Is blogging fair game in formal scientific talks?

In the midst of the madness of teaching my very first class, I made time to go see Jennifer Jacquet speak at SIO on Tuesday. Her talk was entitled “A Way Forward in a Sea of Market-Based Efforts to Save Wild Fish,” and I found it most disturbing. Not because of her ideas (which were interesting), but because she heavily criticized Mark Powell’s blogging in the context of her formal scientific talk.

Jacquet first brought up this blogfish entry to illustrate the criticism of her April 2007 paper in Marine Policy. She implied that Powell had directly compared her to Dick Cheney, saying “the picture of Dick Cheney was a really low blow.” It got chuckles from the audience, sure, but that’s not at all what Mark said. Is misrepresenting a blogger somehow different than misrepresenting peer-reviewed citations?

She brought up Mark Powell again at the end of the talk, using this entry to illustrate “lots of what we find in the NGO world.” She said (and this is not an exact quote) that Powell illustrates defensiveness in the NGO world, who put a lot of effort into seafood watch cards and get frustrated because they don’t work. When has Powell ever advocated telling people to avoid eating seafood? That mischaracterizes his position quite severely.

She also nailed Powell for contradicting his earlier entry, saying that he had come around to her point of view on the need to elect environmentally-friendly politicians. Maybe so or maybe not, but I thought that pointing out contradictions in a blog (rather than in his actions or published works) was kind of a tacky argument. It’s a BLOG – people crank out an entry every day for years. Obvously there will be some contradictions.

To make the Powell references all more ironic, Jacquet advocated for working with suppliers higher on the demand chain, such as Red Lobster. Isn’t that exactly what Powell just did with red snapper and Wal-Mart? This was not mentioned at all in the talk (though I did bring it up during the question period).

Citing blogs in formal talks has big implications for all scientist-bloggers. Though I stand by everything I’ve written here over the last 11 months, TOG is designed for fun and speed. I don’t put 1/1000th of the work into a given entry that I put into a formal talk or paper. I understand that everything I write in this blog is public for ever and ever, and I do it under my real name because I like being a science communicator. They don’t, and shouldn’t have the weight of a published, peer-reviewed paper that is the result of months of work.

So I suppose science bloggers have to decide – are blogs fair game in formal presentations?

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12 Responses to Is blogging fair game in formal scientific talks?

  1. Greg says:

    My 2 cents (because I should be doing something else – so procrastination compels me). Is it fair to attack a blog: absolutely. If she were going after a blog about Thundercats episodes, there wouldn’t be much point to it, but a blog, especially by a member of the scientific community, has a responsibility to speak scientific truth. Now, does a blog entry hold as much weight as a refereed journal publication? No, of course not, and it shouldn’t be treated as if it does. But running a blog doesn’t excuse one of scientific responsibility. You have more room to be speculative or incomplete than in a refereed publication, but you should be clear and honest about your methods and intentions and clear about when you’re being speculative, and if you’re not, you deserve what you get.

    However, by the same means, there’s no excuse for being shoddy about the attack. Just because something is in a blog doesn’t mean that it’s inherently weak, and misrepresenting what’s in the blog in your counter-attack is just as bad any other misrepresentation.

    In summary, it’s not the medium that’s the issue – it’s the professionalism of the behavior, regardless of the medium, that is the key worry here.

  2. kevin z says:

    Very interesting. There are definitely personality issues in the blogosphere that become apparent. In the published world this is off the radar, not in the public realm like blogs. I personally enjoy the back and forth on these marine issues because I’ve learned alot that, especially from Mark and Rick MacPherson, but also my cobloggers Peter and Craig. Sometimes the discussion in the comments are just as interesting as the post itself.

    I’ve read Mark for a long time now, he was one of the first blogs I started reading regularly when I started The Other 95%. I can attest to his commitment through his writings for sustainable seafood consumption, educating the public about seafood, and working with business (big and small) to implement sustainable seafood plans and awareness. I know that his non-profit organization, The Ocean Conservancy, has done lots of work in ocean conservation in general, not just sustainable seafood choices. I’ve supported them for many years, way before I know who Mark was. I’m not meaning to defend him, I certainly disagree with some of his ideas and his writing style isn’t always clear to me. But I appreciate everything he has done for marine conservation. The exchange of ideas alone, whether when he disagrees with us on Deep Sea News or us on his blog (or through email), enhances the experience for everyone reading and hopefully it helps in some small way to progress everyone involved’s thinking.

    When you are professional, I think blogs are fair game because it is you at the core speaking. There are no co-authors, no journal editors, no peer-reviewers. You do not necessarily need data, just some logic and organization. If you are bold enough to espouse your ideas in the public realm you need to have the courage and responsibility to face disagreement. It is a bit cheeky to poke fun at someone when you are far away from them and it is likely that no one would say anything to that person about the circumstance. Would she have made those snide comments if he was in the audience, or potentially could have been in the audience, like at a marine biology/conservation national meeting?

    But I certainly agree with you that they shouldn’t have the weight of a peer-reviewed publication. But a blog is that individual and their ideas red in tooth and claw. Response and debate should be done in the blogosphere where individuals can rebuttal and other on-lookers can add their 2 cents.

  3. Peter says:

    I missed this particular event, but I’m quite curious. All I knew before this article (thanks Marion) is that JJ invoked a “Robin Hood in reverse” analogy, which has my head spinning a little bit.

    I agree with Marion that blog posts are not “the science”. Peer-reviewed publications are the products of science, and the fodder for science communication. Kudos to Jennifer for publishing in Marine Policy. It shows lasting merit. I’d like to read that.

    But, blogs are very different. Its a personal attempt at science outreach, and should be judged accordingly. Its the author’s provocative side, the stuff they can’t always substantiate. It’s their opinion. Quite different than a manuscript.

    Jen has mentioned her distaste for blog “personalities” in conference before. Thast’s fine. However, its not nice to pick on a blogger at a science conference. I’m afraid that could come back to bite her.

  4. I suppose I didn’t express one point well. Of course scientists have a responsibility to be accurate, but quoting an informally-written blog in a formal scientific talk almost automatically makes the blogger sound like a tool. Nobody would ever snark in a talk like everyone regularly snarks in a blog.

    Peter – it wasn’t a science conference, it was a seminar at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I was almost certainly the only one in the audience who follow science blogs.

  5. Peter says:

    I see. In seminar, I’d say just about anything goes. Bloggers are fair game, especially if you’re working a policy angle. It’s the “human dimension,” right?

    So tell me, did Jennifer present a hypothesis and use new data to support or disprove it? That’s what I consider a formal science talk.

  6. jebyrnes says:

    I’d have to agree – if you’re characterizing alternate viewpoints in the scientific or non-scientific community, blogs are fair game. In many ways they really do open up the ivory tower, and expose a bit more of what people are really thinking to the light.

    For this, they can be tremendously useful, as you can get a barometer of someone’s opinions beyond what they write in the white or grey literature, while at the same time not actually knowing them personally, or reporting on rumor or gossip (oh, academia, how amusing you can be).

    At the same time, this sounds more like the continuation of an online disagreement into a formal talk. Were it merely the merits of either side, and using the material as a jumping off point for the discussion – sure, totally legit. But it sounds like this went a little beyond and into the personal,misconstrued area of things that was not entirely accurate.

    Which, really, can happen just as easily when someone is reporting results and discussions from academic work! The difference here is that it is waaaay easier and less time consuming for the average audience member to hop onto the ‘net and read the entry for themselves to make up their own mind. Blog entries are short (compared to a 20 page paper) and much easier to parse.

    So, really, if I was a member of that audience, heard her comment, and then surfed on over to blogfish, I would have seen the disservice done, and been much more critical of all of the other information in the talk.

    Heck, I wonder if mis-use of blog entries is a more surefire way to lose your audience and shoot yourself in the foot than misuse or misquotation of a standard piece of academic literature? I’m guessing it is.

    Blogs! Handle with care!

  7. jebyrnes says:

    p.s. this is actually one reason that I love blogging peer reviewed research – it forces a scientist to put their money where their mouth is, and that review can track them down across the web. It forces one to be a careful, critical, and deep thinking reader, and who knows where it might crop up again!

  8. Peter – No, the talk had very little data. (I very much wished for more.) I’m not entirely sure how to characterize it – perhaps a legal or policy type argument?

    In general – clearly, I am in the minority in feeling this is not appropriate. Fair enough – if I am ever fortunate enough to give a talk about kinky invertebrate sex, I’m SO citing all of you. :)

  9. kevin z says:

    Sweet! If there is one thing I want to be known for it is the pornographic purveyor of invertebrate intimacy.

  10. Mark Powell says:

    Whoa doggies! Thanks for the heads-up Miriam, especially since SIO is where I did my graduate work. Jennifer and I have had personal and online discussions and debates before, and I don’t mind being the target of a few jabs. But I would like to know directly from her what she’s going on about in places where people know me.

  11. Tim Adams says:

    Just one quick, belated, point in response to “I don’t put 1/1000th of the work into a given entry that I put into a formal talk or paper.”

    The trouble is, Miriam, that journalists pay more than 1/1000th of their attention to blogs as they do to formal talks or papers”. If we take upon ourselves the mantle of “science communicators” then we need to live up to certain standards – in terms of being confident that what we write is reasonably rigorous.

    Anything less and we should just label ourselves “ordinary bloggers” and not science communicators or scientists when we write.

  12. Tim – Perhaps I didn’t express myself well in this entry (science communication FAIL!) but I was referring to blogs making it into the formal scientific discourse of seminars, talks at conferences, peer-reviewed papers, etc. Blogs are certainly fair game in the popular discourse.

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