Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

The Science Blogger’s Dilemma: To Comment or Not to Comment?

Social media and comments sections on blogs are increasingly part of the science news diet, and they may even change they way we interpret the facts. Is this a problem?

by Jessie McDonald

Social media and comments sections on blogs are increasingly part of the science news diet. Is it a problem?

Social media and comments sections on blogs are increasingly part of the science news diet. Is it a problem? (Image credit: Ward Jenkins)

The New Year always encourages self-reflection, so while Figure One is just getting its start, I thought I’d begin by blogging about blogging.

A recent perspective in Science discusses the unique challenges facing science journalism in the interactive world of web 2.0. The authors, Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, are both professors of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They raise several concerns, but the one that caught my particular attention was the finding that negatively toned, or uncivil, comments can change how people interpret an otherwise balanced news story about nanotechnology.

Brossard and Scheufele conclude, “We risk creating a future where the dynamics of online communication systems have a stronger impact on public views about science than the specific research that we as scientists are trying to communicate.”

Yikes for science journalists, too. If one were to take this evidence at face value, it would seem that a fledgling blog like our own should pause and reconsider its own existence—or at least consider removing the comments section. But one reason this blog is hosted by WordPress is because we all thought having a comments section was important.

Free discourse and exchange of ideas and opinions has always been a boon to both science and journalism, and it seems antithetical to our purpose to eliminate this mode of communication. For every silly or negative comment on a news site or blog, there are usually several that are thought provoking or provide a different perspective that can be quite valuable.

One way of mitigating the problem is to moderate comments, and cull the offending ones from the web. (Scheufele seems to favor this approach, as his own blog allows comments to post only after approval.) But policing all comments in many outlets is simply not feasible.

Tackling the problem from the other end—i.e., teaching readers to know when to read comments or not, and to always approach them with a healthy dose of skepticism —is perhaps even more difficult, but worth the effort. In an era where even basic knowledge is becoming less of a necessity because it’s always a mouse click or finger swipe away, knowing how to evaluate the quality of online information is arguably the most important skill a person can acquire. This type of thinking applies to any online reading, not just to science stories, and therefore can and should be practiced in every classroom, regardless of the subject.

I’m not so naïve as to think a revised curriculum will solve all of these problems, but I suspect that as society adapts to the social web, uncivil comments will lose some of their potency. A more savvy readership will be more immune to these effects, and just like a real vaccine, that will lead to fewer ridiculous comments to influence those who may have less well-developed skills of discrimination.

Until then, why not kick 2013 off yourself, and add one more meta layer to this post. I’d love to see some comments.



5 comments on “The Science Blogger’s Dilemma: To Comment or Not to Comment?

  1. Griselda Catania (@gzuccat)
    January 17, 2013

    As a reader that generally just ignores reading the comment sections of online newspaper articles (although I do enjoy the comments on science blogs that I read – probably because there’s a more narrow audience), I wonder how many people actually weigh what commenters say more than what the article says. I know a lot of people get really angry over what people have commented, which is the main reason I tend to just avoid reading them in the first place.

  2. Bruce Lewenstein
    January 18, 2013

    An Israeli colleague of mine, Ayelet Baram-Tsabari, studied the “talkbacks” (comments section) of a series of articles involving animal experimentation. She and her student found that commenters introduced a whole series of topics not covered by the original article. Thus the original article provides an occasion for general discussion of the issue. (Full disclosure: I’m a co-author on the paper, but mainly because I helped put the final report together.) Citation and abstract are:

    Laslo, E., A. Baram-Tsabari, and B. Lewenstein (2011). “A growth medium for the message: Online science journalism affordances for exploring public discourse of science and ethics.” Journalism 12(7): 847-870. ABSTRACT: Little attention has been paid to how new media foster public discussion of science related issues. In this exploratory study, we examine discussions generated by articles on the most popular daily news website in Israel. All articles dealt with research studies that involved animal experimentation, a topic often linked to deep ethical conflicts. Based on analysis of 10 articles and more than 600 reader comments, we found that topics in both science and ethics are initiated both by the original article and in the linked discussion threads. The most fruitful topics (measured by number of comments) were initiated in the discussion threads, not in the articles themselves. We suggest that discourse in new media can be understood by thinking of the audience as a ‘growth medium’ in which seeds planted by individual stories can grow (through the affordances of new media) into both knowledge of the sort imagined by the story writers and new branches nurtured by the community itself.

  3. Michelle Kline
    January 18, 2013

    Another option is to only allow comments that are linked to a verifiable identity, such as a verified twitter account, or a facebook account. Even if commenters create false accounts, or if bloggers decide to allow anonymous comments, encouraging the use of real identitites will give comment-readers (and bloggers) some standard by which to detect the reliability of other’s comments.

    Of course there are interesting comments posted by people who wish to remain anonymous, for honorable purposes (such as fearing lashback from authority figures who seem to be stomping on equality, for example). So we may not want to eliminate anonymity entirely. But using reali identities does seem to work to moderate commentary in real life, where we have to say things in person or go unheard. Why not do the same on a blog?

  4. samuel
    January 19, 2013

    I’ve often wondered why I don’t get more comments for my blog. I put it down to a combination of my writing style and the subject being mainly one people dip into when they have a particular need to find something, rather than as something they might have in their RSS feed. Somehow, after reading this, I am a bit less worried all round 🙂

  5. Pingback: Study shows uncivil commenters on blogs polarize discussions, make more moderate people less likely to participate

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This entry was posted on January 15, 2013 by in Science Journalism and tagged , , .
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