Role of blogs in communicating scientific knowledge

Scientists know much more about their field than is ever published in peer-reviewed journals. Blogs can be a good medium with which to disseminate this tacit knowledge, according to Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies Columbia University, and co-founder of, in a Commentary in the April issue of Nature Geoscience (1, 208; 2008). Dr Schmidt asks “why read a blog when you can go directly to the scientific literature? Unfortunately, access to new findings in the traditional way is harder than it should be. Many technical papers are behind pay-walls, which make it impractical and expensive for unaffiliated individuals to read them. More importantly, however, even when papers are freely available, they often do not provide the insight expected.”

In another Commentary in the same issue of the journal (Nat. Geosci. 1, 209; 2008), Myles Allen of the University of Oxford agrees that “explaining science to journalists and the public on blogs is fast and efficient.” But after his own bruising experience, he wonders: “is it all just too good to be true? Can science survive Web 2.0?”

After describing his own difficult experiences of having his own peer-reviewed work criticised and misinterpreted by people who would not subject their own conclusions to peer-review, Dr Allen concludes: “Everyone agrees we need to communicate science better to the general public. But more and faster should not be confused with better. I’m certainly not advocating closing science blogs or discouraging science websites. We just need to remember the basic courtesies that our doctoral supervisors took for granted: criticism of peer-reviewed results belongs in the peer-reviewed literature. Direct communication over the Internet, far from creating a level playing field, just ploughs it up and makes the game impossible. The problem is, without witty and cutting criticisms, what is the point of a blog? Sure, the peer-review system is creaking. Sure, science journalism sometimes trips up. But like Churchill’s quip about democracy, it is the worst possible system for communicating scientific results, apart from all the alternatives that have been tried from time to time.”

Yet Dr Schmidt remains optimistic: “Some may dismiss blogs as being a distraction from real scientific work, or of egging on the very controversies that we seek to diffuse. There is an element of truth to both of these claims. But the response should not be a return to the ivory tower. That simply leaves the field clear for those who prefer to confuse rather than enlighten. With the importance of science in policy decisions being more apparent than ever, our ability to do science and enhance its relevance in public life relies on the community’s willingness to engage, inspire and inform. Blogs are one way to do that, and they can excel at providing the context that is so often missing in other media. Not every scientist needs to have one, but maybe every scientific field does.”


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