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
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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Engaging early career researchers in ecohydraulics: A participatory approach

PART 3 – Major challenges in ecohydraulics

The requirement for high levels of originality for PhD and postdoc projects, combined with the need to read deeply and broadly at early career stages, means that ECRs tend to work at the cutting edge of research. This ought to make them an excellent source of information on disciplinary challenges. A substantial part of the workshop focused on discussing and shortlisting the major challenges in ecohydraulics, a young discipline with a long way to go until full maturity.

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Many of the points raised by ECRs in this part of the workshop echoed previous commentaries on the major challenges in the discipline, including Maddock et al’s Ecohydraulics: An Integrated Approach. Whilst ECRs generally agreed on the broad categories challenges facing ecohydraulicians, they clearly did not agree that ecohydraulics is “an integrated approach”. Not yet anyway!

Maddock_Ecohydraulics_5.pdf

Among their top priorities for moving the discipline forward were: defining a common vocabulary, successfully establishing the new Journal of Ecohydraulics, overcoming disciplinary separatism and integrating tools and concepts from different disciplines.

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Compared to the commentaries of more senior colleagues, ECRs put much more emphasis on integrating a wider range of concepts, including ecosystem services and ideas from social sciences and economics. They also identified public and political engagement as a key area for improving the impact and reach of ecohydraulics. Furthermore, they thought that citizen science would be an excellent way to both educate the public and engage them in research partnerships through citizen science, something that colleagues in the hydrological and ecological sciences have been doing to great effect in the last decade (e.g. Dickinson et al. 2012; Buytaert et al. 2014).

The group’s identification of key challenges in ecohydraulics during the workshop laid the foundation for discussions of barriers and opportunities for ECRs in trying to overcome those challenges. This will be the topic of the next blog.

Engaging early career researchers in ecohydraulics: A participatory approach

PART 2 – Context and approach

As ecohydraulicians we try to understand extremely complex, dynamic biophysical systems using a huge variety of methods. Our findings, and the application of our results to environmental management, are often fraught with uncertainty that biologists and engineers may perceive in vastly different ways. Despite this, ecohydraulics has made, and continues to make, important contributions to knowledge and society at large. How can we ensure that it continues to do so in the future? How can we harness the maximum potential of the next generation of ecohydraulics specialists in a way that is inclusive of nationality, gender and disciplinary background? How can we guarantee the welfare of ECRs as they attempt to overcome the scientific and professional challenges consistent with an emerging discipline? One of the major reasons for establishing ECoENet was to address such questions.

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The participatory action research process

For the early careers workshop in Melbourne we chose to initiate a cyclic framework known as “participatory action research” (PAR). The framework is intended to enhance mutual learning and empowerment through continuous cycles of participation, action and reflection. It is most commonly used in the social and medical sciences but its popularity is growing in hydrology and ecology (e.g. Karpouzoglou et al., 2016).

PAR encourages equality in contributions to discourses characterised by great uncertainty and skewed power relations, such as those that exist between scientists (‘researchers’) and stakeholders (‘people’), between funders and scientists, etc. The classic paper by Cornwall and Jewkes (1995) casts PAR at the end of a spectrum of participation, from the contractual to the collegiate.

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It’s easy to see the basis for applying participatory research in the context of ECRs – simply substitute ‘ECRs’ for ‘people’ and ‘bosses’ for ‘funder’!

The ECR workshop was a very light application of PAR, yet nonetheless effective. We began with an outstanding keynote in which John Nestler established a firm basis for the workshop by emphasising the principles of innovation and planning ahead in your career (“don’t wait until the bullets begin to fly!”). John ended with a strong recommendation that we should “think at a fundamental level once in a while”, a message repeated in his recent TJOE paper.

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After some Q&As with John, we split the 25 participants, consisting of postdocs and postgrads from 10 different countries, into five groups. Each group was assigned a member of the ECoENet organising committee or a conscripted researcher from among the more experienced participants (thanks to Ana Silva and Paul Franklin!) whose role it was to stimulate discussion. The groups were introduced to each of the main questions we wanted to consider in the workshop and given up to 30 minutes to discuss and reflect on the question. We asked the groups to note each of their main points on a Postit (100s of Postits were sacrificed for this workshop!) and report them back to the other participants.

Later, we undertook a process of merging and splitting the main points, attempting to make connections between each of the three questions considered. Throughout this process we tried to maintain fluidity in the proceedings. No themes were preconceived or “written in stone” until the last moments of the workshop when all participants were satisfied that we had formed something coherent.

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We ended up with five broad themes that cut across the three main workshop questions, connecting the major challenges in ecohydraulics with the barriers and opportunities facing ECRs, and the role of ECoENet in facilitating progress. These themes have been instrumental in the direction of ECoENet since.

  1. Technology and professional development
  2. Welfare
  3. Communication
  4. Dissemination
  5. Funding

The next parts of this blog will report the responses of participants to each of the main questions posed during the workshop, gradually building towards a coherent strategy for enhancing the role of ECRs in ecohydraulics.

Keep following us also on Twitter and Facebook.

EcoENet Strategy

Based on our vision, we have developed a strategy organised in 4 main activity areas that are interlinked. They include: Online Presence, Outreach, Members and Participation at Key conferences.steps

Each of the above activity areas are coordinated by a sub-commitee. A Chair and Secretary oversee the overall internal management and communication through regular ECoENEt commitee meetings. See below our plan for short to mid-term activities by areas and who does what:

activities_by_steps

Current roles

Management

Chair: Roser Casas-Mulet

Secretary: Ana Adeva Bustos

Activity Areas

Online Presence: Davide Vanzo, Andrew Neverman, Martin Wilkes

Outreach: Camille Macnaughton

Members: Alexander McCluskey, Ana Adeva Bustos

Participation at Conferences: Martin Wilkes, Roser Casas-Mulet, Ana Adeva Bustos, Andrew Neverman

 

 

Please get in touch if you’d like to find out more about our organisation!

 

Funding Sources

Travel Funding

ECoENet activities at ISE2016, ISRS2017 and ISE2018 were and will be funded by the main conference. This means that costs are kept to an absolute minimum.

Unfortunately we cannot provide direct financial assistance to PhD students and early career researchers to help cover the costs of travel, accommodation and registration for the main conference. We can, however, assist members in securing individual funding. Start by checking your eligibility for the funding sources listed in this document. If you find that you do not qualify for any of these, or would like some advice on writing a funding application, then please contact the organising committee who will do their best to help.

 

Other Funding Sources

We are currently working on it, won’t be long!

 

If you have any ideas on how to get funding in future meetings, we look forward to hear them. Please contact us or be ready to discuss when we next meet!

Engaging early career researchers in ecohydraulics: A participatory approach

PART 1 – Introduction

Back in February 2016, as the ecohydraulics community gathered in Melbourne to prepare for what was to be an excellent ISE2016, ECoENet held its first workshop for Early Career Researchers (ECRs). Since then, we’ve been busy organising, analysing, interpreting and publishing the workshop outcomes. Click here to read the paper in the new Journal of Ecohydraulics. Muchas gracias to all of those who participated in the two-day event, including John Nestler for giving an inspiring keynote talk and offering invaluable advice.

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The aim of the workshop was to provide an opportunity for ECRs to network, share ideas and improve understanding of how they can contribute towards developing ecohydraulics as a discipline. And, conversely, to explore what senior members of the community could do to help smooth the way, for the benefit of all. We explored three main questions about ecohydraulics and the role of ECRs working within it:

  1. What are the major challenges in ecohydraulics today and in the near future?
  2. What are the barriers and opportunities for ECRs attempting to meet these challenges?
  3. What can ECoENet do to help?

In this series of blogs we will set the context and explain our approach to the workshop. Subsequently, we will explore ECR responses to each of the three main questions in much more detail than we were able to include in the paper.

Keep following us also on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Summer school “Protecting river connectivity: Effective design and monitoring of fishways”

We are holding a summer school on fish passage in Concepción, Chile, 16-20 January. Visit this link for details –  afiche-escuela-keepfish-2017

There is a fee of $200 USD for students and $500 for others. Come and enjoy the Chilean summer with us! Contact me if you want to attend and need some help to find funding.

Martin // Concepción