From my perspective, nature writing and science writing can bleed into one-another. In my last post, when I talked a little about the rise and fall of my blogging, I didn’t talk much about the different types of blog posts. In my experience, there are two types of posts – those where “publication date” matters and those where vintage doesn’t really matter too much.
In a general sense, time sensitive science writing tends to focus on the latest discoveries, or failing that, the latest issue of one journal or another. This sort of stuff can be fun to write about – exciting new finds, or just stuff that’s cool because of its newness. But you can also do the same sort of writing on something dredged out of the older literature. The value of immediacy can be tempered by the fact that it’s impossible to assess impact within a few days of publication. If you’re writing for the general public, it can also be difficult to balance the need to explain the background with the need to tell the current story. Too much background and the ‘story’ gets lost. Too little, and the reader gets lost.
The other type of writing is more about narrative. You can write about basic concepts. Lots of background for the general reader, plenty of opportunity to actually convey some real information…but apart from questions of tone (who’s really my audience?) there’s the problem of trying to stay on track. At some point you either have to assume a certain amount of background knowledge…or you’ll end up writing Wikipedia, all over again.
Back in the dark ages (2007) Dave Munger and Sister Edith Bogue launched BPR3 (Bloggers for Peer-Reviewed Research Reporting; sadly the original website is lost to link-rot) which later grew into researchblogging.org (which is still chugging along, by the look of things). More recently, Dave launched ScienceSeeker, which seems to have similar, but more all-encompassing goals. I loved the idea of clearly marking (and aggregating) posts about peer-reviewed research, but it doesn’t deal with the problem of recentism. Writing at BioDiverse Perspectives, Fletcher Halliday took a look at what gets blogged about when it comes to papers about biodiversity. Unsurprisingly, it’s not the classic papers, it’s not the papers that have attracted hundreds of citations. Rather, it’s the new stuff. Scientists like writing about what’s new and novel. And why plumb the depths of decades-old literature when there’s more new stuff coming out than anyone can keep track of?