Perceived Legitimacy of Blogging in Science

25 Jan

Just a Campath paper...

The vast majority of science blogs, especially the more popular, well respected ones, are written by people in academia, or who work for charities, or are writers in some way by profession. And this is great.

And I’m just speculating here, but I think this is because they are mostly free to talk about their work, which is essentially, publicly funded they have few constraints.  Maybe they’d want to hold off on writing about anything too specific they’re working on, especially if they are competing against other groups elsewhere, or something is coming up for publication shortly and might be embargoed by the journal.  But mostly, they don’t have to be too careful about what they say.

It’s an element of freedom I don’t feel I have, and it bothers me.

I work in industry, for a small Contract Research Organisation (CRO) in support of various studies and clinical trials, mostly on biologics: Vaccines, biosimilars (like copies of proteins and hormones already produced by the body) and therapeutic antibodies like Campath.  (Which I can say I worked on, as a tiny cog in a bigger engine, without peril)

Mouse Fibroblasts (Taken with a rubbish set up...)

We’ve had some really interesting projects for treating a whole range of maladies and diseases ranging from drug addiction, alzheimers, cancer and asthma.  But even saying that much makes me nervous.

I stand a real risk of being fired (or worse) if I’m not careful, which is awful when you have this super interesting project you want to tell people about, or a news story is breaking about a similar drug.

But that’s only one side of my problem, the other is that of the perceived legitimacy of what I write.  Generally it doesn’t bother me too much, but were I to come out in favour of something mildly controversial I’d be greatly saddened by calls of “bias” and “he’s in the big pharma pocket, so we can dismiss what he says” (I’m certainly not.).

This only worries me a little, since I hope the (hopefully improving) quality of my writing will speak for itself eventually, and, more cynically, due to the vast readership I have (Hey Chris, Cathy and Laura!) this is unlikely to be a problem for a while.

I don’t want to blog behind a pseudonym, I want to be honest with what I write, and not hide behind a mask.

I admire the freedom, I think, bloggers in more academic environments may have. I may be wrong about this, please let me know what frustrations you get from your institution/situation!

I tweeted @edyong209 (whose blog is here and definitely worth reading: to see if he knew of any other well known bloggers based in industry, and couldn’t think of any of the top of his head. Hardly a thorough survey I know, but I’ve had a look around myself and have failed to find any.

Maybe I just need to “learn to google”…

And I certainly need to keep on writing!


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11 Responses to “Perceived Legitimacy of Blogging in Science”

  1. SmallCasserole January 25, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

    I work for Unilever in R&D which isn’t pharma but the constraints on what I blog certainly apply.

    For work, publishing a paper in the formal external literature involves a lengthy internal approval process into which one does not enter lightly. As a result I tend to blog about science things that are unrelated to my work, although occasionally I touch on areas which are relevant.

    I hadn’t really considered legitimacy before, I suppose I could blog about tooth whitening since this is an area I’ve worked in and published in. I would tend not to do this, in part, because I know people are continually spammed by people selling tooth whitening but even in this instance it would be the writing on work without explicit permission that was the key factor.

    • Gavin January 25, 2011 at 10:33 pm #

      I think, to be honest, it is a bit of a non-issue; this post was more a pondering stream of consciousness.

      I’m not so likely to write about work related stuff, and there’s plenty of interesting, and related stuff around to go on that’s interesting.

      I guess my thoughts were influenced from some research on MMR I’ve been doing lately; people trying to cast doubt on peoples motives based on their funding/employment, irrespective of the science. I’ve noticed the manufacturers were extremely quiet throughout that particular fiasco… Which makes me wonder what role, if any, industry should be playing in science communication?

      Anyhow, cheers for getting in touch; interesting post on deficit reduction too. I shall be having a look through your past posts too.


  2. Chris January 25, 2011 at 10:49 pm #

    I certainly understand the nervousness, been there definitely! Freaked out at a dinner party because I mentioned something that one of our clients had published in a paper (so actually out there in a journal) to someone who also works in the industry. Far too paranoid for my own good.

    I personally don’t think that you need to worry about people questioning your impartiality. Your wide readership understands where you stand and also it comes across quite clearly in your writing that your outspokenness (is that a word?) is you, and you wouldn’t hold back except to keep to any confidentiality agreements.

    Although you say there are no “well known bloggers based in industry” that doesn’t mean that you can’t be the first, and show others who may be worried about the confidentiality of their clients or of their own products and their relationship with big pharma, that you can still blog about science and be as informative, enjoyable and interesting as a certain gavalon. :)

  3. FrauTech February 2, 2011 at 9:11 pm #

    I blog under a pseudonym largely for this reason and worry about blogging about anything remotely close to what I work on for fear of being found out or it being used against me. Still, I enjoy the writing as an outlet despite the risk (I suspect I could be fired merely for having a blog, nevermind what’s in it).

    But then I am an engineer and sometimes that is considered science but often it is not. There are quite a few well known engineers blogging out there who are not academic but most are in business for themselves and the rest pseudonymous.

    • Gavin February 6, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

      I know what you mean, there’s definitely a risk in non-pseudonymous bloging, potential employers checking you out etc, but, like you, I do enjoy the writing.

      Time will tell if this does ever come out to haunt me, but I’m optimistic that all will be well at the moment.

      Edit: I should also add I have nothing but respect for Engineering and tend to look on it as being “Results made good use of”. STEM FTW!

  4. Brian Romans February 5, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    Thanks for this post. I also can’t blog about my day job. It is something I’ve gotten used to over time, but I can relate to your sentiments above.

  5. Marc Pacchioli February 5, 2011 at 6:20 pm #

    You’ve outed me! I’ve actually had the same manufactured guilt plague me as I have just started a blog about agricultural advocacy, you might call it. My day job is involved with agricultural product development and while I don’t have any intentions of blogging about my work I sometimes worry that I might cross the line. Probably not. If I am involved in crop biotech research I’ll just blog the general issue no need to reveal any secrets. There is still plenty of material to wade into without disclosing anything proprietary. Thanks for helping me cleanse…

    • Gavin February 6, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

      I guess it’s the fear of accidentally crossing the line that’s the biggest concern, to look back and have one of those “D’oh!” moments…

  6. Grant February 5, 2011 at 9:53 pm #

    I think this is because they are mostly free to talk about their work

    I know quite a few academics who don’t/won’t blog about things close to their work to avoid being scooped, etc. I suspect most are more likely to write about things that interest them in the their general area of expertise, but not too close to their current work. (?)

    While not in industry in the same sense as most would regard, I work as an independent (senior) computational biologist, basically a consultant.

    I don’t write about what I’ve done for clients unless I have their permission and if I do (for all practical purposes I never see the need to) I’m inclined to err on the side of caution. Never mind any legal implications, there’s not much value in annoying people.


  1. Tweets that mention Perceived Legitimacy of Blogging in Science « VaguelyScience -- - February 2, 2011

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bora Zivkovic, Colin Schultz. Colin Schultz said: Barriers against blogging for industry scientists: by @GavinHub #scio11 [...]

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