Behind the Scenes of Medical Blogs: MicrobiologyBytes

alancann.jpgI’ve already presented some famous medical bloggers to you. My aim is to get my readers closer to these quality blogs and the bloggers as well. I’d like to convince more and more health professionals/people interested in medicine to create their own blogs by providing interesting “behind-the-scenes” interviews. The sixth blogger in this series is Dr Alan Cann, the blogger of MicrobiologyBytes, Science of the Invisible and the maintainer of

  • How do you find information for your blog? You certainly read other blogs, journals but do you use RSS reader? How many blogs do you track?

Since I started blogging, I read more than I have ever done. I couldn’t do it without RSS. I feel I need to convert people to the joy of RSS! To help with that, I’ve just written an online tutorial I hope will be helpful for people – and I hope people will give me lots of feedback on how it can be improved. Bloglines is my preferred RSS reader, but I’ve found that when I show people RSS, they have strong preferences which reader they prefer, so I always show people Bloglines, Google Reader and Pageflakes and let them choose which they like best. Since nearly half of the subscriptions to my RSS feed at MicrobiologyBytes are through email subscriptions to the feed rather than through feed readers, I also give them that option, although I try to persuade them not to use email for RSS!

I read around 180 feeds, but this varies from day to day. This is my current list. I have my core feeds that I’ve always read, but I try new feeds out frequently, dropping them if they don’t give me what I’m looking for. About half of them are preformed feeds from blogs, etc, and the rest are generated from keyword searches and tags on a wide variety of websites – that’s how I can rapidly scan so much information in one place.

  • You provide excellent content. Moreover, you create podcasts. How much time does it take to maintain these?

Blush. The podcasts are much more labour-intensive than the blog. It takes between one and two hours a week to produce the podcast, which lasts around five minutes! Ironically, I started the blog as a front end for the podcast to allow search engine discovery, but now in many ways the podcast is a shop window for the blog! I currently have around 1,200 subscribers to the podcast feed and the podcast files get downloaded around 10,000 times a month. More people prefer to download the podcast files directly by clicking on links rather than by subscribing to the feed, but that’s fine.
Now that I feel that I know what I’m doing with the blog, it doesn’t take that long to maintain, a few hours spread across the week – less than when I was experimenting more in the early days. But it varies a lot throughout the year, depending on how busy I am with other work.

  • You are a blogger at Science of the Invisible and you also work on I think there aren’t any better microbiology sources than Am I right?

There are other good microbiology blogs, such as Small Things Considered and Aetiology, but they tend not to post as frequently as I do on MicrobiologyBytes. The most important thing is to read as widely as possibly, and access your information from as many sources and as many points of view as you can.
I’d like to explain why I have two blogs. It’s not because I’m greedy! When I started, MicrobiologyBytes had a long format (for a blog) and the front end to the podcasts, and Science of the Invisible was a short format. Gradually, more and more education/technology content crept into SOTI, and so about six months ago I chose to separate them, giving MicrobiologyBytes all the microbiology content (“The latest news about microbiology in a form that everyone can understand”), and putting all the educational stuff into SOTI (“Education costs money. Ignorance costs more.”). At that point, both blogs really took off, so I guess the lesson is to target a particular audience. I don’t think many people regularly read both of my blogs, although a few wander in and out since I put links in the sidebars.
Actually, I’ve got lots of blogs – since I discovered how to use tags to create RSS feeds. I currently have about six: MicrobiologyBytes, SOTI, two miniblogs for the sidebars so I can post items quickly (one and an other), oh, and my Virtual Frogroom blog. I just started another miniblog to cover the UK foot and mouth disease outbreak.

  • Does blogging help your career? Do your colleagues respect what you’ve done on the web?

I think it will do. It’s certainly helped me widen my horizons over the last year, and stay up to date – with technology as well as microbiology. I have a Why Blog? page on to try to encourage other people to think about blogging.

  • What about the microbiology journals? Have they discovered you and your blogs?

Not the academic journals, since publishers still feel blogging is a threat to their income, but news media have discovered blogging, even if they don’t know what to do with it. MicrobiologyBytes is starting to get quoted quite often by journalists. Interestingly, when I started my microbiology website (now at in 1994, journalists would find out my phone number (which wasn’t on the site) and interrupt me with calls. Now they just quote the blog directly. I’m happy with that, as long as they link back.
I have a very good relationship with the Society of General Microbiology in the UK who have been generous enough to sponsor the podcasts.

  • At last, what are your future plans with your blog?

Well first, to keep going as long as possible – or until a better technology comes along! SOTI is a platform which allows me to explore lots of different technologies which may or may not make it into my teaching eventually – after I’ve had chance to play with them online first. Beyond that, public responses to events such as people flying around the world with XDR-TB and the recent foot and mouth disease outbreak in the UK have started me thinking about how bloggers can contribute to the public good, beyond general education and awareness of science. I’m trying to think of what I might be able to do when the next influenza pandemic strikes – got any ideas?

Thank you, Alan, for the answers. Keep on informing the world about microbiology in several ways!

Behind-the Scenes interviews so far: