Celebrating 10 years of the Physics arXiv Blog

Back in 2007, I started an experiment. My idea was to use the relatively novel technique of blogging to explore exciting new ideas on the Physics arXiv, an online server for scientific papers.  I called this thing the Physics arXiv Blog and 11 August 2017 is the 10th anniversary of its birth.

Every day, I scanned almost all the new papers that appeared there and wrote about the one I thought most interesting.

It has been a roller coaster ride. I’ve had to deal with hackers, botnets, plagiarists, the FBI and attempts to unmask me as the author  — I’ve always written this blog anonymously for reasons I explain below.

I’ve also gained a loyal following of readers and the support of publishing organisations, such as MIT’s Technology Review. Thank you all!

I’ve also learned a lot of fascinating science. That’s what drives this blog–my desire to understand the universe and how it works. One of these days, I hope to find out!

You can’t write about anything unless you understand it (or think you do). So blogging is the perfect vehicle for this pursuit.

This post is a short review of some these adventures. i’ll post links to my favourites stories separately.

First some background. I’m a science journalist by trade with a background in physics. In 2007, science journalism was changing quickly as print-based publications belatedly found their business models foundering. New media in the form of websites, podcasts, online videos and blogging, were changing everything.

At that time, mainstream media coverage of science was dominated by write ups of papers that appeared in the top journals–Nature, Science, PNAS and so on. These organisation have slick PR operations that feed upcoming scientific papers to journalists before they are published . It’s a cosy arrangement for all concerned and I wanted to do something different.

The Physics arXiv provided a way to do that. Every day, physicists, astronomers, computer scientists and increasingly scientists from other disciplines, post their latest papers here for anyone to read for free. More than 2000 new papers appear every week. My goal was to filter them all.

I soon realised this was an impossible task. Certain topics are beyond me–the maths section is impenetrable for me and I quickly gave up on that. Later, I stopped regularly scanning the high energy physics sections too.

But the rest I filter regularly and quickly, marking papers of interest to study later. Then I choose one or two to read and then a single one to write about. It is hard work but it is endlessly fascinating and inspiring.

In 2007, I had no experience of blogging and so began to explore what it could do. My first posts had an irreverent–puerile to be honest–tone that I hoped would appeal to a different audience. But the tone distracted from the science and the style soon morphed into more conventional coverage. I settled into a rhythm of writing what I thought were reasonably high quality posts every day.

At the time, I was a freelance science writer retained by a major science publication. I didn’t want my blog to reflect badly on this publication. My contract also required me to write exclusively for them. But the contract did not cover blogging, which hadn’t been invented when the contract was first drawn up. This was a grey area that I was unsure about.

For these reasons, I started to write anonymously. And I continue to do this, even though the original rationale no longer applies. Most of my colleagues now know who writes this blog.

I also wanted to see if I could make a living from blogging. I had no idea what the future would hold for science journalists but I had a pretty good idea that, however I made my money in 2007, I would be making it differently in five or 10 years time.  That has certainly turned out to be true.

So I monetised the content using services such as Google AdSense. That was a dramatic wake up call.

My content quickly generated reasonable viewing figures–by the end of 2007 I was attracting around 300,000 pageviews a month. But this generated no more than beer money from Google– about $100 per month. I was shocked given the amount of work it took to produce the blog. Clearly, my labour of love was unrequited by Google.

At the same time, I discovered some of the downsides of blogging. One website began pasting my content into their site, word for word, every day, without attribution. It was as clear a case of plagiarism as you could find. I was furious.

To make things seem worse, this site was heavily monetised with display ads, pop ups and so on. Whoever was running it was trying to make a buck at my expense.

The owner was brazen– a whois search quickly revealed his details but there was little I could do. My $100 from Google was not going to cover legal fees.

However, I noticed that the site was pasting other science content too, some of it from a large commercial publisher. I assumed this was theft as well and I wrote to this publisher, pointing out the plagiarism. Soon after that, the site disappeared.

At the same time, I became aware of the significant security limitations of WordPress, the go-to software for bloggers then and now. Arxivblog.com was frequently targeted by hackers who rewrite the code to redirect readers to gambling, phishing and porn websites.

The attacks came slowly at first but then increased. Eventually I was being hacked on a daily basis. I could fix it by finding the malware inserted into the WordPress code and removing it but I had to do this every morning.

Then Google labelled arXivblog.com as a site hosting malware and actively began barring people from visiting. That reduced my traffic to a dribble. It took Google 30 days to remove this malware label.

At one point, the FBI contacted me saying that arxivblog.com was at the centre of a global botnet that was spreading malware. They asked to see the site logs to help them track down the culprits and I supplied what information I could. But I never discovered the result of their investigation.

The problem was that WordPress was dangerously insecure. Eventually a couple of the big tech blogs blew the whistle on this. They also relied on WordPress and presumably suffered similar intrusions.  Wordpress eventually tightened its security but not before another big change occurred.

With a growing following, I suppose it was natural for people to wonder who  wrote the arXivblog. Occasionally, people wrote and asked but I wasn’t interested in publicity.

I was on vacation when the fuss began. I had written several posts in advance, set them to run automatically and then disappeared for a week or two. When I came back, all hell had broken loose.

It began with a couple of emails from the editor-in-chief of Wired.com.  He said he enjoyed the blog and wanted to know who I was. Being on holiday, I didn’t respond and his next email revealed that one of his journalists was going to unmask me, or at least try.

As a result, Wired published this story: “WHO IS THE ANONYMOUS AUTHOR OF THE WEB’S BEST PHYSICS BLOG?” The article invited people to name me and offered a prize for the whistleblower.

At the time, there had been a spate of unmaskings of anonymous bloggers. The media had had some sport tracking these people down and revealing their identities. But enthusiasm for this was waning and many readers wrote to Wired suggesting they leave me alone. “If he wants to write anonymously, let him,” they said.

I didn’t know whether to be furious or flattered, when I stumbled into this debate. Either way, the episode left a bad taste in the mouth. But it did spike the curiosity of other publishers.

Wired itself asked if I wanted to write the arxivblog for them. I did not. A couple of other offers came in as well. But I eventually settled on an offer from Technology Review to host the blog. I was increasingly disillusioned by the problems with WordPress and the limited income that Google ads were generating. Technology Review was a much more secure and prestigious environment.

And there I’ve stayed since 2009. At their request, the blog now focuses more on emerging technology. So I write fewer posts about astrophysics and other esoteric physics.

But hard-core physics still fascinates me. So in 2013, I began producing this kind of physics-based content for Medium, a new publishing platform created by Evan Williams, the founder of Twitter.

Working for a start up was an adventure too. There was constant evolution both in terms of the publishing tools and the business model. And a constant change in the remuneration. Medium tried various ways of rewarding writers, from numbers of pageviews to time spent reading and all kinds of variations in between.

It was great for a while but Medium eventually stopped paying altogether. I hope it’s a success, that Williams eventually finds the magic formula that rewards Medium, and the writers that use it, in an appropriate way.

But I think it’s fair to say it hasn’t found the secret sauce yet. And neither have many others in the world of science journalism.

Technology Review is still a beacon. It continues to produce high quality content focused on the world of technology. I’m proud to be part of it and want to thank the team there for their years of support. It’s been great guys.

And long may it continue. The Physics arXiv Blog is ten years old. I hope the next ten are just as exciting.


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