How blogging will change ecology: straight from the Fox’s mouth

Jeremy Fox, ecologist and blogger extraordinaire at Dynamic Ecology, has just made available a new publication called: “Can blogging change how ecologists share ideas? In economics, it already has” for Ideas in Ecology and Evolution. He has shared the pre-print version (where else) on his blog, and you can check it out here: http://dynamicecology.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/4457-8353-1-ce-1.pdf

He makes a number of good points. Here is my admittedly biased take:

-“Increasing numbers of ecologists read blogs.” Absolutely true, but I would add the caveat that they are overwhelmingly young researchers or graduate students. So it makes sense to gear the content towards them, and one should make no assumptions about who is (or is not) reading.

-“Blogs are fast-moving.” Sure, but to a fault. I often find myself suffering from foot-in-mouth disease, and putting opinions on the internet that is instantly and permanently preserved may one day come back to bite me (hopefully this premonition is not one of them). For someone who is well-established, like Jeremy Fox, this is probably not as big of an issue, but junior ecologists, take heed.

-“Blogs are a good venue for discussion and debate.”

-“Blogs are not only open access, able to be read by anyone, they’re also free to authors.” Hands down the number one point in favor of blogs. The only issue is that they’re not citable or peer-reviewed, meaning that even if they provide good content (which is questionable), one still has to go to the peer-reviewed literature to back up those statements, which can negate this benefit in the first place.

-“Blogs can be a venue for the exchange of serious, rigorous ideas.” Probably the best one I can think of, since he makes the point that comments in PLoS ONE occur on <20% of publications. However, as any YouTube viewer can attest, just because the forum is there doesn’t mean the right people are listening.

-“Blogs can cover topics not suitable for peer-reviewed papers in ecology journals,” Hands down the second best point in favor of blogs (and forums, and any other online community). Gone are the days of ANOVAs, now is the time is complicated-as-shit statistics. Most papers I read assume some level of familiarity with the methods, which is a poor assumption in most cases (at least for me), so off I go to the Wikipedia to figure things out. Not only that, but blogs provide excellent tutorials for the implementation of techniques that are not well enough described in the paper to be easily repeatable (and special kudos to authors who make code, etc. available on their websites and blogs). These easy-to-digest explanations clearly are eschewed in print (although they probably shouldn’t be) and so they end up deposited on the internet.

In the end, blogs replace the discourse that traditionally occurred at meetings and conferences, but instead of happening once a year, they are available 24/7. This is both a blessing and a curse: as Jeremy Fox points out, feedback is instantaneous and voluminous. However, this also means that feedback is instantaneous and voluminous. Dr. Fox also operates from the viewpoint of having established a thoughtful and wildly successful blog. As the market begins to saturate (hey, that’s me!), perhaps as the result of this paper or through the efforts of social media-ites like Jarrett Byrnes, will blogs be able to maintain this stream of services?

I think he sums it up best when he says, “blogging isn’t, and can’t be, a replacement for the peer-reviewed literature, but it can be a hugely valuable component.” Just like anything, blogging needs to be taken with a grain of salt and steps need to be taken to ensure the validity and rigor of the content, which is pretty much good advice for anyone doing anything.

3 thoughts on “How blogging will change ecology: straight from the Fox’s mouth

  1. Jeremy Fox says:

    Glad you liked the post. A few thoughts in response to your comments:

    Yes, the audience for blogs is a non-random sample of all ecologists. It probably skews young, though by no means exclusively so. I’m fine with that. Influencing the next generation seems to me to be a better way to achieve lasting influence than influencing the previous generation. I may do a reader survey at some point to try to get a bit of a handle on who the audience for Dynamic Ecology is.

    Believe me, I am very aware that you can’t erase anything you say from the internet, and more than once I’ve posted something I’ve come to regret. Just because I’m tenured doesn’t mean I don’t care what anyone thinks of me! In my blogging, I’m walking a fine line between being funny, snarky, and provocative–a voice that comes naturally to me, and that I hope is fun to read–and being rude. I have some strategies for staying on the right side of this line (like “if you’re worried about a post or comment, sleep on it before posting”). And when I do make mistakes, I do the only thing you can do: apologize publicly.

    Blogs not being citable or peer-reviewed is a total non-issue for me. That’s not the point of blogs. Face to face conversations with colleagues aren’t peer reviewed either, but they’re a pretty valuable part of how most everyone pursues their science. Preprints on arXiv aren’t peer reviewed, but they’re a pretty valuable part of how people in lots of fields pursue their science. Etc. Plus, there are some nascent standards on how to cite blogs; a colleague has cited a post of mine in a recently-submitted paper.

    I agree with you that one of the most important advantages of blogging is that you can, if you do it well, build an engaged readership and so get good comment threads going. We now know that that mostly doesn’t happen for journal articles.

    Re: blogs as a place for easy-to-digest explanations, absolutely. I believe statistician and blogger Andrew Gelman has talked about this as well. About how blog posts are like papers with all the boring bits removed, just giving you the essentials, and giving them to you in a way that you can both understand and enjoy.

    Yes, a lot of my blogging is basically “Here’s the kind of stuff I’d talk about over beers with people at meetings”. It’s amazingly flattering to find that there’s an audience for that–quite a big audience, in fact! Sometimes I imagine myself sitting at a massive table in some huge pub, with hundreds or thousands of people at the same table. 🙂

    Re: will blogs be able to maintain this “stream of services” as the market saturates, not quite sure what you mean. Can you clarify?

    I don’t see much evidence of lots of ecologists taking up blogging in a really serious way. I don’t think the market is “saturating” all that fast. Indeed, since he got a faculty position, Jarrett Byrnes only posts rarely. Same for most other ecology bloggers. And I doubt my little IEE paper is going to lead to a flood of new ecology bloggers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing Jarrett or anyone at all for this. Everyone has to make their own time allocation decisions. And while blogging doesn’t take me nearly as much time as everyone seems to think, it does take some time. My decision to allocate time to it clearly makes me an outlier among ecologists.

  2. jslefche says:

    Thanks for your comments, Jeremy! I’m humbled that you stopped by to read and reply.

    Blogging has been on my mind a lot lately, and not only because I finally decided to start my own (which was more of an excuse to brush cobwebs off old scripts and share with the world). There has been a lot of interest in social media and outreach from students not only at my own institution, but also as part of the recent working group that I blogged about earlier this week. As emerging ecologists, we felt a gap in terms of sustained dialogue among students. Part of this comes from the need to grapple with and work through ideas together (what might have occurred as part of a journal club in ye olden days), but to an equal degree, I feel it is a way to stay connected with people in far-away lands who may make it one US conference a year (if that). There is also a similar gap between students and faculty, especially those not at one’s home institution, which is why I would be interested to see the results of a reader survey on your blog. For instance, we sometimes use your posts as a platform for a journal club at my school (although we haven’t been self-organized enough to actually comment on them).

    It’s the huge degree of interest I have seen lately from students all over the map re: blogging, Twitter, etc. that makes me wonder what the scene will look like in a few years time. Like you, questions about time commitment are foremost in my mind. Is it worth it to start a blog only to have it peter out when I get too busy? Will I let that happen? If lots of students (or faculty) start to jump on the wagon, will we end up with lots of blogs with one or two posts? And how will the standout blogs (such as yours, theseamonster.net, etc.) fare if there were such an onslaught? Kind of like how there is now a Wikipedia for everything (in fact, should I even capitalize that?), or how Facebook was way better when it was just higher ed. I suppose that was what I meant when I mused on whether higher volume would dilute actual content.

    Thanks for the dialogue!

    • Jeremy Fox says:

      Re: journal clubs, I sure hope they aren’t just a thing from ye olden days! They’re great. I’m flattered that your journal club reads Dynamic Ecology posts.

      Is it worth it to start a blog only to have it peter out? Well, I only discovered I wanted to commit time to blogging by trying it out. My fellow bloggers on Dynamic Ecology are doing the same thing. So, if you try it out, and it peters out, well, there’s your answer–you’ve discovered that you don’t *really* want to do it. In my experience, you’ll find out pretty quickly if you *really* want to do it or not. If you start doing it, and quickly find yourself wanting to put aside other tasks in order to free up time to blog, that’s the sign that you want to do it. Then the trick is to let yourself give in to that desire.

      I have an old post with some advice to folks thinking of starting a blog:
      http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/07/21/advice-how-to-blog/

      The single most important piece of advice I’d give is “know why you’re doing it.” If you’re thinking of doing it because of a vague sense that it’s the sort of thing people do these days, or because of a vague sense that you want more “interaction”, or because you think it will force you to write (it won’t), don’t bother. Same thing for deciding whether to use Twitter–know why you’re doing it. For instance, here’s why my fellow dynamic ecologist Meghan Duffy uses it: http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2012/09/13/why-i-use-twitter/

      Of course, one slightly tricky part of the “should I blog” calculation is that your calculation may depend on the size of your audience. Initially, you won’t have any audience. So if blogging is something you could see yourself doing only if you had an audience of size X, you have to be prepared to put in an initial investment of time and effort to build that audience. I have yet to see much evidence that other ecologists are prepared to put in that initial investment (I’m sure a big reason Meg, Brian, and Chris agreed to start blogging for Dynamic Ecology is that the audience was already there–they didn’t have to make any initial investment).

      And even if lots of ecologists were to start blogging, that wouldn’t necessarily lead to a loss of traffic from Dynamic Ecology. Just as there’s high citation concentration (a small fraction of papers garner a disproportionately high fraction of all citations), there’s high concentration of readership or viewership for every form of online media. YouTube video views, Twitter followership, Facebook likes, blog readerships–all those things have *very* skewed distributions: a very small fraction of all content attracts a disproportionately large fraction of all attention. That’s because of the self-reinforcing nature of how people filter online content (stuff either goes “viral”, or sinks without a trace). Dynamic Ecology has a big audience, which flatters and humbles me. Make no mistake, we will lose that audience if we don’t keep doing what we’re doing. But if we do keep doing what we’re doing, I think the positive feedbacks inherent in how people filter online content will keep our audience very large.

      I do think there’s room for other ecology blogs (new ones, or existing ones) to develop sizable readerships. But if that were to happen, I think it would mean that ecology had moved to the sort of communication ecosystem that economics has.

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