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Science Blogging and Tenure

Alex Palazzo (Courtesy of Alex Palazzo)

Cell biologist Alexander Palazzo says his blog helped him secure an assistant professorship. "My department" -- the biochemistry department at the University of Toronto in Canada -- "told me part of the reason they hired me was because of stuff I'd written on my blog," he says. "It wasn't the main reason they hired me, but it helped."

“Your tenure package is a four-course meal and blogging is the dessert." - Greg Gbur

Does that mean that blogging is good for your career? Not necessarily. Palazzo could be a special case. His department was looking for candidates who could get undergraduates excited about science. In his department, teaching is secondary to research, Palazzo says, but it's a substantial part of his job. His blog -- about peer-reviewed research and academic life -- demonstrated skill and enthusiasm for explaining scientific findings and their wider implications to the public. The university viewed that as a plus.

But can Palazzo's experience be generalized? Does writing a blog help junior scientists' career prospects, or harm them? These days, with blogging about science taking off, the impact of blogging on careers is a hotly debated topic. At least two conferences during the past year on how the Web is changing science -- ScienceOnline2011 and Science Online London 2010 -- have included discussions of the career impacts of blogging. ScienceOnline2011, held in America this January, had two sessions about blogging in the academy. (Full disclosure: This author received a travel award from the conference organizers to attend ScienceOnline2011.)

Whether blogging aids or harms careers -- or has no effect -- seems to depend on how those blogs are used. Blogs that support the traditional academic activities of teaching and outreach are often valued as a nonresearch activity -- but only at institutions, and in departments, that value nonresearch activity. At research-intensive institutions, many scientists say, a blog is likely to be regarded at best as a harmless hobby and at worst as a liability.

The many uses of blogging

Blogs can reach a wide audience, says Peter Janiszewski, a former Ph.D. student in clinical exercise physiology. He writes in a blog post that one of his research papers has rarely been cited. But after he discussed it as part of a five-part series on his blog Obesity Panacea, the five parts together received 12,080 page views and 70 reader comments in a week -- then covered the study. That illustrates an important point: Blogs are communication tools, not research tools, and advertise scientists' eloquence, not their research skills.

Greg Gbur, an associate professor of physics at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, has used his blog as a means of public outreach. Gbur received tenure in April 2010 on the strength of a package that included blog posts and visitor statistics to illustrate his teaching work and service to his university and the wider community.

Not the main course

But, speaking at ScienceOnline2011, Gbur emphasized that his blog was a complement to an already strong dossier. "Your tenure package is a four-course meal, and blogging is the dessert," he said. So he treats it that way: He blogs after hours and makes that clear in blog posts. "I wanted to make sure someone who looked knew it was something extra," he says.

Greg Gbur (Courtesy of Greg Gbur)

Gbur's caution is an acknowledgement of a central fact about science-faculty blogging: Blogs can enhance -- but cannot replace -- the work institutions value most, which usually is research. Neglecting that most-valued work can have serious consequences. John Harrison -- a pseudonym used to keep his comments in this article from harming his career -- says a former adviser's concern that blogging was taking too much time away from research was "a big part of" why he quit his Ph.D. program. Harrison was investing "the time equivalent of a part-time job" in his blog, he says.

Blogging is often seen as a waste of time at major research universities, where those seeking tenured positions "progress in their careers based on their research output. That research is hard work, so you tend not to be successful unless you do it full time," says Peter Littlewood, head of the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

At such institutions, blogs usually have little value. "My goal is to establish an independently funded research career. As wonderful as blogging is, there's very little that's going to contribute to a grant or paper," said Dr. Isis, a pseudonymous blogger who focuses on gender issues in science and scientific lifestyles, when she spoke at ScienceOnline2011 by video link, wearing sunglasses, a surgical mask, and a woolly pirate hat to conceal her identity. Those grants and papers are what really matter at a research institution.

Fringe benefits

Nevertheless, Gbur found a way to use his blog to benefit his scholarship: as a "broader impact" in grant applications submitted to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). "Broader Impacts" is one of two overarching criteria NSF uses to make funding decisions. (The other is "Intellectual Merit.") Blogging "would be considered" a Broader Impact, says NSF spokesperson Bobbie Mixon, "depending on the specific proposal."

Gbur says he's received "good scores" for Broader Impacts from NSF for, among other things, proposing to create a laboratory blog to present his research to the public. He suggested driving traffic from his existing blog, Skulls in the Stars, which once received 100,000 visits in a week. "I'm conveying information to people who wouldn't normally see it," he says.

Another way blogs may benefit research scholarship (and, hence, careers) is through networking. Social media tools, including his blog, helped Pawel Szczęsny, a blogger and bioinformatician at the University of Warsaw, start research collaborations with two scientists he met on FriendFeed. When he applied for an assistant professorship in 2009, his interviewers seemed very interested in this collaboration, because "fresh Ph.D.s usually don't have their own international collaborations, at least not in Poland," he says. They hired him.

Pawel Szczesny (Courtesy of Pawel Szcz)

Don't be stupid

A blog can enhance the careers of scientists who follow the advice offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Thomas Levenson at ScienceOnline2011: "Don't be stupid." One way you can be stupid is to spend too much time blogging, displacing more scholarly work. Another is using your blog to criticize other scientists' research. "Blog writing is informal and rapid fire, which makes it easy to write a post that sounds overly hostile," says Chris Rowan, a geology blogger and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago in Illinois. "For those of us without a permanent position, this may be viewed unkindly by our current or future employers."

Palazzo -- who occasionally wrote about published scientific research papers before he gave up blogging in 2009 because of the time pressures of a new baby and job -- says he rarely blogged about papers that were boring or wrong. "In general, I tended to write about things I liked," he says. "I could have written about research that's wrong or insignificant, but why waste my time?"

Early-career scientists who wish to play it safe should limit their blogging to research they admire, says Dennis Meredith, author of Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work. "Avoid negative blogging. That way, you're seen as being a positive contributor to your field."

Another way to be stupid is to blog about your research you haven't published yet. This is risky in several ways, but the biggest risk is the risk of getting scooped -- of having your ideas published by others who don't give you credit. A small number of scientists advocate "open-notebook science," in which research results are documented online in real time. But Bora Zivkovic, a co-founder of Science Online and an open science advocate, says that the community of scientists willing to reveal unpublished work is limited to a few chemists and computational biologists. "Being a pioneer is hard," Zivkovic says. Pseudonymous blogger Scicurious adds: "Blogging about your own research is a very delicate issue. I never do because of fear of scoopage."

Another way bloggers can be career-stupid is by blogging about potentially controversial subjects beyond science, subjects like politics, religion, or academic controversies. European cell biologist Bill Paley (a pseudonym employed to limit the risk to his career) used to blog about science and his Christian beliefs. Nothing he wrote, he says, was especially provocative. But when his boss discovered his blog via Google, he advised him to stop. "He said, 'You write a lot of things about religion and science. Future employers might have strong feelings about you being religious,' " Paley recalls.

Paley, who now works in industry, doesn't know whether blogging damaged his career. "Maybe people were Googling my name as soon as they got my CV and thinking, 'This guy is a religious nut case, ' " Paley says.

Channeling Twain

"If you are going to blog about life in academia and personal and professional issues, I would recommend a pseudonym," Scicurious says. But, she warns, "A pseudonym is very thin protection. You will be found and outed; it's only a matter of when."

Pseudonymous blogger Dr. Isis says the risk of exposure means she'd "never write something I wouldn't say under my real name." A few other bloggers, her department chair, and colleagues know she's Dr. Isis. You might say her pseudonym helps with the bookkeeping, keeping her blogging and research separate in the public eye. "I didn't want someone looking for my publications to have to search through 1000 pages of blog comments," she says.

For junior scientists who are also passionate bloggers -- who are willing to put their careers at risk in order to write what's on their minds -- all is not lost. Passionate, risky writing could be a sign -- or a means of discovering -- that you're in the wrong job. "People can find themselves and that can help them with their career," Harrison says. "My adviser encouraged me as I was leaving the institution to get out of research and get into science writing." Harrison looked into science writing but has since returned to research.

Vivienne Raper is a freelance journalist in London.

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