Banner
    Acknowledging The Function Of Scientific Bloggers
    By Tommaso Dorigo | April 21st 2010 07:59 AM | 26 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Tommaso

    I am an experimental particle physicist working with the CMS experiment at CERN. In my spare time I play chess, abuse the piano, and aim my dobson...

    View Tommaso's Profile
    Researchers who blog are a rare and endangered species.

    As far as rarity is concerned, it is easy to understand why that is so. Scientific research is a round-the-clock occupation, not your regular nine-to-five job. If a researcher has spare time, he or she is expected to invest it in doing more research: for Science is a mission, not a job! Because of that, finding the time to do outreach in a blog, broadcasting recent scientific results, or just expressing one's views is a demanding challenge, especially when one also has a family to attend to.

    But scientific bloggers are also an endangered species, especially when they work within large collaborations: these have started to get equipped with blog guidelines and strict rules of conduct that demand you to avoid talking about anything that is said or happens at internal meetings, to not distribute material that is not approved (is the document at the above link public ? Damned if I know !), to wait before distributing approved material until somebody presented it for the collaboration at a conference, to not speak about your colleagues without prior consent -even if you are going to say good things-; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Hell, I recently found out that I cannot even write if I myself did an analysis and brought it to publication within the collaboration! I cannot describe my own work with a personal slant because it would single me out from the 2500 other researchers who signed the paper.

    Be sure to understand: I am not criticizing those rules or their need here. That would be a very complex issue, which demands more space and an analytical effort. All I want to point out is that if a blogger fails to comply to those rules, he or she is subjected to various kinds of harassment, which may become severe in some cases, as I have unfortunately discovered personally. In that sense, bloggers in scientific collaborations are an endangered species.

    On the other hand, we usually receive no support from our employers. A blogger is perceived as somebody who employs his or her time in a futile way; plus, one often generates envy or annoyance, despite all attempts at not doing so. Your colleagues will feel you get unfair exposure with the media, or will be scared that you talk about them. Your boss will get in your office and frown if he or she sees you are writing on your keyboard -surely you must be blogging!

    I expressed these and other concerns last week during a talk (see picture below) and the following round table at a conference on Physics outreach at Frascati, ComunicareFisica 2010. The round table discussed how blogs can help outreach, and it was lively and interesting, but I was the only one to vouch for support from the employers of bloggers. If INFN (the italian institute of nuclear physics who pays my salary, as well as that of 2000 other researchers and admininstrative staff in Italy) showed just a little support for its employees who spontaneously do outreach through blogs, this would boost not only the confidence of the existing bloggers, but it would push others into broadcasting their science.

    I went as far as suggesting that INFN should issue a statement where it expresses appreciation for the individual effort of bloggers who broadcast and popularize the science they do. This already would make a difference: a researcher would not feel alone when dealing with a scientific collaboration on what was discussed in a blog post, or when defending against mobbing in the workplace. But there are other ways: if INFN wants to acknowledge the importance of outreach more concretely than it is presently doing, it could link blogs from its web pages, run an aggregator of the best posts, or -why not?- recognize the hours spent blogging as part of a researcher's working time.

    Now, all the above appears very distant in space-time. On the other hand, there are signals that the matter is perceived more favourably elsewhere. Today I received a very interesting invitation in this respect. The organizers of a big international conference, ICHEP 2010 -which will be held in beautiful Paris in July- have decided they will "institutionalize" a phenomenon that would be happening anyway: the live blogging from the conference.

    I was asked to take part in the endeavour, and I think I will indeed do it. Of course, readers of this blog will still get to read my articles from here; but a temporary duplication of a few of the posts related to the conference will happen in the ICHEP web site.

    For now, kudos to the local organizing committee of ICHEP for realizing the importance of blogging as a way of communicating science to the public, as well as among insiders!

    Comments

    Congratulations for the ICHEP, this will be so plain cool :)
    About your other points, if you asked me, what you write up to the phrase "On the other hand..." holds for everyone, not just for bloggers.
    About official recognition and support, this seems a great and needed idea but what do you think about the pitfall of having to support people who do rubbish (and the even larger pitfall of officially deciding who they are)? Of course one might say let them be ruled out by "online natural selection", but maybe you have more specific ideas on this one.

    dorigo
    Hi Eleni,

    in my experience, serious people do not publish rubbish. This is because they have a reputation to defend. Of course, the occasional deranged mind exists even in serious institutions like INFN (I know a couple). In any case, INFN could very easily have a supervising panel, once they decided that they acknowledge the work of their employees who decide to devote some free time to science outreach. Why, I offer to be part of that panel, for free!

    Cheers,
    T.
    Yes, even if a panel might be damaging in the wrong hands, institutionalization would probably make for a good enough filter ("institutionalization" in the nice sense:)

    I am a gradaute student, I am very grateful to scientific bloggers. They should be supported from scientific organizations, they are doing a good job in showing " True and good science" and fighting "Bad Science".
    I, myself had benfited from them too much, not just in physics, but in many other areas in science.

    I'm sure you know just how political the climate in an academic institution can be. From my experience, the trouble comes not from those who are busily dedicated to scientific research, but rather from those who have too much time on their hands and are perhaps envious of the attention given to people such as yourself.

    Institutions are slow-moving beasts, but the precedence for recognition of the importance of outreach has been established by positions such as Oxford University's Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science which itself was only created as recently as 1995. You are just that bit ahead of the game.

    Anyway, I expect you do this out of a sense of personal mission and this is always far more important than the support either of one's peers or of the institutions for which one works. The latter is nice to have, but isn't it just the cream on the strawberries?

    dorigo
    Why, hello DB, long time no talk.

    Yes, I do feel it as a mission. And it's true, by now I am convinced I would do it in any case, support or not, alone or structured. As for the cream on the strawberries, well. I do think that INFN would go a long way toward science outreach if it freed the energy it stores inside -thousands of smart people, many of which are certainly capable writers.

    Cheers,
    T.
    Hank
    All our collaborators, including students, reviewers, convenors, managers, etc. NEED to know that they can safely operate in an environment where they are not scrutinized by, or exposed to, the outside at any time.
    That's right.  How dare public taxpayers know what really goes on?   Only in politics, and preferably the opposing political party, should the internal workings of meetings be available to the public.
    It should be assumed that while we may/can engage in lively discussions prior to any decision of CMS, the full collaboration will stand behind the decision once the latter is made.
    Maybe this sort of statement only riles up Americans?
    It might seem strange but I agree with these "rules". If I knew that my blunders at internal meetings might make it to the public, I'd certainly hold back many new and funny ideas I might come up with. People are expected to show this discreteness in all aspects of social life anyway, but these rules sound bizarre only because they are actually written down. I don't think this has anything to do with taxpayers.

    dorigo
    Hey Hank, I must have missed the source of your quotes. Did it disappear by mistake ?
    T.
    Thanks to use my photo!

    dorigo
    Thank you for posting it Gianluigi! I did not even know you took it... It came to me via Peppe.
    Cheers,
    T.
    For the record - I immensely appreciate your blogging, Tommaso, thank you!

    Research scientists who do science outreach are in an unconfortable place - On the one hand, everyone pays lip service and says that science outreach (whether via blogging, or writing books, or public speaking, etc. etc.) is very important. Yet, when one tries to do it, you get "A blogger is perceived as somebody who employs his or her time in a futile way; plus, ..." etc. Sagan also experienced a bit of this from his scientific public outreach efforts.

    Best.

    dorigo
    Hey Changcho, thanks for the nice feedback!

    Yes, it is hard to explain, but bloggers are really frowned upon. Many fail to realize that it is useful to oneself and to a potentially vast readership -not just the occasional followers, but everybody, since what is put in the web stays there. If we work together, we may make the signal (good articles, sound information) overcome the noise (which is unavoidable in such a medium).

    I have received so much from the web, that I feel compelled to give something back.

    Cheers,
    T.
    I'm always happy to see you doing such good work to promote science blogging!! Surely it's only a matter of time before the Mobbers realise how much public opinion is against them ... and there is nothing like public opinion to change a politician's tune.

    Hey Dorigo, have you ever experienced a backlash because of something you wrote?

    I know a while back yo said that you didn't want to bring attention to such things. Maybe you could give us a benign example?

    Tommaso, you say
    "... large collaborations ... have started to get ... strict rules of conduct that demand you ... not distribute material that is not approved ... ".

    A 20 April 2010 TimesOnLine web article by Hannah Devlin said
    "... Scientists at Queen’s University in Belfast have been ordered to hand over 40 years of research data on tree rings after a three-year battle with climate sceptics. The ruling by the Information Commissioner sets a precedent for scientists having to comply with the strictest interpretation of the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act. It suggests that in future academics will not be able to avoid handing over data by claiming that the task would be too onerous or that it would breach intellectual property rights.
    ...
    Phil Willis, a Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of the Science and Technology Select Committee, said that scientists now needed to work on the presumption that
    if research is publicly funded,
    the data ought to be made publicly available. ...".

    Since the UK is involved with the LHC, could this (if affirmed on appeal) be a precedent that allows non-collaboration people to have access to LHC data and to do their own independent analysis of that data ?

    Tony Smith

    dorigo
    Hi Tony,

    ...nah, we'd rather get rid of British institutions :)

    I think the law of one state does not automatically apply to international collaborations. But I would chuckle if such a clash happened within HEP. It would be a lot of fun to see what happens. Furthermore, people who are outside HEP if given the LHC data would have ...hehm... some trouble understanding it! The thing is, do I have to just release the data, or also private tools I put together to interpret it ? I think the latter may be argued to have nothing to do with the FOI act. And without reconstruction software, the raw TDC hits (perhaps yielded in ascii files) would be kind of hard to decrypt!

    Cheers,
    T.
    logicman
    You're Italian, Tommaso.  Release the data in Da Vinci Code. :-)
    dorigo
    I wish I could Patrick, I wish I could. If I did it, they would "suicide" me in a horrific and probably very painful way ;-)
    Cheers,
    T.
    logicman
    I wish I could Patrick, I wish I could. If I did it, they would "suicide" me in a horrific and probably very painful way ;-)
    I recently learned that the Planck collaboration (400 people, pretty big for cosmology standards, and larger than any of the LEP collaborations) is bound to make its data available to the public within 2 years of data taking, and that was also the rule for WMAP.
    These collaborations have the privilege of being able to do the first publication in the world based on these data (as a reward for building the toy and make it work) but also the commitment to dump them in a format which is more or less agreed in their community. I am not sure I got exactly how "raw" are their data in this format, but I suppose that detector effects must have been corrected away.

    dorigo
    Hi Andrea,

    what I know from a Planck collaborator though is that they have incredibly strict rules -ones in comparison to which ours in CMS appear ridiculously loose- that prevent their collaborators from even saying publically that their instrument is working well, or from making similar content-free statements.

    I would be happy if the CMS data were made free in three years time. Less than that appears too little -our analyses are tough!

    Cheers,
    T.
    Interesting to know.
    Maybe the two things are related: if you know that your data will be publicly disclosed within a finite time delay, maybe you feel less the need for such statements.

    I understand and respect what you do, I was a blogger too and I know how time consuming can it be. But sharing your thoughts and knowledge with other people of the same interests is fulfilling, especially when you find out that your article really helped someone.

    Back to do science...
    I have a website to recommend, it could help you and other researchers. The site is called Sciyo and it gives a tons of free (open access) science and technology books and journals, so take a look, I hope you will like it. http://sciyo.com/

    Keep up the good work ;)

    dorigo
    Thank you for the link Drazen, I will give the thing a look tonight.
    Cheers,
    T.