Nature blogs
Jun 20, 2007
Bishop Hill in Blogs, Climate: other, Journals

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:

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! I hope you find the posting useful.

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