Where do I find the time to blog?

Photo: Ladybird clock, by Kristie Heard (photo S. Heard)

 Warning: navel-gazing.

 I get asked quite often, “Where on earth do you find the time to blog?”  It’s a good question, actually; one I often asked myself in the early days of Scientist Sees Squirrel, and one to which I’ve become tempted to change my answer.

There’s no doubt that blogging takes time.  I write about 7 posts a month, each taking anywhere from half an hour to a few hours.  Occasionally, I get sucked down a rabbithole* and take even longer on one.  That’s time I could be spending on research, or with my family, or cooking, or curling, or perhaps even reviewing your manuscript.  How can I justify this?

So far, my justification has been that I treat blogging as a hobby. I blog at times that would otherwise be low-productivity.  I blog in the evenings, when I’m too dumb to work.  I blog while watching the Blue Jays lose baseball games, in airport departure lounges, and while waiting for my son at the curling club or the baseball diamond.  Sometimes I even grab a pencil and a notebook and draft a post during a boring meeting (although if my Dean asks, I’ll deny I ever said that).  I might otherwise have used these times to read a book or play a game on my phone, so if blogging is cutting into anything, it’s really just my other hobbies.

But do I have this right?  I’ve been resolute about not writing blog posts when I should be “working”.  This implicitly presumes that I’m right about blogging being just a hobby, while my research is my real “work” that’s going to move science forward.  It’s a bit startling to test this presumption with data.  Here are a couple of very rough hacks at that:

  • As I write, my published papers have been cited 3,523 times. I don’t know how to convert this to a number of reads, but let’s guess generously that for every person who cites one of my papers, 50 more read but don’t cite.  If that’s right, then in the 29 years I’ve been publishing, my papers have had 180,000 reads – about 6,200 reads per year.  Not long past its second birthday, Scientist Sees Squirrel has 200,000 total page views, and gets 9-10,000 new views a month**.
  • A couple of times a year, someone will tell me how much they enjoyed one of my papers. (It’s almost always this one, which says something disturbing about my actual)  A couple of times a week, someone tells me the same thing about a blog post.

Now, to be fair, I’ve published more blog posts than papers; and a page view of a 1,000 word blog post isn’t necessarily equivalent to a read of a 7,000 word scientific paper.  In addition, my papers all attempt to make substantive contributions to science (well, not counting a couple of weird exceptions).  My blog posts aren’t all substantive: some are just me indulging my idle curiosity, and a few are just silly.  But by and large, those less substantive posts don’t get a lot of views, so I don’t think they’re warping the story all that much.

Have reads of my papers and my blog posts moved science forward?  For papers, I’ll take citations as (weak) evidence that they have; and I do think one or two of my papers have been reasonably influential (one of them completely by accident). For blog posts the question is much harder.  I’m quite sure my posts haven’t directly increased scientific understanding***; but then, that’s not their aim.  In the broader sense of helping scientists and the scientific community, I think blogs have a role to play.  A lot of things I wish I’d known as a grad student can now be learned from blog posts (for example, how not to respond to reviewer comments).  I’m pleased when people tell me that they’ve been helped by posts I’ve written; I’m especially pleased that they’re often, although not always, early-career folk.  I get that kind of feedback on posts like An Introvert Goes Conferencing, Don’t Fear Falling At The Edge Of Knowledge, and How To Handle An Idiotic Review. I’m actually quite proud of posts like these, and that’s been a pleasant surprise about blogging.

So where am I going with all this?  Remember, I’ve been conceptualising blogging as a hobby, one that I don’t allow to interfere with my “real” science.  You can probably see now why I’m tempted to change my mind about this.  I’ve written before about how one’s indirect contributions to science (“academic inclusive fitness”) can outweigh one’s direct contributions.  I’m not ready to declare that Scientist Sees Squirrel does more for science than my research does…but I’m more open-minded about that possibility than I once was.  (It’s a little disconcerting, actually, since my self-image as a scientist heavily stresses my research.  I think the culture of science induces most of us to think this way).

So I’m beginning to think that “where do I find the time to blog” isn’t really a sensible question, any more than “where do I find the time to do research” or “where do I find the time to teach”.  Perhaps I should sometimes write a blog post instead of working on a paper.  Or at least, I shouldn’t feel guilty that I’m sometimes blogging in an airport departure lounge when, if I’m honest with myself, I really could be “working”.

I did warn you about navel-gazing.  I realize this may all sound a bit humblebraggy. Or just braggy. It isn’t meant to be. I guess I’m just thinking out loud about what I do with my time and how I get the right balance: things I’m interested in, things that are best for science, and things that bring me satisfying work/life balance.  If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that the mix I settle on will change.  If there’s another thing I’m sure of, it’s that I can’t predict how.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) June 1, 2017


*^As I did writing my Klingon-Latin-names post – and what a delightfully nerdy rabbithole it was!

**^To be sure, this is a small fraction of what an actually-good blog like Dynamic Ecology gets.  And even their numbers must be taken with the understanding that most academics don’t read blogs at all.  Scientist Sees Squirrel is more widely read than I expected; but that doesn’t make me Stephen King.

***^With one possible exception:  my post Why Most Studied Populations Should Decline has become a collaborative research project using simulations, citation tracking, and data reanalysis to back up the intuitive ideas in the post.  This would never have happened without the blog.

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10 thoughts on “Where do I find the time to blog?

  1. Elizabeth Moon

    In a climate where science and scientists are distrusted, both scientists and science journalists have a role to play in making science (and scientists) accessible and “human-friendly.” I don’t know if any of the people who’ve seen my retweets of your tweets have clicked through–or how many of those have stopped by your blog–or if the people I’ve directly told “You ought to go read _Scientist Sees Squirrel_ or follow these scientists on Twitter–” (including you) have actually followed those recommendations–but I’m probably not the only one doing those things, and even a small fraction of the recommendations being followed by people who *aren’t* scientists is another door cracking open.

    As someone with some science training (and a lot of interest) who interacts with people with no science background and considerable suspicion, I consider science outreach one of the most important activities scientists can undertake. When the only scientists most people see are a few talking heads on TV morning shows or even news shows (and some of those decidedly…um…not the best in their field, let’s say), the public gets a very skewed idea of what really happens in science. Your blog (and others) and scientists’ accounts on Twitter are important. I know it’s work–I know it takes time…but it’s worth doing.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Elizabeth. While readers who are not active scientists are (I suspect) not a huge fraction of my readership here, they are very, very welcome. I agree entirely with you that this is a door that needs to be opened; in fact, it’s a shame that it’s ever closed. I’m always pleased to see you (and others with large non-active-scientist followings) mention one of my posts. We can partner in opening that door!

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  2. Jeremy Fox

    My own thinking is broadly along the same lines on all points, small and large.

    One thing that makes it tricky to think about influence of papers vs. blogs is that the counterfactuals are tough to evaluate. I think about this a lot in the context of “advice to grad students” posts, which are among our most predictably- and enduringly-popular posts. It’s always nice when a student finds an advice post helpful–but if said student hadn’t learned it from your post, wouldn’t they have learned it from some other source? Their supervisor, or another blog, or their own experience, or whatever? In contrast, I don’t think there are any substitutes for my scientific papers.

    The other thing that makes the influence of papers vs. blogs comparison tricky is that a blog is a cumulative body of work in a way that papers aren’t. If you stick with blogging, you build a readership. People want to read your posts because *you* wrote them. In contrast, I don’t think there’s much if any readership for my papers. Readers mostly choose papers to read one by one, based on subject matter not author. (There are partial exceptions for super-famous authors.)

    Re: Dynamic Ecology being an “actually-good” blog, thanks, but that seems a bit performatively humble. Also something of an apples-to-oranges comparison, for various reasons (e.g. Dynamic Ecology is a group blog).

    Re: writing posts that seem hardly worth writing, Meghan, Brian, and I often feel that way about advice posts. If we need to bang out a quick post to fill space, it’s often one of us writing boringly familiar advice that everybody already knows. Such posts often go viral–often in part because readers who were already familiar with the advice themselves share it and retweet it (another illustration of how tricky it is to define and measure “influence” of a blog).

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  3. Pavel Dodonov

    Interesting to know that you consider blogging a hobby! I always considered blogging, and even reading academic blogs, as part of my academic activities. It makes me a better scientist and teacher, and I may give help and share ideas that I wouldn’t be able to share otherwise.
    I also think of blogs as a nice way to share ideas that are not quite publication-ready or worthy of ever being published, but that deserve sharing nonetheless. I think this way, for example, of simulations that may turn into something publisheable in the long run, but that may still people before they are published. Isn’t it also how science works? 🙂
    (And I also use blog posts from interesting blogs as texts for discussion when I teach grad courses.)

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  4. Aurélie

    This is such an interesting post!
    I don’t think the value of science blogs necessarily resides in furthering scientific knowledge, but from what I can see from my corner of the Internet, they play an important part in sustaining, motivating and getting other scientists (and bystanders like myself) to think in different directions.
    They enable writers stuck in a rough patch to receive encouragements. They give us a peek into how other people work and make us think about we could change our own work habits and practices. They make us think beyond our own desks and disciplines and help with idea generation and all the general background thinking that one does that might eventually feed their own research (or humble library work…) in some way.
    So yes, science blogs have a great value! The question then is: do you think this could fit in with the objectives of your “day” job? Is this part of what makes you a valuable scientist?

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  5. Jeremy Fox

    Re: people often thanking you for posts you’ve written, I get that as well and it’s always very nice. But I also often get friends and colleagues about my age and older apologizing to me for not reading my blog.* Which isn’t necessary–I’m not the least bit bothered by anyone not reading Dynamic Ecology! But it is a useful reminder of just how many ecologists don’t read Dynamic Ecology.

    *As best I can tell, they don’t read it just because they don’t read any blogs. Not because they think it sucks. 🙂

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, agreed – I get those apologies too!

      There may have been a time when there was a single communications channel that would reach all of us (for any reasonably definition of “us”) – Science, the CBC, Hockey Night in Canada. There isn’t any more. This has advantages (diversity of voices, few barriers to the airwaves) and disadvantages (easy viewpoint balkanization, social fragmentation). I think maybe your point about blogs is a microcosm of something more general in society.

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      1. Jeremy Fox

        Low barrier to entry, leading to a diversity of voices, helps *create* highly skewed distributions of attention. When there are only a few voices to pay attention to, each of them gets a substantial fraction of the total attention. That’s because, when there are many voices, nobody can pay attention to all of them, so everybody has to filter–pick and choose what to pay attention to. And people tend to pick the same things others pick, for all sorts of reasons, such as “we recommend things to others the same things we’ve picked ourselves.” The myth that it works the opposite way–that diversity of voices leads to an equitable distribution of attention–is mysteriously persistent.

        Balkanization happens too, and there’s certainly more scope for that in a world with a diversity of voices. But what ends up happening is that you get a very skewed distribution of attention paid to the many voices within each balkanized subcommunity.

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  6. notesfromberingia

    I agree, Stephen. Blogging is a good activity when your brain is too tired for the harder stuff, or when you want to think of different things. You might enjoy a study I did on how often my papers are read: http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2017/05/11/136689 Conservatively, on average the ratio of readers to citations is about 10:1, but they are difficult stats to come by.

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  7. Pingback: Dynamic Ecology reaches carrying capacity | Dynamic Ecology

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