How to set up a science blog

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Science blogs let you share your passion and expertise with the widest possible audience. Damian Carrington shows it's easy to get started.

The World Wide Web has changed the world by providing the cheapest information sharing network ever seen. And the development of blogging software, now powerful and free to use, allows anyone to share their thoughts instantly with anyone else in the world with an Internet connection.

That personal link is at the heart of blogging. The very word blog comes from web log, in other words a diary. Just as diaries can have many forms, so can blogs, but they tend to differ from conventional media in their focus.

Arianna Huffington, founder of the highly successful blog network Huffington Post, uses a medical analogy. She describes the mainstream media as suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — always looking for the next new thing and leaving yesterday's stories unfinished. Bloggers, in contrast, are more like obsessive-compulsives — persistently and doggedly pursuing single topics.

What to blog on — and how?

You might be a scientist who wants to blog about your own science or issues facing scientists. You might be a science journalist wanting to report on science in a way that is different to the more conventional publications that you write for. Or you may be a wannabe political commentator, monitoring science policy and its potential impacts. All of these could come under the umbrella of science blogging, which follows many of the same rules as other types of blogs.

First, choose a subject that you are both passionate and knowledgeable about. Keep it focused. Choose too broad a topic — physics, say — and you will find it very hard to add something unique and interesting to the web that will attract readers. The risk of picking too narrow a topic is far lower — there may be few people in your organisation who care deeply about moths, for example, but there are likely to be many more around the world.

What you choose to blog about — and how — will also depend on your intended audience, be they scientists in that field, scientists from other disciplines or the general public.

One of the very best, and most successful, science blogs is called Pharyngula, written by biologist P. Z. Myers, who works at the University of Minnesota. He describes it as "evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal", and it has been a powerful pro-science voice in the creationism debate in the United States.

The blog is one of many excellent blogs on ScienceBlogs. The site's founder, Adam Bly, aims to make science as central to culture as politics or the arts, and ScienceBlogs shows how the engaging and conversational style of blogs can help make that happen.

So how personal should a blog get? Here's a rule of thumb — if you start writing about your pet dog, you have probably crossed a line. But anything short of that is not only fine, it's essential. Your personality is what will make your blog stand out from others, and will bring you that all important connection with your readers.

This can be uncomfortable for academics and professional journalists, who spend their careers sheltered by the use of the third person (I remember struggling to begin sentences with "I" when I started blogging). But persevere, you will quickly adapt and find it liberating. If you don't, then what you are writing isn't a blog, it's an article.

How often?

How regularly should you blog? The short answer is every day. Readers want to feel the blog is alive, and frequent posts show this. A minimum is twice a week. Any less and you'll need to be a very influential person to get away with it.

One way of getting around having to post frequently yourself is to set up a group blog. But this can be difficult, unless the group shares a clear sense of purpose and similar attitudes. One successful example of this approach is Effect Measure, run by a group of public health professionals.

If the prospect of posting daily seems off-putting, remember that each post does not have to be a thousand words of carefully argued and finely crafted prose. Quite the reverse in fact — think of it as having a conversation with your readers.

Short observations on news events that use your expertise, for example to point out misconceptions, are great. Posts that link to new or interesting information elsewhere on the web are also very valuable.

You are using your special knowledge to filter the vast amount of content on the web for others. By aggregating material, you are editing the web for your readers. And remember, the links don't just need to be to articles. Video, pictures and graphics can be even more interesting. If I was blogging about penguins, I'd definitely be linking to this video. And taking your own photographs or video is even better — they are simple to add to blogs.

Technical aspects

I won't try to give a step-by-step account of how to blog here — there are plenty online. But if you can use a word processor and web browser, you already have 90 per cent of the skills you need. The other ten per cent are very simple, for example using basic HTML, or the buttons in your blog software, to make key phrases bold or to add web links.

There is a wide variety of blog software available, all with guides on how to use them. You can choose what suits your level of technical knowledge. The simplest host the blog for you, with the most popular being Blogger, WordPress and Typepad.

The downside with these blog sites is that you have less control over the URL. If you want to host your own blog, check out Movable Type, for example.

The Guardian's blogging guru, Kevin Anderson, recommends guides to the pros and cons of different options available on these sites: Problogger, readwriteweb and pcworld.com.

Limited bandwidth and Internet access in some areas of the developing world may limit all forms of blogging.

Jonathan Gosier, a software developer living in Kampala, Uganda, describes blogging from a developing country as "a lesson in patience, endurance and ingenuity". On his blog on Apprifca he recommends ten applications that can ease the challenges of dealing with power cuts, unstable Internet connections and potential data loss.

Getting a readership

Once you have your blog up and running, you'll need to get people coming to visit. This can be hard at the start, but be patient. There are a number of things you can do, and the key is linking.

First, you need to include lots of links in all that you post. This helps with 'search engine optimisation', that is, it helps search engines understand the sorts of site your blog is like, and this means people searching for your topic will be more likely to find your blog.

Even more important is encouraging links from other sites to your blog. You can do this by leaving comments on other sites you like, which include links back to relevant posts on your blog. Note the word relevant — if your links are not relevant, they will annoy people, which is not a way to become popular.

You can also list the other blogs you like — this is called a blogroll. It's worth asking those bloggers if they would like to link to you — they will if they like your blog. Lastly, it's worth sending details of your blog to Technorati, which acts as a search engine specifically for blogs.

If you intend to blog about peer-reviewed research articles, you could register with Research Blogging, a website which highlights the posts of its registered users when they write about new journal papers.

Generating discussion

There's another important difference between blogging and conventional journalism and science communication. Writers of conventional media must not leave questions hanging — their stories need a beginning, middle and end. But blogging, being a conversation, means you can ask questions, as my food writer colleague Jay Rayner did recently on the topic of genetically modified foods.

A truly great science blog, also connected to the Guardian, is Bad Science, written by the medical doctor Ben Goldacre. His conversations with his readers often generate ideas for future posts.

Discussions with your readers is an essential hallmark of a good blog. A blog without discussion is like a radio talk show without callers — a lecture in fact. The simplest way to create a discussion is by asking for one — "what do you think of what I have written?" When someone does comment, make sure you reply to them on the blog. After all, you wouldn't ignore someone who spoke to you in person.

Not all comments will be interesting or constructive, and moderating the comments on your blog is a difficult balance. If you are oversensitive in deleting comments, readers will soon learn that you are not really interested in having a debate. On the other hand, if you let anything go, you will soon find your blog infested with trolls — people who post irrelevant and provocative comments to disrupt discussions — and this could bore or intimidate interesting people, driving them away.

Many trolls will back down if you reply personally to them. Their aggression fades when they realise there is a real person behind the screen. But I don't want to exaggerate this issue — getting any comments at all is harder than dealing with bad ones. And remember, the blog is your space. You are free to eject people you object to, just as in your own home.

To finish, I have just one more question: what do you think I've missed out?

Damian Carrington is the environment web editor at the United Kingdom's Guardian newspaper former editor of NewScientist.com and science reporter at BBC News Online.