Earlier this week I commented that when scientists discuss the reasons that they don’t blog, it almost always comes down to 2 key concerns:

1.  They don’t have the computer skills.

2.  They don’t have time.

On Wednesday in my post titled “If you can write an email, you can write a science blog”, I did my best to argue that computer skills are no longer a barrier to science blogging. Today I would like to take on the second, and I think more important argument. But first, an important admission.

Blogging does take time

I will not argue that blogging doesn’t take time, because it absolutely does.  I would say that a post discussing peer-reviewed research can take me anywhere between 1 and 2 hours from start to finish, depending on the topic and my level of concentration (bear in mind that my posts on Obesity Panacea tend to be rather lengthy).  I know that some colleagues average much less time per post, and I’m assuming that at least some take more.  But I will admit that it does take time.

But the fact that blogging takes time does not make it unique.  Many aspects of academic life take time.  Performing research, applying for grants, running journal clubs, taking courses, reading articles, and attending conferences – these all require a fairly large time investment.  And yet we do all of them on a regular basis because we see that they are worth the time investment.

In particular, I find that blogging and academic conferences have a number of things in common.  In my experience, researchers perform both of these activities with 3 primary goals in mind:

  • Presenting your research to the scientific community and/or greater community
  • Networking
  • Learning about new research

Since every researcher that I know (myself included) feels that attending academic conferences is well worth the effort, I thought it would be interesting to compare it with blogging, and see how they stack up with respect to the 3 goals that I’ve outlined above.

Goal 1: Presenting your research to the scientific and greater community

One of the most important benefits of attending academic conferences is sharing your work with your peers, as well as getting their feedback, which you can incorporate into your future work.  Similarly, conferences can also be a way of promoting your work to the masses, as the media almost always covers stories on some of the more interesting work at any major conference.

For the average, relatively obscure researcher (e.g. myself), how are these goals met at most academic conferences?  Of the 3 conferences I presented at last year (which included 2 oral presentations), I would say that I presented my work to approximately 200 people.  I did get some excellent feedback from my peers, but unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) my presentations were not picked up by the media.  And while the abstracts of my presentations were published for people to read, they were sandwiched among hundreds of others, as was my poster presentation.

How does that compare with a typical blog post about my research?

Whenever I discuss research I make sure that the post is added to Researchblogging.org, which on its own typically brings in 15-50 readers.  Add to this the impact of Twitter, Facebook, email subscribers, and organic traffic from sites like Google, and an individual post can quickly get up over 100 views, possibly 1000 or more (this obviously depends on the age of your blog and the size of your readership, which in our experience are very closely related). And, unlike conference presentations, blog posts last forever.

For example, I published this post on our original Blogger blog during our first year of blogging, in the fall of 2009.  In it, I discuss a recent paper that I published with colleagues from the lab where I performed by MSc. Although our blog did not have a tremendous number of readers at the time, the post has since received more than 700 views, far more than any conference presentation I have ever given.  More recent posts often receive several times that amount.  And from what I know of other science blogs of a similar age, ours is in no way exceptional.

I will admit that only a minority of the readers of any individual post are likely to be active researchers.  But it is a surprisingly large minority, and one which is far less restricted in terms of geography and academic discipline, compared with the audience at a typical conference.  Based on feedback from our readers as well as Feedburner and Google Analytics, I would estimate that roughly one third of our regular readers are involved in research in some capacity. And so while researchers may not make up the majority of readers for any individual blog post, I would argue that the numbers still rival those of any of my individual conference presentations.  Similarly, the comments that are left on any individual blog post are of a different quality and quantity than those that would be posed at a conference, but they have still been extremely useful.

Finally, blog posts are also much more efficient at generating media interviews, at least in my personal experience.  In fact, I have yet to have a single interview-request stemming directly from a presentation I have given at a conference, while I have had several as a result of our blog (including those with national newspapers and radio stations).  It certainly has not resulted in a deluge of media requests, but it has had a definite positive impact.

Goal # 2: Networking

Where I have often been the most disappointed in conferences is in their value in terms of networking.  I think this is likely more of a problem as a grad student, but I find that the number of new people that you actually interact with at any conference is typically quite low.  Which is not necessarily a huge surprise – when I go to a conference I usually have a goal of meeting one or two specific researchers, in addition to reconnecting with friends and colleagues from other labs.  And so I find that at each conference my network grows by one or two people – useful, but slow growth.

Again, let’s compare to blogging.  As a result of my blogging, I have come into contact with a number of researchers and policy makers, both here in Canada and around the world.  And what’s more important, even if you don’t connect with someone through the blog directly, it can make connections at real meetings more likely.  For example, at a recent international conference in Toronto, all but one of the people who came introduced themselves during my poster session did so because of something that they had read on my blog.  Blogs can also be an easy excuse to introduce yourself to people, as when you interview them regarding a study that you find particularly interesting or relevant.  And as I mentioned earlier, blogging is also a great way to develop contacts in the media.

So while blogs certainly cannot replace the importance of networking face-to-face, I have found that they can drastically enhance it.

Goal # 3: Learning about new research

In my opinion this is where blogs really shine, for two primary reasons.  First of all, it’s impossible to blog about your own research all the time.  And so even if you blog within a very specific area of research you will often find yourself discussing other people’s work the vast majority of the time.  Thus blogging can often function as a sort of Journal Club, wherein you are learning about research by explaining it to others.  You will also be challenged (often vigorously) by your readers, which is also of great benefit when you are sorting out your ideas on a new study.  To me these are some of the most valuable benefits of blogging, especially for young researchers.

In addition to the benefits of writing your own blog, you can also learn a tremendous amount from reading other blogs in your area.  For example, my knowledge of topics related to the clinical treatment of obesity has benefited dramatically from reading the blogs of Drs Arya Sharma and Yoni Freedhoff on a daily basis.  In fact, I find that I derive as much benefit from most posts as I would from attending a short conference presentation.  In addition, I can then forward their posts to others who I feel would benefit from them, or leave a comment or question for clarification. And keep in mind that I can read 2-3 blog posts everyday in just few minutes, whereas I can attend just 3-4 conferences per year.  Given these differences, I feel that it is possible to learn a tremendous amount about your area of research simply by blogging and reading/commenting on other related blogs, and that this learning certainly rivals what is possible from attending standard academic conferences.

Closing thoughts

Now of course I am not advocating that people begin blogging instead of attending academic conferences.  But I find it hard to understand why blogging is considered a waste of time,  especially when it seems to share many of the qualities of conferences, which are a cornerstone of the academic community.  In fact, blogging is clearly a better return on investment in may areas. Blogging is free, relatively easy, and you can write blog posts from the comfort of your own home.  Contrast that with attending conferences, which can be expensive, and mean several days away from work or family (which, admittedly, can also be a selling feature).  You can also blog about your research, or at least your area of research, even when you have no actual data of your own to present.  In this way you can build an audience for your work so that when you do have data to present, they already have a basic understanding of the area and the implications of your work.

And while blogging does require a time investment, there are a number of ways to minimize this.  You can write shorter posts, post less frequently, blog with a colleague or invite people to submit guest posts (all strategies that Peter and I have found very useful).  And so while blogging does require a time-commitment, I feel that it is clearly justified by the tremendous benefits that it provides.

What do you think?

Is blogging a worthwhile time-investment?  Where are the holes in my arguments? Let me know!

Travis