Monday, September 13, 2010

In which I flog a dead horse

In this post I'd like to revisit the Kouper paper (2010) and even more important, the way it was accepted among science bloggers.

First of all, let's start with the blogs studied. The paper says that "The blogs were sampled via the Internet search for "science blogs" and "blogs about science" and by following scientific news on the moment of data collection in Summer, 2008". I'm not sure why Ms. Kouper felt the need to make both searches because Uncle Google, bless its PageRank heart, gives, as expected, very similar results for both searches (and an Information Science student should know that). This kind of sampling means the blogs studied will probably be the most popular at the time, which is indeed what happened. Pharyngula and The Panda Thumb aren't typical science blogs.

Also, putting all the blogs in the research under one category is, in my opinion, wrong. One-person-blog isn't the same as Wired Science with its many writers. As A Blog Around the Clock puts it: "Wired Science is a blog owned by a media company.

There's little wonder that Kouper's first conclusion was "Science blogs examined in this study are very heterogeneous." I believe an effort should have been made, at least, to categorize the blogs in a way that won't compare apples and oranges.

A Blog Around the Clock does us a great service by revealing the doubts the blogger had about the paper, as a peer-reviewer, during the peer-review process. He criticizes the methodology (the small sample, the cut-off for the comments' content analysis at 15 comments) and the conclusions. Kouper's main conclusion was that: "It appears that science blogging can also be characterized as relying on reductive analysis and dependent reporting and drawing caustic and petty commentary."

Perhaps the biggest problem of the paper is that the author expect science blogs and science bloggers to fit her ideas of the ways to engage the public in science. She thinks, for example, that “An interesting practical experiment would also be to reverse the roles of writers and readers and invite the so called “ordinary persons” to create and publish science blogs, i.e., to engage them in the practices of science blog writing rather than reading or commenting."

To which The Panda's Thumb answered: "Hm? Why would that be interesting? And, for that matter, “ordinary persons” have the same access to blogging software as do scientists; nothing (except disinclination or disinterest) is stopping “ordinary persons” from blogging about anything they wish."

It seems that Kouper sees science blogging as some sort of elitist activity, while I believe it is more of a meritocracy. If you want to blog about science, write well, and blog consistently, people will read you (though it might take a while).

As opposed to Kouper, Kjellberg (2010) took a different approach to science blogging, by conducting 12 in-depth interviews with science bloggers who are also active researchers. I further discuss the paper here. Kjellberg's paper deals with less famous blogs and bloggers (and most of the blogs are in Swedish) , which could be part of the reason it hasn't gotten any attention from the blogosphere, as far as I can tell.

The main reason I think it has gone unnoticed (so far) is that it isn't controversial enough. It fits more with the "storybook image" of science, as Cronin (1984) called it. Blog posts which say "I agree with the paper", attract less attention than controversial blog posts. As Goodell (1977) said, "The famous scientist is controversial."

ETA: I'd like to thank Neuroskeptic for insight. I've edited a certain sentence so it reflects reality more accurately.

Kouper, I. (2010). Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges, and opportunities Jcom, 9 (1)

Kjellberg, S. (2010). I am a blogging researcher: Motivations for blogging in a scholarly context First Monday, 15 (8)

Goodell, R. (1977). The visible scientists. Boston : Little, Brown ISBN: 0316320005

Cronin, B. (1984). The Citation Process: The Role and Significance of Citations in Scientific Communication London: Taylor Graham Publishing


  1. "Blog posts which say "I agree with the paper", are boring (and short)"

    But there are very few of those. Most blogs will go to some length to explain the paper, and why they agree with it, if they do agree. Of course this explaining can be done well or badly. But when it's done well, it can be extremely valuable.

  2. You're right. I should have said that this kind of blog posts attract less attention (but aren't necessarily boring). I think I'll edit the post. Thanks for the input!