Ten Essential Qualities of Science Bloggers, from PLOSBLOGS

(Dec 31 2012) My year end post celebrates great science blogging.

With most of our regular PLOS Network bloggers taking some time off to cool their laptops and pop some corks, I set out this morning to highlight the best of denialconf-logoPLOS BLOGS Network from 2012. My dual purpose: to demonstrate PLOS’ appreciation for the depth and breadth of great work done by our independent bloggers, and give readers a chance to catch up with some terrific posts they may have missed.

To get started, I drafted a list of criteria to help define what separates the best science blogging from the rest — and then decided to make this list a frame for some exemplary posts from our network.

Without further ado,  I here present just one blog community manager’s view of the ten essential qualities that make for superior science blogging.

The best science bloggers…

1)      Share a love of science

With boundless curiosity and the willingness to go wherever necessary to find the right sources and parse contradictory findings, the best science bloggers understand and communicate the processes of scientific discovery and replication.

In a vivid example on The Gleaming Retort, John Rennie shares his fascination with space travel while providing incisive and dramatic coverage of the risks involved in NASA’s landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars.

Emily Anthes balances a sense of wonder with an appreciation for scientific detail as she explores the science behind “talking” animals, specifically elephants andbeluga whales.

2)      Respect their readers

The best science bloggers demonstrate respect for readers by not opting for over-simplifications, and by doing their utmost to simply communicate complexity. They acknowledge the essence of science is an open ongoing exchange. Said another way, they show us that (in science, at least) there’s rarely (if ever) a “last word” on anything.

In one excellent example, Mind the Brain blogger James Coyne demonstrates his regard for widely divergent views among his readers with a cogent introduction to a guest post by Adrian Preda covering the latest round in an ongoing conflict in psychiatry over the effectiveness of antidepressants.

3)      Make original research comprehensible to as many readers as possible

The best science bloggers recognize that one big obstacle to readers’ understanding of scientific communication is the author’s reliance on jargon. They take the time to define terms and put a human face on breakthrough research.

 DNA Science blogger Ricki Lewis expertly turns genomics into an accessible science in her post: Why I Don’t Want to Know My Genome Sequence.

Jessica Wapner covers biomedical topics with the same jargon-free approach, seen in July with her post HIV Prevention as Treatment, Trying to Clear the Fog.

4)      Do it with attitude

Literary types call it “voice.” The best science bloggers allow judicious amounts of eccentricity and personal style — attitude — to seep into their posts. On our network, attitude and smart criticism come together in posts by Seth Mnookin. We see it notably in Seth’s reckoning of a spate of bad science blogging and reporting (with a nod to some good) in The State of Science Writing Circa 2012, the Summer of our Discontent, Made Glorious by the Possibilities of our Time.

5)      Praise their peers

Science blogging, like scientific research, is often best when it’s done collaboratively – whether over the short or long term. For lone bloggers, this means regularly reading and responding to posts written by peers and competitors; then giving credit and praise to the ideas and sentences they wish they’d written themselves.

Daniel Lende gives credit where credit is due while employing a cross-disciplinary approach to arrive at novel insights in Neuroanthropology —  a feat most visible this year in Daniel’s two pieces on the nature of violence.  Inside the Minds of Mass Killers followed the Aurora Batman movie theater massacre. No Easy Answers came in the wake of the Newtown school shooting.

Steve Silberman honors his peers while expanding the form of science blogging on NeuroTribes. In multiple posts from 2012, Steve injects new life into that staple of science blogging: the author profile/book review; for example, in hisinterview of Lee Billings, in which he manages to also cover the challenges of space flight and the search for extraterrestrial life.

6)      Show heart and humor

The best science bloggers demonstrate a beating heart and a sense of humor. We like reading them because they aren’t afraid of emotions in themselves or their subjects. Neither do they take themselves or others too seriously. They find humor in the driest subjects and can write funny.

Peter Janiszewski hits the mark this holiday season inObesity Panacea with his post Should Santa Claus Go On a Diet?

And Shara Yurkiewicz shows the heart of a lioness in her chronicleof clinical rotations in med school, always with a healthy dose of self-deprecatory humor. 

7)      Take a Stand

The best science bloggers practice fairness without being “fair and balanced” to a fault. They refrain from making false equivalencies. They state and back up their opinions and find holes in opposing points of view.

Take as Directed blogger David Kroll set a record in August with the over 22000 visits he garnered (in one 24-hour period) for his blog post expressing outrage over the public comments on rape made by Representative Todd Akin (R, MO)  – the politician who demonstrated a stunning level of scientific illiteracy while serving as a member of the Congressional committee overseeing US policy in science and technology.

Hillary Rosner gave voice to the frustration felt by many in the face of inaction over climate change when she posted: To Sum Up We Are Screwed, Questions?

8)      Enjoy civilized debate

The best science bloggers withhold personal insults even when their opponents hit below the belt, including in that vilest of Internet snake pits — the comment stream. Again, none have been more tested on this score than Seth Mnookin for his fair yet unyielding coverage of the anti-vaccine movement.

9)      Pay attention to their medium of communication and embrace social media

The best science bloggers manage to critique the medium and the message while setting the scientific record straight. Melinda Wenner Moyer achieved these multiple goals with her post on the dangers of an unchecked pertussis epidemic in Body Politic.

The best science bloggers are early adopters; they use Twitter, Facebook, Storify, and whatever (next) comes down the pike to crowdsource ideas, engage in conversation, and reach new readers.

Without question, our resident PLOS Twitter star is @stevesilberman, with the rest of us breathlessly attempting to catch up to his 25K+ followers

Neuroanthropology bloggers Daniel Lende and Greg Downey, along with newcomer Sandro Demaio of Translational Global Health, impress by making the most of Facebook, extending their blog comments and conversations onto supplemental FB pages.

The smartest and earliest use of Storify this year came from  John Rennie for his tweet-based coverage of last spring’s Science Writing in the Age of Denial conference.

10)   Make their work freely available for all to enjoy and re-use

Everyone who contributes to our network plays a part in the greater PLOS mission to accelerate scientific progress by allowing open access by anyone with an Internet connection to their original content. We at PLOS believe our independent bloggers play a unique role in the open access movement via their ability to interpret and contextualize breakthrough science.

In the coming year, I look forward to sharing the work of several of our newer blogs; among these citizen sciencescience educationpaleontologyart and science, climate science, and independent perspectives on public health.

In closing, I want to thank all of our bloggers and bid them and our readers a happy and fruitful 2013. And I invite your comments on any of the above in the comments section below. You can also join us on a new PLOS BLOGS LinkedInpage for science blogger networking, mentoring and discussion.

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