Why bother with scientific blogging?

When I took the job of EcoEnet webmaster and learnt there is the possibility of contributing to the website with our own blog-stories I had not much of an idea of how to write one. Like most of you, I’m so conditioned in writing papers and reports than any other form of writing is pretty much just like a sort of witchcraft. Nevertheless, I thought that before pressing you all with the request of website contributions, I should probably lead by example and post the first one under my term. So to fill my knowledge gap, I did what anyone would have done: I googled a couple of keywords and dove through the result pages. Obviously, I found a lot of garbage or content not quite fit to science-oriented blogging and storytelling but some pages turn to be quite useful and provided me with some insight and method on what scientific storytelling is and how to craft a story. In this post, I will summarize the key notions I came across, at the end of the article you will find the best links I found and if you have more, you are welcome to join the discussion in the comments section.

Storytelling is a buzzword of contemporary times and you can see it as a process or method by which one crafts content for a target audience (in this case a blog post). Although storytelling is mostly used as a tool for content marketing, it is nonetheless a powerful means for anyone who wishes to reach out an audience to communicate facts in a narrative form. As a scientist, you might wonder why you should bother with yet another unpaid task in your already crazy schedule. There are essentially two types of reasons that should motivate you writing popular-science blog entries: one is about self-promotion and the second is about public engagement. As a researcher, you will likely change position quite a few times in your career. Until you will not be an established and renowned professional in your field (I wish you it will be soon though) having some easy-accessible and quickly readable material written exclusively by you, affords some advantages. First, if the faculty members in the institution you applied are not quite sure of what is exactly your work, they can get an idea. In second place, the fact you are contributing to a blog shows your engagement and interest in the subject. You might think is not much but in the highly competitive world of research, any edge to draw attention on you and your work could help you secure your next position. The second type of reasons are not strictly related to early career development and in fact, could apply to any career level so you might find yourself writing blog entries also when you’ll be one of those pundits starred with a zillion of citations. If you do what you are doing is not just because you need a job: more often than not people working in research has or develops, a sort of true passion and personal engagement in what they do. Perhaps because, as one works in science, he/she gains insight into the biosphere mechanisms and realises the importance of some apparently unassuming aspects of nature. However, most of the world does not share such understanding, probably just because they simply lack the time to go through any in-depth media which could at least help them grasp the complexity of the arguments you are dealing in your daily job. Blog entries allow you a form of communication which can be way less technical and thus easier to understand also for mudbloods and not strictly scientific audiences such as decision makers or stakeholders. Yet on the pragmatic side of the matter, at least for those of you readers based in the European Union, the H2020 strategy is rather keen on non-technical stakeholders outreach so contributing to a blog could give some of those extra points in a proposal. In a nutshell, blog posts allow you to let the world know what you are doing and why it is important. If properly used, the narrative form used in blogs engages the reader in first person thus making your message more emotional and effective on a human level rather than a notion-based one. This does not mean you should treat your argument lightly or inaccurately, although not peer-reviewed, stories posted by you contribute to build (for the good or the bed) your reputation and credibility (remember the faculty members I mentioned before). Remember also that blogs are open for comments so don’t go wild with your imagination.
So, if now I have convinced you in the undertaking the endeavour of crafting a story for the EcoEnet website, you might stumble on a writer’s block asking yourself how in the world you should begin a story.

Writers' block PhD comics
Credits: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham. http://www.phdcomics.com

For starters I’ll “excerpt and adapt” for a science-oriented context this blog about the essential contents a story shall have:

  • Convey useful information in a narrative form
  • Explain the motivation which led you and your team to undertake the activity subjected in the story
  • Include your impressions and emotions
  • A starting situation, evolution of such and an ending
  • Some form of interaction/engagement between you, the subject of the story and the audience

After getting a grip on what is a story, you might want to draft the story structure and content. A number of things shall be taken into account, you can find here and here, very useful tips on how to make a story out of that thing you have in mind and you feel is too complicated for mudbloods to understand. I’m sure there are many other online resources which could be useful to one starting a blog story, you are most welcome to post your own “best one” in the comments section below. Of all those I read, two things stroke me as the ones we, paper-typing beings, should be aware of. The first is that, in contrast to a scientific paper, when writing a story, you should address the audience in first person, just as you were telling them the story sitting in a pub or waiting for the train in a tube station. The second thing is that you should ask right from the beginning who is your audience as you might want to promote your story beyond the edges of the EcoEnet-Ecohydraulics community. Targeting an audience shapes the language you are going to use. Giving our field of expertise, it is very likely your target audience will have a formal education in your field and thus is savvy on most of the technical terms you are going to use. Nevertheless, you might want to write a story also to reach out a local community and explain why the results of that summer-long field campaign you carried on are so important for the environment they live in. For further tips, tricks and “how-tos” on story writing, I’ll demand on the links I signalled above and, if you care for an academic perspective on scientific storytelling, including the ethics involved with the use of personal experiences to resonate scientific oriented facts check this paper.
I hope that after this short blog about blogging you get a bit more motivated in providing stories to our website. At the moment, I found that this possibility is, to put it mildly, rather unused. That’s a shame because given the difficulty we have in meeting in person, posting stories is a good way of keeping up with each others’. On the other hand, I understand that everyone is busy and does not have much time to write yet another piece of science. However, one thing you should keep in mind is that writing a story is not as demanding as writing a paper, you don’t need to be extremely detailed, it is not necessarily about results but it can also focus on an experience such as a conference or a day in the field, and no, don’t worry, there is no peer review processes 😉

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