Is blogging effective at communicating biodiversity research?

This post was originally published on BioDiverse Perspectives – a research blog aimed at fostering communication about biodiversity.

My original intent in writing this post was to compare the 5 most-cited papers on biodiversity to the 5 most blogged-about papers on biodiversity to address the differences between what we value as researchers versus what we value as general science communicators. However, I was shocked by the results of my search.  Over 49,000 papers have been published containing the word “biodiversity”.  In contrast, only 448 blog entries on researchblogging.org contain the word “biodiversity”, citing just 427 papers. What does this mean about the state of biodiversity research versus the state of biodiversity-research communication? Do bloggers and their readers value fundamentally different research than that being conducted and cited? Or are researchers simply falling short of effectively communicating the most important research in biodiversity science? Here at biodiverse perspectives, we aim to bridge the gap between research blogging and scientific research, by focusing on the research that we consider to be truly transformative in the field of biodiversity regardless of publication date.

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In this blog, we present the papers that we think are the foundational and frontier papers in biodiversity science. But we are just a subset of a vast scientific community. I recently began to wonder, if I were able to poll all biodiversity researchers, what would they say are the five most important papers for biodiversity science?

Well, I don’t have the eyes and ears of all biodiversity researchers, but I do have some tools for garnering their opinions. If journals are the primary method for sharing scientific material, then to some extent, the number of citations should tell us something about how we value research.

So, I sent a letter to every published biodiversity researcher:

 Dear ISI Web of Science,

What are the five most-cited papers that contain the word “biodiversity”?

Sincerely,

Fletcher Halliday

And, believe it or not, I got a reply! Here’s a list of the top five cited articles from Web of Science:

Myers et al. (2000) Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature. 4,790 citations

Vitousek et al. (1997) Human domination of Earth’s ecosystems. Science. 2,410 citations

Sala et al. (2000) Biodiversity – Global biodiversity scenarios for the year 2100. Science. 1,764 citation

Thomas et a.l (2004) Extinction risk from climate change. Nature. 1,690 citations

Hewitt, GM (1996) Some genetic consequences of ice ages, and their role in divergence and speciation. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 1,667 citations

But this website wasn’t designed just to be a compendium of articles that may or may-not be well cited in the literature. As the name suggests, the purpose of this website is to present the perspectives of a diverse community of graduate students. In many ways, this blog is unique. We have over 15 contributing authors, representing 5 countries, and we focus primarily on sharing our opinions on primary literature in biodiversity science. However, in many ways we aren’t so unique. In fact, there are over 2,500 blogs on the web registered as “research blogs” with the website researchblogging.org. And it seems to me that my letter to every published biodiversity researcher may have missed a large segment of the scientific community.

So I sent out another letter:

Dear Researchblogging.org,

What are the 5 most blogged-about papers containing the word “biodiversity”?

Sincerely,

Fletcher Halliday

And researchblogging.org replied too- and what a surprising reply it was! Of 448 blog posts, only 19 papers were written about more than once and only 2 papers were written about more than twice:

Evans, et al. (2011) The spatial distribution of threats to species in Australia. BioScience. 3 blog posts

Strassburg et al. (2010) Global congruence of carbon storage and biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems. Conservation Letters. 3 blog posts

17 papers tied for the remaining three slots in the top 5, each with 2 posts apiece. They ranged in subject from the use of DNA barcoding to infer patterns of avian diversification all the way to role of the Chicxulub Asteroid in mass extinctions.

I wasn’t surprised that the top-five papers were different between ISI and researchblogging.org, but I was surprised to find that the top-five most-cited articles on ISI have never been written about on researchblogging.org. What does it mean that the 5 most important papers to biodiversity researchers don’t even register with biodiversity bloggers?

I’ll pose 3 possible explanations and then leave it up to you to decide what we need to do.

First, perhaps researchblogging.org isn’t a representative sample of science blogs on the web.  But then, if researchblogging.org is not, then what is? If blogs about research aren’t easy to find, then are they really doing their job?

Second, by focusing on very recently published articles, researchbloggers are missing some of the more foundational research in the field. Researchblogging.org launched in 2008 and consequently, the vast majority of papers that have been blogged about were published after that time. Maybe the purpose of researchblogging isn’t to share the most important research, but rather the new and exciting research. However, by only focusing on recent publications, do we run the risk of perpetuating the trend in ecology to reinvent the wheel?

Finally, perhaps not enough researchers are contributing to researchblogging. There are WAY more publications than there are blogs about them! In fact, ISI gave me more than 49,000 results for my query of papers using the word “biodiversity”, whereas researchblogging.org gave me 448 blog entries, citing 427 papers. Just to put this in perspective, the most cited paper containing the word “biodiversity” has been cited 10 times more than the total number of blogs on researchblogging.org that contain the word “biodiversity”. Maybe research blogging and the literature don’t agree because not enough scientists write in blogs.

If science blogging is intended to disseminate science to the public, then it seems important that science blogs aren’t limited to presenting just the newest and most exciting research out there. Here at Biodiverse Perspectives, we are trying to put biodiversity research into some kind of context by writing about papers that are new and exciting as well as papers that have contributed to our foundational knowledge of the field. We hope that this endeavor will allow us to share our excitement about the future direction of biodiversity research in light of its past. What do you think?

16 Replies to “Is blogging effective at communicating biodiversity research?”

  1. Hi Fletcher,

    I don’t really have experience with research blogs, but I was wondering if they have a more informal tone and therefore would not explicitly reference core concepts from fundamental papers, even though they draw conceptually from them.

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  2. Hmm. There’s another possibility. I just searched Researchblogging for “biodiversity” and it didn’t include my recent post that used the word, citing a paper that used that word. Does it cache the whole blog post? Did it really text search the papers?

    You might also check http://scienceseeker.org/ which is where a lot of science blogging people migrated.

    But also–I was surprised to learn that the word biodiversity was coined in 1985. http://iczn.org/content/biodiversity-studies So searching much further back or expecting a much heavier literature set might not be that likely.

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  3. Good call, Mem! I just found out about scienceseeker.org today at the Science Online Conference. A quick “biodiversity” search, yielded 1,322 results.

    Maybe I should send them a letter too!

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  4. Why should you make a distinction between blogging and papers? Isn’t our ancient publication system a prototype of blogging, with references serving the double role of url links and comments/replys? Our old system is surely slower, but both systems even use the same measure of “importance”: pagerank for blogging and #references/citation index for papers. Based on your intro, I get the impression that you make the distinction between a paper and a blog as the difference between communication to a general and specialized public? I just wonder how effective blogging is in reaching the “general” public? My gut feeling is that the audience for for instance ecology blogs are firstly other ecologists. And the large majority of them would certainly have access to Google scholar (and a smaller section to Web of Science), and can thus plug into the old-system blogging infrastructure.

    If my intuition is correct, and science bloggers’ audience is mainly colleagues, what would be their goal. I wonder is then to expose hidden gems, results that you think deserve more attention than currently received in the literature. And this would imply that their is actually no relation at all between the top 5 articles in your analysis, since the purposes are completely different.

    And if your implicit goal is to illustrate the effectiveness of communication of scientific results with the general public, I think it would be more useful to compare the Web of Science results with coverage in traditional newspapers and magazines.

    Just some thoughts.

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  5. Blogs are not peer-reviewed, happen in real time and are written in language that can be as colloquial/accessible as desired. That means our audience can include other scientists OR the general public, and as in the case of BioDiverse Perspectives, students who may be just becoming familiar with the peer-reviewed literature and people in developing countries who may have limited access to proprietary journals. Blogs have the ability to be whatever they want to be, journals are what they are, and blogs have the opportunity to interpret science to new audiences, or to facilitate real-time discussion among a traditional (academic) audience. This site intends to do both, and I think what Fletcher is trying to demonstrate is that there is room within the research blogging field for improvement/growth in both of those endeavors.

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  6. Hi Fletcher,
    I wanted to share a few observations on this subject:
    A brief analysis of papers named as ‘foundations in biodiversity science’ by the DBDGS community shows an interesting bimodal distribution:

    I can see a few potential sources for this pattern:
    1) age bias.- most of the contributors are grad students and are actively following the most recent literature.
    2) gross publication rate.- there are simply more papers coming out on diversity these days.
    3) internal reasons.- The dip in papers from 1985 to 1995 may reflect things going on within the discipline of ecology. For instance, a shift from research on large-scale patterns to small experiments (and then back again with the dawn of macro/synthetic ecology).

    If you eliminate papers from this group not containing the word ‘biodiversity,’ I suspect a pattern very similar to your figure 1 will emerge. This is because the word ‘biodiversity’ was not actually used in the literature until the mid-1980’s (according to Google Ngrams):

    http://tinyurl.com/a379ghd

    The time of the word’s emergence in the literature closely matches the publication year in your figure above. I think the recent spike in your data reflects the huge increase in the number of blog posts, compared to books (which is what Ngrams measures).

    I also wonder how many readers are truly interested in blog posts about many of the older ‘foundational papers.’ For instance, I bet most people in biodiversity science will list Whittaker’s “The Evolution and Measurement of Species Diversity” as a foundational piece. But to blog at length about it in this day and age, when many other more contentious subjects are deserving of ecological debate and the public’s attention, seems a bit unnecessary. Of course, if this foundational paper has been a source of contention for some amount of time it deserves due treatment alongside more recent works.

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  7. I suppose this goes to show that while top journals like Science and Nature garner a lot of citations, some of the more interesting science is happening in other, more targeted journals. I can personally say that the most influential papers I have read did not come from Science and Nature.

    Incidentally, Dynamic Ecology just posted a rather lengthy post on why academics should read blogs:

    http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/02/06/why-should-an-academic-read-blogs/

    I’d like to hear you opinion on how Jeremy’s points can be integrated with your own…

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  8. I think the reality lies somewhere between Dave A’s comment and Jeremy Fox’s post. Dave may very well be correct that blogs have only treated recent publications on biodiversity because those are the only studies worth blogging about. And he may be correct that there’s a bias in the literature towards relatively recent publications because the term “biodiversity” is relatively new. But I think Jeremy makes an equally valid point. Not enough ecologists read or write blogs. In reality, I think that there is value in continuing to discuss both Foundational and Frontier papers in biodiversity. I think that the more researchers write candidly about the papers that are important to them, regardless of publication date, the more likely we are to grow as a scientific community. For example, comments and discussions generated on Jeremy’s blog led renewed interest in discussing the validity of the intermediate disturbance hypothesis. Would this have happened without discussing an old article?

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  9. I think it’s great that folks here are blogging a lot about, and thinking critically about, foundational papers. If people don’t do that, I think the field ossifies and stops progressing. A lot of the posts I’ve done over the years have been about revisiting classic papers.

    http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/why-the-spandrels-of-san-marco-isnt-a-good-paper/

    http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/are-some-general-ecological-concepts-too-general-revisiting-an-oikos-classic/

    http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/why-macroecology-needs-microecology-revisiting-an-oikos-classic/

    http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/04/21/synthesizing-ecology-revisiting-an-oikos-classic/

    Heck, I teach a whole graduate seminar just on the Origin of Species! So I’m all in favor of reading, and thinking critically about, the classics.

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  10. Hi everyone,
    I’m absolutely in favor of revisiting classic papers. But I don’t think the field will ‘ossify’ if blogging about these papers ceased. Somehow the seminal papers in ecology/biology lasted up until the early aughts without the aid of the internet (thanks mostly to our educators and libraries). I wonder what types of posts the academic community would find more useful: re-evaluations of classic, well-known papers or introductions to lesser-known papers we feel deserve a more diverse fanbase.

    I am actually more concerned that a public, NSF-funded blog is focusing on content hidden behind publisher’s paywalls. This is one (of the numerous) problems I have with F1000, although they can get away with it easier since they are for-profit to begin with. What do you folks think?

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    1. Just to clarify, I think it’s important that everyone read and think critically about the classics, rather than only knowing them secondhand or just taking them for granted. Whether that criticial thinking happens via blogging or not isn’t so crucial, necessarily, so long as it happens.

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  11. Ah, Dave, I wondered how long it would be before you wandered in here.

    To answer your first question, why not both? Clearly, there is room to re-evaluate classic work, as Jeremy Fox has shown with the intermediate disturbance hypothesis. In fact, I would argue that the internet is the perfect place to tender these arguments before bringing them to a formal journal, since certain ideas may be quickly and perhaps unfairly rejected by certain editors and reviewers, not to mention they are accessible by a much wider audience for critique. Also, we have and will continue to highlight some intriguing new work coming out–Hillary’s post covering Vincent Devictor’s work in particular I think will find a wider audience in the coming decade, as we realize the utility and pitfalls of citizen science data.

    There’s not much we can do about the current closed state of scientific publications–nor is it a battle that this blog wishes to address–but as I’m sure you know, there are numerous ways of getting one’s hands on a paper regardless of institutional access: mailing the author is a good start, as are interlibrary loans.

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  12. Hi Jon,
    Yeah, I’m not saying that the onus is on the ecology blogs to militantly defend open science (which many are already doing quite well). But blog authors should be cognizant to discrepancies in our readers’ access to papers whose authors may be long-gone (precluding contact) or are not available in academic libraries, digital or otherwise. This could be done by summarizing the findings of papers rather than simply referencing them (which you did nicely in your post Jon), but posts of the “here’s a paper that you should read” nature may be considered exclusionary by some readers.

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  13. You bring up a really interesting point Dave. We discussed the issue of accessibility as we were developing the idea for this blog–wouldn’t it be nice if we could just link to the publications we cite? At this point our goal is to strike a balance between exposing ideas in the journals, inspiring people to really read or revisit them, and trying to add new commentary that doesn’t come off sounding like an abstract or book report. As we get more practice and digest feedback from our readers, we’ll work toward content that is novel, useful, interesting and accessible!

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