Blogging is and will remain a fringe effect in science?

My friend Sébastien Paquet got me upset. He sent me a link to a post by David Crotty. What David says is that Wikipedia and blogging, the whole Web 2.0 fad, is not and will not have an impact in science. (Update: Not quite what David wrote.)

Ok David. I can respect your opinion on the matter. But it gets ugly when you bring Linux into the fold:

But when you step away from the enthusiasts and speak with the majority of scientists, you find out that they don’t have much interest in using many of these new technologies. The whole situation reminds me quite a bit of what one saw online regarding the Linux operating system 5 to 10 years ago. You saw great enthusiasm, and predictions that Linux was soon to take over the computing world. The rest of the world shrugged, and went back to their Windows computers to get their work done.

Back in 1998, using Linux required a fair amount of faith. Getting Linux running smoothly on a PC without help was matter of days. Few companies used Linux for job-critical applications.

In 2008, the Linux market represents $35.7 billion. Unless you manage to avoid using Google, you use Linux every single day. Walmart sells Linux-based PCs.

David, you have chosen a terrible analogy. Linux has succeeded beyond any sensible expectation. Nobody predicted that Linux would kill Windows. Linux was not out to kill Windows.

Nobody is predicting that blogs will replace journals. Scientists do not blog because they think it is the new media that will replace conferences and journals. However, blogging has and will continue to have a serious impact on science.

15 thoughts on “Blogging is and will remain a fringe effect in science?”

  1. There is so much fail in that article, I want to weep. I particularly like this little bit of explanation why, in his opinion, the web doesn’t work:

    If you think in terms of time, in terms of efficiency, it’s fairly obvious why this site failed to catch on. The site only offered the same material the user had already purchased in the form of the book.

    To put it in lolcatese: “Web 2.0: ur doin it wrong”

  2. I think you’re misinterpreting the message of my blog post. The idea isn’t that Web 2.0 is useless or going to fail for biologists. The idea is that the majority of efforts currently being made, certainly the high profile ones, are lame, and are not seeing much use. The post comes from a talk given at a meeting of science publishers, the idea being to urge them towards making better, more useful tools. Tools that took advantage of Web 2.0 and increased efficiency rather than just aping Myspace.

    As for the Linux comment, clearly you don’t read the same tech sources as I do. I’ve seen predictions that “this is the year” Linux takes over on the desktop every year. I can send you links to them, or just do a Google search yourself. Talking about back-end services like Google’s servers is fine. Can you tell me what percentage of users run Linux on the desktop? Case closed.

    And Slyvie–can you explain to me why the idea of putting a book up online, just an exact copy of the print version is a good strategy? Wouldn’t it be smarter to use the advantages offered by the web and build something new? That example in particular–you had to own the print copy in order to access the online copy, by the way. And I can show you miserable user statistics that compare very poorly with one of the best selling laboratory manuals in existence.

    I’m actually giving a talk this weekend that should be a bit more positive, as it’s aimed at pointing users towards technologies that are actually doing things right, rather than “Web 2.0 for the sake of Web 2.0”. It should go up on the blog by the end of next week. Perhaps you’ll find it more palatable.

  3. I think you’re misinterpreting the message of my blog post. The idea isn’t that Web 2.0 is useless or going to fail for biologists.

    Sébastien also thinks I misinterpreted you.

    You did clearly imply that science blogs are useless. Here is what you wrote:

    I’ve been conducting an informal poll for the last four months, asking every scientist I know what science blogs they read or social networking science websites they use. I’ve spoken with undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, PI’s and department chairs. So far, 100% of those polled have answered, “None”

    So, as far as you know, nobody is using blogs.

    Did you try to do the same poll regarding Linux? I would be *extremely* surprised if nobody you know uses Linux. Most scientists who get some money buy Linux servers at one point or another. It is true in biology as in any other fields. The only reason why it may not happen over where you work might be that Linux is forbidden (Windows-only policies). Otherwise, you have Linux boxes left and right.

    As for the Linux comment, clearly you don’t read the same tech sources as I do. I’ve seen predictions that “this is the year” Linux takes over on the desktop every year. I can send you links to them, or just do a Google search yourself. Talking about back-end services like Google’s servers is fine. Can you tell me what percentage of users run Linux on the desktop? Case closed.

    The case is not closed. Linux is neither failing nor useless.

  4. Dr. Crotty’s article reminds me of Pauline Kael’s famous line about how she couldn’t believe Nixon won the presidential election because nobody she knew had voted for him. One very significant effect of blogs (i believe) is that people like me who are not professional scientists can still read them and get some benefit. Science and technology blogs often lead me to academic publications that i previously would never have known about; and which i can occasionally apply to my job.

  5. Wow, the internet sure does lead to raw nerves and touchiness. Points to address:

    1) Never said blogs are useless. I said that they’re not regularly read by mainstream scientists (and deliberately stated that they are highly read by non-professional scientists, by the way Mike, please re-read what I wrote). They serve their purposes, several of which I mention in the post. But no, they’re not quite as widespread, or well-read as some would lead you to believe. I know lots of people using blogs, I write one myself for crying out loud. Thanks for putting words in my mouth though.

    2) I also know lots of people who use Linux. I know very few who use it on the desktop. Again, if you’d like I can point you to a variety of proclamations that “this is the year of desktop Linux” (Linus himself declared this in 2004). How successful have those predictions been? Is desktop Linux now the mainstream? Are the majority of computer users employing it as their primary desktop operating system? Were those enthusiasts/evangelists right?

    I never said it was “a failure” or “useless”. Sheesh. Please don’t let your insecurities cloud your reading. The point was that the enthusiasts often overstate the case for the thing they’re backing. Linux is a lovely thing, but no, 2004 (or pick whatever year you’d like) was not “the year of desktop Linux”.

  6. 1) Never said blogs are useless. I said that they’re not regularly read by mainstream scientists
    Sorry but this is a generalization you are making from your experience. I’m willing to believe this is the case in Biology, but in CS, Math, and Physics there are *many* blogs that are consistently read by mainstream scientists. Here are few examples:

    Math: Terry Tao’s; Tim Gowers’; non-commutative geometry blog; secret blogging seminar; etc…

    CS: Scott Aaronson’s; Lance Fortnow’s; Luca Trevisan’s; the geomblog, Luca Aceto’s; Michael Mitzenmacher’s etc…

    Physics: Jacques Distler’s; Peter Woit’s; Dave Bacon’s; etc…

    I know very few who use it on the desktop
    I think the first post is to the point. How many people do you know who use Apple computers? The OS they’re using (i.e., MacOSX) is based on a “cousin” of Linux called FreeBSD. So those predictions weren’t totally off the mark.

  7. The article in question starts with an informal poll, generalizes the results to all of “science”, and illustrates the point with an analogy that seems amusingly inappropriate to those of us whose business run on hundreds or thousands of Linux boxes. The article makes many insightful points and demonstrates considerable knowledge of Web 2.0 ideas, but it has a couple of problems. I think one can criticize those problem without being defensive or insecure.

    The article makes the point that science blogs are read by non-specialists, but it also suggests this is just recreation. My point is rather that blogs serve as a useful filter for people who don’t have the time to survey the literature thoroughly (non-scientist, but not necessarily non-specialist). For example, I read this blog because Dr. Lemire has done important work on recommender systems, which are a part of my job. Knowing what he and his readers are thinking about is worthwhile to me. Combine several such blogs into a Google reader feed, and you’ve got a tool that i believe meets all of the criteria of useful and convenient.

  8. Wal-Mart certainly hasn’t stopped selling Linux based PC’s, they’ve just stopped selling them in stores. The PC’s are still available online, but after an initial test run, the sales weren’t as good as hoped – although their initial stock has nearly sold out. I would imagine that the profit margin on a $199 PC is so low that unless sales are phenomenal, the cost of stocking them in stores isn’t worth it. That certainly doesn’t mean that it’s been a failure.

  9. 1) Blogs are read and written by many mainstream (and even famous) scientists. Maybe just not by your friends and colleagues.

    2) Linux has had a huge impact in IT. Anyone who dismissed Linux 5 or 10 years ago has been wrong in doing so.

  10. Sigh. Nevermind then. I wish you and the readers here would actually address the points I made in my article, rather than making up arguments that are irrelevant to what I said. Again, please don’t put words in my mouth.

    Note that my article is specifically written about biologists (and yes, perhaps I do interchange the word “scientists” too often, and instead should be more specific). I do specifically point out that this is the only group I’m discussing, and that other cultures act differently.

    The Linux nonsense is a non-starter. You’re all desperately trying to have an argument that I’m not having. I’m very specifically talking about predictions of Linux taking over the desktop, which happen every single year, and which so far have been wrong every single year. I’m making no value judgements about Linux or any comment whatsoever about its use in any place other than on the desktop. It has, so far, been summarily dismissed in this particular market. No judgements are offered on the quality of Linux, merely on how widespread its adoption has been as a desktop OS, and how enthusiasts predictions are often biased and incorrect.

    As for the Mac, no, it’s not Linux, no matter how much you wish it was. And yes, I’ve been using Macs fairly exclusively since System 7.

    As far as “my friends and colleagues” go, I’ve now surveyed several hundred biologists. Perhaps not a random sample but in my professional duties, I do come across quite a few. I’m still waiting to meet one who makes regular use of science blogs but does not write a blog him/herself.

    I’ll leave you now to continue your imaginary arguments about Linux amongst yourselves.

  11. Many of the points you make are very good. People cannot be expected to contribute if they do not stand to gain. Starting posting boards is useless. People cannot be expected to use complex tools requiring training. Your analysis of who reads blogs is very accurate.

    I never claimed that my post was fair to you. Blog posts do not have to be fair. I have been repeatedly misquoted, bashed and burned on various sites out there. That’s ok.

    Yes, I agree with your points (except for Linux) and I find it interesting. I linked to your blog and almost surely helped a tiny bit draw readers to your post and to your blog. I subscribed to your blog, maybe others did. There!

    Now, as I said initially, what I cannot buy is the Linux analogy. I just cannot. You are twisting the facts. Ok, I am nitpicking, but nevertheless, I will hold my ground on this one.

    Ok. As far as I know, what Torvald said in 2004 was “This year there will be a lot of desktop users, which will impact kernel developers. ” ( This came absolutely true. By 2004, Linux desktop technology was becoming quite mature.

    Among other things, Ubuntu was lauched in 2004 ( and it has made a huge difference for desktop Linux. By 2006, Ubuntu had 8 million users. And that’s a single Linux distribution. 8 million might be a drop in the bucket compared to the windows users, but it is a huge impact by my standards.

    I don’t know what kind of idiot predicted that in 2004, the majority of the users would switch from Windows to Linux, but it was not Torvald. Maybe it was your impression that someone had made this prediction. Slashdot seems to have a thread on this, but it is not clear who made the prediction, and if you are to trust Slashdot editors as technology analysts, we are in dire trouble.

    Back to your main point… It is quite possible that in biology, blogs are having no impact on mainstream science. I wrote “I can respect your opinion on the matter.”

    One of the first link in your post was “the new england journal of medicine”. I followed the link and… sure enough, it comes with an RSS feed and a podcast! Heck, the new england journal of medicine is organized like a blog. Don’t tell me their site does not look like a blog:

    You’ll point out to me that very few scientists write blogs. But that’s not going to change and you even tell us why in your post: it is hard to blog well. I doubt that you will ever see 1% of scientists blogging. That’s almost unthinkable.

    But blogging has changed and is changing the face of science, there is no question about it.

    How many people wrote or printed books in the Gutenberg era? Well. Some monks printed the bible. That was about it. Yet, it had a huge impact and it changed the world forever. We do not need 10,000 blogger-scientists to change the world.

    Let us keep the debate open.

  12. That’s fair enough then, I just don’t want to get a reputation for being someone who bashes Linux. That was never my intention, it was instead, to bash the idea of believing the hype, no matter what the source (for the record, I’m a hardcore Mac fanboy, so yes, I know from hype).

    The NEJM is primarily a clnical, medical journal, a different culture from the one I’m addressing. They have different practices, and need different online tools than do say, molecular biologists. I do think there’s great value is seeing what works for these other cultures. Chemists and Bioinformaticists are making great and really interesting online tools–but the types of data they collect lends itself in more obvious ways to these computational approaches. But there’s much to be learned from them, if we can figure out how to apply it.

    Blogging is changing the face of science but perhaps not in the way a lot of bloggers think. Your 1% figure is a lot more reasonable than what I’ve heard from science bloggers, who expect it to become the norm, for people to be keeping their notebooks online and posting daily blogs of their experiments.

    The blog I quoted in my talk was from a physicist, one who’s got a really good handle on what’s really happening. Which is what I’m trying to figure out, what’s really happening here, what’s worth pursuing further, what’s a waste of time. As part of a not-for-profit institution, we can’t afford to make grand, expensive, throw everything up against the wall and see what sticks sorts of experiments. We need to invest our time and effort where it’s most likely to pay off.

    Two quick quotes for you on the Linux thing by the way, so you know it ain’t just me:
    “This is a somewhat empty victory for Linux enthusiasts, who have been predicting the imminent arrival of the mythical “year of the Linux desktop” for as long as I’ve been a Linux user.”
    “Since at least 2001, a meme known as “(year) will be the year of Linux on the Desktop” has been published by a number of tech-related magazines, referring to the prior year’s experiences of supposed “gains” for Linux adoption by business corporations; these gains can vary in reason, such as the installation of a Linux distribution onto the desktops of workers for organizations or companies who may not be immediately or otherwise involved in the computing industry, or the acceleration of development for specific applications which find their greatest usages on desktop Linux distributions, or the pre-installation of specific Linux distributions onto personal computers being sold by PC manufacturers such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, or other corporations. The meme, which is used on an annual basis, has been roundly criticized as redundant and overreaching.”

  13. Your 1% figure is a lot more reasonable than what I’ve heard from science bloggers, who expect it to become the norm, for people to be keeping their notebooks online and posting daily blogs of their experiments.

    When I started blogging, I thought my blog would be just that. I would do my research and report on intermediate results on my blog, thus promoting my work.

    You soon realize that there are pretty fundamental reasons why you cannot open your laboratory to the world. And it has nothing with people stealing your ideas. Quite the opposite! If I were to dump all my notes on my blog, people would never come and read any of it.

    However, scientists will find new ways to collaborate more openly in the future.

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