Wednesday, 25 November 2015

(Micro)blogging Science? Notes on Potentials and Constraints of New Forms of Scholarly Communication

Source: http://book.openingscience.org/tools/microblogging_science.html

Abstract

Academic publishing, as a practice and as a business, is undergoing
the most significant changes in its 350-year history. Electronic
journals and books, both open access and behind digital pay walls, are
increasingly replacing printed publications. In addition to formal
channels of scholarly communication, a wide array of semi-formal and
informal channels such as email, mailing lists, blogs, microblogs, and
social networking sites (SNS) are widely used by scientists to discuss
their research (Borgman 2007, p. 47; Nentwich & König 2012, p. 50).
Scholarly blogs and services such as Twitter and Facebook are
increasingly attracting attention as new channels of science
communication (see Bonetta 2007; Kjellberg 2010; Herwig et al. 2009).
Radically different conceptualizations of scholarly (micro)blogging
exist, with some users regarding them as a forum to educate the public,
while others see them as a possible replacement for traditional
publishing. This chapter will provide examples of blogs and microblogs
as tools for scientific communication for different stakeholders, as
well as discussing their implications for digital scholarship.

Framing the Issue: New Forms of Scholarly Communication and Science 2.0

There is a broad consensus that modern science is undergoing profound
structural changes afforded by the rise of digital technology, and that
this change is occuring on multiple levels of the scientific work
process at once (Nielsen 2012, Nentwich & König 2012). The abundance
of massive storage capacities, high volumes of processing power, and
ubiquitous network access enables new forms of research which are
contingent on large quantities of digital data and its efficient
computational analysis (Weinberger 2011). This development is
underscored by the rise of data science, that is, science that
is driven by the analysis of large quantities of data from a wide range
of sources such as sensors, scanners, MRI, telescopes, but also
human-generated data from social media and digital libraries, and
interrogated through statistical procedures, machine learning
algorithms, and other computational measures, allowing researchers to
discover previously unrecognized patterns. Such approaches are
innovative in the sense that they surpass the capabilities of
traditional research in making observations of changes in very complex
systems as they unfold, and in that they potentially allow predictions
regarding the future behavior of such systems (Golder & Macy 2012).
Whereas research has in the past been based upon comparably scarce
evidence, the promise of data science is that it will be both scalable
and reproducible on a previously unimaginable level, providing novel
insights into a wide array of areas, from climatology to social science
(Lazer et al. 2009).



Figure 1. myExperiment is one of a number of new virtual research environments (VREs).
Figure 1. myExperiment is one of a number of new virtual research environments (VREs).
Beyond
innovation of research methods, other aspects of how science is
undertaken are also changing visibly, both as a result of technological
shifts and because of economic and cultural changes in how research is
financed and organized (cf. several contributions in this volume). From
teaching and funding to publishing and peer review, it seems that a
variety of aspects of how scientists work are changing, and that
communication is at the forefront of this change, a change brought about
primarily by the proliferation of technologies which are themselves the
result of publicly funded scientific research. These technologies not
only make it easier, cheaper, and quicker for scientists to exchange
information with peers around the globe, they also have the potential to
blur the line between internal communication among researchers and
communication with the wider public. New formats must be adopted for
scholarly use to fit the needs of academics while established genres
evolve as a result of new technologies for the production and
dissemination of scholarly publications (Cope & Kalantzis 2009).

Scientists have, of course, always been avid communicators. From
Darwin’s notebooks to the Large Hadron Collider, getting complex
scientific issues across both to colleagues and laypersons has been at
the top of the agenda for researchers for as long as modern science has
existed. Successful communication is integral to scholarship because it
allows scientific knowledge to proliferate, enable practical
applications, and become entrenched societal knowledge, but also because
frequently the outcomes of scientific research have far-reaching
societal implications and are highly controversial (e.g., climate
research, nuclear energy, genetics). Scientists must be able to explain
what they do to a broader public to garner political support and funding
for endeavors whose outcomes are unclear at best and dangerous at
worst, a difficulty which is magnified by the complexity of scientific
issues. They do so in an increasingly challenging environment, engaging
with a public that has access to a wide range of sources of (by
scientific standards) often dubious quality, many of them online
(Puschmann & Mahrt 2012; König 2011). This public is increasingly
critical and unimpressed by scientific authority and simple promises of
scientific progress as an enabler of economic growth and societal
welfare, and must be both won over and brought on board, rather than
talked down to. Civil society expects to be engaged in a dialog with
science, rather than being lectured. The affordances of social media
(blogs, wikis, social networking sites) should be regarded as supporting
a general long-term shift towards a more egalitarian relationship
between experts and the lay public, rather than driving it.



Figure 2. CERN’s Twitter page.
Figure 2. CERN’s Twitter page.
Intra-scientific
discourse is changing as well, as a result of the move from paper to
digital, which seems almost completed in much of the hard sciences. The
majority of formal publishing in the STM disciplines takes place in
academic journals and conference proceedings, with pre-prints,
post-prints, reports, technical manuals, posters, and other formats also
playing an important role (Borgman 2007). Increasingly, traditional
academic genres (journal articles, conference papers, scholarly
monographs) are published online, rather than in print, and disseminated
through a variety of channels (email, blogs, online book reviews,
social media). Preprint archives such as arXiv and Social Science Research Network (SSRN)
have proliferated in a variety of disciplines and continue to grow in
popularity. Beyond open access, there is an increased push for adding
features that make use of the affordances of digital publishing, such as
interactive charts and figures, and towards providing raw data along
with papers to encourage follow-up research, for example on sites such
as Figshare.

Science Blogging as a New Form of Engaging with Science

While still an emergent phenomenon, new and genuinely digital forms
of scholarly communication play an increasingly significant role in
discussions about the future of academic discourse, especially as the
existing system of knowledge dissemination is increasingly characterized
as threatened or even dysfunctional (cf. Cope & Kalantzis 2009;
Stein & Puschmann 2010). The phenomenon of science blogging has
attracted significant attention and discussion in papers (e.g., Batts et
al. 2008; Tola 2008; Shema et al. 2012) and at conferences (e.g.,
ScienceOnline ‘09, Science Blogging 2008: London). Sites such as Nature Network, ScienceBlogs.com, and Hypotheses.org
act as hosting platforms of such specialized academic content, allowing
researchers to present and discuss their work before a global audience,
some with commercial publishers backing them, others funded publicly.
Increasingly, universities and research institutes offer blog hubs which
either aggregate externally-hosted content contributed by students and
faculty members or allow direct publishing through the institutional
website. Many academic researchers also rely on commercial hosting
platforms such as Wordpress.com and Blogger.com to exchange information with peers and to document their projects.

A non-scholarly genre that has been adopted for scholarly
communication, blogs are just one tool in a wider array of new formats.
New platforms for publishing such as Open Journal Systems (OJS) and Annotum
seek to make the processing and presentation of scholarly texts better
adjusted to their digital environment. Monographs are also redefined in
new approaches from initiatives such as PressForward or OpenEdition,
which seek to modify both the dissemination of academic publications
and the economics behind its distribution (costly production techniques,
long delays between authoring and publication). Beyond making the
results of scholarly research available online, efforts are being made
to make scholarly formats themselves more innovative and better adjusted
to the Internet (cf. Jankowski et al. 2012). The need to facilitate new
means of knowledge production, presentation, and dissemination is
widely felt, not only inside science itself, but also among
policymakers. This need is fuelled both by the exponential growth of
scholarly publishing (Jinha 2010) and the costs associated with the
current model of subscription-based access. Different models have been
proposed among the different varieties of open access (i.e. the ‘gold
road’ model of immediate open access and the ‘green road’ model of
delayed open access after an embargo period). Alternate funding schemes
include author fees and institutional consortia, as well as direct
public funding, for example via libraries (Houghton 2010).

Beyond the use outlined above—researchers using blogs to communicate
their work, primarily to peers, a wide variety of other approaches to
science (or, more broadly, scholarly) blogging exist, depending on
communicators, target audience, and function. For example, it is widely
assumed that because they are public, science blogs should be used to
present the results of scientific research to a wider audience. Often
blogging is seen as a new component of science journalism which is
consequently something not just done by scientists, but also by
journalists, or by enthusiasts with knowledge in a given area of science
(Bonetta 2007). Frequently when the term science blogging (or scholarly blogging)
is used, it is only implicitly clear which kind of blogging is meant,
the variety that complements scholarly communication in journal articles
and scholarly monographs, or the one that complements science
journalism. It seems likely that different variants will continue to
exist as a result of the freedom to innovate and create new genres
online. In the following I will briefly discuss two different science
blogs as examples of these different approaches in an attempt to
underscore how blogging complements the needs of scientists and science
communicators (journalists, activists, hobbyists) alike. While there is
some overlap, it is important to be aware of the different needs of
these actors.

When approaching science blogs and an emergent communicative
practice, it is helpful to first outline the roles they play for
different stakeholders in the ecosystem of scholarly communication.
Tables 1 and 2 give an overview of the various roles played by different
actors, and of some of the motives of scientists who blog for different
reasons, respectively.

Table 1. Examples of actors, audiences, and functions of science blogs.
Actor Target audience Function Analogy
Lab leader in genetics Funders, general public provide rationale f. research inform public & funders Report
PhD student in physics Peers, senior researchers promote self practice writing Lab notebook
Science journalist General public explain science broadly educate readers Magazine piece
Table 2. Example motives of science bloggers
Motive A: Visibility Motive B: Networking Motive C: Information
increase own impact connect with peers be up to date
be found by peers and other stakeholders stay in touch with colleagues be part of a conversation
present self/own work be(come) part of a community anticipate trends

Case 1: Rosie Redfield (RRResearch)

RRResearch is the blog of Rosemarie (‘Rosie’) Redfield, a
microbiologist at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and
head of the Redfield Lab at UBC’s Department of Zoology. The blog was
initially published on the commercial service Blogspot, but has since then moved to the independent blog network Field of Science which uses the Google Blogger
as its technical backbone but is maintained so as to feature high
quality scientific content contributed by experts from different fields.

Since August 2006, Redfield has posted over 900 entries on the blog, discussing various issues of her research. Her initial post gives a good idea about the direction of the blog:

This is my first post to this new blog.

The purpose of keeping the blog is to give me a semi-public place to
describe the ongoing process of doing and thinking about my lab’s
research. I hope I’ll use it to describe/explain (mainly to myself) the
scientific issues I’m thinking about:

  • what experiments we’ve done
  • what the results were if they worked (or possible explanations for why they didn’t work)
  • what I think the results mean for the questions we’re trying to answer
  • what experiments I think we might do or should do when time and resources permit.
The purpose of this post, however, is mainly to see what happens when I click on ‘Publish Post’.
While many posts are devoted to documenting and describing her
research—often, as emphasized in the post above, seemingly with herself
in mind as reader, quite a few touch related issues relevant to a less
specialized audience. For example, several early posts cover Bayesian
statistics and discuss its use in genetics research. Many posts are
related to meta-issues in scientific work, i.e. grant proposals, journal
submissions, and other aspects that are part of work processes at a
genetics laboratory.

While Redfield’s blog was known to an expert audience before, she attained major success as a result the post “Arsenic-associated bacteria (NASA’s claims)” (Redfield 2010) that strongly critiqued the paper “A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus” (Wolfe-Simon et al. 2010) which had been previously published in the journal Science.
In the blog post, Redfield initially reports the findings of the paper
and then proceeds with a detailed criticism of the methodology used by
the authors of the study. As in other entries, she mixes a somewhat
informal style with the vocabulary of a scientific paper. She also
includes numerous figures, illustrations, and references, making the
post comparable to a review in a scientific journal.



Figure 4. The first post published on RRResearch in August 2006.
Figure 4. The first post published on RRResearch in August 2006.
The post received over 250 comments and a polished version was later published by Science,
though the original article was not retracted. Redfield’s success in
using her blog to voice her criticism, rather than using the traditional
channels, was seen by many as a turning point in the dynamics of
science communication—a journal widely recognized for its rigour saw
itself forced to react to criticism posted in a blog.

RRResearch is the blog of a scientist, who accordingly uses
it as part of a wider communicative agenda. While most writing done by
academics is geared towards peers and written to withstand their
scrutiny and criticism, writing a blog “for oneself” amounts to a space
where freer, less regimented expression is possible. Redfield is, of
course, aware that her blog is widely read, but its status as something
other than a formally recognized publication is an asset, because it
allows her to address issues that wouldn’t generally fit into a formal
publications. Yet RRResearch is also not a typical science blog
in the sense that most journalists or science educators would interpret
the term—understanding much of what is published in it presupposes
in-depth knowledge of biochemistry and Redfield makes no attempt to dumb
down her writing to make it more palatable to a lay audience.

Case 2: Bora Zivkovic (A Blog Around the Clock)

Bora Zivkovic is a well-known blogger and science educator with a
background in veterinary medicine and biology. He teaches introductory
biology at North Caroline Wesleyan College, organizes ScienceOnline conference series, and has been a visiting scholar at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

Zivkovic started his site A Blog Around the Clock (ABATC) in 2006, after moving from Blogger.com to ScienceBlogs. In 2011, the blog was moved again, this time to Scientific American,
where Zivkovic became the first Blog Editor. After he took up blogging
in 2002, Zivkovic gradually gained wide recognition as a science
blogger, not least because of the impressive volume of his activity. In
the time before moving from Blogger to ScienceBlogs
alone, he produced a total of 2420 posts about a variety of topics.
While frequently these are short texts pointing to a news item, video,
or other piece of information, many are detailed essays about (broadly)
science and politics, science and the general public, etc. His style is
not only less formal than that of Rosie Redfield, but he also uses
considerably less scientific terminology. The considerable volume of
content that flows through ABATC make it a virtual popular
science magazine, covering a breadth of issues and formats (including
blog carnivals and other outreach mechanisms that aim to strengthen
connections with other blogs). Zivkovic both relays information from
other sources, commenting on it and explaining it to readers, and
provides longer commentaries, for example on issues of science policy.
He assumes that his readers are interested in science, but does not
generally presume in-depth knowledge of scientific topics. This approach
is in line with Zivkovic’s own background: while he is a trained
scientist and writes from a first-hand perspective, his agenda is not
that of someone paid for full-time research.

While RRResearch presents both the results of research (rarely) and frames scientific issues for a scientific audience, ABATC translates scientific topics for a more general, non-specialist audience. The issues are much broader there than they are in RRResearch,
where they align much more strongly with the blogger’s own research
interests. The latter blog is a window into the mind and daily work of
the researcher, not a friendly conversation with a lay audience. This is
not to say that RRResearch doesn’t engage—its success
illustrates how well it achieves this goal—but whom it targets as its
readership and what function it wants to realize remains at least
partially unclear. Redfield uses her blog to frame issues for herself
and her peers, while Zivkovic blogs for a readership with their needs
squarely in mind. Much of the research that he relays is not his own,
while much of what is discussed in RRResearch is Redfield’s own
work, or closely related to it. Whereas Redfield regards her blog as an
instrument for communicating what she is currently working on or issues
she is more generally interested in, Zivkovic provides a service and
measures its success, at least in part, by its popularity and the amount
of feedback he receives, a form of impact that may well be less
relevant to a blogger like Redfield, who might be primarily concerned
with her blog’s reception among her students and peers.



Figure 5. A Blog Around the Clock, Bora Zivkovic’s blog at the Scientific American Blog Network.
Figure 5. A Blog Around the Clock, Bora Zivkovic’s blog at the Scientific American Blog Network.


The Uses of Microblogs for Science: Two Scenarios

Compared to blogging, which has a history that reaches back to the
beginning of the Web itself, microblogs are still a relatively new form
of communication. Microblogs share with “normal” blogs the sequential
organization of information in dated entries, but they are usually
constrained in length to facilitate scanning a large number of posts
rapidly. Another point of distinction is that microblogs are typically
centralized services rather than decentralized software packages that
can be run from one’s own webserver. Twitter is by far the most popular service, though competitors exist, both related specifically to science and for general use1.
As with blogs, the potential uses of microblogs for scholarly
communication are highly varied, ranging from virtual journal clubs
(Reich 2011) and debates about current, science-related events, to
self-help for graduate students (for example, under the #phdchat
hashtag). Microblogs are also a way for scientists to stay up to date
about what their colleagues are working on, while at the same time
providing a window into current scientific research for science
journalists and facilitating interaction between scientists and the
general public (Puschmann & Mahrt 2012). The lack of a dividing line
between scientists and non-scientists, as well as the great variety of
topics that even scientists tweet about mean that Twitter is
not comparable to the orderly world of science publishing, where every
piece of information is assumed to be relevant. Instead, a typical
user’s timeline is likely to be populated both by scholarly content and
personal remarks, more or less side by side. As the size of the network
and the thematic broadness of Twitter is what makes it
interesting to most users, it seems unlikely that this “problem” will
ever be remedied at its core, but the ability to filter information from
Twitter and similar services is likely to resolve the issue.2
Tweets and other social media information can congregate around a
journal article or piece of data—an approach that may also be beneficial
for the development of dedicated science services. Such services could
eventually become a reality as the strengths of services like Twitter
are at once also a weakness: while timely, tweets are not accessible in
the long term, and increased brevity also means less nuanced
information in each tweet. Wide proliferation and ease of use may
eventually be offset by problems regarding access to and long-term
preservation of data. As with FriendFeed, which was enthusiastically embraced by a small community of scientists, it is completely unclear how Twitter
will evolve and the concerns of academics are likely to matter very
little in respect to this. It is conceivable that policymakers will
eventually put into place an infrastructure that will support the kind
of communication taking place on Twitter, at least between
scientists, rather than leaving vital issues to private companies that
do not have scientific issues at the center of their attention. While it
is impossible to tell how many scientists are already using Twitter
and similar services and in what ways, it is safe to say that the
significance of microblogging is growing, while its role for science
communication continues to evolve (cf. Puschmann & Mahrt 2012). In
the following, two common scenarios for the use of microblogs will be
described in more detail: tweeting at scientific conferences and using Twitter to cite papers in open access journals and repositories.

Case 1: Twitter at Conferences

Conferences are all about communication. When used in the context of scientific conferences, Twitter
acts as a backchannel, in other words, it complements what happens at
the conference itself, allowing attendees, and quite frequently also
people who are unable to attend, to comment, ask questions, and
participate in the discussion taking place. It is important to point out
that this complements the face to face activity, rather than replacing
it. It is a major advantage that a talk can take place uninterrupted
while a lively discussion takes place about it on Twitter. A
drawback of this approach is that the presenter cannot participate in
the debate while it is underway and while being the the subject of
discussion, sometimes also criticism. The use of a Twitter
wall, i.e. a projection of hashtagged tweets usually shown next to or
behind the presenter, can aggravate this problem. In November 2009,
social media researcher Danah Boyd held a talk at the media industry
event WebExpo New York that was accompanied by a Twitter
wall showing tweets posted under the conference hashtag. As Boyd
delivered her presentation, which was beset by technical difficulties,
she was the subject of intense polemical remarks from spectators via Twitter;
all the while, she herself could not see the projection of the
offensive tweets as she spoke. Though this kind of incident is rare, it
underlines the double-sidedness of a technology that is open and easy to
use, but therefore also easy to abuse under certain circumstances. Twitter
walls, apart from being a distraction, seem to add fairly little
communicatively to the overall conference, although their precise
placement (e.g. in the lobby, rather the main conference hall) seems a
key issue to be aware of.



Figure 6. Network visualization of retweets among users at the World Wide Web 2010 Conference (#www2010), held in April 2010 in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Figure 6.
Network visualization of retweets among users at the World Wide Web
2010 Conference (#www2010), held in April 2010 in Raleigh, North
Carolina.
Examining the usage of Twitter
during conferences, it is notable how specific the usage of scientists
is compared to users of different backgrounds, and that at the same time
microblogging is always more informal communication than traditional
publishing, not just because of its brevity. Rather than chatting idly,
researchers share information via Twitter—they point to papers
and posters, to datasets online, and to websites related to their
research (Weller & Puschmann 2011). Passing on (retweeting) this
information is extremely popular, more so than just exchanging
pleasantries or gossip. At the same time, academics also link to the
same resources that other users do, such as online picture services such
as Instagram or Twitpic or video platforms like YouTube and Vimeo
(Thelwall et al. 2012), and they link to a variety of popular science
content, i.e. science articles from newspapers (Weller, Dröge, &
Puschmann 2011). The continuum between personal and professional is
frequently blurred on microblogging platforms. Conferences act as a sort
of content filter—because the event that a conference hashtag is
associated with is all about a professional activity, what is tweeted
under the hashtag is usually related fairly closely to the topic of the
event, though meta-topics such as the conference program or pointers to
the venue of conference venue are also popular.

Case 2: Twitter for Citations

Beyond conferences, Twitter also plays an increasingly
important role for day-to-day communication among scientists. Academics
are often interested in a variety of topics outside of their specific
field of research and accordingly tweet about many things which are the
not subject of their work or comment in ways that differ from
traditional scholarly communication. This highlights an issue of
informal digital communication online: it is extremely hard to determine
what constitutes a scientifically “valuable” contribution and what does
not. While some tweets are related to scholarly issues and others are
obviously personal in nature, many occupy a meso-level between what is
traditionally considered scholarly content and what usually is not.
Counting every tweet mentioning a scholarly source as scientifically
valuable is obviously too simplistic, as is discarding every personal
remark as irrelevant.

This is a particularly salient issue because an increasing number of
studies examine the relevance of social media for scientometrics, in
other words, the role that social media can play in measuring and
predicting the impact of scientific research (e.g., Weller &
Puschmann 2011, Eysenbach 2011). By conservative estimates, popular
sites such as arXiv received around 5,000 links per month3
and this is bound to increase in the future. If the popular reception
of scholarly literature among scientists and non-scientists alike via Twitter can be considered a form of impact (and many agree that it can), this means that citations on Twitter
and via other channels may be introduced as a valid impact measure into
the scientometric toolkit in the future (cf. the suggestions of Priem,
Piwowar & Hemminger 2012 in this direction).

Who Uses Blogs and Microblogs for Scholarly Communication, And Why?

In the environment of change outlined above, it is only logical to ask why new forms of communication online—blogs, Twitter, social networks—haven’t proliferated to a greater extent. If the examples of innovative usage of blogs and Twitter
to communicate among scientists and more broadly about science give a
reason to be optimistic, actual usage of such tools among
scientists—defined here as the broad base of academics employed for
research and teaching at universities and research institutes—should
caution enthusiasts. International studies on the acceptance rate of
social media among scientists vary considerably in their results, but
many suggest widespread skepticism (cf. Procter et al. 2010; Bader,
Fritz, & Gloning 2012)4.
While pointing to examples where new formats have succeeded is useful,
it is also worth noting that scientists are conservative when it comes
to embracing new technologies, both for internal communication and in
relation to new means of engaging with the general public. This may be
changing, but it seems important to consider both the much- cited
potential of social media for science communication and the reality of
its yet-nascent acceptance among faculty members—especially those in
senior positions. For policymakers it is imperative to have an accurate
picture of the situation and the immediate future, beyond lofty
promises. It is exceedingly likely that in those areas where change is
occurring because it is being driven, at least in part, by researchers
themselves, the changes will be more lasting than where new technologies
are not well-integrated into established practices. Further factors
able to spur innovation are payback in the form of funding, increased
reputation, and other critical competitive aspects of institutional
science. Yet it remains unproven whether social media tools are
essential to improving scholarly communication or whether their
usefulness is restricted to the margin of science and scholarship,
rather than extending to the center.

Two key components that could facilitate the success of social media
tools (blogging, microblogging, but also wikis and social networking
sites for scientists) are the spread of alternative means of measuring
scientific impact beyond traditional bibliometric indicators (a) and the
increasing adaptation of social media formats for science and
integration into “proper” scientific discourse (b). The former is at the
focus of innovations in scientometrics and initial suggestions are
likely to be made in the coming years to funders and research
organizations about how to measure impact more holistically, though it
remains to be seen whether established (and widely criticized) measures
such as Thompson Scientific’s Impact Factor (IF) can be
displaced. In order to achieve the latter, the institutional enablers of
science communication—publishers, libraries, science organizations and
scholarly societies—will have to invent not only new technologies, but
also rebrand familiar labels that scientists rely on. The French site Hypotheses.org and the lab platform OpenWetWare.org
are examples of this approach: while the former is a technically a blog
platform based on the popular Wordpress software and the latter is a
wiki based on Wikimedia’s MediaWiki, both clearly present
themselves as pieces of scientific infrastructure, built for an academic
audience. Success in these approaches lies not in engaging with the
“newness” of social media to win skeptics over, but in promising that
social media tools can be adapted to achieve similar aims as were
previously realized through other channels, only quicker, cheaper and
with broader effect.

The current consensus among scientists appears to be that blogs and Twitter
are somewhat interesting to promote one’s own research (to journalists
and perhaps a few colleagues), and more broadly, one’s field (to
potential students, the general public), but that the payoff is not
always worth the time and effort (Bader, Fritz, & Gloning 2012). If
science was solely concerned with getting scholarly content across to as
many people as possible, blogs would have displaced the established
system of academic publishing by now, but it is no coincidence that the
journal article has not been abandoned in favor of the blog post. In
addition to overall conservatism, the lack of peer review in social
media channels also hampers its adoption as a replacement for
traditional publications. Scholarly content, regardless of the
discipline, must be valorized by the judgement of others, and frequently
only after the criticism of peers has been taken into account and the
original manuscript has been adjusted is a piece of writing deemed a
genuine scholarly publication. Time is the scarcest resource in research
and investing it in an activity of peripheral importance is widely
regarded as wasteful. Taking the extreme goal-orientedness of scholarly
communication into account is essential in understanding the perceived
advantages and disadvantages of social media in the minds of many
scientists.

Table 3. Advantages and disadvantages of blogging and microblogging.

Blogs
Twitter
+ - + -
Rapid dissemination of content Lack of formal recognition Communicate with colleagues Time-consuming
Cheap Lack of prestige in the scientific community Promote your research Benefits unclear
Easy to use No clear topical focus Disseminate information Increased self-exposure
Open to individuals Time-consuming Build personal influence Not sufficiently informative
Promotional tool Long-term availability unclear Stay up to date about your field Perceived as trivial

What is the Potential of Blogs and Twitter for the Future of Science?

A comparably small number of people across the globe actively works
on complex scientific issues, communicating through channels and genres
established over the course of decades, or in some cases centuries,
which have been carefully designed to suit the needs of the respective
communities. How can those on the outside reasonably argue for the need
to profoundly change such a system without professing their own status
as outsiders? The underlying claim of those challenging science to be
more open is that it is closed to begin with, a perception not
universally shared by scientists. Those who espouse the view that social
media should be used to discuss scientific research tend to fall into
one of either two camps: adaptionists or revolutionaries. Adaptionists
believe that social media tools need to suit researchers needs in doing
what they are already doing. Hard adaptationists believe that new
formats should replace established ones because they are more efficient,
cheaper, faster, and better than the established formats of
institutionalized academia (e.g. that blog posts should replace journal
articles). Soft adaptionists believe that new forms should augment
existing ones, often filling unaddressed needs. A soft adaptionist would
use Twitter to promote his research, but not publish a paper in his blog rather than Nature.
In practice, most adaptionists probably act as soft adaptionists, but
some would prefer to follow the hard, uncompromising route if they
could. Adaptionists have in common the basic belief in the legitimacy
and relevance of the existing system of institutional science, but see
it as being in need of reform. They believe that certain aspects of the
system need change, but are convinced of its overall soundness.
Revolutionaries, by contrast, call more than just specific aspects of
the system (e.g. publishing) into question, being, in fact, opposed to
the system as such, which they perceive as elitist and deeply flawed.
While to the adaptationists science is fundamentally open, it is
fundamentally closed to the revolutionaries, who are rarely themselves
part of the entrenched academic system, but tend to be either junior
faculty members or amateurs. Whereas the adaptationists have been
co-opted to varying degrees to uphold the established order, the
revolutionaries imagine a future in which the the entrenched system is
overturned. Though the latter seems much less likely than the former,
both groups actively advance the significance of social media for
science, in spite of widespread inertia on the part of much of the
academic establishment.

It has yet to be seen how exactly blogs will fit into the existing
ecosystem of scholarly publishing. Their role could be complementary,
providing an outlet for purposes which traditional publishing does not
address—from reflections about teaching to the promotion of a
researcher’s work. Miscellaneous writing that does not fit into
recognized publications however is strongly contingent on the time that a
researcher has at their disposal. Blogging on a regular basis is
time-consuming, therefore it is likely that full-time academics will
actively blog only if they find it benefits their career. In the end,
blogs and microblogs supplement, rather than replace, traditional
formats, and act as tools for the promotion of one’s research, rather
than tokens of prestige and academic excellence. Changing blogs in order
to make them functionally equivalent to recognized formal publications
would mean changing them to a degree that could nullify their benefits
(for example, by introducing peer review). Instead, they have a place in
the larger ecosystem of science communication 2.0 which includes
protocols (OpenWetWare) and workflows (myExperiment) as examples of entirely new scientific genres which are functionally different from blog posts.

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  1. An example for a specialized microblogging for
    scientists is ScienceFeed, which is part of the social networking
    functionality offered by ResearchGate, while App.net is an
    advertising-free microblogging service that promises to put the
    interest’s of its (paying) members first.
  2. As one example of a new approach to publishing powered by Twitter aggregation, see http://digitalhumanitiesnow.org.
  3. Author’s own estimate based on ongoing tracking of all tweets linking to the arXiv website.
  4. But see Priem 2011, who suggests that usage of Twitter is steadily growing.


(Micro)blogging Science? Notes on Potentials and Constraints of New Forms of Scholarly Communication

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