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« Libertarians take their pep pills | Main | Appreciation »
Wednesday
Jun202007

Nature blogs

MacMillan Nature group now has a really quite impressive web presence - at least in terms of volume. Their head honcho, Richard Charkin, is a blogger and what's more he's a real one too. He actually seems to write the posts himself, and does (for a corporate bod) dangerous things like offering the occasional opinion. He looks like a good man to have in charge of a publishing business when things are changing so quickly.

Under his tutelage, the group has started up a plethora of blogs (or "clogs" as EU Referendum likes to call corporate blogs) covering every subject from peer review to avian flu. (There's a song in there somewhere). This is admirable, but the group still gives the impression of not really having found its feet in the online world. There are also some pretty large risks they are running, and I'm not sure that they are playing their cards very cleverly. More of that later.

First though, why do I think they're not quite on the ball as regards blogging? I've subscribed to a couple of their blogs - one on peer review and also Nature Climate Feedback. The first thing to say is that content is a little thin on the ground. If you want a popular blog it's pretty much a given that you have to update it regularly, if not daily. Only the very best bloggers manage to buck this trend. Comments on Nature blogs are also pretty much moderated to death. I left a comment on the Peer to Peer blog shortly after it opened. This was not actually published until after I'd had an email correspondence with the site administrator which lasted the best part of a week - it was a friendly correspondence, for sure, but why didn't they just post the comment straight away? Another comment which I posted on Monday night was finally published today, more than 24 hours later. This is not the way to stimulate an interesting debate. It rather smacks of the way science was conducted in the nineteenth century, when you put your correspondence in the mail and it was delivered by packet steamer. It just doesn't cut the mustard any more.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way. Nature's web tech site, Nascent, has pulled in fully 164 comments in the 18 months since its first posting. Climate Feedback, being in such a controversial area, really ought to be their showpiece site, but has managed to pull in just 150 comments in three months. This all suggests that the punters are being turned off.

It's a tricky situation for Nature. It's not clear how the group intends to monetise their web presence. Most people out there are relying on getting lots and lots of eyeballs on their web presence in order to do this. This is fine for people like DK or Instapundit who can be opinionated, but Nature has a much more difficult tightrope to walk. Its whole commercial reputation relies as being seen as a neutral umpire in matters scientific. If it were seen to take sides in a debate, it might get away for it for a while, but eventually it would end up backing the wrong horse in one race or another, and then its reputation would be shot. It has to be very careful about getting into the news and opinion game.

A couple of examples:

In Nature Reports: Climate Change, which is a climate focused site of which the Climate Feedback blog forms a part,  Amanda Leigh Haag writes about a possible successor to the Kyoto Treaty. In it,  she cites the following:

  • Michael Oppenheimer, a geoscientist and climate-policy expert at Princeton University in New Jersey,
  • John Drexhage, director of climate change and energy programs at the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Ontario, Canada,
  • Rob Bradley, director of international climate policy at the World Resources Institute, in Washington DC,
  • Elliot Diringer, director of international strategies for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, based in Arlington, Virginia,
  • Roger Pielke Jr, a climate-policy expert at the University of Colorado, Boulder,
  • Saleemul Huq of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development

Now if you are going to take virtually all of your quotes directly from current and former staffers of environmental pressure groups (the exception is Pielke), you run the risk of people thinking that your publication is not actually a science site, or even just a news site, but is in fact just another arm of the environmental campaigning movement. You might perhaps think that this is an admirable thing to be. But many of your readers will not, and they may well stop reading both your websites and your scientific journals.

Another example is this post by Olive Heffernan, who is the editor in charge of Climate Feedback. In it she lambasts Czech president Vaklav Klaus' recent article in which he says that there is a risk to liberty from the demands of environmentalists. She decries his lack of qualifications as a climate expert by way of denouncing his views, although she is herself a zoologist by training. These kind of opinions are fine in general. It's fairly easy to take pot-shots at them, and if the comments cleared moderation in less than 24 hours I might do so more often - but that's not the point. When they come from a Nature employee the situation is rather different. Can a Nature editor really be seen to publicly take one side like this? Heffernan not only has a go at Klaus, but also at Richard Lindzen who is, if nothing else, a professional climatologist. These are Nature's customers for heavens sake. You can't go slagging them off just because they disagree with you, Olive. Should prospective Nature authors be asking themselves if their views are acceptable to the group before they submit their manuscripts?

It would be a pity if Nature were found to have spoken out in favour of the global warming enthusiasts and to have published junk science on their behalf, as well as having ridiculed the skeptics. It just wouldn't look very clever, would it?

I don't think all is lost though. The climate debate is largely conducted at Climate Audit and Real Climate and there is a real lack of communication between the two sides. There could be a very exciting role for Climate Feedback in umpiring a proper debate between the two sides. It could be wonderful to read, useful for the advancement of science, and cut a huge amount of risk out of the Nature business model. I imagine the moderators calling in expert advice - say a statistician when the conversation turned to matters statistical - in order to force people to address the arguments of their opponents rather than the usual ad-hominems and evasions which characterise most online argument.

First though they would have to admit that there is a debate at all, so I'm not holding my breath.

Update 21 June 2007: Welcome to readers from nurture.nature.com! I hope you find the posting useful.

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Reader Comments (3)

On Peer to Peer, we make it clear in our comment form that comments are for people with real names and addresses, and are not for anonymous/pseudonymous comments. Part of our email exchange was to establish your true identity. After that, your comment was posted.
Peer to Peer does not post regularly as it is a blog specifically about peer review: We post on it when there is something relvant and pertinent to say about the topic, for example the recent Nature editorial about peer-review mentoring. Some of NPG blogs are like that.
Others post much more frequently, as is appropriate for their scope. The newsblog posts several times a day, as does my other NPG blog, Nautilus (our author blog).

Your overview of the NPG blogging presence misses out one crucial part of it, the Nature Network, on which scientists can sign up for a blog and blog themselves. There are lots on there (of varying degress of posting frequency).

I don't agree with your view that frequency of posting is necessarily an indication of the quality of a blog. Some of my favourite blogs (work and personal interest) post infrequently,and I enjoy reading them. One can feel overwhelmed by blogs that update too often, one reason why I do not subscribe to blogs like Boeng Boeng and Instapundit-- good they may be but there is too much of them.

Best wishes
Maxine.
Jun 21, 2007 at 9:54 AM | Unregistered Commentermaxine
PS, If I wrote a post stating "Water flows uphill" and generated a lot of comments, would this mean that my post had high quality? No (or rather, not necessarily).
Jun 21, 2007 at 9:56 AM | Unregistered Commentermaxine
Peer to Peer says that it "strongly encourages" real names. This isn't the same as making them compulsory. Why do you have such a guideline? It can only scare punters away. Using a pseudonym encourages people to state their true opinions, especially in controversial areas. And their argument should be judged on its merits rather than the identity of the person making them.

I was dimly aware of your blogging site for authors, although I remember reading about it. It struck me as a good idea.

I didn't say that blogging frequency was an indicator of a good blog. I said that only the best bloggers were able to get away with infrequent posting, and that many bloggers find that regular posting encourages visitors to return regularly. (I agree with you that it can be overdone though).

In trying to make the point that Nature's blogs are struggling I pointed out that there are very few comments on your pages. I did some brief research on your traffic and this also suggested that most visitors to Nature.com are not visiting the blogs. This being the case I pointed out your conundrum - you (Nature that is!) can't get racy in order to address this situation without risking your reputation. So I agree absolutely that you can't write that water runs uphill - it will indeed get you traffic and comments, but it will also destroy your reputation.

It's not a problem I'd like to be stuck with fixing.
Jun 21, 2007 at 7:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterBishop Hill

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