Why students should start reading blogs (and commenting!)

Yesterday, Jeremy Fox posted a rather lengthy blog on why academics should read blogs. I’m going to convince the neophyte academic, the graduate student, why you especially should be reading blogs, and commenting too.

I will skip topics like “What is a blog?” and “What do blogs cover?” because Jeremy and his team at Dynamic Ecology have done an excellent job compiling the answers to these questions.

So, why should students read blogs? I’ll keep it simple: connection.

Recently, I was asked to speak at the Virginia SeaGrant Annual Symposium. The director, Dr. Troy Hartley, had an excellent opening talk on network theory in the context of getting science from academia into the hands of policy makers and industry professionals. His argument was simple: the more people you add to your network, the fewer steps it takes to connect any two people and thus the fewer steps it takes to get the correct information to the people who need it. But this idea goes beyond research applications. I say that communication among academics, and particularly among students, is the key to making scientific progress, for whatever purpose.

I wrote a few months ago about “Global Networks in Ecology.” In it, I said that these kinds of networks were wonderful because they exposed participants to other researchers who may have wildly different world views. We all get locked into certain ways of doing things, and interact regularly with people that are closest to us or are long-time collaborators, but this formula rarely shakes things up. To make progress, we need to see the field through others’ eyes every once in a while. But I recognize that not everyone is so fortunate to have the chance to meet up with students from afar (although conferences are a great place to start), and so what can we do? Simple: Blog. Read. Follow. Comment.

I recently launched a new blog project, BioDiverse Perspectives, devoted to initiating discussion among graduate students on the topic near and dear to me: biodiversity. I posted an article yesterday and within a few hours, I had a long discussion going with the author of the paper, and several other graduate students, one of whom I had never met before. We were able to move through arguments together, ask questions and get responses, and I checked out the mystery student’s website and downloaded a few of the lecture materials he provided. Now, I feel like if I ever meet the guy, I have something to talk to him about (“Hey, remember that post on the intermediate disturbance hypothesis?”) and who knows where it will go from there.

Some would argue that the field already allows for these types of interactions with peer reviews, conference talks, institutional seminars, and so on. But these are all very formal, and often anonymous (I could name only a handful of people who have ever showed up at my talks, and fewer who have actually followed up on the topic). Writing, reading, and commenting on blogs is wholly informal, takes less time and effort, and allows for meaningful, personal, and potentially lasting interactions. So why not get to it?

4 thoughts on “Why students should start reading blogs (and commenting!)

  1. Caitlin Burkman says:

    Nice post and points. As I’ve been analyzing biodiversity data for my MS I’ve found so much information on blogs (many run by grad students!). Interactive blogging will bring students together much more efficiently than conferences can.

      • Caitlin Burkman says:

        Will do, there are some good discussions going on on your other page.

        For my MS I’m describing spider communities in residential vacant lands in Cleveland, Ohio, and other urban green spaces. Spiders have a variety of hunting methods and dispersal abilities, so may be a good proxy for examining predatory arthropods in general in urban areas. My work didn’t delve too much into how their diversity mechanistically influence ecosystem services (with biocontrol being especially important in urban gardens that don’t use pesticides), but it’s laid some groundwork in my mind for where I want to go with future research.

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