I recently talked at some length with a young eScientist (whose blog I might highlight later). He’s a computer scientist, professionally interested in multidisciplinary work (music, environment, agents, etc.) and although very clued up on modern informatics didn’t have a blog. I encouraged him to start one – which he has done – and suggested some themes that have been successful in the blogosphere.
Last year Nature ran a competition to encourage senior scientists to blog (Russ B Altman wins Science Blogging Challenge… and a trip to SciFoo) and did me the honour of asking me to be on the judging panel. Like many new ideas (and Nature has had many of those) it has yet to get wide momentum but the winners were worthy of their awards (a prestigious and luxurious trip to Sci-Foo) – the Oscar of blogging. I must, of course, highlight the great contribution to blogging made by Timo Hannay of Nature and his colleagues.
I have no doubt that blogging has made a great deal of positive difference to what I have been able to do over the last 2-3 years. I make many new contacts and have been able to create considerable advocacy for Open Data – whose time seems now to have arrived. I’ve enjoyed reading many other blogs – especially after going to SciFoo (it’s great) and getting on the foo-campers’ digest. Science is a mixture of altrusim and competition and blogging allows both – the ability to share with others in the field while advancing one’s own position (visibility, collaborations, strength of message.)
So my advice – over an hour on Skype – was roughly:
- Try to have a consistent theme (yes I know this blog oscillates between OpenFoo and Chemistry, but I trust my readers can distinguish).
- Think about how to communicate to people you don’t know are there. You will get the most surprising replies. But don’t be disappointed if no-one replies – readership/writership is often > 100.
- Unless you have an unwavering uncomfortable message be collaborative and welcoming.
Themes which are common and appreciated:
- “My own work”. This depends very much on what is already out there and the community. Open Scientists like Jean-Claude Bradley and Cameron Neylon are changing out attitudes to how we publish science. But be sensible – some journals won’t allow papers whose data has already appeared. Maybe they should be encoiuraged to think otherwise.
- “Meetings I go to”. Blogging and tweeting is transforming how we report meetings. Someone who acts as the blogscribe of a meeting is often welcomed by the community – it’s a good way of getting known. The tweeting at #LOTF09 was a revelation to me – the hundreds of 140char messages acts as a dynamic exciting record of the meeting “Does PMR know his mike is still broadcasting during his tea-time conversations”? I see from Tweetdeck that the eScientist has already taken my advice and tweeted his meeting – he was the only one, so maybe a report to the community will be valued.
- “what’s happening in my field”. Some bloggers act as rapporteurs for new and exciting work (or awful work) in their discipline. There’s a strong tradition in chemistry blogging with comments on synthetic chemistry, new drugs, new software, etc.
- recipes. These are often highly valued – preparations of materials, tuning apparatus, software bugs, etc. Again chemistry has a good collection of these.
- advocacy. If you have a passionate cause – mine is Openness – then blogging is a perfect medium. It’s the quickest way of attracting like-minded people. You will make enemies as well, so make sure that your facts and arguments are correct and coherent.
- Aggregation. Some blogs aggregate from other places. That can be extremely useful if the sources are from outside the domain, but make sure you are not simply recycling what is already widely known.
- Humour, fun, and media. If well done this is very much appreciated. Cartoons, photographs of interesting things, audio, etc.
On the technical side
- Blogging can take longer than you think.
- Consider using a blogging service – including Nature’s.
- Make sure your blog can be easily added to people’s feeds.
- Be prepared for linkspam – it’s horrible. A service provider may help here.
- Most authoring tools are primitive – so don’t be too adventurous at the start. (We have dropped to a completely basic skin at UCC because everything else was too hairy in WordPress).
- Allow comments, but protect with Captcha. Even then you get linkspam.
And don’t lose faith if you get no immediate reaction. It takes time to get known and many blogs get very little immediate response anyway. Comment on other blogs – that gives them a pingback to your blog. Put them in your blogroll – gradually your readership will grow. Leave comments on other blogs , with pointers back to what you have written – but don’t make it look like marketing. Ultimately it is the quality and interest of what you blog that will create your readership.
I have omitted a lot of things – please let me know what.