Blogger – a hero or villain?

In Raleigh, NC! And ScienceOnline2012 starts in just a few hours. Yeah. During my trip here from Copenhagen, yesterday I was in many ways confronted with one of the topics which will most definitely be mentioned in today’s talks – blogs.

As if the airline knew that at least two people on their flight were heading to #Scio12, the inflight magazine opened up with the article “How to make a food blog”. Glorifying the blog as something every food lover should have. Interviews with food bloggers from across the world, who have made a name for themselves – though blogging. In the article the blogger is definitely in the hero category. (Couldn’t help thinking a similar thing should be done just focusing on blogging scientists and researchers from different fields – and it should figure in exactly an inflight magazine too!)

On the second flight, the inflight entertainment system offered the movie “Contagion”. A film about a flu pandemic causing deaths all over the world at extreme speed, followed by general panic and chaos amongst the population. One of the drivers of the panic and anger is a blogger (played by Jude Law) who doubts the intentions of the government and the pharmaceutical industry in stopping the disease from spreading. In addition, he claims to have found the cure for the virus by some homeopathic treatment, which people end up committing crimes for in their attempt to get it. All through the film, the blogger is the villain and a problem for the authorities and who in the end gets his (well deserved?) punishment.

It was interesting to see these two perspectives on blogging. I look forward to spending the day with lots and lots of bloggers, tweeters etc. (heros as well as villains and all those in between). I have a feeling it will be a blast (as a participant of previous ScienceOnline conferences told me at the bus stop yesterday). The Tweeting have definitely already begun and I fear a little how to make it through 450 people tweeting at the same time…..

A very non-social media article about the World Health Organization, public health and social media

A “must read about WHO and social media” it said in one of the tweets I came across on Twitter this morning, linking to an article in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization called “Mixed uptake of social media among public health specialists“. And true, it was a must-read for me: 1) I have a degree in Public Health Sciences, 2) I am a former WHO technical officer and 3) my main area of work right now is social media and public health science communication.

I have actually been looking for some WHO thoughts, reactions, comments on the role of social media in public health and to see WHO make use of it. So it is positive to find this article which brings up some interesting perspectives on social media, and adds some words on WHO’s presence on Facebook, Twitter etc.

Having read the article I am a little bit disappointed. It is in my opinion a little bit overly positive when it comes to describing WHO’s engagement in and use of social media (which is perhaps to be expected as it is written by WHO itself). As a former WHO staff member, I did not once during my time with WHO come across any encouragement to use social media. No one told me of the official twitter channel @WHOnews or tought me the value of using social media platforms in meetings, conferences or in linking with large groups of people with common interests. We didn’t use it in any of the small meetings or even larger global forums which I participated in organising. I know of extremely few WHO colleagues who are on for example Twitter, and I feel that I’m meet with a good bunch of scepticism when I try to advocate for looking into how social media could bring some added value to both WHO’s work but also its research. Perhaps it is changing but my impression of WHOs involvement in social media does not quite mirror what I read in this article.

The article, which by the way as all other WHO Bulletin articles have no comments function or provides active links, tries to give an overview of WHOs presence on and use of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Despite some mention of the strengths of social media in interacting with people and its two-way nature, my main impression after reading the article, is that to WHO social media is primarily about disseminating health information and counter rumours which can then be corrected. There is nothing wrong with that. Different kinds of social media are an extremely relevant places to disseminate information, identify rumours and emerging health problems etc. But what about entering into dialogue? Why is there no comments function of WHO Bulletin articles? Where is WHO’s blog? Does Director General, Margret Chan share her thoughts and interact with ordinary citizens anywhere? Can I enter into communication via social media with WHO staff working in the same area as me?

The article in the Bulletin does raise the question whether public health should be making more use of social media? And I assume this is also a question as to whether WHO should make more use of social media. I would say yes! Both because whether we like it or not lots with relevance for health is already happening out there and it is essential that WHO is present too. And not only WHO should be there.

Also for internal purposes would I argue that WHO’s use of social media would be useful. WHO financial situation is far from perfect and there a cuts being made everywhere. In staff, in travel, in meeting attendance. Here a thing such as Twitter could actually be an alternative to attending a meeting in real life. Following conferences from the sideline is perhaps not as good as being there in person, but it is a good alternative. Live tweeting by WHO from conferences and meetings would also be useful. Actually, WHO regional office for the Americas, PAHO did make an effort on this at the NCD (non-communicable diseases) UN summit in New York in September this year, through their Twitter account @NDCs_PAHO. But lots more could be done.

To quote the article “For activists, social media can be an inexpensive and quick platform for their campaigns.” Why should that platform be exclusive to activists? Can cheap and quick platforms not also be useful to organisations like WHO, national health authoritise etc? In the US the CDC has caught on to social media, so I guess it just for others to get started. I wonder when the Danish National Board of Health (Sundhedsstyrelsen) will get their first Twitter channel and even a page on Facebook, which to my knowledge does not exist, despite the fact that more than 2.4 million danes (of a total population of 5.3 million) are on Facebook (according to 2009 figures from Danske Interaktive Medier (FDIM). There are lots of potential out there for several organisations, institutions, universities to explore their role in social media when it comes to public health.

All in all its great to see WHO taking up social media and public health and I hope that will help facilitate a useful discussion and further exploring into how these two worlds can interlink and make use of each other. I recommend reading the article which also has great references to blogs on public health matters and other references to other social media initiatives in the field. However, without linking to any of the blogs, Facebook pages etc. and without the ability to comment on the article – which unfortunately makes it a very non-social-media like and instead very WHO-like.

Blogs and science communication revisited

Going back in time, looking at old photographs, postcards and letters is something I have always loved doing. And now I find myself going back and reading some of my first posts on this blog. Even though they are still quite new, I still find it amazing to be able to go back and reencounter my thoughts and findings from this summer. With all the information that flows past us in this age of information, it really is amazing to have a place to keep track of a small small fraction of all the thoughts and findings.

My reason for going back in time today was that reading this interesting article “More than a blog” about blogging and sciences made me think of my first posts on this blog about science blogs and peer-reviewed journals and the historical relation between journalism and science communication.

The article “More than a blog” published in EMBO reports gives some interesting perspectives on the role of blogs in science communication. I’d recommend it to people interested in science blogging. It is well written and quite interesting. It would be great if for example public health researchers could be inspired to consider blogging about their own research.

The article takes its offset in a last December’s big news story about the first known microorganism on Earth capable of growing and reproducing by using arsenic (Wolfe-Simon et al, 2010) and the criticism of the article and research articulated on science blogs (Lead by Rosie Redfield from University of British Columbia, Canada).

The article has great links to examples of science blogs. Most of them are within natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology etc.) but they could serve as good inspiration also for bloggers working within other disciplines.

There are also interesting perspectives on the science blog and blogger by e.g.

  • Bora Zivkovic, science blogger and blog editor of Scientific American,
  • Carl Zimmer, a freelance science journalist and blogger,
  • Paul Zachary Myers, biology professor at the University of Minnesota, and blogger at Pharyngula
  • Jerry Coyne, blogger evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago

Below a few quotes from the article by the above mentioned people, relating to what motivates the science blogger.

“Redfield said she finds blogging—even if no one reads her posts—a valuable way to focus her thoughts

Bora Zivkovic: “The number one rule in the blogosphere is you never tell a blogger what to blog about. Those bloggers who started on their own who are scientists treasure their independence more than anything, so networks that give completely free reign and no editorial control are the only ones that can attract interesting bloggers with their own voices.”

Zimmer on the contrasts of the independence of blogging and traditional journalism. “You really get to set your own rules. You’re not working with any editor and you’re not trying to satisfy them. You’re just trying to satisfy yourself. “

Paul Zachary Myers: Passion is an important part of this. If you can communicate a love of the science that you’re talking about, then you’re a natural for blogging.”

Coyne: “Blogging gives you outreach potential that you really should have if you’re grant funded, and it’s fun. It opens doors for you that wouldn’t have opened if you just were in your laboratory. So I would recommend it. It takes a certain amount of guts to put yourself out there like that, but I find it immensely rewarding.”

Social media in an area of public health: Palliative care

One of the advantages of the web and social networks is that it can bring together people with a very specific interest. People who would perhaps not have been connected otherwise, or who wouldn’t have been able to share knowledge and information outside for example conferences on the topic. And for those of us not being specialised in the topic, we would have a very limited chance of knowing what is new in that specific field.

I just came across a public health example of a specific area that are using social media to share knowledge. Pallimed – a hospice and palliative medicine blog is a blog that initially was developed to help keep track of interesting articles from many different journals that are relevant to palliative care. However, the blog expanded and soon also aimed to review media coverage of hospice and palliative care issues and thereby make it easier for the readers to orient themselves in what is new in Palliative care. It provides a forum for people to discuss and a good starting point for obtaining further information (eg. through lists, links, presentations etc.).

The authors are primarily people with a medical background, but the blog is aimed at interdisciplinary health care professionals in hospice and palliative care. Secondary, it also has patients, families, media, other disciplines and specialties interested in palliative care as their audience.

In a blog post, arguments for Why palliative care needs social media are given as well as a guide on how to use social media to advance palliative care. Besides the different articles/posts on the many many aspects of palliative care, the blog has an extensive list of Hospice and Palliative Medicine blogs.

Not only being of use to people working with Palliative care, I find it thrilling that others (like me) can read along. I can get a feel of what is happening in the area and potentially identify people, researchers I could contact, if I needed more information.

The topics and level of complexity varies in the different posts on Pallimed. From more complex articles (eg. Denosumab, palifermin and the cost of supportive cancer care) to slightly more approachable articles like LIFE Before Death Short Films – Week 10 of 50, drawing attention to a larger project entitled LIFE Before Death and events in relation to that.

One thing I have not been able to find out about Pallimed is how internationally founded it is. Is this only or mostly an US initiative or does it reach across continents and countries? Going across not only disciplines but also nations, universities, cities would give a broad and comprehensive picture of palliative care and hospices and only make sense since this is one of the advantages of web2.0.

Taking a broader public health perspective, it would be wonderful if other areas of public health could set up blogs and websites like this. Perhaps, or rather more likely, there are already some out there, but I might need some help finding them. Therefore all tips and recommendations are of course more than welcome.

For those interested in Pallimed here are also links to their presence on Twitter and Facebook

One-dimensional newsletters… or perhaps a blog?

As part of the Institute of Public Health at University of Copenhagen I received today in my inbox an electronic copy of the institute’s monthly newsletter. The 16 pages long newsletter is sent as a pdf file and gives an overview of what has happened at the institute since the last newsletter.

There are one-page articles about recent events, announcement, descriptions of various research studies and a calendar for the coming month. It is nice to be informed of what others at the institute are doing and this time I even contributed with a small article myself, describing my research project and promoting this blog to my fellow colleagues.

Both when writing my small contribution and reading the newsletter it did however seem very ‘one-dimensional’ to me. Reading about what has happened is nice, but honestly I would just as well like to know what is happening here and now. It would be wonderful if I could comment on what the others write, and see if others have something to contribute with. And it would be nice if I could easily follow-up on my small article, if I had developments to share, without waiting for the next monthly newsletter. It is not that I dislike the newsletter format. It is good to know what is happening and what people are working on and I do appreciate reading it. Most workplaces should and do have a newsletter targeted the staff, but would it be so terrible if others could tag along?

Maybe it is because I am biased by spending my days reading blogs, exploring how social media works, but I do believe that creating something a little bit more two- or even three-dimensional would be a great advantage. And although it is aimed at the people employed at the institute, perhaps there are people in the world who would be interested in reading along – also people we didn’t know would be interested. Transforming the traditional newsletter into a blog format would provide for many of the requests I raise here. It would make it possible to interact and enter into dialogue with colleagues. Posts could be linked to each other and the outside world could tag along on the sideline (and even make their voice heard if we choose to allow them to do so). And for those who are fans of newsletters it would be the easiest thing in the world  once a month to make an “aggregate” of the blog and send it out as a newsletter. In that way you would get the benefit of both the newsletter and the blog.

On the internet lots of people have argued for the value of blogs over newsletters. The blog post “How blogs are more useful than email newsletters” on highlights in a good way som of the advantages.


For those of you with Danish skills you can read my contribution to the newsletter below:

Public Health Research Communication 2.0

Har du en Twitter konto? Er du medlem af FSV-relaterede grupper på Facebook eller LinkedIn? Kan man blogge om sit forskningsområde? Hos Medicinsk Museion er jeg begyndt  at blogge om mit forskningsprojekt: sociale webmedier og formidling af FSV-forskning.

Normalt sværger vi til tidsskrifter, konferencer og seminarer, når forskning skal deles med omverdenen, eller hvis vi skal lære noget om, hvad andre går og forsker i. Det fineste et forskningsprojekt kan opnå er at blive publiceret i peer-reviewed tidsskrifter som The Lancet, British Medical Journal eller andre high-impact journals. Bliver artiklen ikke accepteret her, kravler man ofte langsomt ned ad impact-stigen og forsøger sig med de mindre tidsskrifter. Det er også fint, hvis et forskningsprojekt kommer med på en konference. Måske som poster men helst som en mundtlig præsentation.

Indtil videre er det inden for folkesundhedsvidenskab ikke så fint, at dele sin forskning via de sociale webmedier. I hvert fald ikke hvis man ser på dansk forskning. Men fremtiden kan muligvis være en anden.

Med en kandidatgrad i folkesundhedsvidenskab og en fagjournalistuddannelse i ryggen har jeg på Medicinsk Museion kastet mig ud i et projekt om sociale webmedier og formidling af forskning inden for folkesundhedsvidenskab. Jeg har valgt at arbejde med de sociale webmedier fordi kommunikationsverden er vokset. Med web 2.0 er internettet ikke længere  envejskommunikation men baseret på dialog og på, at brugerne selv er med til at definere indholdet. Der er der opstået nye kommunikationskanaler som Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Blogs, Mandeley, Academia, Google+ og mange flere. Det vrimler med muligheder og nye dimensioner i forskningskommunikation.

Tre måneder med blogs, Twitter og Facebook har vist mig en hel verden af nye muligheder. Faktisk er jeg selv blevet så grebet, at jeg har oprettet min egen blog, ’Public Health Science Communication 2.0’.

Her skriver jeg, om det jeg laver i projektet. Blandt andet at der er meget at hente i at formidle via et medie, som er bygget til at kommunikere med læseren. At jeg kan få kontakt til folk, som har interesse for det samme område, men som jeg sandsynligvis ellers aldrig var kommet i kontakt med. Og bedst af alt: at jeg kan skrive om det jeg laver undervejs i projektet og ikke først, når det færdige produkt viser sig. Bloggen fungerer som både et vindue og en formgiver for mit projekt, og den giver jer og andre mulighed for at følge og bidrage til projektet mens det udvikler sig og tager form.

Som projektet skrider frem vil bloggen forhåbentlig blive fyldt med gode eksempler og ’best practices’ på hvordan sociale medier internationalt bliver brugt til at formidle folkesundhedsvidenskab, på hvordan sociale medier er gode kilder til informationssøgning og til at udvide sit faglige netværk – og meget mere.

Projektet løber et år og har kun lige taget sin begyndelse. Jeg ser frem til at diskutere med jer på bloggen og få jeres inputs til projektet løbende.

Nina Bjerglund Anderse, Forskningsassistent, Cand.scient.san.publ. og Fagjournalist, Medicinsk Museion, Blog: Public Health Science Communication 2.0, Twitter: @bjerglund, Google+: ninabjerglund

What motivates a scholarly blogger?

Why do researchers blog? Although it is definitely an expanding discipline, it is not yet common for researchers to share their thoughts, products and experiences through a blog – at least not in a Danish context. After some months of wondering around the world of science communication via social media it seems quite obvious to me that there are several benefits in sharing and communicating research through blogs.

Several characteristics of the blog can be highlighted as beneficial for the researcher who is willing to share both results of his research and the reflections on the process. Below I would just like to highlight three characteristics of the blog that I find valuable.

  1. Via a blog you communicate here and now. As a result, reactions, comments, critic, approval of what you write may come almost instantly. The blog posts doesn’t disappear, so later comments etc. are always possible. But not having to await e.g. long review processes in scientific magazines can in some cases be very valuable. And the ‘here and now’ structure gives space for a forum to put thoughts and ideas into words (which can actually sometimes be a challenge), which can be beneficial in later more formal communication of your research.
  2. Through it’s often more informal structure you can share your research, your thoughts, concerns etc. along the way, which makes it possible for the readers to comment and contribute to the process as well as the product. Informality also means that one can write more freely and not get stuck in specific word counts or formal language that even other researchers might find troublesome.
  3. A blog can help establish connections to fellow researchers or people with common interest – even people whom you would never have known otherwise. I know this from my own few months and weeks on blogs and twitter. Truly an eye-opener.

There are of course lots of benefits to blogging just as there are disadvantages to the media. Some of the things I here promote as advantages may, seen from a different perspective be perceived as problematic. (I promise to do a separate post on this one day)

As interesting as my perspective on scientific blogging may be, I have through my research come across an interesting ph.d. study which focuses exactly on why science bloggers blog. The study by Sarah Kjellberg from Lund University focuses among other things on Motivations for blogging in scholarly context.

Based on interviews with a group of researchers from different disciplines she examines why these researchers blog – what are the driving factors?. I shall not refer the complete study here, but just point out some of the main motivation points she finds to be general for the blogging researchers (the highlighted words are my responsibility):

  • The possibility to share knowledge and opinions
  • A creative catalyst for their work
  • Provides a feeling of being connected in their work as researchers and to enter into dialogue
  • Ability to reach multiple audiences and expand professional network
  • Enables the combination of formal and informal scholarly communication

It would be interesting to know if this is also the experience of other scholarly bloggers. Are there other motivating factors? And what can challenge them, so motivations is risked lost? What about shared blogs? Is motivation different if you have your own ‘solo’ blog or is part of a group blog with several contributors?

And where does the motivation come from. Can it only come from oneself or are the ways to ‘help it along? If for example a School of Public Health made an executive decision to have their researcher blog, would the lack of self-induced motivation affect the quality of the blog? Could a general blog format to all bloggers/staff at university fit all or would it affect motivation? There is truly still a lot to explore…..

From the classics: “Effect Measure” – a model public health science blog?

Are public health experts, researchers, enthusiast to be found online? This is a question that I have tried to answer over the last couple of months.

Having a master degree in Public Health Sciences myself, I must admit that until a few months ago I did not pay much attention to what the world of social media could add to my professional life or what I through the web could share with others. But as I described in my previous post about Twitter and LinkedIn, things are changing and communicating research and searching for information through social media tools more and more seems like a very natural thing to do.

Also blogs have opened my eyes to a new world of communicating public health. In my search for good examples of Public Health research related blogs I have very often come across a blog that is not even alive and kicking any longer. The blog is called “Effect Measure” and was started already in 2004 and had its last post in May 2010 – but still very much worth a read and proof that public health science is an excellent topic for a blog.

A model for subsequent blogs?

Effect Measure is edited by senior public health scientists and practitioners and calls itself “a forum for progressive Public Health discussion and argument as well as a source of public health information from around the web that interests the editor(s)”. It covers a wide range of public healths topics and often takes it’s starting point in (at the time) newly published articles or news stories related to public health (primarily in an US context). The blog both explains in simple language the topic/problem and comments on it. An example og a topic covered through several blog posts is swine flu (H1N1). When it was at its highest blog posts on the topic were published which all provided  good background information about the virus and made it possible, on a scientific basis to get an impression of what kind of disease we were talking about and what the challenges were. (see example here).

The blog post varies of course dependant on topic, both in length, tone, complexity and structure. A common structure for blog post is as follows.

1) Outline of the problem/topic and general background information
2) a long citation or links to other sources with either the conclusions from a study, an expressed opinion etc.
3) a comment on the citation and a conclusion or question for thought

This flows provides a good basis for the readers to have enough information to enter into a dialogue, e.g. through raising questions etc. In essence it gives a clear, in-depth scientific explanations of public health topics combined with strong opinions about how things should be handled with the view to improve public health.

Effect Measure started out as a private initiative in 2004 but was in June 2006 invited to come under the umbrella of ScienceBlogs, one of the premier venue for science-oriented blogs. This must be said to be evidence of its scientific soundness.

One things that may however challenge the soundness a little bit in my view is that the editors of Effect Measure chose to stay anonymous. The argument was as follows:

The Editors of Effect Measure are senior public health scientists and practitioners. Their names would be immediately recognizable to many in the public health community. They prefer to keep their online and public lives separate to allow maximum freedom of expression. Paul Revere was a member of the first local Board of Health in the United States (Boston, 1799). The Editors sign their posts “Revere” to recognize the public service of a professional forerunner better known for other things.

It can be debated whether this strategy is appropriate. It will in my opinion have challenged the blogs credibility in the beginning, and to me there is an element of playing chicken when you are not ready to stand up and take on you own views and opinions. They write that they themselves are senior scientists and practitioners in public health and would be immediately recognizable. Well, does this mean that the views expressed in their blog is what they apply in their work or are they here just letting out opinions on all the things they are not ‘allowed’ to say in their official positions? Usually I would find it okay to write under a synonym, but when the fact that these people are actually senior and most likely influential public health experts is taken into account I do find it a little problematic and it challenges the soundness of the blog content.

However, when criticism is passed on by the readers (eg. through a comment) the editors are very good at responding to any critic and questions. This give ground for very interesting scientifically based dialogue in almost all blog posts. And exactly the high quality dialogue is one of the reasons why I find this blog to be an interesting example of public health science communication. Also the frequency of postings is high and in combination with the posts being of high quality content, the blog is just a wonderful ocean of information, discussions and opinions. Finally, the fact that even a year after the last post, many of the blog posts are still very much forth a read proves that there is something to Effect Measure, which others could learn from.

A successor

Even though Effect Measure has closed down it is still a model for other blogs. One of its successor (so named after the editors at Effect Measures themselves) is the blog “The Pump Handle“. The Pump Handle describes itself as a place for people interested in public health and the environment to discuss issues of interest. The blog is named after the worlds first formal epidemiological study by John Snow in London who in 1854  through examining maps of cholera cases  traced the disease to water from a local pump. The two blogs are very similar in structure and focus (although there in The Pump Handle is much empathise on environmental and occupational health). The main difference is however that the editors are named. Both are researchers at the George Washington University School of Public Health, and label their name to every blog post (also all guest bloggers also seem to be writing under their own names). As with Measure Effect it started out as a private WordPress-based blog but was later included under ScienceBlogs. What I like about the Pump Handle is that we as readers know who is blogging. At least to me it is nice to know to whom the views apply, not so that I can bang them in their head for their opinions should I disagree, but because gives the opinions more weight and sincerity.

My exploring the web for more blogs of public health sciences continues. Have already come across several, but had to share with you Effect Measure, as it seems to be a good example of how a blog on public health science can be structured.