Editor-in-Chief of Anal. Chem. Dislikes “Bloggers”

October 14th, 2010

It’s only been a couple of days since we talked about the under-use of the Internet by chemists.  Now, Everyday Scientist points our attention to a new editorial in Analytical Chemistry that reinforces my concern.

As I said in the previous post, I worry that poor Web sites are becoming accepted in the academic culture of chemistry because a small but influential subset of scientists views contributing to the Internet largely as a distraction and waste of time.  Professor Murray is an accomplished, respected, and powerful chemist.  His opinion carries a lot of weight in the world of chemistry, and his position as an editor of an ACS journal affords him a bully pulpit.  Here, that is unfortunate.  Professor Murray’s editorial casts science blogging in a very unfair light.  I’m not doing myself any favors by rebuking the editor-in-chief of one of the best ACS journals, but I think his editorial has the potential to be destructive and requires a rebuttal.  Let’s look at what Murray has to say about blogs:    

I believe that the current phenomenon of “bloggers” should be of serious concern to scientists. Bloggers are entrepreneurs who sell “news” (more properly, opinion) to mass media: internet, radio, TV, and to some extent print news. In former days, these individuals would be referred to as “freelance writers”, which they still are; the creation of the modern non-word “blogger” does not change the purveyor. An essential change is that these new freelancers, with the megaphone of the Internet, can reach a much larger audience of potential clients than was possible in the past (and harness free “information sources”). This magnifies, for the lay reader, the dual problems in assessing credibility: a) not having a single stable employer (like a newspaper, which can insist on credentials and/or education background) frees the blogger from the requirement of consistent information reliability, so that b) blogging “agencies” are popping up that openly advertise “no formal search for “qualifications of bloggers” revealed). 

I have a suspicion that his opinion might be colored as much by presumption as it is experience.  Murray’s editorial fails to cite a single specific example of what he considers shabby science blogging.    If I submitted a paper to Anal. Chem. that advanced a controversial theory without describing a single piece of data in support of it, the submission wouldn’t even make it to referees.  While I have no doubt that he could find several examples of poor science blogging aimed at the general public, I think there are plenty of examples of good science blogging (e.g., here, here, and here).
Murray’s definition of the word blogger leads me to believe that he lacks a complete understanding of what blogging is.  Not all bloggers sell news.  I am a blogger, and I sell nothing.  In fact, I pay for the privilege of running this site.  I and most of the bloggers I read are no more freelance writers when they blog than they are freelance orators when they talk to their friends and colleagues.  And while blog posts can be written for news organizations or other third parties, most are not.
On the point of fact-checking, I have made no attempt to hide my identity, and the readers here can scan down my personal site and assess my credentials for themselves.  While it’s true that nobody fact-checks each of my posts, the comment threads on ChemBark allow mistakes to be corrected by the site’s incredibly knowledgable readership.  If one wants to get snippy, it is worth noting that it is not uncommon for Anal. Chem. to publish papers with serious errors.  (That’s why you see additions/corrections/retractions.)  These papers have slipped through the rigorous review process of which Murray speaks so highly.  Yes, there is more stringent review of what enters journals, but this comes with obvious costs.  Blogs can move quickly based on their lack of administrative fat.  And unlike journals, blogs are accessible for free and allow feedback from any and all readers.
Of course, errors in journals are inevitable; I am not going to impugn all of the papers in Anal. Chem. because some of them contain shoddy work.  Similarly, it is unfair for Murray to cast all science blogs in a negative light based on his experiences with a few bad apples.  Just like there are good papers and bad papers, there are good blogs and bad blogs.

Murray’s editorial completely ignores the idea that many blogs serve purposes that traditional media either can’t or won’t.  ChemBark is certainly not a science blog for the general public; it is a provincial blog written specifically for chemists.  And while ChemBark is a chemistry blog with an ostensibly wide scope, the vast majority of posts are not about the nuts and bolts of chemistry.  Yes, the molecules are why most of us love our jobs, but I am not concerned with using this blog to communicate or summarize chemical research.  There’s too much information for me to cover and plenty of other places for readers to get it.

Rather, ChemBark is dedicated to the idea that our community does not spend enough time analyzing the many factors that profoundly impact our ability to conduct research but that don’t involve atoms and molecules.  These subjects include how labs are managed, how we teach chemistry, how students are advised, how funding is allocated, and what our research priorities should be.  I’d like for Murray to come here and tell me where you can find this information in the traditional scientific press.  Obviously, there is a “market” for it, because people actually visit this site.

In Murray’s defense, his general negative perception of blogs might only extend to science blogs aimed at the layperson.  Maybe his intention was not to impugn all science bloggers, just the generalists.  And while I don’t expect him to read this post because he hates blogs so much…

Professor Murray, as a gesture to demonstrate that I harbor no animosity towards you for your editorial, I am going to send you a free pack of ChemBark magnets to encourage you to play nicely with us in the chemical blogosphere.   If your fine journal ever needs someone to write a guest editorial on the many merits of science blogging and chemistry blogs in particular, I can forward you my freelance rates.

42 Responses to “Editor-in-Chief of Anal. Chem. Dislikes “Bloggers””

  1. David Bradley Says:

    I’m afraid Murray’s editorial is exactly the kind of shallow, biased and uninformed article about which he is complaining in such a generalised and stereotyping manner.

  2. Matt Says:

    Thanks for the plug, Paul!
    Another thing I think that Murray really misses is his assumption that blogs are bad for the lay-reader. Like you, Gretchen and I put up our credentials and information where everyone can read them. We can be found through our blog, or, should you want, through our respective places of employment. One of our missions was to try to make science a little more accessible to a lay-audience. Sure, there is some of science that gets covered by national media. But there is so much that falls through the cracks. I would think that Murray would understand the importance of accurately describing science (both the discoveries and the process) to people outside of our profession in a way that the articles in Analytical Chemistry can never do. Actually, that’s a good idea, for my posting next monday, I’ll try to highlight a recent Anal. Chem. article in a way that’s both interesting and accessible. (Who knows when the last time that happened was.)
    btw. one of my favorite bloggers (who happens to write on biology) that does a fantastic job of featuring actual scientific work with really enjoyable prose is Ed Yong whose blog “Not Exactly Rocket Science” is featured on Discovery Magazine’s blogging network.

  3. Antony Williams Says:

    I hope that Professor Murray happens across this blog post that you have written and will take the opportunity to engage you. Unfortunately my own experiences suggest that will be rather unlikely. Instead he “may” choose to respond through Anal. Chem. directly. The very point of the blogosphere is the dialog and exchange that can ensue from a post. Bloggers can be immediately challenged and held accountable. They can be questioned as to their qualifications and skills. There have been some excellent examples of the blogosphere dealing with real science. The NaH controversy from ACS’ peer reviewed journal is a good example (dealt with by TotallySynthetic.com, UsefulChem, many others). Sure, there are examples of drivel out there but in the domain of chemistry there ARE insightful, skilled and sometimes controversial bloggers who are a delight to read and I am thankful they put the work in for our benefit.

  4. Chemjobber Says:

    So who are the “blogging agencies”? Is this some sort of a potshot at ScienceBlogs or something? I’m a little perplexed at who he’s telling to get off of his lawn.

  5. James Says:

    News flash: everything is “caveat emptor” – scientific papers are no exception. It’s not like the human tendency to enjoy proving other people wrong doesn’t operate online – if anything, it does so vigorously, quickly, and often anonymously. “Bloggers” have been pretty effective in mobilizing people to sniff out suspicious papers in the literature like “NaH as an oxidant” and the LaClair fiasco.
    Furthermore, blogs are neither good nor bad – they are merely a tool. For every example of “wild currents of disinformation” stirred up by bloggers, you can find positive examples. Would Murray really object to a passionate amateur – say, a high schooler – starting a blog about chemistry because they were interested in it and wanted to connect with others? The tone seems a little patronizing.

  6. El Selectride Says:

    The blogger, not the editor, quickly exposed the dubious NaH-catalyzed oxidation.

    Esteemed journalists routinely print articles in which simple, factual errors abound (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=easterbrook/100817_tuesday_morning_quarterback&sportCat=nfl, about halfway down the page). Science reporting is, of course, generally awful–see Geoff Coates and his pixie dust.

    His refusal to even accept that “blogger” is a word reeks of arrogance and immaturity. A quick search of the Oxford English Dictionary indicates that blogger is, in fact, a word. OED 1, Royce Murray 0.

    The more information that gets exchanged, the better. The discerning reader will always be able to tell the difference.

  7. Hap Says:

    Chemical blogs wouldn’t exist (or have the weight they do) if chemistry journals, editors, and professors had dealt with their problems openly and honestly – much of the bump in chem blogs’ traffic was kicked up because of the Sames debacle, which still has not been resolved meaningfully. Over and over, serious flaws in the publishing of papers keep coming up, and it doesn’t seem like the flaws that lead to them are being fixed. If you want blogs to stop giving you crap for doing your job for you (and complaining about why they should have to), the least you could do is…do your job.

    The related issues that make blogs popular and useful in chemistry are those that professors and journals don’t want to deal or can’t be bothered to deal with (or, sometimes, don’t really have the purview to deal with – entertainment isn’t really their bailiwick) – the job market, postdoc treatment, work expectations, who is chosen for jobs, etc. All of these things are generally dealt with secretly/out of public view, and the secrecy is generally to the detriment of chemists or students in general. Asymmetric information is a bitch, until it gets broken. If you don’t like the information being revealed, perhaps you should have been more open with it instead of using information like a whip.

    Murray sounds too much like newspapers complaining about Drudge (which I don’t really like either, but…) – if you had done your job and covered news instead of covering what you wanted to cover and ignoring what you didn’t like, no one would be eating your lunch. When bloggers and people with political axes to grind are more reliable sources of information than newspapers and commercial sources of news, well, perhaps that’s not the bloggers’ fault, exactly.

  8. Chemjobber Says:

    Hap, I was all set to write up a substantive comment, but your 2nd paragraph pwned anything I might have said (and it’s certainly the raison d’etre of my blog.) Thanks for that.

  9. CR Says:

    Let’s do something about the abbreviation for Analytical Chemistry (Anal. Chem.); then Prof. Murray can tackle the bloggers…

  10. geophilo Says:

    Nice piece, I invite you to consider submitting to the next edition of Scientia Pro Publica – it would be an interesting counterpoint to the notion that science blogging cannot be “effective”. To me, this post is just as effective to the “general public” as anyone else (general public here being those interested in science).
    Something about the carnival can be seen here: http://traversingtherazor.wordpress.com/2010/10/14/scientia-pro-publica-coming-to-traversing-the-razor-oct-25/


  11. Carmen Says:

    Hear, hear. Though I probably would’ve picked other sciblogs to highlight over Watts up with That…

  12. Quick Links | A Blog Around The Clock Says:

    […] Editor-in-Chief of Anal. Chem. Dislikes “Bloggers” […]

  13. Mitch Says:

    I don’t think he was talking about your blog Paul.

  14. Open letter to Dr. Royce Murray | Cephalove Says:

    […] came upon Dr. Royce Murray’s article “Science Blogs and Caveat Emptor” today (via Chembark via Everday Science). Needless to say, it rubbed me a bit of the wrong way, and before I knew it I […]

  15. bromine Says:

    He doesn’t like bloggers?

    Big whoop.

    Should never bother any of us.

  16. Adam Says:

    The National Academies today honored “Ed Yong and his blog “Not Exactly Rocket Science,” for engaging and jargon-free multimedia storytelling about science in the digital age” with the 2010 Communication Awards as part of the Keck Futures Initiative.

  17. Paul Says:

    @Hap: Big thumbs up.

    @Mitch: I believe Murray was specifically talking about ChemBark! I have reason to believe he comments here under the psuedonym “Wolfie”, but I could be wrong. (Note: WordPress deleted my [joke] [/joke] tags again. Apologies to anyone who was confused. Wolfie is actually a German chemist who may or may not want to murder me.)

    @Carmen and Twitter Folks: I know that a lot of people disagree with (or even hate) Watts’ blog, but you have to admit that the problem of climate change is important and a lot of the content he draws attention to is interesting. So long as you’re dealing with reasonably reasonable people, opposing viewpoints are good for science.

  18. “The current phenomenon of ‘bloggers’ should be of serious concern to scientists” | Terra Sigillata Says:

    […] other bloggers have noted that Professor Murray castigates the entire community of “modern non-word […]

  19. Mike Says:

    his opinion is poorly thought out and misplaced.

    what kind of idiot reads anything and doesn’t use their brain to assess the quality and likely accuracy of the information presented? Taking something to be true or accurate because of the title of the publication it appears in is a mugs game.

  20. PW Says:

    What on earth is watt’s up with that doing on a list of good science blogs?

  21. Aspirin Says:

    Your otherwise sensible post is almost undone by the fact that you highlighted Pharyngula and WUWT as examples of good science blogging. These days Myers’s blog is mainly a rant against religion (with actual science articles being far and few in between) and WUWT is a steaming pile of climate-change denial and cherry-picking. If you really wanted to pick a good climate-change blog written by bonafide climate change scientists, you would have picked Real Climate. I won’t call Watts a “reasonably reasonable” man.

  22. Paul Says:

    OK, everyone, here’s a link to Real Climate.

    As an aside, I only read one science blog for laymen with any regularity, ScienceGeist. That’s probably because: 1) I know the writers and 2) They’re chemists. As for the others, Pharyngula seems fine to me. It’s not exactly my cup of tea, but I can see how some people like it.

    As for WUWT, I look at that dude as an H.C. Brown like figure. Back in the heyday of physical-organic chemistry, there used to be epic arguments about the existence of what have now become known as “nonclassical carbocations.” The two sides were led principally by Saul Winstein (pro) and H.C. Brown (against).

    The debates these guys had at conferences almost came to blows. Each time the non-classical camp presented new data in support of their theory, the classical people would turn around and argue that the results could just as easily be explained with classical ideas of ions in equilibrium. Were the classical people wrong? Yes, but their arguments and the excitement of the debate motivated better experiments, which eventually led to a result that put the nail in the coffin of the classical ideas.

    So, to me, Watts’ blog has value and that’s “good”. Maybe it was not the best blog to pick out as a representative example of “good” blogging for laymen.

  23. Wavefunction Says:

    I am sure you know that Brown “lost” the debate, largely through the pioneering work of George Olah and Martin Saunders. But what was more disappointing was that while this powerhouse of organic chemistry raised a lot of valid points, he was less than honest in the debate. For more details see Jack Roberts’s ACS memoir edited by Jeff Seeman.

    I personally don’t think that a blog is good just because it generates a lot of debate. By that token a few intelligent design blogs would probably qualify (“The immune system simply could not have arisen by chance. Discuss!”)

  24. Paul Says:

    I personally don’t think that a blog is good just because it generates a lot of debate. By that token a few intelligent design blogs would probably qualify (“The immune system simply could not have arisen by chance. Discuss!”)

    Yes, but is that what Watts does? He frequently posts links to studies and data. It’s not like he just says “pro-anthropogenic-global-warming scientists are all liars, discuss!”

    I agree that you have to be very careful/skeptical when people making presentations have strong opinions about a topic, because these people are more likely to ignore and omit data that refute what they believe. I am not a climate scientist, and I admit I don’t have a strong grasp of the “whole story”. I’m not endorsing Watts conclusions, but I do find some of the studies he links to interesting.

  25. Paul Says:

    One last analogy to rankle everyone: I think Bill O’Reilly’s show is one of the best political shows on television. That statement does not equate to a statement that I think he’s right most of the time. Sometimes, I agree with him. Many times, I find his arguments lacking or severely lacking.

    What I like about his show is that he is very good at finding weak points in his opposition’s arguments and forcing the opposition to address them. He will essentially stop his show to get a response, yelling at the person dodging his question rather than moving on with the interview. Contrast this with Larry King, who is notorious for lobbing softball questions and letting people evade tough questions too easily.

    Many of O’Reilly’s lines of questioning are helpful in cutting through the b.s. Yes, you can argue that he regularly contributes his own lines of b.s., but this goes back to the points people have made about Murray’s editorial that you should always be skeptical of what anyone has to say, whether in a blog or a refereed paper. You learn to identify common lines of O’Reilly’s crap and filter them out.

  26. Wavefunction Says:

    I think you raise a good point about O’Reilly. As far as I am concerned most of King’s interviews have zero information content while O’Reilly can be provocative. However, it’s also worth noting that nowadays O’Reilly appears as a bonafide moderate compared to Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity etc. I doubt you would say the same thing about these guys.

    But as far as Watts is concerned, I should say that just because someone links to potentially interesting and valid studies 20% of the time does not make the time needed to wade through the other dishonest 80% worth it. I would say a similar thing about Myers’s blog. 20% of his posts are about interesting science, but who has the patience and inclination to plow through the other 80% of religious diatribes needed to uncover these gems (again, this is only in the context of Pharyngula as a “science” blog). I think there is a tipping point somewhere when the signal to noise ratio just becomes too low.

  27. Paul Says:

    Agreed. While I don’t want to defend the practice, I wonder how much of the 80/20 ratio is based on a feeling that they “need” to post frequently to maintain their large audiences. Both of those sites are extremely popular for science blogs.

    I would love to be able to post twice a day instead of once every five days, but the extra posts would probably end up being fluff. Basically, if you have one decent post every five days in you, is it better to fill in the rest with garbage in hopes of retaining a devoted audience to promote discussion, or is it better to remain silent for two day intervals such that you don’t water down your content?

  28. Wavefunction Says:

    -Is it better to fill in the rest with garbage in hopes of retaining a devoted audience to promote discussion, or is it better to remain silent for two day intervals such that you don’t water down your content?

    I have always picked the latter option and I think so have you. I think it’s much better to get ten devoted readers who contribute to discussion on a substantial topic than a hundred who simple read fluff and move on. It’s a waste of both our and their time in my opinion. But it seems that the burden of fame can be great and there are many who capitulate. There are relatively very few (Derek Lowe comes to mind) who can sustain both quantity and quality.

  29. luysii Says:

    Well, thanks to Paul I’ve been blogging for a few years, and several serious types read it and feel free to comment and criticize. Moreover Clayden and his students read the posts I generate as I go through his book and find errors, raise questions and generally comment on the book (personal communication by the man himself).

    For several examples of just how wrong pronouncements in the literature by eminent authorities see the current post.

    The peer-reviewed medical literature, which I had to read for years, is even worse. For a few horrible details see http://luysii.wordpress.com/2009/10/05/low-socioeconomic-status-in-the-first-5-years-of-life-doubles-your-chance-of-coronary-artery-disease-at-50-even-if-you-became-a-doc-or-why-i-hated-reading-the-medical-literature-when-i-had-to/

  30. Quick Links | A Blog Around The Clock Says:

    […] and Science blogs and Caveat Emptor. A comment on an Analytical Chemistry editorial and Editor-in-Chief of Anal. Chem. Dislikes “Bloggers” and Open letter to Dr. Royce Murray and caveat grumptor and Caveat Emptor When It Comes To Science […]

  31. 500 « Química de Produtos Naturais Says:

    […] direcionadas ou simplesmente não ter veracidade alguma. Veja aqui, por exemplo. Mas também aqui e aqui os questionamentos destes […]

  32. Royce Murray and the problem of science bloggers | Take As Directed Says:

    […] other bloggers have noted that Professor Murray castigates the entire community of “modern non-word […]

  33. wolfie Says:

    it is all only projection, Paul

    says HAL

  34. ChemBark » Blog Archive » The Heavy Reliance of Chemical Academia on Opinion Says:

    […] ChemBark A Boring Blog About Chemistry « Editor-in-Chief of Anal. Chem. Dislikes “Bloggers” […]

  35. I’m feeling scattered. Where’s my insulin? | ScienceGeist Says:

    […] post came from two entirely different types of chemistry blogs. The first is ChemBark. Paul’s recent post on Royce Murray’s aversion to bloggers convinced me that I needed to highlight some research […]

  36. Science scholars, science blogging and boundary work « Boundary Vision Says:

    […] have a stable employer who monitors qualifications and facilitates fact checking. Several others have commented thoughtfully on the misconceptions represented in the editorial, also noting that the […]

  37. Great Molecular Crapshoot Says:

    That editorial stunk. Of Fear!

  38. wolfie Says:

    Once in my life, when I was approximatly 12 years old, I had to to give a talk on

    “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”

    My mother was in error when she

  39. wolfie Says:

    sorry, I am stuttering

  40. Vale a pena ler blogs de e sobre ciência? « Química de Produtos Naturais Says:

    […] de se esperar, Murray foi bastante questionado, principalmente em blogs (veja-se, por exemplo, aqui). Infelizmente Murray faz uso do argumento de autoridade, ainda que de forma parcialmente […]

  41. Sergey Says:

    […] de se esperar, Murray foi bastante questionado, principalmente em blogs (veja-se, por exemplo, aqui). Infelizmente Murray faz uso do argumento de autoridade, ainda que de forma parcialmente […]

  42. Professor Baran Enters the Blogosphere | ChemBark Says:

    […] can do nothing but lend legitimacy to an activity that has been robustly and repeatedly poo-pooed by the respected Old School of our […]

Leave a Reply