Men, women, and defining the science blogosphere: a memo

There has always been a problem defining the science blogosphere. In one study I artificially drew the boundary at self-identified practicing scientists who blog about science. In another, I kept the blogs that blogged about science at all. In neither of these did I define science. That’s problematic, of course. Does it include clinical medicine? Math? Computer science? IT? Anthropology? Economics? Is blogging about the scientific life or what it’s like to be hunting for a tenure track job blogging about science?

It’s much easier to pick blogs to read for your own interest, but which ones are useful to answer your research question? That’s more difficult.

There’s been a lot of (justified) criticism of a recent article on science blogging – clearly the author doesn’t know the science blogosphere. She doesn’t get it.  One way to work towards trustworthy results in qualitative research is through prolonged engagement and persistent observation (Guba, 1981).  This goes back to the more traditional naturalistic research – you have to spend some time in the field and engaged with the participants to really understand what’s going on. I made some mistakes in both of my studies drawing this line – I had been engaged with the science blogosphere, but not deeply enough and not for long enough. I didn’t understand the role and the contributions of bloggers who are experienced scientists or practitioners in clinical medicine who provide career, life, and grant-seeking advice.  I looked at the science blogosphere as a librarian – it’s an information resource – and I judged it on superficial features even while talking about community.

In my first study, I was so eager to study scientific communication and use the standard models that I missed a huge portion of what the science blogosphere is. In fact, the standard models do talk about mentoring and other informal communication that support scientific work. This is a central part of the science blogosphere – it’s incredibly important.

It seems, too, that more women blog these work-life issues than men in the science blogosphere. Women are also less likely to use their “real” names for many reasons. As I mentioned at one of the early Science Online conferences, I struggled to get women science bloggers to allow me to study their blogs. The men answered my e-mail request immediately and were totally cool with it. The women ignored repeated e-mails but finally a few agreed. I didn’t understand how some women in the blogosphere are treated and they did not know me.

Turning to more recent events, there’s been an ongoing discussion (mini-roundup) about the number of women in the science blogosphere and if they are poorly represented on some of the networks (the majority of Scientopia blogs have at least one woman author). An editor from The Guardian has said it’s been quite difficult to find women bloggers and they tried. Part of this might be that they are ignoring the part of the science blogosphere that is more inward-facing and talking about life in science to scientists and part of this might be that the women they’ve approached do not want to be on that type of network (I wouldn’t be – well, it’s not as if they’re looking for a librarian, either, lol). So we can see these media outlets want science bloggers who will communicate with a broad audience about “science” and who will pull in a lot of readers. There are women science bloggers who fit the bill (they might actually be trained as journalists), but there are other bloggers who don’t want to do that sort of thing with their blog.

As I go forward in studies of science online, I’m going to try to throw the net a little wider if I can, and I’m also going to try to get letters of reference from other women in science online so that potential participants accept my e-mails and agree to participate.  I hope, too, that by listening here and participating various places, I’ll either get it, or I’ll at least have enough friends who will tell me when I don’t. Back to other memos, and other bits of proposal writing.


Guba, E. G. (1981). Criteria for Assessing the Trustworthiness of Naturalistic Inquiries. Educational Communication and Technology: A Journal of Theory, Research, and Development, 29(2), 75-91.

7 responses so far

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  • Lisa Rau says:

    Your post exposed me to academic research about science blogging that I didn't know existed! Awesome, thanks.

    Re: your memo, I don't think the science blogosphere needs to be strictly defined. You said it best, the sciences include so many fields... Perhaps blogs can be better defined by style. Life/work diaries, research-focused blogs, advice forums, activism blogs that tackle issues in science... But then again, perhaps the best bloggers combine these elements. I'd be curious to see which "science blogs" wouldn't make the cut, per se.

    • Christina Pikas says:

      Pragmatically, if you're researching something, you have to be able to describe it and to bound it somehow. You have to focus on some points and not others.

      It's hard to categorize an entire blog, too, because individual posts fall into different categories.

  • Cian says:

    The question of what constitutes "science" is an interesting one -- are people working in applied sciences "scientists" or are you only a scientist if you are working in theoretical research? (To me, applied science is science.)

    As for the challenge of including specific types of diversity (in this case women) in a network, there is sometimes another issue at play: there's only a limited pool of women (esp. in the physical sciences and engineering), and they are therefore likely to have more requests to participate in committees, networks, etc. that are above and beyond their basic job duties.

    • Christina Pikas says:

      I've always included applied - partly because my place of work is funding my program and they do applied and partly because it's just as much science as theoretical or "pure" science.

  • [...] Men, women, and defining the science blogosphere: a memo [...]

  • [...] women are spending their blogging energies differently, even female scientists. Apparently, we are more likely to also blog about life in science and to provide mentorship. Thus when compiling prominent science bloggers, women may fall out of the selection because they [...]