinions on whether blogging is a worthwhile means of communicating science, and specifically climate change.

Needless to say, Schmidt, who is an active blogger over on RealClimate, argues that blogs are invaluable and that even if every scientist doesn’t need to have one, every scientific field does. Schmidt points out that scientists have the depth of knowledge and experience to discern true scientific advances in their field from research that provides showy headlines, but lacks substance. Blogging provides a way of communicating this knowledge to those, such as journalists, who want to place the latest papers and headlines in context. He writes:

Blogs provide a rapid, casual, interactive and occasionally authoritative way of commenting on current issues, new papers or old controversies.

Allen, on the other hand, warns of the dangers of communicating science in the rapid, casual and interactive way afforded by Web 2.0 tools such as blogs.

Detailing as an example the blog coverage (and subsequent reporting) of a 2005 Nature paper that he co-authored, Allen makes the case that blogs have the ability to criticise – and even discredit – scientific work without being subjected to the same peer-review process as the original research, thereby creating an uneven playing field. As a result, Allen argues that science communication must maintain both rigor and civility. He advises:

If a science journalist wants to follow a story, there just isn’t an alternative to reading those peer-reviewed papers, and painstakingly interviewing researchers for whom English is a third language. And if a member of the public wants to follow a story, then they are still best off getting it the oldfashioned way, via a science journalist whose reputation depends on getting such stories more-or-less right most of the time. If, as a scientist, you feel you have to communicate non-peer-reviewed opinions to a journalist or member of the public, then stick to communicating one-to-one and make it clear you are speaking off the scientific record. Better still, don’t, even if it might cost you a mention in the papers.

As a climate blogger and journalist, my take is that blogs are vital sources of information, opinions and early-stage ideas that might not be quite ready for peer-review but are worthy of discussion, none-the-less.

More than that, in an society where science rarely ever makes front page news and gets far too few column inches, blogs provide a forum for some of the best science journalists to communicate more frequently – and in more depth – than they could do otherwise (see Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth).

Climate bloggers will get it wrong sometimes, as will journalists. But I would argue that the onus is on scientists to engage, engage and engage rather than shy away from those with a genuine interest in the science and what it means for society. As a “quick and dirty” means of communicating, blogs risk running stories that are less rigorously reported than news and features – so I would argue that the onus is also on journalists to use them as an initial source of ideas and not as a substitute for reading peer-reviewed papers and conducting interviews with authors.

My guess is that blog readers, by default, will praise their merits, but let us know what you think.

Olive Heffernan


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    Myles Allen said:

    Having accepted Nature Geosciences’ invitation, I figure joining in for once should be part of the assignment. As you might expect, I’m already getting some heat for this one.

    Just to be clear, I don’t have a problem with blogging per se, if bloggers were to comply with the old-fashioned courtesy of checking with the authors that they have understood a paper correctly before criticizing it in public (as opposed to over coffee or the conference bar). If bloggers on high-profile sites like RealClimate were to adopt a simple policy of fact-checking comments on papers with the papers’ authors before posting them, and if necessary posting a response from the authors together with their post, it would certainly be a vast improvement on current practice. The argument that the authors can always respond on the blog doesn’t work, because the responsibility for fact-checking should surely be with the blogger, not his or her unsuspecting targets.

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