Photo: Ladybird clock, by Kristie Heard (photo S. Heard)
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) June 1, 2017
**^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.