Another advantage of blogging

As you may have noticed from the extended radio silence, it’s been a busy few months between classes (both taking them and giving them), tenure packaging, and research. To add another responsibility to the mix, I gave a talk a few weeks back at the National Institute for Animal Agriculture’s annual symposium. This year, the featured topic was antibiotics and agriculture, so I was invited to give an overview of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and livestock.

While I’m always happy to give talks to new audiences, discussing my work and the state of the field in general, I have to admit that I was a bit nervous. Given that my work hasn’t really yielded the results that many in the ag industry want to hear (who wants to hear about yet another ag-related pathogen to deal with? I get that), I knew the audience might not be exactly the most welcoming, as it was composed largely of industry representatives. However, as I was prepping both my talk and reading up on potential issues that might come up during the planned question/answer period, I realized that blogging has provided me with yet another advantage–a really thick skin.

Now sure, simply being a scientist helps with this as well. You have to get used to rejection and a lot of criticism or you won’t make it–grants rejected, papers rejected, ideas torn apart in various grad school defenses, etc. You need to possess, or learn, humility. However, blogging on the topics that I do also leads to a lot of less restrained, and more personal, attacks. If you can get used to those, and gain the skill of either ignoring them or responding in a fitting manner, what can your other critics possibly do to you that are any worse? At least in a conference setting, I’m probably not going to get criticized (openly, at least) on my appearance, age, etc.–hopefully, critics will stick to my science and keep their remarks in that realm. And I’m definitely much more comfortable responding to limitations in my study design or analyses and where they fit into the big picture of the field than defending what I’m wearing.

So, was the Q&A a bloodbath? I felt like I was prepared to handle about anything that could be thrown at me, but alas, it ended up to being a disappointment. I was one of the last talks of the day, and we were running behind schedule due to earlier talks, so the moderator cut off our planned discussion portion to give the final speaker almost his full allotted time. When the meeting ended, I was hoping a few people might come to discuss and challenge my results and conclusions, but that didn’t happen either. A bit of a bummer, but I suppose it’s better to be over-prepared for questions that don’t happen than not ready for those that do, and blogging also prepares you for curveballs. Many of my readers are laymen and sometimes have very basic questions over knowledge that I take for granted, just the same as many in the audience at this meeting (a good number were farmers rather than scientists). So, it prepares one to be able to step back a bit as well, in addition to being ready for the hard science questions.

Is this training limited to blogging? Nope. But I think regular blogging helps you to hone these skills–rather than only needing to answer tough questions during talks or presentations, it’s a more regular occurrence (and under less stressful circumstances, I might add). Score one more for science blogging.

On the value of pseudonyms

Our new Scienceblogs overlords sure have great timing with their new pseudonymous blogging rules. For those who haven’t run across that yet, National Geographic has decided to eliminate pseudonyms and force everyone with a blog remaining here (which is already dwindling) to blog under their real names. Meanwhile, out here in the real world, there’s a new unfortunate case study (short version: “EpiGate”) showing how blogging under one’s real name can lead to serious threats and potential loss of employment, among other things.

I blog under my own name (obviously), but if I were starting out now, I probably wouldn’t make that choice again. There are a lot of things I would love to write about on here, but can’t–or won’t–for a variety of reasons. For one, I’m untenured and would like to stay gainfully employed, and ideally even promoted and tenured this academic year, so it’s difficult for me to talk about some of the more “slice of life” stuff on here. Even talking about being a woman in science and balancing work and personal issues (oh, there are so many stories I could tell there…) is kind of walking a fine line. I don’t necessarily want people who google me for my science to come across posts on my kids’ latest exploits, or various personal drama that might make for great blog posts, but also make it weird for external reviewers trying to fairly evaluate me, for instance. Second, I don’t enjoy being harassed. Long-time readers will note that it’s rare that I write about HIV denial, even though that was such a main topic of this blog once-upon-a-time that it even culminated in a journal article. It’s just tiring to be harassed personally by deniers–and even moreso to have my colleagues and administration bullied.

And this is just what’s happened to my colleague, EpiRen. He managed to tick off an online bully; said bully then called EpiRen’s superiors, who gave him a choice between his blogging and his employment. Not surprisingly, EpiRen eventually ended up pulling his public blog and Twitter feed, to the detriment of anyone who wanted a good source of public health information on the internets.

There’s an active discussion regarding the differences between blogging science as a scientist, and blogging as a journalist under one’s real name. A journalist’s job is to write for the public; a scientist’s, honestly, is not–and so if National Geographic is serious about wanting to keep good scientists in their lineup (and others have noted that, truly, they likely don’t give a shit), their decision to disallow pseudonymous blogging is shooting themselves in the foot. There are many valid reasons why a scientist may not want to be publicly identified on their blog–does that really make the information any less valid? Does NG really think that someone who may carry out experimental work with animals, and discuss animal research on their blog using a ‘nym, would really choose their blogging hobby over their livelihood and–potentially–their family’s safety? There are animal rights and anti-vaccine extremists to worry about; Carl Zimmer even points out recent threats aimed at Chronic Fatigue Syndrome researchers who have reached conclusions that some patients didn’t like or agree with. Who can blame many scientists for wanting badly to share their work and insights with the general public, but doing so in a way that disassociates those posts from their “real life” identity?

These things aren’t just theoretical. HIV denier Andrew Maniotis showed up, unannounced, at my work office one day a few years ago. The recently-arrested “David Mabus” showed up at an atheist convention. While using a pseudonym doesn’t always protect you–certainly many pseuds have been outed by those willing to do the detective work–it at least offers you some measure of protection from threats, both online and off.

NG claims to have listened to reasons for blogging under a pseudonym, but have made this decision as a way to “establish best practices” in the industry. Well, I call shenanigans. They’re freaking National Geographic–they can set the curve, and establish best practices by allowing (hey, even encouraging!) quality pseud bloggers. After all, would Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong be any less awesome if they were instead known as ParasiteGuy and RocketMan?

Freaks of Nature and Bridgeless Gaps

Readers from waaaay back may recall an event I helped out with a few years ago, bringing together scientists, philosophers, and our resident IDist to discuss evolution and intelligent design. One of the speakers was University of Iowa professor Mark Blumberg, a colleague in the Department of Psychology. Dr. Blumberg also happens to be a prolific author, and has just released his third book in 4 years: “Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell us About Development and Evolution.”

As if that wasn’t enough (and all of this while maintaining a very active laboratory, serving as Editor-in-Chief of Behavioral Neuroscience, and as President of the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology–and presumably sleeping at some point), he’s also now getting his feet wet as a blogger, discussing the legacy of Richard Goldschmidt, and the “bridgeless gaps” between species–and between evolutionary biologists. Stop by and welcome him to the author side of the blogosphere (he’s been a reader for awhile), and look for a review of “Freaks of Nature” here at some point in the future.

Academic blogging: addressing criticisms

Thanks again to those who blogged, commented or emailed regarding our PLoS Biology manuscript. Nick already has his own response here, highlighting posts such as Larry’s, Blake’s, Drug Monkey’s, Thomas’, and Carlo’s. Several criticisms ran along the same lines: that, as Nick notes, “that further institutionalizing blogs risks compromising their inherent spontaneous and independent ‘blogginess'”. I agree with much of what he says in response:
Continue reading “Academic blogging: addressing criticisms”

PLoS Biology: blogging and academia

Along with Shelley Batts and Nick Anthis, I have a new paper out today in PLoS Biology on academic blogging: a short commentary on potential ways to integrate blogs into academia. Nick already has a bit of the history and goals of the manuscript over at The Scientific Activist so I won’t repeat those here; long story short, we started out with the goal of simply reviewing academic blogs, and the paper ended up morphing into a road map describing potential ways to integrate blogs into academia.

Many, many readers and writers in the blogosphere donated their time to send us messages about what blogging meant to them, how they had benefited, what risks they had taken, and how they saw (or would like to see) blogging evolve, and while only a few stories made it into the final manuscript, their time and input is greatly appreciated. (Nick has collected many of them here, with a hearty thanks to all who helped out).

Of course, publication is only the start of the process, and I’m happy to see one post already up about the paper. I think DrugMonkey has some great points, and I’ll discuss them and hopefully some other forthcoming responses I see popping up to the paper in a later post. And of course, comments from y’all are appreciated as well.

Microbiologists: be your own media

Chris Condayan, ASM’s public outreach and media guru (and the guy behind the scenes of MicrobeWorld), has an editorial in the latest issue of Nature Reviews Microbiology. Cleverly titled “Culture media,” Condayan encourages microbiologists to get involved sharing their knowledge online (and gives examples of ways they can do so). He notes:

As long as the internet remains free from regulation, every microbiologist has just as much access to online distribution as the BBC and CNN do. And in this day and age, if you don’t start sharing knowledge and news online, you may run the risk of becoming irrelevant in the near future.

If you can’t get your hands on the whole article, drop me an email and I can send it along.

Back (barely) from the NC Science Blogging Conference

As I mentioned previously, I spent the weekend in North Carolina discussing blogging, science, medicine, and other sundry topics with about 200 other bloggers and interested folks at the 2008 Science Blogging Conference. The sessions were excellent, and I loved the “unconference” format. Science writer Becky Oskin and I ran a session on “Blogging public health and medicine,” which Mad Biologist was nice enough to summarize here. We’d started out bringing along a powerpoint presentation just in case, but the participants certainly weren’t shy about speaking up, so we ended up ditching that format and went with more of a participant-directed discussion (which still ended up touching on many of the topics we’d brought up at the wiki link above).

In addition to my own session, I also attended the session on Open Science, and how open-access publishing and blogging could work to change the way science is done, written, and communicated to others. Zuska, Karen, Pat, and Sciencewoman (with Minnow!) led a discussion on women and under-represented minorities in (and blogging about) science. The day ended with a panel discussion on The “F” word and ScienceDebate 2008, and then Jennifer wrapped up the conference discussing “Adventures in Science Blogging (see the link for much more on that).

I’m being harped-on to wrap this up, but I’ll be back with more thoughts on the conference later (and some links to the bloggers I met, which this conference has proved to me once again are simply a spectacular group of people). More plague blogging coming up in the next day or two as well…

Medblog awards open for voting

Every year, the folks over at Medgadget.com host the Medical Weblog Awards. I’ve been nominated a few times, and even did OK in the best new blog category a few years back. This year, I’m apparently nominated in the Best Clinical Weblog category–which, honestly, I don’t think I fit into. So I won’t ask for your votes here, but I’ll suggest you check out some of the other fine blogs that are nominated, and the others that are nominated for all the other awards (including fellow Scienceblogger Orac). If you see something you like, pass along a vote or two.

What do you get when you mix….

… (L-R) Scienceblogs’ own rabblerouser, PZ Myers; Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy; myself; and birthday boy Evil Monkey, along with a host of other science bloggers and readers (including some self-identified in the comments in PZ’s and Phil’s posts)? A nerdalicious Saturday evening in DC, that’s what. We arrived a bit late and so missed some of the festivities, but I did get to chat with both PZ and Phil a bit, and hear some stories about Phil’s upcoming book. I did not, however, get the memo on the dress code, and sadly left my blue button-up-over-a-T-shirt-sporting-a-button combo back here in Iowa. D’oh!

So, I’m once again playing catch-up, and my “real” work and family come first, but there will be new material tomorrow. Any comments that were sent to the spam folder have also been published.