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One month inside the Empire...

Not Exactly Rocket Science
By Ed Yong
Mar 23, 2008 7:00 PMNov 5, 2019 2:14 AM


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About a month ago, I migrated from the safe, stable climate of Wordpress to the unknown but promising habitat of ScienceBlogs. With four weeks having flown by, this seems like a good a point as any to have a bit of a navel-gazing retrospective about what's changed since the move.

And the answer is... erm, not that much, at least not on a qualitative level. Take a look at the posts I've written in the old and new versions of the site and I think you'll find that there's remarkably little difference in the topics covered or the style of writing. It's really important that people realise that the overlords at ScienceBlogs are completely hands-off in their approach to their bloggers and that everyone here is free to write about whatever they choose to. No directional dictates, no editorial smack-downs.

There's a slight quantitative difference in that I find I'm writing more. Partly, that's to build a readership in these new surroundings but it's also because I've found that being part of a community has brought with it a slight competitive element. As the new kid on the block, I definitely feel a desire to show that this little blog can hold its own among the big boys, especially since it (perhaps unusually) focuses almost entirely on peer-reviewed research, which necessarily avoids a lot of juicy traffic-attracting controversy and makes it harder to engage in dialogue with commenters and to build a local community.

I also feel much more of an impetus to get things right. Given that the media is replete (but not totally so) with examples of shoddy science journalism, I've always had a strong desire to avoid misleading people here or, worse still, misrepresenting someone else's research. That desire is even more potent given that I know I'm sitting in the middle of a bunch of (very vocal) specialists who will readily take me to task over inaccuracies or crap communication. That prospect is scary but it's also tremendously motivating. It's also helping to hone my spider-sense about crap research, because I don't really want to write up something that's going to get completely slated in the community shortly after.

I've been incredibly pleased with the comments I've received, both in terms of number and content. In particular, I like the general trend that the majority of commenters here use their real names. Now, I fully appreciate the professional reasons that some of you have for anonymity or pseudonymity and I don't wish to slag off any valuable participants who have such reasons. But I do have an automatic fondness for people on the internet who use their real names - it's classy and should be encouraged.

One behind-the-scenes difference that's worth mentioning is that I now get paid for my troubles. Inevitably, some people will take this to mean that I have now sold my integrity for the right to swim through dubloons every night, but these people might chuckle at the fact that my wages (which are based on my traffic) are about enough to buy a couple of books every month. Dividing this by the amount of time I spend blogging, I'm earning about 70p an hour. Sweatshop employees laugh at my pay-check.

Nor is the promise of meagre financial reward much motivation to change the format of the blog in a quest for traffic. Truth be told, I have no interest in courting attention for the sake of it. I was getting slightly more page views on the old site but that was largely because of a significant number of hits from Google Image searches. Those upped the stats but always in a sort of empty way. I'm much more satisfied now seeing more comments and more feed subscribers, which suggest a rise in actual interested readers.

Ever since its conception, the goal of Not Exactly Rocket Science has always been to talk about new research in a way that as many people as possible could understand. I write largely for the sake of it and because the process - keeping in touch with new research, and the act of understanding and writing - is one of the most personally rewarding things I get to do.

The blog has always had a very deliberate focus on research rather than being a personal soapbox. I have purposely avoided certain aspects of bloggery like random personal diatribes or linkorrhea, which is a reflection of the type of stuff I like to read myself.

Obviously, preferences in the blogosphere vary strongly on this front and there are many excellent science blogs that never talk about research at all. I've seen a lot of debates about what counts or what doesn't count as a science blog (or in fact, a ScienceBlog), which seems like a strange question, a bit like debating over what counts as a novel. It's certainly disappointing to see a lot of people unflinchingly champion their own narrow vision of what a science blog should be, especially given that the medium is still remarkably young.

The massive diversity of science blogs on the net surely show that there is a very wide-ranging market for different styles of science blogging. That's surely a good thing too - it reflects the fact that scientists (or those interested in science) are a diverse group of people with broad tastes. As far as the science communication 'cause' goes, it's just as valuable to have people give scientists a human voice or to deal with science-culture controversies as it is to discuss research in an understandable way. The only reason I've focused on the latter is that that's the bit I feel that I can bring to the table well.

But... I'm open to new ideas and I want to get some thoughts from you lot. Are you happy with the blog as it is? Is the focus on write-ups of peer-reviewed research your cup of tea or do you crave more variety? Would the occasional personal diatribe from me contribute to your reading pleasure or put you off? Have your say in the comments, or send me an email (contact details in the About page).

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