Nature on blogging

The publishers of Nature are already nagging me to renew my subscription. I think I shall; as you must have noticed, it does give me topics to write about.

The current issue contains an article, written by a journalist, about blogging and interactions with other social media for scientific researchers.

I read the article with increasing disbelief. People are encouraged to use social media to advance their careers. (There is a discussion about whether you should tell your tenure committee about your blog.) One scientific blogger had to learn the hard way not to be rude about a colleague’s scientific paper. Another admits that he may be better known as a blogger than as a published scientist.

The article gives eight “tips for successful blogs”:

  • Have something novel to say.
  • If you make a mistake, fix it quickly — and transparently.
  • Be radical on one topic only, otherwise your credibility can be undermined.
  • Beware of the blurt: don’t write things when angry.
  • Set a specific time to blog.
  • Have an established policy for dealing with rude or abusive comments.
  • Register your blog at or
  • To get an idea of what it is like to blog, ask to contribute a guest post to an established blog.

I think I violate all of them.

But there is no doubt that one thing in the article is correct: like it or not, we all have a Web presence now. Anything you put on the Web becomes public, even if you take it down quite soon; this includes your publications, your course web-pages, even your office hours (assuming that you are in my profession). The Web is regularly archived, and it is possible to go back and find these things (though I don’t know how). This probably doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ever put anything on the Web. And once you have accepted that, it is not clear where to draw a line: even scientific papers (even mathematical papers) can be controversial. It is not a big leap from there to posting material explaining your subject; then you are a social networker!

The Nature article adds several more things to this list, mostly outside your control: auto-generated profiles from citation databases, Wikipedia entries, even photos from college. It recommends that you “keep an eye on your online persona” (Google yourself from time to time), and if necessary take action. Come again?

It’s easy for me. I’m an oldie, and can hide behind technical incompetence when it suits me. I have failed in attempts to post material on both Facebook and the arXiv. (That said, one of my colleagues, younger than me and more knoweldgeable about computers, recently spent a whole afternoon trying to submit a paper to a publisher’s on-line system. Among the horrors of this experience was the fact that the web page truncated his abstract without warning.)

The Nature article has a boxed feature about whether you should accept requests from students to be their friend on Facebook (a no-brainer that one, I would have thought); but I don’t need to face that issue, since I never go there. (Can anyone tell me how to cancel my Facebook account?) And what about sites such as LinkedIn?

I don’t tweet. (The current Private Eye has a very nice cartoon; the caption is something like “I consider the census an invasion of my privacy, and I’m going to tweet about it.”) Neill tells me that, working at home, he doesn’t have the option of wandering down to the common room for a chat to his colleagues; Twitter is his common room. (I don’t think it does coffee yet…) Nature recommends following the leaders in your field, to get hot news; not my style, I’m afraid. (When I went to the common room yesterday, one of my colleagues was proposing a category-theoretic approach to financial mathematics. What a great blog topic that would be!)

Blogging, on the other hand, already looks rather charmingly old-fashioned; it only differs from the diaries and notebooks I have kept at various periods in my life in that it is public and you can reply. With luck, we can even have a conversation. On the other hand, you don’t have to reply publicly (you could email me directly); you don’t have to reply at all; you don’t even have to read the stuff. I have said once before that I do it for practice, to improve my own writing.

There’s a further piece of good advice in the article, which is surprisingly often ignored: keep your web pages up to date!

What a ragbag this posting is! Here to finish are my favourite blogs. You can judge how well they obey the eight principles.

  • The best mathematical blog is not a blog at all. This is Paul Glendinning’s series “A view from the Pennines”, which he writes for the IMA glossy Mathematics Today. Paul always has something new to say about some topical result in mathematics, and manages to tie it in to his home in the Pennines. There is an index to the series here.
  • Outside mathematics, Dick Lipton’s blog Gödel’s Lost Letter and P=NP is one of my favourites. (I say “outside mathematics”, but more than half the time it is about mathematics.) Dick is not afraid to look back. Many of his posts begin from great computer scientists or mathematicians.
  • Outside the academy, without doubt my favourite is Diamond Geezer. Anything from the dirty little secrets of the Olympic Games to the lost rivers of London is here. Particularly good on the marketing spam a blogger gets.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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2 Responses to Nature on blogging

  1. Emil says:

    To see webpages in the past, you can use the Internet Archive:

    Enter a URL into the box in the middle of the page, and click “Take me Back”. The URLs are stable, so you can link to them, e.g.

  2. Pingback: Nature on blogging « Peter Cameron's Blog « Blogging Future

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