Herdegen Fellow, 2011–2012
Michelle Francl is a professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College.
In October 2010 Royce Murray, the editor-in-chief of the journal Analytical Chemistry, set off a virtual firestorm with an editorial suggesting that science blogging threatens the integrity of scientific communication (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/ac102628p). The response by science bloggers was fast and furious; a dozen posts appeared within a day, several hundred over the next few weeks. Nearly all were written by scientists, not the unqualified freelancers that (perhaps rightly) alarmed Murray.
While many of Murray’s concerns about science blogging appear misplaced—scientists and bloggers are not mutually exclusive groupings—the questions his editorial raises about where science is being reported and discussed are critical ones. Are peer-reviewed journals the only source of information on the scholarly work of science that research chemists should consult? Or is there a role for blogs, written by and for scientists, in the scholarly work of chemistry? If so, what is that role? Do the blogs fill a previously empty rhetorical niche, or are they simply a new instantiation of conversations that have been ongoing in other venues?
Striking parallels exist between the exchanges on scholarly matters on blogs and those featured in chemistry journals from the late 19th century, such as Sir William Crookes’s Chemical News. The exchanges in Chemical News featured comments submitted under pseudonyms, use of informal shorthand, and stronger and more emotional language than is evident in the journal articles themselves. All of these are rhetorical strategies familiar to readers of blogs on nearly any subject.
Francl will be using the Othmer Library’s collection of journals from the late 19th century to follow lines of conversation prompted by primary research articles, through the exchange of comments, and (if applicable) subsequent primary publications over the period from 1885 to 1895. Simultaneously, she will be tracking science blogs on the primary research literature. Who are the correspondents in each of these forums and how do they choose to identify themselves? How and when do journal editors (or blog authors) enter into the conversation? Francl will be using quantitative tools to assess the emotional tone of these conversations relative to the tone of the primary research literature.
Ultimately, she hopes this work will shed some light on the question of whether the critical commentary on blogs written by and for scientists should be considered part of the mainstream conversation of science.
Michelle Francl blogs on science at Culture of Chemistry (http://cultureofchemistry.fieldofscience.com/).
Recent essays include:
“Urban Legends of Chemistry.” Nature Chemistry 2 (2010), 600–601.
“Selling Science.” Nature Chemistry 2 (2010), 999–1000.
“Neolexia.”Nature Chemistry 3 (2011), 417–418.
“Sex and the Citadel of Science.” Nature Chemistry 3 (2011), 670–673.