Earlier this week, the world of science writing was turned on its head by the launch of a new blog network from Scientific American, melding SciAm’s impressive staff with some rising stars of science writing. The establishment of this network doesn’t re-write the rules of science journalism or re-invent the concept of blog networks, but it does further cement the trends I wrote about nearly a year ago. And while it probably won’t put to rest the debate about whether bloggers are “journalists,” it should put to rest any question of whether we — as readers — are not far, far better off.
But there are a couple of notable elements of the scienceblogging communities that seem unique. The first is the expansiveness and comprehensiveness of the networks. There are certainly excellent science writers who are not now part of one of these networks (you can see a visualization of the ecosystem here), but those scribes are in the minority among top-tier sciencebloggers. The second is that this phenomenon seems contained to the scientific community, and largely a community of academic scientists (and those that are fascinated by their work).
That second element provides food for thought: why aren’t other areas of inquiry similarly networked? While academic science is well represented, health and medicine (where most of my attention is directed) make up a smaller portion of that networked world. And while there are large networks of blogging docs (Better Health springs to mind) and some nascent but high-upside efforts (such as the increasingly interesting stable of Forbes health bloggers) none yet have the depth or consistency of, say, the SciAm Network or the smaller Wired or Discover networks, where individual blogs share a common look, community and back-end support.
This is unfortunate, since there remains a need for great, specialized health writers. Or, put more precisely: a way to collect and promote some of our existing great, specialized health writers. In some disease areas — diabetes springs to mind — those communities have emerged, but in many others, it’s hard to identify the go-to blogger. To be sure, there are obstacles to this kind of cohesive enterprise. It’s been suggested that meshing together docs, patients, industry, consumer health doesn’t exactly create a lot of overlap. While someone who is curious enough to read Carl Zimmer on arsenic life is probably a tempted by an Ed Yong post on dinosaurs, a reader looking for sunscreen advice won’t automatically appreciate an In Vivo Blog take on health.
Still, these feel like solvable problems, and a strong network of medical blogs, perhaps even one anchored by a publication of some heft could lead to a fundamental change in the way that medical information is consumed, just as science journalism will never be the same.
It’s not clear to me how we get to that place. The scienceblogging community has a great origin story (with ScienceBlogs), and capturing that kind of lightning in a bottle again can’t be easy. But it doesn’t keep me from dreaming of the day when there will be a Cadillac-caliber network that knits together the finest writers in health today, from Jody Schoger to Sally Church to Kerri Sparling to Dr. V.
The big question: what will it take to get us there?