I recently spent a delightful few days wandering around Grindelwald with my friend (and paleclimatologist) Brad Markle. Isn’t it nice?
On one particularly fine sunny day we got to talking about websites, blogging, tweeting and so on. I am quite a proponent of this actually, even though initially it seems its going to take way too much time away from the more important science activities that we actually are judged on, get jobs on, and feel pressured to produce more of.
That is writing papers of course.
I have mixed feelings about this heavy weighting of success on the number of papers published by scientists, as I think it has some negative consequences for the integrity of the science being produced, as well as being responsible for making a glut of incremental papers instead of a smaller number of more complete, well thought out, and well-reviewed papers. However, that topic is not for this blog, and also its a hard thing for me to take a stance on as my own publication list is generally too short, low impact, and of marginal interest, so I need to be careful not to sound bitter and like I am just making excuses for my own shortcomings.
So, on to the business at hand. Let me first tell you a story about how I began to develop my own small web presence, then I will follow up with what I get out of it, and why I have grown to appreciate what it offers far more than I did at my cynical outset.
I made this website as I thought it might increase my chances of getting a grant from the FWF. I googled what would be the easiest way to do this, and concluded: WordPress. I decided if I could not make a webpage in half a day then it was too much time to invest. With WordPress I managed to meet this tight time constraint and had the bare bones of my website by 11am. I was however a bit annoyed to see that (at least at that time) you could not avoid having a blog page with WordPress. I thought “Curses! I’ve not time for that! I can’t even get my own papers written”. But I was stuck, as to start again with a package that did not require a blog component would mean going over my half-day time rule. For some months before this, a friend of mine who works in sustainability had been trying to get be to join Twitter. She advised me that you can use it as a filtered news feed to keep up to data on things of interest to you. I realised that I could link a Twitter feed onto my website thereby making some updates to the page even if I was too lazy to write real blogs. So I joined Twitter as well.
Yes, I was pretty cynical. But now I like it a lot, and here are some reasons why.
I chose my website content to serve my own interests. It helps me:
- Keep a clean record of my achievements in my online CV, which saves me time when I need to do annoying tasks like complete my annual achievement reports to my own University, apply for jobs, find my own papers/posters if I want to share them with colleagues
- Have a feed of journal contents of potential interest to me in one place (admittedly this partly broke when the EGU changed their RSS feed and it took me more than half a day to try and fix it so it is not fixed – sorry, but it was really useful to me for a while)
- Easily provide useful background on me and my work if I am contacted by colleagues, media or anyone else, and also if I am approaching someone for help I use it to offer background on me
My blog helps me in even more ways:
- I write up the small bits of analysis that we all have to do to check quality, process out data, understand its meaning. The kind of things that take 3 days of data analysis and then become one or two lines in a publication, like how do my measurements compare to earlier or other measurements. These posts are super-useful when colleagues come with questions about the basic science of my projects. Many times I have avoided a long email answer to a valid questions by being able to say: “Check out this blog which answers all your questions”. I find this useful as its like keeping an online lab book of the small analysis step we make, s it costs little time to do and saves lots of time if someone asks you details about something you did months ago (and you can’t remember everything off the top of your head, so would have to spend time going back to your analysis notes). I see these types of blog as saving me time in the long run.
- I also write up small studies carried out as part of a teaching field trip, and its never going to feature in a publication, but time was invested and there might be something cool to show from it. I see these types of blogs as adding value to the time already invested, by allowing me to easily share methods, small findings and so on with students, and the wider public if anyone reads it!
- I also write some opinion pieces. These blogs help me clear up my thinking on a certain topic and help me develop a (hopefully) clear, straightforward writing style.
- Also some days when everything is going wrong, I write a short, fun blog post just to trick myself into believing I have achieved something. I see these types of blog as serving an important role in making me feel I can round off a hitherto unsatisfactory work day on a positive note.
- I blog short summaries of my own papers, and also papers that I have just struggled to understand. I think this is valuable to developing a simple list of key findings from published studies, and helping me to remember them (yes, sometimes I even forget my own arguments).
- I guess the outreach impact of my blogging is very small as I do not ‘advertize’ the things I write via other channels and I suppose the traffic to my site is low. I feel uncomfortable with self-promotion, so I am happy with this, but it means I cannot really assess the potential impact of blogging. Certainly, I do try and use my blog if I am contacted by the media, in my face-to-face outreach, my teaching, and my research partners are glad to have something to put in a web outreach box in the annual reports to the funding agencies.
Tweeting helps me in different ways:
- I tweet things that I’ve read, and find valuable sources of information that I might need to look up later – so basically its like a public internet reading list for my own personal use. How selfish. But at least I share it, right? It might be useful to you too?
- It makes it look like I update my website even if I’m too lazy/ have no time to write a blog post. I guess this actually fools no-one.
- The people I follow give me filtered news on imprint glaciological topics that I am not directly involved in. For example, I do no research on the large icesheets, and these are a hot bed for new glaciological understanding, are of great relevance to understanding past climate, and future sea levels, and I think its important that I know whats going on in this sphere. However, I’ve hardly the time to read all the papers on icesheets as well as all the papers coming out each week on mountain glaciers and topics I am actually engaged in researching in. So. Twitter gives me soundbite updates and points me towards things that I really must make the time to read. In doing this it makes me a better, broader, scientist.
- Linking Twitter to a Facebook page lets me update my community page on research on glaciers in the Khumbu Himal, without actually having to look at Facebook very often. Phew! Dodged a procrastination bullet there! Yes, thats right, I actually have TWO webpages, twitter accounts and Facebook pages. Never thought that would happen.
So there you have it. My first rule of my web and social media presence is that I don’t let it take too much of my time. That means if its hard to do something technical with the webpage, or some potentially interesting blog topic would take a weeks worth of otherwise un-necessary research, then it won’t get done. My second rule is that I don’t let Twitter get me depressed by the onslaught of achievement that it delivers to my screen. Rule #1 is easier than Rule #2, but I hope this blog helps convince some people to get involved. The public deserve that we learn to communicate our science better. Have fun!