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Blog posts

The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

Do Open Networks Threaten Brands? (Pt. 1)

John Rennie

Inspired by David Crotty's post at the Scholarly Kitchen, the indomitable blogfather Bora Z. tweets: For the most part, I agree with the individual points and criticisms that David raises. Whether I agree with his bottom-line conclusion that open networks are incompatible with established brands, and maybe most especially with brands built on scientific credibility, depends on the purity of one’s definition of open.

Unquestionably, leaving a troop of bloggers to their own scruples while publishing under your banner is fraught with risk, but as problems go, it’s neither unprecedented nor unmanageable in publishing. In fact, I’d say the open blogging network problem is really just a special case of the larger challenge of joining with fast-paced, out-linking (and poorly paying) online publishing culture. Some of the best prescriptions seem to be what David is suggesting or implying, so perhaps any disagreement I have with him is really over definitions rather than views.

David is on the nose about some of the headaches that unsupervised bloggers can pose to publishing brands. He mentions, for example, a post by neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields, blogging for Scientific American, that too credulously covered a supposed link between bedsprings and cancer. I’ll mention another: psychology blogger Jesse Bering intemperately responded to another blogger who took offense at a column he wrote. (Don’t bother looking for that response now, though, because I believe SciAm has removed it, and Bering may have subsequently apologized for it. [fix added later; see comments.]) Also, though there may not be much about Virginia Heffernan’s notorious article for the New York Times about Scienceblogs to agree with, it’s valid to suggest that the impression some of the more fiery posts make on visitors may not be what Seed Media had originally intended. (Whether that’s actually a problem for Seed Media is for it to say.)

Do those problems undermine the rationale for publishers to back open blogging networks? Let’s face it: even for highly credible, careful publishers, errors of fact and judgment occasionally find their way into print. The reputation of a publishing brand depends not just on how few of those mistakes it makes but on how it handles those that do. Hence, errata and correction pages. With the rise of breakneck publishing on the 24/7 web, lots of publishers have had to accept that some of the meticulous approaches to writing, editing and fact-checking that they used in the past are too slow, and that the advantages of saying something fast often outweigh those of more measured alternatives.

What makes this scary system manageable is a combination of technology and the online culture. Mistakes and controversies that go up online can be flagged and debated in comments, and fixed or deleted as judged appropriate. And experienced online audiences recognize that such discussion and changes occur and may accept them without necessarily losing their respect for the associated brand.

Rambunctious columnists and knowing how to handle them isn’t a new challenge. Editors in print and elsewhere have always sweated over how much to intrude on what columnists write. A reason that you hire a columnist is not just that he or she is good that he or she is reliably good with a minimum of supervision. As an editor, you realize that your columnists may sometimes take positions that the publication as a whole wouldn’t stand beside; you also realize that some of your audience will hold the publication responsible anyway. How and when you step in is part of what defines your editorial identity, but it also reflects how well you trust your audience to recognize and value the diversity of views you are presenting.

Scienceblogs isn’t an anarchically pure open network. It invited certain science bloggers, then let them go with essentially no supervision thereafter. In effect, it did its quality control in advance by choosing whom to invite. Discover does this much more selectively with its far smaller stable of first-rate bloggers, to excellent effect.

Some science publishing brands may only be served by closed networks of staff bloggers, whose every word is parsed and fact-checked by other editors before it goes online. On the face of it, though, such a scheme sounds like it would lack the necessary nimbleness to thrive.

The better middle ground, which I expect we’ll continue to see more of, are essentially open networks in which publishers choose bloggers who seem to embrace a common, compatible ethos or perspective. That’s what the newly formed Scientopia.org, for example, seems to have done, while preserving a good diversity of interests and perspectives.

So I don’t think that networks of bloggers are truly problematic for established commercial brands for any of these reasons. The real challenges lie elsewhere—and I’ll get to those in a separate post.