Paul Knoepfler has a blog

Hey, this is good news: Nature included a short opinion piece from a stem cell biologist on his experiences blogging, writing the Knoepfler Lab Stem Cell Blog — I’ll have to start following it. He has some good general advice for scientists starting to blog, although I have some reservations about the first bit.

Here are some tips for beginners. Start slowly; wait a day after writing and reread your draft before posting. Try to avoid discussing your own institution, and critique papers or theories in the field in a constructive manner. It is important that you include your own opinions, but do not use your blog to broadcast your opinions about issues that are unrelated to science.

Update your blog regularly, because readers will not visit blogs that they perceive as boring or ‘old news’. Read and comment on other blogs, which will lead people to yours. Get a Twitter account to promote it and dabble with search-engine optimization. And do tell your colleagues about your blog.

Savvy scientists must increasingly engage with blogs and social media. A new generation of young researchers has grown up with an ever-present Internet. Publishers have been quicker than academics to react to this new world, but scientists must catch up. Even if you choose not to blog, you can certainly expect that your papers and ideas will increasingly be blogged about. So there it is — blog or be blogged.

I have to disagree with the suggestion that you avoid discussing anything but the science (obviously!) If you want to engage readers, you’ve got to go beyond the narrow domain of your field — you don’t have to embrace controversy, like some of us do, but blogs are a personal medium, and if you aren’t expressing yourself freely you’re not going to get a wide readership.

Knoepfler implicitly admits this: he has a low traffic site with a niche audience (and there’s nothing at all wrong with that; it’s a model for how most scientists would want to operate their lab blogs, I think).

In an entire year of blogging I have had to censor just six inflammatory or defamatory comments. Despite my blog taking on the anti-stem-cell community in the United States and the misinformation its members peddle, such as the meme that adult stem cells are a panacea that make embryonic stem cells redundant, I have received remarkably few personal attacks from them. I am grateful for that, if puzzled.

This is certainly not because my blog goes unnoticed. True, I started with just five readers a day, but one year later, traffic has increased more than 30-fold and continues to rise. The blog averages 150 visitors a day and sometimes up to 500 a day, made up of a veritable Who’s Who in stem-cell science, and beyond. How do I know? Senior figures in the field tell me in confidence that they read and enjoy the blog, although none has publicly contributed on it — perhaps a sign that there is still a way to go before scientists stop being nervous about blogs.

He shouldn’t be puzzled. I’m not trying to be disparaging, but 150 visitors a day is very low, and what it means is that he’s seeing a very small and specialized slice of the world — he’s got a quality audience, not a snapshot of the general public, and that’s why he’s not getting much pushback. The mention in Nature will get him more visitors, but largely of the kind that won’t disagree much with him; the mention here on Pharyngula will get him a broader audience, but without red meat for argument most of them probably won’t stay.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think there is a qualitative difference between a blog aimed at a specialized audience, and one aimed at wider public engagement.