Hadas Shema, Judit Bar-Ilan, Mike Thelwall. 2012. Research Blogs and the Discussion of Scholarly Information. PLoS ONE.
I suppose it was inevitable that someone would publish a scientific paper about blogs that write about scientific publications. That’s either very meta, or a little myopic, or both. Appropriately then, the paper “Research Blogs and the Discussion of Scholarly Information” is published in PLoS ONE, the most prominent open access journal. The internet has expanded scientific discourse beyond the traditional forms of published media, and blogs tend to provide a less formal, more accessible form of communication. The authors were particularly interested in how discussion of published works on research blogs related to the citation of published works in the traditional published literature. When we discuss and cite papers in blogs, those citations are meaningless in the traditional sense, in that they aren’t incorporated into citation analyses.
The authors used the blog aggregator ResearchBlogging.org to identify well-established science blogs. They surveyed 126 blogs, recording the names and fields of journals of the 10 most recently reviewed articles on each blog. They also recorded general information about the blog author(s). Life sciences were by far the most common area blogged about (39% of blogs), although life sciences account for only 21% of all publications. Given the fact that women now receive similar numbers of life science degrees, it is perhaps surprising that the vast majority of blogs have male authors (~67% have a single male author, and ~9% have multiple authors, at least one of which is male).
Regardless of who authors the blogs, the papers that are cited in blogs are predominantly from the highest profile journals – Science, Nature, and PNAS. These journals all have expensive paywalls for non-subscribers. The fourth most cited journal, by contrast, is PLoS ONE. It’s hard to say what this means. It may just be that Science, Nature, and PNAS are well represented in their sample because they are interdisciplinary, and so many blogs will cite them. Or, it may be that bloggers are attracted to the same types of papers that Science and Nature are – high profile, “important”, maybe controversial. Further, bloggers may write about high profile papers, but they do so with greater depth and knowledge than most mainstream media.
There’s only so much that you can draw from a relatively small, simple survey, but some of the trends seem contrary to the supposed openness and accessibility of web-based science communication. Research blogs are written primarily by men, and focus on high-profile, non-open access papers. Does the open-access nature of a blog overcome the non-open access nature of the papers they write about? Does writing about a Science paper make the information within it accessible to more people, or does it decrease the number of people who can fully appreciate your post? Ultimately research blogging is complex, like any form of online media; it can improve on traditional communication while still showing some of the same limitations. It does bode well though that, given the number of blogs commenting on this paper, research bloggers tend to be informed and pretty self-aware.