Field of Science

Are chemistry bloggers journalists? Eat the fruit, don't count the trees

There is an updated version of this post on my Scientific American blog so you may want to read that instead. Comments are of course welcome at both sites.

In his parting editorial for C&E News, Rudy Baum had the following words for science bloggers:
"Technology has profoundly changed journalism during my tenure with C&EN. Much of the change has been positive—who can imagine doing research on a topic without access to the Internet?—but the business model for journalism remains very much in a state of flux. The silly mantra, “Information wants to be free,” overlooks the fact that quality information requires effort, and effort costs money.  

Blogs are all well and good, they add richness to the exchange of information, but they are not journalism, and they never will be."

In addition as Derek and Chembark have pointed out, the ACS's director of public affairs Glenn Ruskin said in another context that:

“We find little constructive dialogue can be had on blogs and other listservs where logic, balance, and common courtesy are not practiced and observed,”

I agree with Mr. Baum's thoughts about information not being free. However I think information can be cheap, in fact very cheap, and it's this line of thinking that is the source of the campaign against publishers like Elsevier who practice unfair "bundling" and sport huge profit margins. More importantly though, I think there's at least some evidence to refute Mr. Baum's statement that "quality information requires effort, and effort costs money". I think Wikipedia is a resounding example of the fact that quality can come without money through the efforts of millions of volunteers who contribute knowledge and information for a variety of reasons. Many articles on Wikipedia have been vetted by experts in their respective areas (including Nature) and have been found to contain high-quality information.

On the other hand I find myself confused by Mr. Baum's thoughts on blogging. What exactly does he mean when he says "science blogs will never be journalism"? I see journalism defined mainly in three terms; news, opinion and analysis. As far as I am concerned, science blogs have contributed to each of these phases of journalism over the last decade or so. High-quality content not driven by money has been an outstanding feature of the chemical blogosphere.

Let's start with opinion. Opinion has always been a principal function of blogging; in fact that's why many of us started our blogs, to hold forth in all our self-important erudition on a variety of topics. As far as news is concerned, those of us who are reporting on the latest chemical breakthroughs, safety issues, chemical controversies and the human side of chemistry are communicating exactly the kind of news that magazines like C&E News report. I am not saying that magazines are not doing a good job of reporting the relevant news, just that bloggers can also be equal to the task.

And then there's analysis. I believe this is an area in which bloggers have been outstanding. Whether it's Derek Lowe analyzing the state of the pharmaceutical industry, Chemjobber analyzing the state of the job market, Paul analyzing the state of chemical publishing or SeeArrOh analyzing the state of chemophobia, I believe that bloggers have repeatedly subscribed to the highest standards of fact checking, careful thinking and clear exposition. Sure, we all make mistakes, but I think many of us can agree that when it comes to episodes like the sodium hydride "oxidation" or the structure of hexacyclinol, bloggers have been at the forefront of sounding the alarm and of meticulously charting the flaws, often before more "official" news sources scoop the story up. In some cases this analysis has even been more thorough and well-informed than the official sources. Even a preliminary look at some of the major blog posts written by chemistry bloggers would convince Mr. Ruskin that "logic, balance and common courtesy" are not just alive but are thriving in the chemical blogosphere.

The benefit of a magazine like C&E News is of course that all this information is in one place instead of being scattered around various sites, but this is hardly a general argument against the ability of blogs to do good science journalism. Perhaps what Mr. Baum means that all blogs don't contribute to journalism, but that's a far cry from saying that they can't and that they never will. Surely Mr. Baum is familiar with the high-quality service that veteran chemistry bloggers have provided over the last decade. Surely he is aware of the fact that members of his own very capable staff have often featured and linked to posts, both their own and others. At the very least his opinion should have been tempered by a recognition of the good that has come out of chemistry blogging during the last few years.

I will leave you with an excellent post regarding this very perceived distinction between science blogging and science journalism written by Ed Yong, one of the most accomplished science bloggers around. It seems that Ed really hits the nail on the head in locating the source of criticism of science blogs:

To an extent, I get why it’s played. I think people are rightly worried about their industry. As I said at the start: massive sinking ship. People see a profession in trouble, they want to save and protect it. They see these random interlopers trying to claim a stake and they think that it somehow devalues this noble thing that they’re trying to defend. I certainly agree that good journalism in all its forms is a necessary thing that is worth defending. But no one has ever saved something by playing with definitions. You protect journalism by trumpeting its values, criticising people who do it poorly and supporting those who do it well, regardless of the medium they happen to use. You won’t buoy up journalism through taxonomy.
Indeed, you don't buoy up journalism through conventional, narrow-minded classification. You buoy it up by recognizing high-quality content in your field, irrespective of the source. There's an old proverb which roughly says "Enjoy the fruit, don't count the trees". If the fruit is sweet and satisfying, do you really care where the trees come from and how many there are?


  1. Then there was that rather intemperate rant about bloggers that was disguised as an Editorial:

    1. Oh yes, that's one for the books, especially the part where he glorifies us as news sellers. The day I start selling my posts on a regular basis will be the day that horse manure will be selling for a million dollars a pound.

    2. Dump that horse manure into a suitably large lake and you'll have discovered a cure for cancer. Don't worry if you forget which lake because the water molecules will remember!

  2. Mr Baum's doesn't even know the context in which "Information wants to be free" was quoted. Free was used for freedom, not for 'without a cost'.

  3. I wonder how ACS' resident bloggers feel about Rudy's sense of self-importance and superiority over them. I don't know if there's a better way to demonstrate just how out of touch the ACS is; the Editor in Chief criticizes people who are doing a function that their own organization is trying use to reach out to the next generation of chemists.

    I'd also like to add that some of these bloggers/not-journalists are far more knowledgeable than the senior ACS staff and they present their views more objectively. In my recollection, none of their posts have been met with the derision that Rudy's climate change opinion pieces ever did. Or Madeleine Jacobs' very unwise decision to weigh in on whether it was a mother's right to tell her child that chemistry as a career isn't that rosy.

  4. Thanks all for the comments. My main disappointment was indeed the fact that Mr. Baum should have known better, especially since his own very capable staff write a blog which fulfills important journalistic functions. I am perfectly willing to debate the limitations of blogs as opposed to more official sources, but to criticize blogs for not being journalism without appreciating the cases in which they have in fact done excellent journalistic work was disconcerting.

  5. I believe that at least one of the C&EN resident bloggers reads your blog and might appreciate the following transcript from almost 100 years ago:

    Ludendorff: The English soldiers fight like lions.
    Hoffmann: True. But don't we know that they are lions led by donkeys.

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