Posted by: Kay at Suicyte | May 18, 2008

One year of Suicyte Notes

I just noticed that this week, Suicyte Notes could celebrate its first anniversary. But is there anything to celebrate? I have started this blog in May last year as an experiment. The idea was to find out if scientific blogging is i) fun, ii) useful, iii) possible while trying to pursue an active scientific career. Let me try to give you a few answers – obviously from my own personal perspective.

Is scientific blogging fun? Overall, I would answer this question with a qualified ‘yes’. It would certainly be pure fun if I had an unlimited amount of time at my hands, if I had a better grasp of English, and if I wouldn’t suffer from a permanent writer’s block. Initially, I had intended to write much more posts on strictly scientific topics (read below why I have mostly abandoned this idea) in the hope that it might be fun to talk about scientific topics without the need to please malevolent of nitpicking peer reviewers, and without having to back everything I say by original references. This is all certainly true, but it turned out that  writing a scientific text that would stand at least my own intracranial reviewing process is still a lot of work.

Is scientific blogging useful? There are at lease two very different aspects to this question, even if I stay within the area of my personal experience. On one hand, there is me, reading other peoples scientific blogs. This activity has turned out to be surprisingly useful. While browsing the blogosphere, I have learned about the availability of useful bioinformatical tools, about new genomic data sources, and  maybe most importantly: about interesting open questions in biology that had previously been hidden just outside my awareness horizon. Obviously, these blog postings were not mere announcements or press releases, but came with thoughtful evaluation and often with a lot of discussion. This is clearly an information source not to be missed!

On the other hand, is there any use for me in writing Suicyte Notes? I am less sure about that. Did I learn a lot from other people’s comments? Only in a few cases. Most of my postings, including the real scientific ones, did not attract a lot of comments. At times, when I was lured into talking about one of the more controversial topics, a lively discussion ensued. These discussions typically were interesting, and a lot of fun, too. However, in terms of scientific usefulness they were much less rewarding. The other side of the  coin is that it’s hard to imagine that any of my readers took substantial advantage from following Suicyte Notes.

Is blogging compatible with a scientific career? This answer should generally be “yes”, although this is of course a matter of time and resources. Suicyte Notes has been a low-volume blog right from its beginnings. I count 52 postings for the first year, exactly one entry per week. This appears to be the maximum I can manage while juggling a scientific job, some non-job-related science, half a zillion of scientific collaborations (rough estimate) and – last but not least – a family. I have decided that among all of my activities, blogging has to take the back seat.

Will there be a second year of Suicyte Notes, or will it apoptose? I am not yet decided. Chances are that I will go from low volume to very low volume. There might be some change in contents, too. As I said above, I originally intended to start with a pure ‘scientist blogging for scientists’ thing. Soon it turned out that – at least in my work area – there is hardly any readership for this kind of blog. The situation seems to be different in ‘real bioinformatics’, where several such blogs exist and apparently are read by many people. Most of these blogs are very technology-driven, and this is not my cup of tea (I am more of a coffee person, anyway). My work is problem-driven, I am just using bioinformatics tools, amongst others, to address biological problems. Thus, I enjoy reading technology-focused blogs from time to time, but I could never write one myself.

Unfortunately, there are not (yet?) enough people in the blogosphere who share a my biological interest. I suspect this will be true for most other biological interests as well, except maybe evolution. From looking at the commenters on my blog (as a proxy for the general readership, of which I have no account) it seems like my blog is almost exclusively read by other active bloggers. Is this true, and is this a general phenomenon? Before starting a blog myself, I had assumed the that population of science-related blog readers should exceed the authors of such blogs by at least a factor of 100. Now, judging from my very limited data base, I suspect that the two populations are nearly identical. Again, things will be probably different in areas of public interest (evolution, IDiocy, dinosaurs, drug-related news, open-access movement). For a purely scientific topic with no appeal to the average layperson, I would predict that the readership will be recruited from a rather smallish number of active bloggers.

This trend (well, perceived trend – I have no idea if it is real) seems understandable at first glance. In a way, it should be surprising nevertheless. There are literally thousands of active researchers worldwide in the area of ubiquitin/proteasome biology. At least some of them should be interested in one or two of my more scientific entries and could be expected to stop by from time to time. Any evidence of such visits would encourage me to write more such entries, maybe even more elaborate or better-researched ones. Apparently, these people don’t come here; it seems that for the more specialized biological topics, the blogosphere suffers from a critical mass problem.

In the meantime, I will have to think hard if it still makes sense to write longish texts on ubiquitin science (with less than 10 views per day at peak time, most of them by people googling for lake garda) or if I should stick to short silly notes on nano-primates (with more than 1000 views per day).

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Responses

  1. I enjoy reading your blog posts, and I always learn something, so I encourage you to keep blogging.

    It’s dismaying how few people read the scientific bloggers who are trying to focus on science. It’s even more dismaying how few people comment.

    My experience with blogging is that it forces me to do a good job of reading up on the topic about which I want to write. It also forces me to work on my writing skills.

    But as you say above, it’s a lot of work to write a good post. For those of us doing full-time research (where “full-time” means 50 to 60 hours a week), it’s very difficult to find time to blog. So it seems like you should continue for as long as blogging is fun and you feel rewarded. You not think of it as an obligation.

  2. I don’t think you can treat comments as a surrogate for reading, at least with science-based posts. The problem is that the more thoughtful, well-read, and intelligent the post is, the less there is to say about it afterward. It’s the ill-considered, tossed-off posts that have mistakes a commenter can pounce on.

    I agree that there are probably relatively few scientists reading blogs, and the number who are close enough to your field to actively discuss with you would be pretty small. (That doesn’t mean there are none. I’ve heard privately from a number of the authors of papers I’ve discussed, so they are out there, if only Googling for their names.)

    Still, people peripheral to your field can still learn from you, even though they’re unlikely to comment. I enjoy your science posts, and hope you continue.

    But at the end of the day, if you’re not enjoying it, you shouldn’t do it.

  3. I think you have an excellent, informative blog and hope that you feel able to continue, with whatever volume suits you.

  4. Suicyte Notes is a big favorite. I’d like to add that my traffic really took off in year #2 (i.e. non-niche active bloggers started reading), so I hope you keep at it. If the content is there people will find it, especially for your blog, which has always had interesting material (and provocative if I might add)

  5. Don’t pay any attention to amount of traffic, just write what you want when you want. If you start chasing the big audiences you will end up with a soap opera. This is a great blog, keep going!

  6. thanks for all your comments! After re-reading yesterday’s post, I notice that it reads more downbeat than intended. What’s worse, by post looks like an attempt to solicit commiseration and encouragement. Sorry, this was not my idea, either.
    If I weren’t enjoying blogging, I would have stopped a long time ago.

    Ian is probably right in saying that comments are not a good surrogate for total reads. However, I do check the access statistics from time to time and they seem to confirm the general trend. By the way, I would like to mention (again) that Ian’s blog is as close to my ideal of a ‘real science’ blog as it gets I would guess that Mystery Rays also does not have a huge readership, but maybe I am wrong. It has three big advantages: it is well written, it is regularly updated, and it touches on some topics with public health relevance.

    Deepak’s situation is quite different from mine. I really doubt that suicyte notes will take off in its 2nd year, but we will see. Deepak’s blog is one of those I called ‘technology-driven’ (I hope he agrees – no offense intended). I imagine that there are a lot of technology geeks out there, eagerly awaiting any news on the latest technology developments. The fraction of ubiquitin geeks, eagerly awaiting news on the function of fbxo31 will be small by comparison. BBGM is one of the blogs I am enjoying to read, but could neve do myself.

    One obvious way to increase this blogs readership would be to cater increasingly for the ‘non-niche active blogger’, as Deepak puts it. I am probably not going to do it, though, as the main purpose of suicyte notes is not to gather a big readership. I would be more than happy with a small circle of experts and near-experts.

  7. I’ve enjoyed reading suicyte over the last year, and look forward to future posts. Perhaps it helps to think of it more as a laboratory notebook, than peer-reviewed publication. One of the major benefits is recording your own experiments, and getting lots of readers is a side-benefit, rather than the main goal.

  8. One thing I’ve found is that blog posts continue to get traffic a long time after they are written. Usually key word hits through Google.

    I think that you will find that people will still be looking at your scientific discussion posts in the future, when they are doing literature searches and come across your blog.

  9. Hi Kay,

    I always enjoy reading your blog!

    My rule of thumb for blogging is – do it for yourself! I like to blog because I find that writing helps me organize my thoughts better than any other activity.

    I find that when I want help, and I ask my readers to help, they do. Some blog posts invite that kind of participation, many do not. I don’t sweat it since blogging is a hobby, not my full-time job.

    Whatever you decide to do, blog more or blog less, that’s up to you of course, but you should know that there are people who have enjoyed reading the things that you write.

  10. Hey Kay, I simply love reading your posts. Please, please, … , please keep them coming 🙂

  11. I have been blogging for a while now and I mostly keep it at low volume because, as you, I don’t have a lot of time for it. There were a few occasions were I had good tips from comments but mostly the advantages come from trying to write my thoughts down. Also, I have been surprised some times by meeting people in my field that do read my blog even if they never commented on it. From the Feedburner stats the subscriptions tend to continuously go up over the years even if the average number of people per day stats stay low. I don’t expect ever to have a lot of people reading, I will be happy if a few people that work on related topics read it.

  12. Ah good. Thought for a second there you were reconsidering. As others have said, keep it fun and keep on blogging. Readership is all relative anyway.

    As long as you are enjoying yourself, that’s all that matters


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