How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

When a Blog Dies

The ecologist Terry McGlynn announces he will no longer regularly update his blog Small Pond Science, which he started six years ago.

I’m frustrated. And not just because

  • McGlynn writes well;
  • In particular, he bracingly takes on the issues of mentorship, sexual harassment and discrimination against women and minorities in academia — and the responsibilities men in power have to lead on these issues; and
  • He gave great Friday link roundups (they continue, apparently).

I’m frustrated because McGlynn seems not to have clear metrics for assessing the impact of his communications activities.

And because McGlynn’s confusion is widely shared by scientists and researchers.

This is not a criticism of McGlynn or those other scientists and researchers.

On the contrary: I’m calling out science communications. Science communications has failed them.

It has failed to provide baseline metrics and pathways of success to its clients — individual researchers as well as research-driven organizations.

It’s actually an incredible, systemic failure that very few people in science or science communications talk about. Science communications has whiffed on the most basic task it has, despite the institutionalization of science communication as a discipline and a professional practice.

Here are the reasons McGlynn gives for curtailing his blog:

  • Readership growth has leveled off (he later says he thinks it would grow if he wrote every day, but he can’t imagine doing that);
  • He’s been doing it for six years, and five years is the typical lifespan of an academic blog;
  • As a full professor now, he’s stretched thin by service duties;
  • Twitter allows him to reach “far, far, far more people” than the blog and allowed him to become what he terms “a public scientist”;
  • He wants to reach bigger audiences and create bigger discussions, not continue speaking to an “audience of the converted,” which is what his blog audiences is;
  • So when he writes to reach those bigger audiences, he’ll do it for bigger media outlets now.

These all seem reasonable at first glance. Here’s what I don’t hear him talking about:

  • What other readership growth tactics he’s tried, and which have worked and which haven’t;
  • How dependent his success on Twitter has been on what he’s been writing for the blog — and whether he needs to keep blogging to keep pushing that success forward;
  • Whether he’s reached out to other academic bloggers like Tyler Cowen or Brad DeLong, who have been blogging much longer than five years;
  • Whether he thinks about the paywalls of elite media outlets and how inhibiting they might be to the real reach of his writing; and
  • What his ultimate goals might be.

Do I think McGlynn is making a smart choice? Yes, in terms of writing more for elite outlets. The blog has prepared him to write for bigger platforms; it’s done its job in that regard.

But if I were advising him, I’d want to discuss with him a) hard metrics for the value (including search) of what he’s done and what he’s doing; b) clear pathways for growing his impact and audiences going forward; and c) a plan for how all these seemingly separate activities should fit together and potentiate each other.

Basically, he’s just going by feel. Because science communications hasn’t matured enough to give him the tools and guidelines he needs to make fully informed choices.

I can see a day where he shuts the blog for good, not understanding the value the content will continue to bring him. I’ve seen that happen before.

That’s depressing. But that’s science communications these days. A failure, in need of growing up.