Science Blogging Networks

There are a number of science blogging networks out there, with different focus, and different management styles.  I used to blog at Nature Network but I left there last summer.  I never felt particularly comfortable over at NatureNetwork for a variety of reasons including the way the site was set up (registration required to make comments for example), and the inability to see ones own traffic.   Blogging on my own site, free from even the constraints of blogger or wordpress is a far more rewarding experience because what I gain from blogging is directly proportional to the effort I put in.  If I’m too busy to write (and that covers the 2/3 of the year called ‘term time’), there are few page hits, and no comments.  If I emerge from the dark pit of my office and throw out a few posts here and there, and do some rudimentary promotion of them, the page hits rise and there are occasional comments.

Blogging collectives are helpful because they can be a way of concentrating similar minded writers in one place, and also sharing the site traffic around a bit.  My own viewing habits over at Scienceblogs.com used to support that – I’d call in to read a post on one of my favorite blogs, and usually ended up looking at the homepage for anything that looked interesting and worth reading.  Single sites do not benefit from this, and have to work a lot harder to get traffic (if the writers are interested in traffic).  But if blogging is supposed to be about conversation, then site traffic is an indicator of engagement.

Promoting a blog effectively is more time consuming than writing posts.  It is about effectively engaging with conversations: reading other people’s posts, responding with thoughtful comments, engaging in dialogue in comments threads, and perhaps responding with posts of your own including links to the other conversations.  Blog carnivals (writing posts for, and hosting) and memes are also good ways to engage with the communities out there.    Networked Blogs on Facebook and Twitter offer a convenient way to self-promote and draw small bursts of traffic but they don’t represent the best way to build up an audience and maintain it.  Reading other blogs and leaving reasonable comments takes a lot of time and effort – I’d say it takes more time than writing a post, particularly if you return to follow the comment threads and continue to engage.

I will be interested to see how the bloggers formerly of Scienceblogs.com manage as solo bloggers.  I know many view their return to old typing grounds as a place holder until they get a better offer, but some look like they intend to stay out on their own.  I suspect that site traffic will be quite high initially as people browse by to see the aftermath of the kerfuffle of the last few weeks.  What will be interesting though is to see the returning visit statistics.  I’m not sure what the turnover in regular readership of a typical high traffic blog is, but if you even lose 10% of semi-regular readers every couple of months, that’s quite a decline to make up (if you care for such things), if you don’t have the benefit of a network promoting your efforts.

But again I come back to the idea that I just don’t like blogging networks that much.  Both scienceblogs.com and NatureNetwork (and I’m sure many of the newish ones will be the same now or in the future) develop very peculiar hierarchies and social ordering. These in turn generate good effects (scienceblogs.com’s donors chose initiative springs to mind) and bad effects.  I’ve seen many bloggers write that they just don’t see what they gain from being part of a collective.  I think they gain traffic, a minimum level of interest in what they write (some would call it a ‘louder megaphone’), and probably a little more prestige, if that’s the right word, in the eyes of some.  I don’t think those things can be casually dismissed, and I dislike intensely the attitude that several bloggers have where they believe a particular network to ‘owe them’.  Ultimately the growth in science and science-related academic blogging is such that there will always be a long line of people willing to take their place.  The relationship between a blog network and its bloggers has to be one of mutual dependence to a point, but beyond that the blogger is always beholden to the corporate overlords and their interests.  That’s the key part for me – I like control.   There are no ads on this site because I chose not to have them.  If a product or link appears on  this site, I am endorsing or criticizing it.  I’m in control of every element.   I don’t have to have panels of links to other people’s blog posts, of adverts for products I know nothing about, or any kind of corporate branding.  And if I write something that someone doesn’t like, it is down to me to remedy the matter, not anyone else.

It is harder work out here in the big wide world.  But definitely interesting.

This post was written on Sunday July 25th and scheduled to be published on Monday July 26th.

Cleaner Chemistry?

One of the best things about chemistry at my university is that we have a shiny new teaching lab. [WARNING: there may be shameless plugging ahead].  The building that houses the lab is rated excellent under BREEAM, and comes with all kinds of neat stuff like solar tubes to heat hot water, rain water collection for a grey water system and (slightly more puzzling), a green wall consisting of various plants growing at 90 degrees to the normal force of gravity.

I am often laughed at on Open/Visit days when taking tour groups round.  Why do they laugh at me?  Because I’m telling them about the ‘green’ chemistry lab and they believe that green (=environmentally friendly) is a contradiction when paired with chemistry.  Chemistry is, to some, the root of many environmental evils, while at the same time being the root of many solutions to environmental problems.  That’s another debate entirely.  The other day I had cause to consider the chemistry that takes place with in the laboratory.  It is a fantastic laboratory to work and teach in – spacious, furnished with state of the art equipment, and all high tech with projection facilities and a great sound system (not strictly relevant to the chemistry, I know).    It is an undergraduate laboratory so sees in the region of 4 chemistry classes per week, along side pharmacy and forensic science classes.  By design it is in heavy use.

Heavy use means that there are a lot of consumable items required, from solvents to gloves, and from chemicals to disposable lab ware.  The question then becomes: how can we run an undergraduate teaching laboratory in a manner that befits the environmental certification of the building that houses it?

I have no obvious answers to this question.  For economic reasons, reactions are done on a small scale (small enough for more expensive reagents to be used if required,  small enough to cope with larger class sizes but still large enough for students to be a little careless and still obtain products).  We can construct well thought out experimental procedures that minimise waste but don’t compromise on the quality of the laboratory experience – it just takes a little thought.  We can substitute solvents or reagents with significant environmental impact if appropriate, or find ways of running experiments with reduced quantities.  Some might question the necessity of all of this, but if I spend time outside of work reducing the quantity of packaging I bring into my house, taking care to recycle what I can, and making my house more energy efficient, why shouldn’t I want to apply that to work as well?  Most of these steps save money as well as reduce the overall impact of the laboratory.

How do we reduce consumption of items such as disposable gloves without compromising on health and safety?  How do we reduce consumption of other disposable items such as glass pasteur pipettes, plastic pipette tips and sample vials without compromising on quality, or giving the impression of being overly budget concious?  We can tackle some of these head on by ensuring that disposable items are used appropriately and in some cases not treated as disposable.  For example – during a 3 hour lab class, how many pasteur pipettes are really needed to dispense  deuterated chloroform from the solvent bottle?  Answer: 1 if sufficient care is taken.  Why can’t sample vials be washed and reused if they are only used to store samples long enough for inspection when the laboratory report is marked?  And we do a lot of this already, but sometimes I feel we ought to be doing a little more.

Shaking things up…

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it is unlikely that you’ve not noticed the big shake up in science blogging that was (in part) started by scienceblogs.com giving Pepsi a blog (which was later removed).   While I’m sad that many bloggers have been forced to up root and move, I can’t help feeling a little excited too – new starts often fill bloggers with new vigour for writing.  This post is mainly to update the blogroll I keep, and point you in the direction of some eloquent and wonderful writing.

Highly Allochthonous with Chris and Anne can now be found: http://all-geo.org/highlyallochthonous/

A Blog Around the Clock can now be found: http://coturnix.wordpress.com/ but you should really read Bora’s last post at ScienceBlogs for a wonderful summary of science blogging from his point of view.

I’m still playing with the links displayed here but if any of you have any suggestions for blogs not featured, drop a comment.

Update: And a few others…

PalMD of White Coat Underground is now here: http://whitecoatunderground.wordpress.com/

Deborah Blum of Speakeasy Science (chemistry blog!!) is now here: www.blog.deborahblum.com

There are also a couple of new (to me) blogging collectives:

Lab Spaces  http://www.labspaces.net/index.php

Field of Science http://www.fieldofscience.com/

And another update:

GrrrlScientist can now be found at: http://www.grrlscientist.net/ or .com or .info or .org or .us – she was making sure we’d all still find her.

Class of 2010

It was our graduation ceremonies at Keele last week.  I’ve always found graduation to be strange and anticlimactic. It is happy, but the graduands are dealing with family and friends unfamiliar with campus and what it is like as well as celebrating their considerable achievements over the past 3 or more years; sad because the graduands are in their final moments of being students before hitting the ‘real world’; fun because all the stress of final exams, handing in assessment and associated course admin is over; and probably quite stressful because the staff like to put on a good show and the graduands have to deal with family, friends and staff in one room (perhaps even with baby stories!).

By virtue of starting my job on April Fool’s Day, this is the third graduating class I’ve seen but the first where I really knew the students and taught them in the lecture theatre.  Next year will be the first class that I’ve seen walk in the door to register on day 1 of week 1 of semester 1 of year 1, and I will hopefully see them walk out again as graduates.  This years bunch were according to many of my colleagues one of the more memorable years (and that does no disservice to any other years).  My door has been covered in post-it-notes three times in the last 2 years, I’ve had students in my office with everything from light sabres to serious questions about ‘stuff’ (references, jobs, course work…).  I will be truly surprised if I ever teach a class of similar size that are noisier than the class of 2010 were though!

It isn’t easy being a graduate this year or indeed in any recession year, and the media are doing their best (worst?) to frighten people about job prospects etc.  I have nothing sensible to offer on the topic of graduate prospects but I wish them all the very best.  Luck? Perhaps, but the class of 2010 are a talented bunch of people and they’ll do well.