Yesterday, ResearchBlogging.org announced the winners of its first annual Research Blogging Awards. The big winner was British journalist Ed Yong’s blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, which took home three awards: Research Blog of the Year, Best Lay-Level Blog, and Blog Post of the Year (if you haven’t seen this post, it is a must-read: Ballistic penises and corkscrew vaginas - the sexual battles of ducks). I talked with Yong shortly after he learned of his awards.
Dave Munger: First of all, congratulations on winning the award for Research Blog of the Year.
Ed Yong: Thank you very much; it’s a real honor. I’m absolutely thrilled—and slightly at a loss for words, which is a bit of a poor state of affairs for someone who writes professionally. The judging panel, and obviously a lot of the other people on Research Blogging, are people who I really respect and whose work I enjoy, so for that to be mutual to some extent is really, really fulfilling.
Munger: Tell me about your blog.
Yong: Not Exactly Rocket Science is about three and a half years old now. It’s my attempt to make science discoveries awe-inspiring and beautiful and interesting to as wide a variety of people as possible. I love science, I love reading about it, I love talking about it, and I really want to spread that enthusiasm to other people who might not have the background and the knowledge necessary to really engage with science through normal media channels or directly for themselves. So, I guess the blog is a bit of a news site, it’s a translation facility, it’s me just dancing up and down and saying “Hey, look, here’s some cool stuff I’ve found.”
It’s been getting more and more readers as time goes by. It took something like 35 months to get its first million hits, and it’s taken about seven months to get its second million hits, so I’m very pleased at the way it’s going, the way people seem to be interacting with it.
Munger: I know you write for the mainstream media as well, so why do you have a blog?
Yong: So, I started NERS partly because I was getting a bit frustrated trying to break into science writing, and not really succeeding. It was very difficult getting pitches accepted, and this is an area where there’s quite a lot of competition. I wasn’t really getting anywhere, and when I was, I was having to scour for quite obscure papers that normal media outlets would not have covered. There were all these stories coming out that I really wanted to get a chance to tell myself, so I thought I would just have a go! I started blogging really to see if I could, and since then, I guess it’s become a bit of a habit. I’ve found that I much more enjoy writing news pieces for my blog than for the mainstream media. I don’t have any word limits or house styles to contend with. I can just write in the way that is most natural to me and I can go a bit further with storytelling than with the traditions of modern news writing would allow. When I write for mainstream publications, it’s mainly features, longer pieces that perhaps cover an entire field of research rather than one specific paper. Really it boils down to the fact that blogging for me is a real labor of love. I do it in my free time, often at very late hours of the evening, and I don’t get paid particularly well for it, so I just do it because I love it.
Munger: You’ve got a full-time job in addition to being a blogger—and you’re one of the most prolific bloggers on ResearchBlogging.org. How do you manage to balance your blog and your work life?
Yong: Everyone asks me this and I never really have a good answer. I’m going to start making stuff up: There are actually two of me. There’s an Ed Yong and a Fred Yong, who does most of my blogging.
Actually, the real answer is, again, that I love it, so blogging can soak up my leisure time quite easily without being an imposition. I think that’s the main thing. If you aren’t getting a rush out of the sheer act of writing and blogging, then of course you’re not going to be able to devote vast amounts of time to it. I’m a bit of an insomniac anyway, so blogging has quite nicely filled up the time when I would normally be failing to get to bed. It’s a bit tricky, and I’ve risked burnout a couple times, but it is really fulfilling to be prolific. At the end of it, I’m motivated by the fact that there are so many cool stories to tell. I really want to tell them—if you look at my desktop right now, it’s absolutely rife with PDFs of articles that I think are interesting, and any one of those I could write up. It’s just a case of finding as much time as possible to do what I can without going a bit mental.
Munger: How do you decide, if you’ve got 10 papers to write up, which one to put in your blog?
Yong: The main criterion, above all else, is how excited it makes me. Because I do this in my spare time, and I do this for me. So, as long as I read something and it interests me, then I trust that I can convey that interest to other people, which is again, why I like doing this for myself rather than as a paid job.
Munger: So what makes you interested and excited? What about a story is compelling to you?
Yong: All sorts of things, really. I cover all areas of science that I at least have a decent understanding of, so pretty much anything biological is up for grabs—neuroscience, psychology, animal behavior, evolutionary biology. What interests me is a bit of a nebulous concept—but anything that widens my eyes, anything that is a bit out of the ordinary, that challenges my conceptions. It could be anything from a cool new fossil to a funky piece of animal behavior, to some piece of psychological research that makes you think about the way you live your life.
Munger: That’s interesting, because I’ve often given people blogging advice, suggesting that what they need to do is specialize and find their own special niche. You seem to have managed to go the opposite route and write about everything that interests you. I’m fascinated at how that manages to work in your case.
Yong: I think it needs to be driven by the individual, so the reason that this works for me is just tied into the way I think. I don’t really have the capacity to narrow my attentional spotlight too far, which is probably why I wasn’t a very good practicing scientist. I like to have broad scopes, I like to look at a wide variety of things, and I love constantly learning about new areas. So, this is why I deliberately like to cover a wide variety of topics on the blog. I think that approach can work for some people. I also think that there aren’t any specific rules as to how broad or how narrow you go in your choice of topics. Really it’s about the quality of the content that you’re offering to people. If you write well, if you tell engaging stories in a fun and interesting way, then people will come, whether those stories fall into nice categories, or whether they cover a range of different topics.
Munger: Have you ever had a post from your blog get picked up by the mainstream media?
Yong: Yes, probably the clearest example of that is a post I wrote about the psychology of suicide bombing. That was picked up by the Guardian for one of their “Comment is Free” sections. That post was pretty much transferred verbatim, with a bit of editing for length, and I was paid some money for it—that was quite nice!
Munger: Have you found that anybody is just taking your ideas but not actually using your writing? You know what I mean, saying, “Oh, Ed wrote up this study, so I’m going to write it up for the Guardian or for some other newspaper.”
Yong: To be honest, I think it’s not really worth getting stressed about that. These papers, these stories, are all public knowledge, they’re all out there, anyone can access them, so if someone wishes to take an article I’ve written about on my blog and cover it themselves, I see that as a “win” for science, really.
But I do have one amusing story: I read a report about a type of fish called a spookfish, which has these amazing eyes, where every single eye has two bits: one that looks upwards, and has a sort of typical vertical lens configuration, and one that points downwards, which uses a mirror to focus objects much like a lens. So I wrote a piece about this. Then a couple weeks later I was reading something on the BBC, where one of their little quote boxes had a quote from one of the researchers, which was exactly the last line of my blog post. It turned out that the University of Bristol press office had basically taken that line from my post and added it to the end of their press release without attribution, and the BBC had taken that and attributed it as a quote of the researcher. That was probably the one and only example I can think of where some bit of my writing has hilariously worked its way up the journalistic chain into a mainstream news story without my say-so.
Munger: So speaking of the difference between bloggers and journalists, you’ve often made a point of saying that the debate about whether bloggers are journalists is over. Yet we still see TV commentators and newspaper columnists dismissing “the bloggers” as some kind of brainless herd. Why do you think this attitude persists?
Yong: Perhaps people don’t read enough. It’s very easy to sit back and not actually take a hard look at either field, really, and examine the similarities and differences between them. It is far easier to assume that there is some sort of straw-man difference and then commentate on that. But actually, if you look at the current media landscape, you see that a lot of journalists are blogging, and a lot of bloggers are getting recognized by mainstream media and getting work there. I see blogging simply as a channel of communication. It’s just another way of talking to people, and there are some very good and some very bad examples of it, just as there are very good and very bad examples of traditional journalism. I am far, far less interested in rehashing what I think is a really counterproductive and staged debate than I am in trying to take both areas into the future. Looking where areas like blogging and journalism overlap, like some of the ones I talked to you about today, is far more helpful than trying to narrow down both fields or trying to find specific boundaries. Both forms of communication are here to stay. Both have massive strengths and weaknesses. It will benefit science and journalism if both could just learn to work together and try to capitalize on each other’s strengths.
Munger: What do you think of actual research scientists doing research blogs of their own, and do you think that can help in terms of improving the status of bloggers?
Yong: I think more direct-to-the-public communication by scientists is a very good idea. The old trope that scientists can’t communicate is very annoying because it’s not true, though it may be true that a lot of scientists need a bit of practice when communicating with the public. The classic issue is one of terminology—very technical language. Scaling that back to a level that the general audience can understand is, I think, far trickier than people who do not have direct experience doing it might think. This is why it’s a good idea for bloggers and scientists to get some experience working with the mainstream media—either by writing pieces, or by giving interviews or things like that, because it does teach you a bit more about tailoring communications to a specific audience.
On the whole, I think the more people who talk about science, the better. I love the internet and the rise of the blogosphere for the fact that it gives anyone with the desire to talk to people the opportunity to do so. That doesn’t mean that everyone will necessarily be very good at it. But it does mean that there are a lot of voices out there and a lot more chances for people to hear about science, often directly rather than through several filters along the way.
Munger: Do you have anything else you’d like to tell me?
Yong: We’ve covered quite a lot of stuff, but—without trying to go all Oscar acceptance speech—I do really want to thank you, everyone else who organized the awards, and everyone who voted. It’s genuinely very, very meaningful, and I have every intention of carrying on the same level of blogging service, if not even better. So thanks very much.
Munger: Well congratulations to you, and thank you for your wonderful blog.
Originally published March 24, 2010