Paleo Blogs: Where the action is

During the past month Andy Farke of The Open Source Paleontologist has been considering the rise (and fall) of paleontology-oriented mailing lists (like the Dinosaur Mailing List and the VRTPALEO Discussion List). These lists are good for a lot of things, like quickly disseminating news to a large audience of specialists or requesting papers/information, but more and more in-depth discussions of paleontology are moving onto blogs. Andy has already covered some of the major points, but I wanted to add a few thoughts of my own.

There are advantages and disadvantages to science blogging vs. discussions on a mailing lists. Blogs, for instance, are public venues that typically allow comments and are often easily found by members of the public through simple Google searches. Discussions can be as technical as bloggers want them to be, although many paleontology blogs attempt to make technical concepts understandable to readers with out an extensive scientific background.

On the other hand, however, science blogs do not have the built-in audience of experts that the DML or VRTPALEO lists do. If your aim is to generate an in-depth discussion of a study or scientific topic it can be difficult to get people involved if they are not already reading. Even so, it seems to me that professional paleontologists and other scientists are increasingly showing up on blogs. The comment section of yesterday’s post about the fossil anthropoid Ganlea, for example, now features a spirited back-and-forth between paleontologists Chris Beard and Philip Gingerich, and Jessica Theodor stopped by a few months ago to clarify a few points about a phylogeny of cetartiodactyls she co-authored. Paul Sereno, as well, also engaged in a detailed back-and-forth with the fellows at SV-POW! about Aerosteon, another case in which the “behind-the-scenes” aspect of science was made public.

Paleo blogs also facilitate private discussions and correspondence, and there appears to be an increasing number of paleontologists who read blogs at least occasionally. As a freelance science writer and aspiring paleontologist this has been invaluable. Blogging has put me in direct contact with professionals who have offered constructive criticism, encouragement, and advice that I would not have otherwise received. Indeed, since many paleo bloggers are students of varying levels these opportunities for interaction are invaluable. Even if professional paleontologists are not comfortable blogging themselves, I hope they will continue to engage with bloggers in some manner or another.

Blogs are not just commentary, however. It might make up only a fraction of what is posted on the web, and it may not be “peer-reviewed” in the traditional sense, but every now and then original research does turn up on blogs. I have published some original historical research on this blog myself, and doing so can provide a springboard to other publications (be it popular or academic). Indeed, blogs are not just regurgitation of what is already available but often contain original insights and contents. There is a lot of resistance to citing original contributions on the web, but the publication of original work at least has the potential to foster collaboration, discussion, and maybe even publication in the long run.

The paleo side of the blogohedron is indeed growing, especially more specialist blogs, and with this expansion comes some growing pains. I am thinking specifically of the role blogs and social networking sites might play at conferences. Last year Zach of When Pigs Fly Returns posted summaries of a few abstracts from the 2008 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting, but he quickly took them down as it was unclear if the post was in violation of SVP policy. It appeared that bloggers fell under the same restrictions as journalists (i.e. that a writer needs the permission of a presenter to write anything), but I would like to see this issue more deeply considered. (See this post for a discussion of the same issue at another conference and the response of journals like Science and Nature. Also see these posts on SV-POW!.)

Unfortunately, as was illustrated during the Aetogate scandal, there are at least some members of SVP that do not look too kindly on science blogging. Like it or not, though, the way science is communicated within paleontology and to the public is changing. The paleontological community is going to have to come to grips with that. Blogs and Twitter should not be ignored. I would like to think that major groups like the SVP would want to work with bloggers (many of whom are students and scientists) to help popularize the discipline in a responsible manner, but so far there seems to be some institutional resistance to the idea.

What I would like to see, then, is a full consideration of the use of blogs, Twitter, and other resources to communicate presentations made at this year’s upcoming SVP meeting in England. Now is a good time to reevaluate the purpose of embargoes on presentations and determine not only whether blogs undermine those purposes, but if social media can actively facilitate communication between scientists and to the public. Especially during a year when many people may not be able to attend this year’s SVP meeting due to a lack of funds (like myself) it might be a good idea to look into new ways in which information can be shared so that those who cannot attend can engage in the proceedings, as well.

As I am not presently a member of SVP and cannot afford to go to this year’s meeting I realize that I have little influence in this matter, but I would encourage paleontologists who are attending to push for a clear statement on blogging and the use of Twitter during the meeting. There is no guarantee that SVP would open access on these fronts, but bloggers need to know where they stand. Furthermore, such a statement could provide the starting point for a more fruitful discussion of how the web can be used to foster science communication within our discipline.

From what I have seen students, scientists, and members of the public are actively engaging each other through science blogs on a daily basis. It would be a shame to ignore the unique opportunity this presents to foster research and enhance the public’s understanding of science. Please contribute your own thoughts in the comments.

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