It came from the blog

Is blogging an innocuous pastime? Or could it help, or even harm, your career? Hayley Birch investigates


© Shutterstock

Chemistry bloggers are at the centre of increasingly influential online communities, helping researchers to connect and interact, and giving the rest of the world a glimpse of life as a chemist. From speculating about Nobel prize winners to uncovering scientific misconduct, readers come to be entertained as well as for expert, in-depth analysis. But what does blogging do for the blogger? Can blogging be beneficial for your career? Or could it damage your employment prospects? Could it even become a career in its own right? Chemistry World asks some academic and industry bloggers.

Derek Lowe – In the pipeline

Considered by some to be the original chemistry blogger, Derek Lowe has combined blogging with a career in the pharma industry since 2002 – when ‘mastodons roamed the Earth’. Before he started In the pipeline, he was already an experienced researcher, with five years at Bayer and eight years at Schering Plough under his belt. But he felt he had skills he wasn’t using in his day job. Having read some early blogs, Lowe thought ‘I could do that’ and started writing what he knew: drug discovery.

Derek Lowe

Derek Lowe: blogging since ‘mastodons roamed the Earth’ © Tanaz Hashemi

Now with Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Lowe regularly receives calls from people who think he’s a full-time journalist. The blog is much as it ever was – flitting between pure chemistry, biology, patents and scientific publishing – and Lowe does much of his writing during the 40 minutes he spends on the train each day. But he has no intention of giving up the job he enjoys. ‘I would probably end up eating weeds out of my back yard to stay alive,’ he jokes.

That said, he is well aware of the positive effect the blog has had on his career. When he last changed companies, he was upfront about his blog and put the link on his CV. ‘People could go to the blog and see the sorts of stuff I was interested in, that I had experience in and that I knew about, and it actually led to a very high percentage of job offers,’ Lowe says. He thinks of his blog as a fairly accurate simulation of his personality – like being stuck in an elevator with him.

At Bayer, back when no one had heard of blogs, he asked the legal team to put a basic agreement in writing, which among other things stipulated that he wouldn’t give out proprietary information. But Lowe has always been careful not to shine a spotlight on his employers and says his current company has no problem with his sideline.

See Arr Oh – Just like cooking

Synthetic chemist and anonymous blogger See Arr Oh has a different story to tell. Although the job he now has in industry came as a direct result of his blog, when he started Just like cooking in 2011, it was a ‘shout out at the wilderness’ during a difficult time in his life. Stuck in a job he didn’t enjoy, in a place he didn’t like, he decided to reach out to other chemists through the internet in the hope of creating the community he was missing at home and in his career. Since then, he says it’s become more about uncovering those who are ‘not doing the right thing by chemistry’ and highlighting good projects that don’t get enough attention.

‘I would not have this job without the blog I wrote’
See Arr Oh has always blogged under a pseudonym – including pieces for professional publications such as the Scientific American blog network – because he wants to be able to give his viewpoint without fear of repercussion. ‘So if I publish something that pushes buttons or if someone gets upset by it, I don’t professionally suffer from that.’ Though, of course, he can’t take credit for anything either.

Still, that didn’t stop him from accepting when his manager sought him out via his blog and offered him a job. ‘I would not have this job without the blog I wrote,’ he says. And, like Lowe, he sees the benefits of having a job that he’s fairly paid for, and he never considers giving it up – especially having tried his hand at freelancing.

Unlike Lowe, however, his advice to prospective bloggers is coloured by bad experiences in industry. ‘Be very careful,’ he says. ‘The company owns the servers that you’re speaking on and probably the laptop you might be writing on. You must be very certain that you’re playing fair ball with them.’

Paul Bracher – ChemBark

Paul Bracher

Paul Bracher: blogging can broach ‘stuff [that] was getting swept under the rug’ © Thomas Campbell

So is blogging in an academic post a different ball game? Paul Bracher is an assistant professor at Saint Louis University in Missouri whose lab studies the chemistry of the origin of life. He’s been blogging since 2005, mostly for his very well-known chemistry blog, ChemBark, which has garnered attention for uncovering scientific misconduct.

Following posts on the data fabrication scandal involving Bengu Sezen, formerly of Columbia University, and more recent discussions about data integrity, Bracher has gained a reputation as a whistleblower. He sees his blog as a way to deal with ‘stuff [that] was getting swept under the rug’. But not everyone appreciates his approach and he’s realistic about what the blog might mean for his academic career.

‘Maybe someone will be a reviewer on a paper and hold it against me,’ he says. ‘Or maybe when I was applying for jobs there were people who said, "We don’t want that guy". But at the same time, where I did get a job, they were familiar with the blog and they viewed it as positive. It’s hard to tell how much this has helped me or hurt me – think it’s both, and that’s life.’

Despite the potential downsides, and a recent change to a more senior role placing heavier demands on his time, Bracher continues blogging not only because he enjoys it but because he thinks it’s important. His pages already get a lot of hits, but he says it’s always been about generating discussion rather than about building an audience. He cites the power of online discussion in ‘democratising conversation’. His advice to others is simple: ‘Make sure that this is something that you want to do. If you’re not enjoying it, then you’re not going to get much out of it.’

Steve Ford – Experiment, experience, explore and engage

Steve Ford

Steve Ford: ‘I really blog, I think, for the fun of it’ © J Catherine

On the other side of the Atlantic, research fellow Steven Ford has spent the last year getting to grips with blogging at the Cancer Research UK Formulation Unit at the University of Strathclyde. Although he was encouraged to start a blog as part of the university’s researcher development programme, he says he’s never enjoyed writing in the style of academic papers and was keen to try his hand at something with a little more emotion.

Ford doesn’t shy away from mentioning his institution, or his work, and thinks one of the benefits of having a blog is that it allows him to explain some of the complexities of his research in layman’s terms. In September, for example, he wrote a post about an arsenic-based cancer therapy his group was working on, covering some of the history of arsenic in drugs, as well as parts of the modern formulation process. Although his blog is not yet reaching a wide audience, he recognises its value in engaging the wider public and feels the online networking skills he has learned may turn out to be important in the future.

As yet, though, Ford is not convinced blogging is benefiting his career. ‘I really blog, I think, for the fun of it, rather than the professional development,’ he says. ‘I could put on my annual appraisal form that I’ve got a blog that’s got a couple of thousand hits, but my feeling is that universities don’t know how to value that. How does that square against someone who’s got a paper published in a [high] impact journal?’

At the same time, he’s optimistic about what can be achieved through blogging, going so far as to suggest that a recent post about Ramadan could help ‘break down barriers’. Despite having little to do with chemistry, the post does touch on diversity issues relevant to working in a multicultural institution.

You might not find your ideal job in the blogosphere, but you may just find an interested ear or two. In cyberspace, everyone can hear you dream.

Hayley Birch is a science writer based in Bristol, UK

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