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).