In a few weeks, I will be at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, teaching a workshop on science communication and public engagement.  In preparation for that course, I put together a brief backgrounder for those interested in starting a blog or in contributing to their institution’s blog.

One of the challenges in getting started is to identify what topics to blog about and how to “package” that information.  Just like science journalists often turn out readily recognizable types of articles (i.e. the new study, the backgrounder, the profile, or news analysis), science bloggers have also developed their own conventions for identifying topics and organizing their posts.

These commonly appearing formats and conventions economize your effort and time, allow you to make your posting more predictable and routine, provide a structure for your writing, and fit with reader expectations. Below I highlight commonly appearing “categories” of science blog posts.  For each type, I provide links to several examples.  Notice that the most effective bloggers keep language simple, usually focus on one major point or take away conclusion, write conversationally, and keep posts in the 200-600 word range.

1. Background on study you have published / other study appearing in your field. One of the most common posts is to talk about the relevance of one of your own recent studies or papers.  Alternatively, you might want to describe for readers  a new study in your field or a related area of research.  In these posts, you will want to link directly to the study discussed and include a citation.  When possible, open-access articles work really well for these types of posts since readers don’t need to be at a university or research organization to access them.  Similarly, it helps to be able to link to a very strong news release on the study.

Examples

  • The best archive of examples of scientists discussing their own studies or papers they consider of interest can be found at the site Research Blogging.
  • Special Issue Examines Science Communication in Science Controversies (Big Think.com)
  • Pew: Few Americans Fear the Loss of their Local Newspaper (Big Think.com)
  • Why Youth Are Less Civically Involved and Active on the Environment (Big Think.com)

2. Conference discussions or “lab talk” with colleagues. Science blogs allow readers to “eavesdrop” in on the thinking and conversations among scientists at conferences or in the laboratory.  Of course, you should be careful about disclosing sensitive information and respect embargo policies on forthcoming research.  Mindful of these restrictions, the types of conversations about research you have every day in the lab or encounter at conferences are of strong interest to readers.

Examples:

  • The Three Cultures Solution? Is Comedy the Gateway to Youth Engagement (Big Think.com)
  • A biomedical scientist reflects on his discussions with Chinese scientists and students during a trip to Beijing for a conference on drug metabolism (Think Science Now)

3. Q&A Style Post with Colleague, Collaborator or Interesting Leader in Science or Related Field. As a scientist you work with and know many experts and interesting people who can share insights with others.  Compiling and sending them a short list of relevant questions is a good way to put together a quick, easy yet highly informative post for readers. If you want to innovative, you can invite the colleague to be interviewed by way of Google Hangout and then embed the video by way of YouTube in your post.

Examples:

4. Explainer: Commonly asked questions about your research. As a scientist, you are probably asked all the time by your parents, spouses, friends, and children to explain basic terms or concepts in your specific field or in science more generally.  These questions might be prompted by news attention or simply something that a friend or child heard at school or in conversation.  These types of questions make for great “explainer” posts.

Examples:

5. Explainer: Recent news article or broadcast story. You might have heard NPR report on a new scientific finding, read an interesting article at the NY Times or Washington Post, or encountered an article at a popular science magazine.  Alternatively, you might have noticed that a particular area of research or policy debate is gaining attention across news outlets.  You may find this reporting particularly strong or you might find elements that require greater background or explaining.  These instances make for great blog posts since the public is also encountering this coverage with many turning to the Internet to search out more information.

Examples

  • As Americans Ration Gas, a Study on How Americans View the Risks of Gas Price Volatility and Scarcity (Big Think.com)

6. Explainer: The science behind a recent movie or TV series. One of the major ways that wider audiences are exposed to science-related topics (and to scientists) is through popular fiction presentations in movies, TV series, or novels.  Recognizing this tendency, the National Academies has launched a Hollywood initiative and a blog called the Science and Entertainment Exchange.  Your posts might take the questions prompted about an area of science in a film and provide further background.  Or, your posts might seek to correct major inaccuracies depicted in the film.  At other times, you might want to comment on the portrayal of scientists: Does the movie rely on stereotypes or is the film especially good at depicting scientists as “real people”?

Examples:

7. Reaction to blogger, a comment from a reader, or an email sent from a reader. Always remember that a blog is a two-way medium and is about starting a conversation and discussion with others.  Similar to how you might reflect on a news story, you can also post reactions to other bloggers.  Or you can use a comment or email from a reader as a follow-up post responding to the reader or elaborating on the topic.