Nature contemplates the fate of science journalism

John Timmer of Ars Technica gets a prominent write-up in Nature. It’s good stuff wrapped around a slightly silly question — can blogging replace science journalism? The answer, of course, is no, but the two media can play complementary roles, I think.


  1. says

    I couldn’t live without your Seed articles. And, come to think of it, where’s your book already?

  2. LtStorm says

    I suppose it could, per se, in the same way that blogging is “replacing” newspapers.

  3. says

    And, come to think of it, where’s your book already?

    And by “your book”, we don’t mean “printed collection of your more amusing hate mail”, although that would have a certain entertainment value of its own.

  4. says

    PZ… why do you so abruptly say – No. What if all scientists became “bloggers” – I really don’t like the word “blogger” it sounds to much like booger. What if all scientists everywhere became “instant sharers”. Like oooo that sweet AFM image we just recorded of a nucleosomal array could be up on twitter right away and then someone in Romania could instantly access and use that information. What is wrong with that? You are sounding like a gatekeeper. This type of system would ensure a meritocracy. Good science would be inevitably voted to the forefront of everyone’s feed. I think it is a real possibility.

  5. Ichthyic says

    can blogging replace science journalism?

    to a large extent, it already has.

    where are we again?

  6. Brian says

    Every decade we need good science journalism more than the previous decade. I can’t believe the sucking need can go so amazingly unfulfilled indefinitely.

  7. Dr Yobbo says

    Saw that headline in my Nature email TOC and hoped the NPG had decided to put the boot into their colleagues at the New Creationist for their recent spate of tabloid rubbish, pseudoscience and anti-intellectual moronity. No such luck unfortunately.

  8. Mark says

    I’d have to agree that science journalism and blogging can go hand in hand. The only thing I worry about with the idea of purging science journalism is that it removes a certain sense of professionalism – that clear dividing line which separates real science from the amateurish, disreputable misinformation of ID creationism.

    There is, I think, a good reason for having professional periodicals with the architecture necessary to differentiate fact from fantasy, and to ensure that only the former is published.

    That being said, I relish the idea of a more informed public, where a great many enthusiastic people (who aren’t necessarily experts) can effectively popularize science. I myself am in first year university, was going to study history…but then discovered evolution, and I mean *real* evolution, not the caricature I used to swallow as a die-hard YEC. I’ve since switched into anthropology, and am familiarizing myself with the issues and evidence to be an effective anti-creationist.

  9. says

    It’s fortuitous this article just came out today considering I just posted an in depth article on why scientists should blog.

    A couple of comments on the Nature article:

    “Hotz doubts that blogs can fulfill the additional roles of watchdog and critic that the traditional media at their best aim to fulfill.”

    I don’t buy this particular argument at all. Science bloggers are much harsher critics of research details than journalists who generally don’t understand the intricacies with sufficient detail to give a good critique. How many times have we read some horrible maiming of the true findings of science research by journalists?

    “What’s more, the amount of material available is not a good proxy for its reach. Press releases and blogs will not find the same broad audience once served by the mass media”

    I’m definitely of the mind that science journalists (at least as we have traditionally known them) are being made obsolete by bloggers. Nonetheless, I think this quote makes a very good point. We as bloggers will increasingly need to ask ourselves how to obtain the reach to those that don’t search us out. I really have no idea how to answer this right now.


  10. DavidCOG says

    Imagine, if you’re informed about the issues involving climate change, where we would be without blogs produced by ‘minor’ scientists and activists. I think ‘fucked’ would be a reasonable response.

    And would PZ have a platform if he’d gone to the MSM with a pitch involving a “feisty evolution-cum-atheist discourse”? I think not.

    Round of applause for the toobz.

  11. JoAnne says

    Kris, if you’ve ever read magazine or newspaper articles before source and copy editing, you would know exactly why we need gatekeepers. Not all “information” is equal. Letting the public decide doesn’t always end up so well.

    Since you’re on this blog, I assume you have been paying attention to how the public’s beliefs about God and evolution are used to try to legitimize lies and fantasy as truth. Most professions encounter the same problem of bad information pushing out the good.

    Most people are easy to fool with sufficiently skillful application of the classical fallacies. You see the same ones over and over again: post hoc, ad hominem, petitio principii, ad misericordiam, and probably the easiest in a semi-literate society, equivocation.

    Blogs aren’t replacing news organizations yet, and it will be pretty much impossible for that to happen because blogs report on what the news organizations report.

    Blogs find information from news sites and put it together in interesting and new ways, including reflecting it from a partisan or personal point of view. But they don’t often uncover the information from original sources.

    There are exceptions, and this will grow, but an act of journalism consists of more than a reporter and a story.

  12. says


    “Blogs aren’t replacing news organizations yet, and it will be pretty much impossible for that to happen because blogs report on what the news organizations report. Blogs find information from news sites and put it together in interesting and new ways.”

    Actually, I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of most science blogs (but not all). In general, most science bloggers I know and converse with do NOT get their info from the MSM (despite the fact that journalists losing their jobs continue to tout this as fact). Most of us get our stories by reading the actual primary research being published, after which we distill that primary literature into digestible posts.

    That’s kind of the point of “research blogging”.

  13. says

    Complementary role indeed. I’ve always wanted some sort of comment box or guarantee that letters would be answered when I try to get in contact with researchers.

  14. says


    Blogs find information from news sites and put it together in interesting and new ways, including reflecting it from a partisan or personal point of view. But they don’t often uncover the information from original sources.

    I agree with Irradiatus on this point. Science blogs, written by professional scientists, are a channel from academia to the outside world which parallels that provided by news organizations. Their content derives from the same “original sources” — published papers and the thoughts of scientists — as news stories do. When a scientist-blogger calls attention to a piece published in a newspaper or a magazine, it is often to point out the errors of fact and/or interpretation in the magazine story. Search for “newsweek”, “new scientist” and so forth for a tediously long list of examples.

  15. Josh says

    #12, #15, and #17, if viewed together, really describe the meat of this issue. I’m jumping off those comments because I think that the importance of research bloggers going to the primary literature (and understanding it) to provide their syntheses and/or commentaries bears restating. Synthesizing the primary literature is an activity that, sadly, few science journalists seem capable of doing.

    For example:

    The developed world’s foundation rests on science now more than at perhaps any time in history. Communicating the results/implications of primary research to the public is important. It requires synthesis by people who know enough science to know the importance of details. Sadly, that takes more training than you’re going to get by taking a few college courses. I welcome the rise of blogs run by actual scientists.

    (yes, I was writing that last sentence with Terminator music going through my head–sorry)

  16. David Marjanović, OM says

    Excuse me, PZ. You blog about something in tomorrow’s Nature, but you don’t mention Tianyulong the feathered ornithischian?

  17. Teddydeedodu says

    i think science blogging is a good way to make the research field more accessible to ordinary netizen. Dont knock it! It is good marketing plus like the many atheism blogs out there, it only serves to spread reason around.

  18. Josh says

    @David: Agreed–because heterodontosaurids kick ass. I mean, if you have to be an ornithischian…

  19. JoAnne says

    I agree about science blogs. I admit to overreacting after dealing with loads of “news organizations just get in the way of the news” bloviations.

  20. Ian says

    “Blogging on peer-reviewed research” is already science journalism of the highest caliber. Have you tried asking your local newspaper if they’d be interested in publishing a weekly article like that?

  21. says

    PZ is humble – he is quoted in the article as well. And a few others. I agree with Irradiatus, but otherwise find the article solid – a good starting point for another round of blog-posts about the state of science journalism?

  22. Katkinkate says

    Blogging shouldn’t replace science journalists because people only read blogs that they know about and are interested in. We need journalists to report on scientific issues in the mainstream news outlets to reach some of all those people who don’t read blogs at all. Blogs are a very limited media, very few have a readership as big as PZ’s. Also the writers of blogs have no real obligation to make sure of what they publish. Many do, maybe even most of them, but you can’t just trust everything you read in the blogs and the general public have very poor critical thinking skills. It’s part of a science journalists job to be the critical filter. Not that many of them do that very well.

  23. says

    . Also the writers of blogs have no real obligation to make sure of what they publish. Many do, maybe even most of them, but you can’t just trust everything you read in the blogs and the general public have very poor critical thinking skills.

    Yet the way traditional media has presented science, it’s hardly surprising that people are turning to blogs for scientific information.

    I used to check New Scientist daily for news articles, these days I just listen to the SGU podcast (along with following about a dozen science blogs) to keep up with what’s big in science.

  24. says

    Online we have blogs, which are usually unmediated individual voices, and we have print publications which pour their content into sites whose form is ill-suited to material conceived for print. I can’t see any reason why journalism (science or otherwise), with all of print’s traditional editorial input and fact checking, couldn’t be practiced on the web, within a form and presentation style that works on the web. But mostly it isn’t. It seems like a failure of imagination. The “website” form and the “blog” form have settled into a kind of conventionality to which their publishers conform by default. Surely they don’t represent the limits of what can be done online.

  25. says

    I think it’s important to differentiate between online publishing and blogging. Not all online publishing is in blog-form. Blogging is extemporaneous, even when the subject matter is complicated and the author is an expert in the field.

    I could envision a future in which print journals disappeared completely. But more than blogs are going to be needed.

  26. debaser says

    PZ’s answer to the question is pretty spot on. No, blogs can’t replace professional science writing. They can certainly compliment other forms of media coverage, and in part that is due to blogging being a new medium.

    That said, a lot of print media publications have been dropping the ball. Fred Clarke at Slacktivist has written about this. Newspapers are pushing their business model to do something it was never really meant to do, provide like 20% profits, instead of say, 4%. Clarke compared that to running your car 60mph in first gear – you can do it for while, probably once. The cutbacks in science writing are a serious problem, and part of the larger one which is causing more people to seek out alternative sources like blogs.

  27. Mark W says

    Irradiatus, to answer your question, let me begin with this: I myself am subscribed to several top-notch youtube users – several of which are actual scientists with PhD’s, and periodically they will incorporate a “shout-out” in their videos, in which they inform their many thousands of subscribers that there are *other* really good youtube users who make informational videos on science.

    So, if you introduce yourself to users such as:,,,

    and show them where your blog can be located, you should ask them to give you a “shout-out”. I’m sure that if they like your work, and you ask politely, they will do this for you. I know of instances where youtube users woke up, checked their inbox and suddenly had *thousands* more subscribers because one of these popular channels advertised for them. And they do it because they care about science, and want to reach as many people as possible.

  28. M.R.McCann says

    Labs on facebook, where they can post images of their work. Even tag their protein of interest.
    Status updates of how their work it going.
    Rating with stars, the more 5 out of 5 you get, the higher your impact factor.

  29. says

    Hi JoAnne,

    You said -“Blogs aren’t replacing news organizations yet, and it will be pretty much impossible for that to happen because blogs report on what the news organizations report.”

    You are flat wrong on this point. If you think a news organization can get a story pumped through a journalist and an editor more rapidly than someone on twitter can snap a picture anywhere in the world and make it visible to all then you have not kept pace with new media.

    I know anecdotal information is not that useful, but I have two examples of national news stories that I heard about and wrote about before they were anywhere near a traditional media outlet.

    1.) March 5th 2009 – Explosion in Bozeman, Montana. While shrapnel was still raining down from the explosion I saw someone tweet about it and then looked for more posted pictures and had written a post about it before any national news coverage went to the web.
    2.) March 16th 2009 – My roommate works for a big solar cell start-up company that changed their official brand name from “AVA solar” to “Abound Solar” I knew about this far ahead of any news agency because I am a real person with real-world connections, not a reporter sitting in an office waiting for press releases.

    The future of science journalism is tied to the future of science itself. When more and more people become armed with the equipment they need to be a real time reporter (i.e. an iPhone) then the role of the gatekeeper really does dissolve. The only way to keep the current system in place is to make everyone walk around with blinders on except those deemed worthy by the news organizations.

    Here are the links to the two articles I mentioned.

  30. says

    Kris @33, sorry, but journalism isn’t just being the first to stumble on some fact and post it. Journalism is a sustained effort to understand events in their full context. Real journalists spend months or years pulling on the strands of a story to unravel hidden information. It takes real research skills and dedication, and it’s dangerous when powerful interests don’t want the story told. This goes for science journalism, political journalism, war journalism–all journalism.

    Of course citizen witness through cell-phone cameras and other spreading technology is important and valuable, but it only presents phenomena; it doesn’t explain context and it doesn’t clarify the implications of what’s seen.

    For that you need journalists who can rely on a paycheck over the span of time that it takes to dig into things, and editors who understand the big picture, and staff to check for accuracy, and copy editors to clarify prose, and designers to present the final product of all this in a way that’s accessible to readers, whether in print or online.

    In short you need a news organization.

    It’s urgently important for news organizations to figure out how to use the web better than they have up to now. As I commented earlier, (and this goes for science magazines as well as newspapers and newsmagazines) they just dump material conceived for print into forms that are descended from earliest business websites. What we need is a speciation event in the evolution of web forms. I hope it happens soon.

  31. says

    Jay Rosen on Twitter this morning:

    “More and more journalists are taking up blogging. But skeptics ask: can a few corporate newsies *replace* what hundreds of indy bloggers do?”

    Re #35: I wish journalism were a sustained effort to understand events in their full context. Sometimes it is. The amount of background needed to read a typical article about college football is pretty daunting to those of us who lack it. But science journalism as practiced in major media simply doesn’t do that. For whatever reason, it just stands still.

    I have been thinking a lot about the problems the world is having understanding its predicament, and I lay much of the blame on conventional journalism practice. It’s not that blogs are the ideal to replace journalism, it’s that journalism for the most part hasn’t been doing its part.

    Even the blogs that exist mostly miss the point, for reasons I address at

    While there are excellent exceptions (Chris Mooney and John Fleck spring to mind) for the most part it seems that people with scientific training are doing more useful science journalism in their spare time than professionally trained journalists on a science beat.

  32. says

    Michael @36, I certainly agree that a lot, probably the majority, of journalism–science and otherwise–is lousy. I just mean to say that solitary bloggers who probably have careers outside of blogging may publish a lot of interesting information, but they can’t do what a good news organization can. I’m a graphic artist, not a scientist, but I’m well aware that most science journalism sucks. What I want is better journalism of all kinds, and at a time when print media are shrinking and probably dying, I’m very worried about the slow pace of development of web alternatives.

    One thing I didn’t make clear in my earlier comment: when I said it’s important for news organizations to use the web better, I don’t necessarily mean the same old existing news organizations.

  33. Clydicus says

    A more interesting way of posing essentially the same question:

    Can online communities replace the peer review process currently managed by scientific journals?

    My background is in online publishing, but I have been working at a scientific journal for the last three years. I have developed a keen understanding of the importance and value of good peer review, and an appreciation of how much effort goes into doing it right.

    Let’s use the vaccines-cause-autism “debate” as an example. Click around Scienceblogs and witness the caliber of discussion. Despite the overwhelming evidence presented by the top scientific journals, the mainstream media still presents this as if there is a debate. As if no scientific concensus has been reached. Imagine where this debate would be if there was no peer reviewed journal to refer to? Imagine if all we had was thousands of self-appointed authorities bickering back and forth? How could anybody make sense of anything?

  34. eddie says

    Can blogging replace journalism? (science or otherwise)
    The answer is certainly not “no”. It may be “not yet” but its more like “it’s gonna need to”. Less and less are prepared to pay for the low quality of msm content. So much so that PZed is both getting pre-pub access to articles and being paid to try and save the grauniad.
    It’s not even about the two being complementary. What blogs do that msm doesn’t (actually knowing the score, having a conversation) is needed while what msm does and blogs don’t (pushing for profit, writers with their boss’s opinions not their own) is needed a whole lot less.
    Whatever planet #35 is from, it must be the one where they didn’t have the crunch, gulf war 2 and counting. Sounds like a deluded creo still trying to persuade us the bible is true.

  35. eddie says

    I’m surprised no-one’s brought up conyers’ cowardly attack on the taxpayer in this context. How are bloggers, journalists or anyone else who paid for the research gonna be able to popularise the science that’s a commercial secret?
    I read that conyers claimed that peer review was paid for out of journal subscriptions! WTF – fractally wrong.

    What we need is something like arXiv blogs. Of course there will be snark and outright misdirection, but peer review will be just that. And reviewers will also be subject to peer review. Reputations will be won and lost.

  36. says

    Well, if Eddie wants to live in a world without the Times and the Guardian and the rest of them it does look more and more like he’ll get his wish. Unfortunately the economic forces that are killing off quality newspapers–we’ve lost the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post Intelligencer in just the last few weeks–probably won’t kill off Fox News and right wing gasbags on the radio.

    I’m an avid blog reader and (new) blogger myself, and I get a lot of important news from blogs. Some bloggers have done great reporting, and a lot of msm reporting is crap. Neither truth negates the fact that staffs of people with the resources for sustained inquiry can dig into things in a way that individuals with blogs cannot. I hope that model can find its way into the web, and actually I think it can since it’s much less capital-intensive than dead-tree media. What frustrates me is that it’s been slow happening.

    And if I may say so, I’m not arguing from authority like a “deluded creo” (about whose deludedness I completely agree) nor am I throwing insults around like Eddie when he calls me one.

  37. Kaleberg says

    It depends on which definition of journalism you are using. If it means simply writing for a Gutenberg technology publication, I think we can live without journalism, as Gutenberg technology is on its way out. If it means skeptical, analytic, timely, informed reporting of events, then I consider many bloggers to be journalists and don’t see any conflict. Don’t confuse the medium and the message.

  38. eddie says

    Sorry Matt, but what I thought was deluded was your comment in #35 that the;

    “journalists who can rely on a paycheck over the span of time that it takes to dig into things, and editors who understand the big picture, and staff to check for accuracy, and copy editors to clarify prose, and designers to present the final product”.

    give us a product we need. If they did, I think we would not have had to endure, as I said, “the crunch, gulf war 2 and counting” and so on.

    We are not getting much value for the cost of these things you say are so important. I wish it wasn’t so, but we live in a world in which maddow, colbert and stewart are the nearest we’ve got, and that sux.