After reading this piece on Chembark, I find that I have to help defend the whole chem-blogging enterprise. The latest Analytical Chemistry has an editorial from Royce Murray, on the subject. Unfortunately, it sounds like something written several years ago. He lays out the current model of scientific publishing, and along the way, briefly defends journal impact factors. Then he says that the lay public has traditionally received news of scientific discoveries through reports in magazines and newspapers, but that the finances in those areas has produced a "shrinkage" of the flow of reliable information to the public. And now we come to the part that really worries him:
In the above light, 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”). . .blogging “agencies” are popping up that openly advertise “no formal qualifications are necessary” (as an internet search for “qualifications of bloggers” revealed). Who are the fact-checkers now? There are no reviewers in a formal sense, and writing can be done for any purpose—political, religious, business, etc.—without the constraint of truth.
He goes on to bemoan the lack of a system to qualify and fact-check these "bloggers" - I like the quotation marks, by the way - maybe we should stick those around every word that entered the language less than ten years ago, just to be sure. Now, it would be easy for me to spend a few paragraphs in the same mode as that last sentence, and as Murray accurately notes, there's no editor to stop me. But I won't, because some of his worries are well-founded.
There is indeed a lot of inaccurate nonsense on the internet. And everyone should read what they find online with a thought to who's written it, and why. But everyone should do the same with stuff that's printed on flattened sheets of dead trees, too, even if there are flattened-dead-tree-sheet editors and fact checkers. This is no place to list the stories that have been horribly messed up by even the most respectable of the old media. I'm thinking of a good list right now; any well-informed person should be able to. (If you can't, you're not as well-informed as you think you are). And there is indeed a lot of good science reporting in newspapers and magazines, although we can't ignore the fact that there's an awful lot of lazy and sloppy science reporting, too.
But there's a lot of inaccurate nonsense in the peer-reviewed literature, too. Without editors and reviewers there would surely be more, but too much junk gets through as it is. And if you want to see that stuff flagged, you'll do well to read the chemistry blogs. Murray's editorial doesn't seem to note that the most widely read ones are all written by chemists, not these unqualified people he's worried about. Would it be a cheap shot to point out that some editing and fact-checking might have caught that point before the editorial went out? Or (the other way around) to point out that a quick look through the scientific blogging world would have done just as well?
This, to me, is the real change that blogging has wrought, and I think it's for the better. Now, anyone who has the desire and ability can write about what they really know, about what they do for a living, and find an audience. I am most definitely not making a living as a journalist. My blog is a useful sideline to my real job, which is drug discovery. When I started in this industry, there was no way for me to self-publish my thoughts about it, but now there is, and I couldn't be happier about that.
Murray is suffering, I think, from a mental block, one that comes from his experience of journalism over his lifetime. He (and many other people) seem to feel that reporting is some sort of special profession, and that "real" journalists are the ones who write for the "real" news outlets. And it's a world where everyone knows which ones those are. It was fairly easy to believe that during the last half of the 20th century, but not so easy before it. (Or, as we're seeing, afterwards). All kinds of scruffy, opinionated people used to run newspapers in this country, and now they have internet sites. As do scientists, professors, lawyers, and anyone else with a keyboard and the desire. They're writing "for any purpose", just the way that Murray is worried about. And it's great.
A couple of postscripts: I should point out that I never would have seen Murray's piece at all had it not been for reading the scientific blogs - I hope that gives him some food for thought. He should also check out the above-linked Chembark post, as well as this response from Terra Sigillata (on an ACS site, no less), this one at InSightU, this one at Science 2.0, and this one at Cephalove. There will surely be more. Quite a lot of discussion! And it would be worth wondering how much of an impact this editorial would have had if it had only appeared in the print version of the journal, instead of being picked up by the Blogging Hordes. Could it be that he knows much more about the internet than he seems to, and he's successfully trolled us all?