Monash colleague and fellow PhD student Andrew Zammit tweeted me about this Felix Salmon piece on Jonah Lehrer, blogging, and self-plagiarism:
Firstly, think of it as reading, rather than writing. Lehrer is a wide-ranging polymath: he is sent, and stumbles across, all manner of interesting things every day. Right now, I suspect, he files those things away somewhere and wonders whether one day he might be able to use them for another Big Idea piece. Make the blog the place where you file them away. Those posts can be much shorter than the things Lehrer’s writing right now: basically, just an excited “hey look at this”, with maybe a short description of why it’s interesting. It’s OK if the meat of what you’re blogging is elsewhere, rather than on your own blog. In fact, that’s kind of the whole point.
Secondly, use links as shorthand. Kouwe and Lehrer were both brought down by the fact that they felt the need to re-write what had already been written elsewhere. On the web, you never need to do that. If you or someone else has already written something well, just link to that, rather than feeling the need to repeat it.
Thirdly, use the blog to interact with your peers, rather than just primary sources. There are hundreds of great science and ideas blogs out there already; start reading them, and be generous about linking to them. Your readers will thank you. When you see an article you wish you’d written, link to it and say so. When someone finds a fantastic paper and writes it up in a slightly incomplete way, credit them with the great find, and then fill in the blanks. When two or three people are all talking about the same thing, sum up what the debate is, and explain where you stand.
Fourthly, iterate. Lehrer is a big-name journalist at a major publication: when he writes stuff, people respond, often on their own blogs, and often with very keen intelligence. Link to those people, learn from them, converse with them via the medium of blog, and use that collaboration and conversation to hone and further develop your own ideas. Treat every blog post as the beginning of a process, rather than as the end of one.
I’ve previously argued that today’s academics should blog. My reasons why mirror Salmon’s observations:
1. Blog to capture initial ‘seed’ ideas. Some academics struggle to get ideas for journal articles. They may follow the route of turning old conference papers into articles or relying on old data-sets. In contrast, I have enough article ideas for the next five years. I looked over unreleased material from the past 10 years and found possible ideas for 80-100 potential articles in various fields: media, foresight, counterterrorism, and technology. In some cases, I have fragments and outlines of these potential articles. In other cases, my online work dwarfs the number of published articles I have. Blogging regularly provides a way to capture these initial ‘seed’ ideas and to see over time whether or not they are worthy enough to become articles or if they just remain fragments. It provides a way to test and play with ideas that can be discarded quickly. Try and ‘fail fast’. It allows further thought than the 140 characters of a Twitter tweet. I sometimes have to remind people that Sir Tim Berners-Lee envisioned the World Wide Web as a communications medium for researchers to share information and not just to share Facebook posts.
Some academics have two counter-arguments that are relevant. First, blogging wastes valuable writing time and has little impact. Second, blogging usually involves half-formed or fragmentary ideas. I argue below that blogging helps academics to write more and can have specific impacts that are not yet measured by promotions committees but that are very real and observable. As a developmental editor the problem I encounter with academics is not the workloads model but rather their lack of a regular writing regimen, time management, and project management skills. I know this is the case because academics with these skills can still work within the constraints of the workloads model to achieve the outputs required by their Minimum Standards of Academic Levels criteria in their job contracts. I suggest that blogs are treated as part of the ideation process — and that the drafting and re-editing of doctoral dissertations and journal articles is treated as a separate, parallel process.
Some academics still don’t take this view seriously. Their focus is on A* and A level journals and perhaps major book publishers. I respect that view and I know how much hard work goes into that material, and the high standards of research design that are required. Unfortunately, some university administrators use this focus as a performance goal without understanding the time and effort involved. I see a big gap between the rhetoric and the academics who can actually achieve these goals. For example, I have seen CVs with many publications that, on closer examination, turn out to be vanity book publishers and questionable international journals: a sucker’s game. I also disagree with the ‘scarcity’ view that underpins some academic publishing. I’m comfortable with showing the ‘messiness’ of research as it unfolds. Academics can still have a minimalist blog or social media presence to alert other researchers and the general public to their work. Many people do not have access to institutional journal subscriptions but might read and value an article version that is deposited in a university repository.
2. Blog to monitor a discipline or epistemic community. Tufts University political scientist Dan Drezner recently joked that political scientists were now more ‘relevant’ because they blogged. Zammit’s own site has an extensive blogroll and interesting articles such as one on jihadism datasets that I wouldn’t probably have known about had he not taken the time to write about them. I now scan Tadas Viskanta’s blog Abnormal Returns on a daily basis when assessing market conditions for my portfolio. I have learned from the Research Whisperer and Thesis Whisperer blogs. I have dialogued with friend and colleague Roy Christopher on writing, rewriting, and how academia can kill writing: an important discussion for professional self development. Spending an hour a week means that I’m across what these experts and communities are up to. Their blogs also capture different kinds of information than the searches I do on the Scopus and Web of Science databases, and in the relevant academic journals in my fields of research.
3. Blog to control your public expertise and also to raise the visibility of published articles. I’m a research administrator so my employer university hasn’t given me a public webpage on their site. Instead, I’ve cobbled together a web presence through this personal site; profiles on Twitter, Academia.edu, Google Scholar; and sites like The Conversation. I comment about research in-progress and post relevant news items. I try to turn each article’s publication into a personal ‘release’ event similar to music and film. Blogging has led to several productive collaborations, to higher article citations by international research teams, and to the opportunity to do blind peer review for several international journals. It enables me to comment on new developments not covered in an article. This is a ‘work around’ for the significant delays in journal publishing and also maintains the ‘currency’ of individual articles.
4. Keep your major projects separate. I try and blog several times a week or spend 10-15 minutes compiling a daily links list. (I did that for eight years at Disinformation — see the 1998-2003 site archives — so I can do so very quickly.) I also have several articles and a PhD draft that are in-progress. For me, the blog serves as a daily exercise to get writing and to capture relevant information that won’t necessarily be included in the articles or PhD. I found that drafting, re-drafting and understanding quality scholarship in a field is pivotal to the PhD, whilst understanding current debates and editorial formats is crucial to journal publishing. It’s OK to keep your major projects separate or ’embargoed’ if it helps you to complete this research. Just use blogging and social media as a tool to develop your writing prowess and to self-promote your expertise and research outputs.