Curious about the cultural dimensions of the International Geoblogosphere, and with the impression (without much in the way of supporting statistics) that the UK earth science "community" lags behind international colleagues in the extent to which it has embraced this medium of communication, I recently wrote a piece for the Geoscientist, the magazine of the Geological Society here in London. Including helpful commentary from Chris Rowan, the intention was to stir things up a little; so far, it has appeared only on the Geoscientist online site, and, while circulating around the discussions of the already-converted, so far has not proved particularly provocative (to my knowledge). Posting it here will, I appreciate, largely reach that same group (the small but much-appreciated readership of Through the Sandglass), but I look forward to comments and suggestions; for example, the Geological Society holds an admirable number of meetings on diverse topics every year - disseminating the highlights via the blogosphere would seem to me to be a great idea.
Blogs. The self-absorbed ramblings and rants of adolescents of all ages? Political and social tirades from grinders of the well-honed axes of zealotry? Mindless and breathless accounts of minor celebrities and nonentities? Well, yes. But is there also wheat to be found amongst the piles of chaff? The answer to that too is an emphatic “yes”, and I will argue here that the potential value of this much-derided form of communication is under-appreciated and under-exploited, particularly here in the UK.
Until a little over a year ago, I was very much in the derisive camp: I had never looked at a blog and had no intention of doing so. Then the University of California Press, who had kindly and of course wisely agreed to publish my book, pointed out to me that many of their authors set up a blog to help publicise their work, and suggested that I might do the same. I did, with the aspiration that my efforts should represent a few grains of wheat as well as sand. And, in doing so, I discovered, to my surprise and pleasure, just how many valuable blogs there are out there, and how powerful they can be in initiating rewarding lines of communication that otherwise would simply not be open. I discovered the cumbersomely but aptly named geoblogosphere, a global community of geologists who write blogs. There are, literally, hundreds of geoblogs: while the dominant language is English, it is a truly international community, and, while the majority of the writers are academics (faculty and students), included are geologists of all professional stripes as well as freelancers and enthusiastic non-professionals. The theme, content, character, and style of these blogs are, unsurprisingly, diverse – some are more light-hearted than others, some are seriously scholarly, but almost all are informative and entertaining.
So far, so well and good – but what’s the point? Why do these geologists write blogs and what is their value? A recent survey of the geoblogosphere conducted by Lutz Geissler of the Technical University Bergakademie in Freiberg, in collaboration with Robert Huber of the University of Bremen and Callan Bentley of Northern Virginia Community College, helps answer the first question and informs the second. The equally top-ranked responses to the question “why do you blog?” were “to inform”, “to share knowledge”, and “to popularise the geosciences” (followed closely by “to have fun”). Combine this motivation and energy with the significant audience for many of these blogs, and there is arguably the prime value: knowledge-sharing and outreach. From my own experience I take equal pleasure from the virtual conversations that my blog has stimulated with professional geologists and the informed and enthusiastic “interested public”. I not only enjoy, but learn from the selection of geoblogs that I read regularly, taking advantage of the scope of their reports and their links to research news and geological events that, chances are, I would not have otherwise come across. I subscribe (largely online) to several professional journals, but, for sheer breadth of supplementary coverage, the geoblogosphere is unequalled.
But what is this content, what do geoblog writers write about? The majority write about their own work and scientific articles that interest them in the geosciences in general. The geoblogosphere can thus be categorised in a number of different ways – according to discipline (sedimentology blogs, palaeontology blogs, seismicity blogs, and so on), to geographical location and focus, and to specific projects and events (an Ocean Drilling Program leg, for example). Then there are blogs directed at a specific audience – earth science teachers in the U.K., for example, can find valuable support in blogs such as Keele University’s http://earthlearningidea.blogspot.com/. What the majority have in common, however, is that they are current and immediate. Whether reporting on an ongoing research or fieldwork project, a volcanic or seismic event, providing links to newly published papers, or seeking ideas on the design of a new course, these blogs represent a unique means of rapidly disseminating – and accessing – information and ideas.
And it is not just individual scientists who take advantage of this – many institutions and professional societies, particularly in the U.S., maintain blogs or continually updated news sites; the USGS is an excellent example (see http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/). It is within this context that the currency and immediacy of the blog format provides unique value: reporting on geoscience conferences and meetings. Not only do the Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union actively encourage and support individuals blogging from their conferences, but the AGU published its own blog of the recent annual meeting in San Francisco – http://www.agu.org/blog/fm09/. Through the combined efforts of the host institution and individuals writing about sessions they had just attended and papers they had just heard, professional scientific news is disseminated with unparalleled immediacy.
Live conference reporting represents one aspect of the serious science end of the spectrum that is the geoblogosphere, but it is not the only one. Chris Rowan, at the University of Edinburgh, together with Anne Jefferson at the University of North Carolina, publishes the widely respected Highly Allochthonous geoblog (http://scienceblogs.com/highlyallochthonous/). Chris is far closer to the research coalface than I am, and writes:
At its core, blogging is about sharing; in the case of (geo)science blogs, what is being shared is your expertise and your passion for geology. When writing about a recently published paper, you can provide some depth to those interested in not just what we know, but how we know it. By providing a glimpse into how scientific ideas are debated and destruction tested against reality within our community, you help to chip away at the misunderstandings of the scientific process that remain well-entrenched in the public mind, and are all too easily exploited by the unscrupulous, to all our detriments. I personally believe that as a publicly funded scientist, sharing knowledge is as important a part of my duties as generating it in the first place, and blogging is an effective and powerful tool for discharging this duty.
But beyond this, I have a much more selfish reason for investing my time in writing a blog: it makes me a better scientist. I have discovered that my thinking about science – my research, the work of others, basic concepts in our field – becomes much more coherent after I have been forced to properly articulate it. I also find myself properly engaging with a much broader range of geological subdisciplines, counteracting the natural pressure to focus only on my narrow area of research. Furthermore, I'm sure that writing regularly for my blog has greatly improved my communication skills in the conference hall and the lecture theatre - after all, the ability to clearly explain your thoughts to others only comes with time and practice. Finally, it allows you to have a bit of fun; amidst the day-to-day grind of lab work and administration, communicating your excitement about a new geological discovery, or sharing your appreciation of a beautiful geological image, or simply interacting with interested readers in your comments section, helps to remind you why you first took up science in the first place.
I hope that this brief summary of the nature of the geoblogosphere supports my case for its being of potential value. But discerning, selecting, and accessing that value is clearly up to the individual, and the scope of the geoblogosphere, modest though it is in a global context, is broad. How to sample and focus? First of all, Huber and his colleagues maintain a list of more than 250 geoblogs worldwide, and this can be found at http://geoblogs.stratigraphy.net/?action=list. But it’s a long list; some blogs are more active than others, some more serious and science-focused. For a quick review of who is writing about what, the associated aggregator, Geoblogosphere News (http://geoblogs.stratigraphy.net/?action=news) is ideal. The latest posts from every geoblog are listed as a title and opening words, together with a link to the blog.
I recognise that every individual structures their relationship with the internet differently, but I find that the most effective way of keeping track of blogs and news sites that interest me is through an overall aggregator – I use Bloglines, but there are various choices, all of them entirely free. This allows me to subscribe not only to the Geoblogosphere News, but to specific individual blogs and other sources. This is a “one click” solution to tracking activity – the aggregator simply lists the latest articles and I can follow up on whatever I wish, given whatever time is available. Furthermore, each blog whose content and style attracts an individual reader will generally include a list of blogs and resources that the writer follows – often a good shortcut to new sites of similar character and focus.
I realise that undoubtedly many Fellows of the Geological Society are not only aware of, but actively participate in, the geoblogosphere. But my purpose here is to try to spread the awareness of its value more broadly, for there is a clear geographical – and possibly cultural – imbalance, a statistical anomaly. The energy and activity of the geoblogosphere comes dominantly from the United Sates. More than half of the respondents to Geissler’s survey were based there; more writers responded from Spain and Germany than from the U.K. And this imbalance is also evident in audience statistics: here, I can only speak for the numbers relating to my own blog, but I suspect that they are fairly representative. While Through the Sandglass has been visited from over a hundred countries, U.S. readers account typically for half of the audience, those from the UK perhaps ten percent. Now it might be argued that these numbers are simply representative of the relative populations of the U.K. versus the U.S.; however, while population statistics of geoscientists per capita are difficult to find, the numbers of geosciences degrees awarded each year are not, and they point clearly to a higher concentration of geoscientists in the U.K..
So, if, as would seem to be the case, the level of representation, activity and interest in a valuable and informative communication tool is lower in the U.K. than in the U.S., why is this? As geoscientists in today’s world, we are surely concerned not only with the progress and vitality of our discipline, and communicating effectively with each other, but also with, for want of a better word, outreach. Who could dispute that any means of more effectively communicating how our planet works, how our science works, how we work, is worth exploring? I will not presume to answer these questions, but simply, through this article, hope to stimulate interest and discussion of the effective use of the geoblogosphere.
Oh, and might The Geological Society (not to mention society in general) benefit from its own blog?
The summary results of Lutz Geissler’s survey are available at http://www.geoberg.de/blog/geoblogosphaere-web-2-0/short-summary-of-the-geoblogosphere-survey-results-2009
Kim Hannula, whose blog is titled All of my faults are stress-related (but she is currently taking a break), has, together with Anne Jefferson, conducted an interesting survey on women geoscientists and blogs. The results were recently reported at the GSA Annual Meeting, and are summarised at http://scienceblogs.com/stressrelated/2009/12/women-in-geoscience_and_blogs.php
The GSA abstract of the paper is at http://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2009AM/finalprogram/abstract_161556.htm
The UK representatives of the geoblogosphere that I have been able to identify (with apologies to those that I have missed) are:
http://throughthesandglass.com (my own)
Below is a very personal selection of the international English-language blogs that I follow which provides a sampling of the diversity of the geoblogosphere:
And finally, to illustrate the ways in which communicating research can be done through blogging, here’s a link to the geosciences category at Research Blogging: