08 December 2011

Does Open Lab show how much career scientists suck at writing?

The much anticipated selections for Open Lab 2012 were announced earlier this week. (Yes, the buttons I made said, “Submit to Open Lab 2011,” but due to a change in publisher, 2011 is going to be skipped.)

The 51 posts are awesome displays of writing. I’m pleased that a lot of things I nominated (alpong with who knows how many other people) are in there.

The breakdown of authors is interesting to me. Around half of the contributors are professional writers, journalists, and editors. Roughly one quarter of the contributors are early career scientists: grad students and post-docs. What you might consider traditional established scientists are not well represented.

This isn’t a huge surprise. Pro writers are good at what they do, because you don’t survive otherwise. In a highly competitive selection process, it stands to reason that works by experienced wordsmiths have the edge.

Still, I see so much potential in scientists writing about their own work that I’m disappointed that they are not a little better represented. I’d like the barriers between scientists and science fans to be thinner. Are we failing at communication? We’re still too stuck in big fancy words, too torn between research and teaching and administration and service, and too tone deaf at telling good stories, I fear.

P.S.—Editor Jennifer Ouelette shares some more excellent writing that didn’t quite make it in.


mhartings said...

As someone who lucked his way into an #OpenLab acceptance and a "professional scientist" (Asst. Prof.), I feel vaguely qualified to add my two cents. ;)

If you look at the entries, most of them are stand-alone pieces. Meaning, you don't need a lot of background to get up to speed (the background is given). And most are meant to be general interest posts aimed at non-professionals. Writing a piece like this requires a lot of prep time. Looking at resources you wouldn't normally check (for the "professional scientist" anyway), going out of your comfort zone, and writing on a topic that you aren't an expert in.

I don't want to argue that "professional scientists" can't or shouldn't be doing this. I just think that many of those who would like to write pieces like this feel so overwhelmed with all of the other things that they are responsible for.

In my case, when I wrote my post on the chemistry of gin and tonics, I was putting together a course on the chemistry of cooking. So, really, this was work that I "had" to do anyway. It felt very natural to translate that work into something aimed at a broader audience. I don't think that this convergence of work and broad interest happens too often as a professor.

One of the things I am going to try to do next semester is write general interest pieces that directly relate to my research. They won't necessarily be about MY work, but the pieces will certainly be related to the work that I am doing. I don't know how easy or difficult this is going to be. I'd love to hear other's thoughts on this.

Anonymous said...

There are other possible explanations.

One is that they're too busy. Related to this is that, if you're a professional writer, then not only is writing your passion but also your living, so blogs are presumably your audition pieces for paid work. That is not really true for a science PI, no matter how interested in writing science for a wider audience they are.

Another possibility is that PI level scientists who do blog tend not to blog about their actual research, or even much about research data at all, because it would be kind of a busman's holiday. I think that is my own personal reason for never having written about my own scientific work in over 4 yrs of blogging and 150-odd posts.

scicurious said...

I've noticed something similar in general, not with Open Lab per se, but that most of the scientist-bloggers who are blogging science tend to be early career. I have two hypotheses on why this is the case:

1. the real explosion in science blogging has only taken place in the last few years, and scientists further in their careers haven't come to the blogsphere in large numbers yet, or haven't yet really seen the need to blog.

And 2. The fact that blogging about science...is hard. Not necessarily in terms of science writing (though many scientists find writing for the lay public to be difficult in the first place, which presents an extra barrier to entry), but in terms of TIME. My posts take me about 1-2 hours each total time, and I'm reckoned pretty speedy with the typing fingers. In grad school I found I had a little more time to be doing this, but in a post-doc...well it's a lot of stress. Science, plus mentoring, plus grants, plus more grants, plus papers, plus other people's science, plus...science blogging? It's a BIG PILE on my plate. And for those who aren't really REALLY into the idea of science blogging, I can see how devoting an extra 8-10 hours per week when you're already working 80...well that's pretty off putting.

Not to mention that in later career stages people have families and other things going on. Obviously that's not going to stop people who really want to do it, but it's definitely another barrier to entry. Grad students work hard (obviously), but higher levels work harder. So it's not too terribly surprising for me to see a lack of interest among later career scientists.

I definitely wish it weren't the case, I think the blogsphere could really benefit from more veterens talking about science (whenever Abel or Drugmonkey posts about science you bet your butt I'm listening) but I do understand why people might not be so eager, you know?

Michael Eisen said...

Don't you think it's just that older, established scientists don't blog nearly as much?

Ed Yong said...

One would presumably have to look at the number of posts by crusty scientists as a proportion of the ones submitted, versus the young'ins and pros, to comment about relative skill at general science writing.

ylsned said...

I'm one of the professional writers/editors who was accepted. I'm not good at writing because I'm a professional communicator, but rather the other way around: I left the bench after my PhD and became a writer/editor because I loved writing and did a lot of it in my spare time.

The post that was accepted was based on an idea I had a few years ago, probably while I was still in the lab, and the writing style is very different from anything I would use professionally. I think I would have submitted the exact same post even if I had decided to do a postdoc.

ylsned said...

(Hm, the "ylsned" comments are me, Eva Amsen. Clearly Google's login prefers a test account on Blogger over my actual identity!)

Jennifer Ouellette said...

I don't understand how you can draw the conclusion that "scientists suck at writing" based on one year's Open Lab selections. Seems a bit, erm, "unscientific." :) You're constrained by which posts were nominated, for starters (i.e., a limited and highly selective sample size), and cultural trends. It's not really surprising, is it, that older career scientists aren't as plugged into the blogging and social media networks as their younger cohorts.

There was a generous sampling of good writing by scientists included, and many of the folks who are now professional writers started out as science students. Why draw such a distinction in the first place? Good science writing is good science writing. It's not a pitched battle between scientists and science writers.

jebyrnes said...

Let's analyze it! Career status of submitters by career status of accepted folk! It's just a simple contingency table!

Oh, or we could get fancy and throw in # of months blogging....

OH! LOGIT REGRESSION! This is a simple model, but should be

Acceptance ~ Author Category + Months Blogging + Interaction Effect

YES! Can we get this data? I'd totally run those stats.

Anonymous said...

As an associate professor and a finalist in OpenLab, I can vouch for the fact that profs potentially have a number of obstacles preventing them from blogging more.

One of these is time. As Scicurious pointed out, writing good blog posts takes a lot of hard work -- I think my Mpemba piece probably took 5 hours of time between all the background research on the subject and trying to craft it into an interesting post. At the faculty level, academics have so much on their plate -- research, funding, teaching, student supervision, administrative stuff -- that it can be hard to squeeze in the time to write a good post. Or, if you try and write your posts after work as I do, it can be hard trying to scrape together the energy to write something.

(I might dispute Sci's argument that faculty generally work harder than students/postdocs, though -- it depends on the person! I think grads/postdocs have an advantage in not having to juggle quite so many diverse tasks at one time, which is also incredibly draining. Try getting any serious intellectual work done in a day disrupted with courses, office hours and faculty meetings!)

Another big problem for academics is that popular science writing in the form of blogging isn't really recognized as an important part of an academic's output. Though it's become safer for faculty to blog in recent years, blogging activity can't be used to replace any of a professor's other tasks, meaning you've got to do it in addition to all your other work, and that other work had better be exceptional. Lots of faculty, particularly pre-tenure, don't want to give the impression that they're working on something insignificant.

What about post tenure? I suspect the older folks just haven't caught on to the idea that this stuff is important. Hopefully as the talented batch of grads/postdocs doing great science blogging wend their way up into faculty positions, the activity will become more popular.

In the meantime, I'm really happy to see all the non-faculty (students, postdocs, science writers) helping to spread the word!

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting point. I don't think that career scientist are "failing at communication" in the broadest sense of this statement. And I don't think you can draw that conclusion from this one anthology. There are so many channels of communication. Everytime they publish in a journal, they are communicating to their peers. Every time they deliver a lecture, they are communicating to their students, and so on. Where it gets tricky is communicating to non-scientists. It takes a bit of training, I think (or a heck of a lot of reflection) to step outside one's own field of specialty and think about how to craft a message for someone who knows little to nothing about what you do. I think this is the "edge" you referred to regarding the professional writers represented in the Open Lab selections. I think too that early career scientists who have embraced blogging and tweeting are more adept at commnunicating to general audiences because blogging, and reading blogs from fields other than their own, teaches them about some of these communication lessons. Just my two cents. -DeLene Beeland

Anonymous said...

Yep, speaking from my middle-aged tenured (in the UK sense) perspective, agree with all of what "Skullsinthestars" wrote, especially:

'if you try and write your posts after work..., it can be hard trying to scrape together the energy to write something.'


'Another big problem for academics is that popular science writing in the form of blogging isn't really recognized as an important part of an academic's output. Though it's become safer for faculty to blog in recent years, blogging activity can't be used to replace any of a professor's other tasks'

Anonymous said...

As a PI myself I would say people are just to busy surviving; writing grants/papers/teaching/admin etc. I think its important that more scientists blog but until this activity is recognized as 'part of the job' and not as a sort of guilty, semi-waste of time "whatareyoudoingthatfor" thing, then we will there will be slow uptake.