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5.26.2017

On the evolution of the science blogosphere

By Andy Extance, ScienceSeeker Editor-in-Chief

In recent months, ScienceSeeker has exorcised many of the dead blogs haunting its list of science sites. Consequently, the number of sites we aggregate has decreased from 2170 when I became editor-in-chief in January 2016 to 2065 now, in May 2017. But rather than finding that decline worrying, I think this exercise has shown how science sites are adapting to a changing blogging environment.

When my predecessor Jordan Gaines Lewis handed the reins over to me, she and fellow editor Jessica Perry Hekman had just completely rebuilt ScienceSeeker. The site had been born in the whirlwind, heat and flash of the ScienceOnline movement, supported, I understand, in part by the revenues from its conferences. That had enabled a professional-looking, highly functional site that cost $40 a month to run.

The ScienceOnline money inevitably ran out, and to start with our editors took turns in paying. Jordan and Jessica then switched to our now almost-free format, hosted on Blogger and powered by the RSS feed reader Inoreader. Not only is this more frugal, Inoreader kindly informs us which feeds are no longer active. Therefore over the last 17 months I have been going through that list, seeking the new homes of blogs that have moved and removing those that have expired. And the experience has provided some interesting insights into trends in the science blogosphere at various levels. The headlines are as follows:
  • Nature has limited its focus to journal-linked blogs: Major science blog networks still swell ScienceSeeker’s lists, but in removing dead feeds the decline of some is clear. One major example is that the publisher Nature now seemingly only supports blogs linked to its journals, affecting both Scitable and blogs.nature.com. A surprisingly large number of scientist blogs were caught up in this. The SciLogs site, which was formerly a collaboration between Nature and Spektrum.de, also no longer involves Nature. It therefore no longer hosts English-language blogs, although its German-language content still appears healthy. I’ve tried to identify when blogs affected have found new homes and re-add them to our lists – if you think I’ve missed any, please get in touch.
  • Declines in other blog networks: Several other significant science blogging platforms have fewer blogs than at their peak, with many sites on Field of Science, ScienceBlogs, Scientific American and Sciblogs.co.nz no longer active.
  • Posterous closed down: Although it wasn’t as big as Blogger or WordPress, loss of this platform has taken many science blogs with it. Again, I’ve tried to re-add as many affected sites as I can find.
  • Starting a new blog is easy, moving one is possible too: While I’ve been removing broken RSS feeds I’ve also consistently been adding new ones, frequently hosted on Blogger and WordPress, as well as on Medium. That’s where quite a few of the blogs affected by wider changes have ended up. Better established bloggers also often have an eye to moving their sites to homes that will earn them the best money. Notably, a number of good science writers have recently moved to Forbes.
  • Some sites no longer support RSS: This is something I can’t fathom. RSS feeds seem like an important way for readers to regularly subscribe to a website’s content. However, many redesigns do not provide an RSS feed. As ScienceSeeker now relies on them, if you’re redesigning your site and want us to aggregate you, don’t forget the RSS feed! A related issue is that we’re flummoxed when RSS feeds are not readable by Inoreader. This is currently the case for Science Borealis, a matter of great consternation.
  • Other healthy networks experience natural turnover: Sites like Discover, The GuardianNational Geographic and the European Geosciences Union, still host very active blogs. But inevitably as time goes on, they lose some blogs and gain others. This links into another insight:
  • Bloggers lives change: Perhaps science bloggers start blogging to develop their writing skills, to promote science, or just to share their idle thoughts. Whatever the motivation, very few keep it up indefinitely. My own blog, Simple Climate, is feeling very neglected these days. Many of the blogs that have been removed from the list are personal ones, with several authors indicating that they’ve stopped blogging because of a change in circumstances.
  • The role of social media: This is largely speculation on my part, but many older ScienceSeeker blogs date from the noughties era. Then, it’s possible you’d vent brief thoughts on your blog rather than social media. Certainly, it seems to be the case that there are fewer science blogs offering personal viewpoints among the newer sites we’ve been adding.
  • Yet, there is still a passion for communicating science: It’s notable that despite this exorcism of sci-comm ghosts, the overall number of blogs aggregated by ScienceSeeker has fallen by less than 5%. Our new blogs are frequently soon featured in our weekly picks. Often, new additions are young scientists motivated by the issues of our times. They emphasise the powerful tools science has for illuminating the truth, and argue for national policies to adopt them.  
This last point shows the continuing relevance of science blogging. Even if you don’t blog about science your whole life, it’s still a pastime worth considering. You may not get many readers at first, but ScienceSeeker will try to help you reach the widest audience possible. Our service is now even more valuable given the decline in support for science blogging from some large organisations. But even if you're not reaching enormous audiences, blogging will help you hone your ideas and writing style. Putting science blogging on your resumé will not only show that you’re serious about communicating well – it could even change the course of your life. 


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