Science Blogging 2008: London

The internet spilled out into the real world last Saturday, when 130 science bloggers, communicators, and scientists assembled at the revamped Royal Institution on 30 August for Science Blogging 2008: London, organized by Nature Network. The conference had a unique hybrid format, in which part of the programme was left open for attendees to fill in that day with ‘unconference’ sessions proposed and voted on in the morning. Nine ideas were proposed before the conference got started and were voted on by the delegates during the first morning break. This was Europe’s first science blogging conference, and it couldn’t have found a better venue than the Royal Institution within whose laboratories 10 chemical elements were discovered and 14 Nobel Prizes earned. Speakers took to a stage previously occupied by such luminaries as Michael Faraday and William Bragg.

Keynote speaker Ben Goldacre is probably the most famous scientific blogger in the UK, tackling pseudoscience and quackery in his Bad Science blog and weekly Guardian column. His eloquent, entertaining and expletive-filled intro provided a strong set of examples in which the traditional press have been hoodwinked by claims of ‘miracle cures’, whereas specialised elements of the blogosphere successfully scrutinised, attacked and demolished such bogus assertions. Ben, and bloggers like him, are increasingly discrediting peddlers of dubious products, filling holes of accountability that mainstream media lacks the time or expertise to address.

Ben was followed by a broad-ranging panel discussion on the use of blogs to communicate the quirks and joys of scientific life. Jenny Rohn and Anna Kushnir, bloggers on Nature Network, were joined by Grrl Scientist from ScienceBlogs, with Mo Costandi introducing and chairing the session. The panellists gave many useful insights into the day-to-day running of a blog, the pros and cons of anonymity, and communicating with the public via blogs.

Then the delegates split into three parallel sessions. Matt Wood of the Sanger Institute gave a polished and informative introduction to microblogging and aggregation tools such as FriendFeed. The power of these tools becomes clear when you look at the FriendFeed discussion of the conference itself. Each session was reported in short snippets as events unfolded, allowing anyone in the world to follow the discussion. In an adjacent room, Maxine Clarke and Euan Adie of NPG presented tips for both novice and advanced bloggers on how to set up and improve your blog, covering subjects such as blogrolls, profiles, DOI citation tools, and time-stamping services. The third parallel session had the most intriguing title for the day: There’s a Giraffe on my Unicycle: Can Blogging Enhance Your Creativity? Nature’s Henry Gee, popular science author Brian Clegg and novelist Clare Dudman led an entertaining discussion. Brian got the room warmed up with a creativity exercise: he asked everyone to think of things that cannot be done with a coat hanger and elicited a wide range of interesting ideas. Clare described how she uses her blog to, for example, explore and free associate ideas and to write in a different character.

Another set of parallel sessions followed after lunch. Martin Fenner, Oliver Obst and Jeff Marlow highlighted a few efforts to use blogging for the purposes of education. Martin extended the scope to include online journal clubs, such as the Good Paper Journal Club on Nature Network. Jo Scott, from NPG web publishing, presented the current implementations and immense potential of Second Nature, Nature’s island on Second Life, for discussing and presenting scientific findings. The session demystified the initiation process on Second Life, highlighting the importance of having an experienced mentor to guide you in. The third, and most popular, session (standing room only) delved into how scientists can publicly report their primary research using blogging and other tools, such as open lab notebooks. Bob O’Hara, a blogger from the University of Helsinki, Heather Etchevers of INSERM in France and Jean-Claude Bradley from Drexel University touched off a lively discussion about the risks associated with such open science (such as being scooped) and how to motivate scientists to be more public with their research data.

The unconference sessions highlighted the diversity of ideas and attendees at the conference. In the main theatre, Mike Dunford asked a simple question: why do we blog? He got a lot of answers, from ego-boosting and profile-raising to promoting a project and collecting one’s thoughts. A large contingent of the audience were from the Ben Goldacre Bad Science school of thought, and highlighted the use of blogging to combat irrational thinking by getting counter arguments into Google searches. Elsewhere, Scott Keir from the Royal Society led a session called ‘Bored of blogging?‘, in which attendees discussed their motivations for blogging, and possible alternatives and complementary mediums such as podcasts and FriendFeed. The third unconference session was more technical and addressed new technologies to track and aggregate conversations on similar topics over the internet, and was led by Maxine Clarke of NPG.

The day finished off with a wide-ranging panel discussion looking at the future of blogging. The session was led by Timo Hannay of Nature, Cameron Neylon from the University of Southampton, Peter Murray-Rust from Cambridge and Richard Grant—the conference’s most-travelled delegate, coming all the way from Sydney. The session looked at how we can make blogging more mainstream, and more useful to the typical scientist. Topics included the citability of blog posts, whether blogging is good or bad for your career, issues of ‘scooping’ and how to receive credit when it comes to reporting new scientific findings online.

The panel concluded with a challenge: get senior scientists blogging and we’ll award prizes to the most impressive success. More on that in a follow-on post.

As with any conference, the sessions and networking during the day are only half of the story. Delegates continued discussion in the Royal Institution’s plush new bar area, before heading en masse to a local pub. The strongest bonds are often forged over a glass of wine—one aspect of networking that blogs and other communication tools have yet to match.

More resources:

Discussion forum for the conference

All the content from Nature Network

Round-up of blog reactions, including three of the best

FriendFeed room

All the photos from Flickr (315 and counting)

Videos coming soon


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