26th June 2012: How and When To Blog For Academics

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.

19th June 2012: “How Do You Have So Much Time To Blog?”

Investment broker Joshua Brown on why he blogs:

 

Reading is only part of the equation, though.  It is in the writing that I discover what I actually think.  It is in the writing and the communicating of ideas and concepts that they truly become mine.  This is a cognitive learning thing that is very widely understood in the education world.  When I’m blogging there are two things that are happening – you, the reader, are being exposed to something I think might be important and I, the writer, am crystallizing my own beliefs and understanding of the topic at hand.

 

Brown’s insight applies to academic blogging: it’s the cognitive training that matters rather than if the work is read by others. “Blogging is not a side gig, it is the method by which I’m becoming what I want to become for myself and for those I’m responsible to,” Brown notes.  Blogging forces Brown to be across daily events, global macro moves, and to understand different asset classes. It focuses his investment advice to clients and idea generation process. Importantly, blogging has enabled Brown to stop doing many activities. Follow Brown on Twitter and read about his social media use.

 

In contrast to Brown, I know academics who can go months without writing a journal article or doing research. They might be more productive if they embraced Brown’s blogging approach and his daily writing regimen.

24th February 2012: Open Access Publishing: The NHMRC & ARC

Fortificated walled garden

 

In the past several months, academic publishing has become a lightning rod for public debate. The Research Works Act introduced to the US House of Representatives in December 2011 seeks to restrict open access publishing. The publisher Elsevier faces boycotts by academics and online criticism. University of Sydney academics are being sacked if they have not produced four publications in the past three years (my original response to the announcement). Several prominent Australian academics and policymakers have debated academic blogging, the role of academic entrepreneurs, and superstar economics.

 

Australia’s research agencies differ on open access publishing. From July 2012, the National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC) will mandate that grant-sponsored research is published in open access repositories. In contrast, the Australian Research Council simply “encourages” open access publishing “as appropriate”, chief executive officer Margaret Sheil has told The Australian.

 

“In many areas of our research there is no community interest in the outcomes until much further down the track,” Sheil stated. There is, however, significant community interest where academic publications are publicly and affordably accessible. For many people, the publishing and distribution model is Apple’s iTunes store and Amazon.com’s Kindle e-book software; Google Scholar (to search for academic publications); or a free site like Scribd.com. Many people are still not yet used to academic research being publicly accessible.

 

“In the humanities and many other areas it can be difficult to get published,” Sheil notes. Humanities is an area in which the ARC’s ‘original creative works’ category serves an important purpose. The economics of Australian publishing has led some universities to pursue e-presses. The academic blogging debate noted that other, non-journal avenues are increasingly being explored — areas which are not included in the ARC’s definition of academic publication.

 

“And what do you do about research for which the main form of publication is books?”, Sheil asks. This is an issue for publishing contracts. Mainstream and major academic publisher books are still more accessible to the community than many academic journals are. Book prices compare more favourably to the high prices charged for a single journal article. Many publishers now have lower-cost e-book versions.

 

I differ on Sheil’s final comment: “It’s not that hard for a scientist to get papers into some sort of repository that’s open access.” In fact, academic publishers place restrictions on repositories: only allowing the author’s final version sent to the publisher rather than the final journal version, for example. I’ve noted previously that the internet used to be a freer place for academic publishing; that open access publishing enhances peer review; and that academics currently sign-over control of their intellectual property to the major academic publishers in order to get published (and to get recognition from university promotions committees and their peers). This enables publishers to use a ‘walled garden‘ approach and to charge a high price for an individual article. The authors and their universities usually never receive a portion of these future revenue streams. In contrast, book publishers can give academics a royalty stream, and creative industries such as music have rights agencies and different approaches to the underlying intellectual property.

 

Sheil raises some important issues and problems that need further debate. However, the NHMRC has a more progressive approach.

 

“It’s a complex area,” Sheil told me.

 

Sheil later clarified her comments in April 2012 to The Conversation blog.

 

Harvard Library has asked its academics to publish using open access.

 

Photo: flibble/Flickr.

16th February 2012: Academic Blogging

fred and academic blogging

 

The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen contends that Australian academics would benefit from blogging their research (in response to The Australian‘s Stephen Matchett on public policy academics).

 

I see this debate from several perspectives. In a former life I edited the US-based alternative news site Disinformation (see the 1998-2002 archives). I also work at Victoria University as a research administrator. I’ve blogged in various forums since 2003 (such as an old LiveJournal blog). In contrast, my PhD committee in Monash’s School of Political and Social Inquiry are more likely to talk about book projects, journal articles, and media interviews.

 

As Roggeveen notes, a major uptake barrier is the structure of institutional research incentives. The Australian Research Council’s Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) initiative emphasises blind peer reviewed journal articles over other forms. Online blogging is not included as an assessable category of research outputs although it might fit under ‘original creative works’. Nor is blogging included in a university’s annual Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) outputs. University incentives for research closely follow ERA and HERDC guidelines. The ARC’s approach is conservative (in my view) and focuses on bibliometrics.

 

I know very few academics who blog. Many academics are not ‘intrinsic’ writers and are unused to dealing with developmental editors and journals. University websites often do not have blog publishing systems and I’ve seen several failed attempts to do so. Younger academics who might blog or who do use social media are often on casual or short-term contracts. The ones who do blog like Ben Eltham have a journalism background, are policy-focused, and are self-branded academic entrepreneurs.

 

Roggeveen is correct that blogging can potentially benefit academics — if approached in a mindful way. I met people like Richard Metzger and Howard Bloom during my publishing stint. I am regularly confused with QUT social media maven Axel Bruns — and we can now easily clarify potential queries. Blogging has helped me to keep abreast of sub-field developments; to build networks; to draft ideas for potential journal articles and my PhD on strategic culture; and has influenced the academic citations of my work and downloads from institutional repositories.

 

Problem is, HERDC or ERA have no scope for soft measures or ‘tacit’ knowledge creation — so blogging won’t count to many universities.

 

That Roggeveen needs to make this point at all highlights how much the internet has shifted from its original purpose to become an online marketing environment. Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal HyperText and CERN (1989) envisioned the nascent internet as a space for collaborative academic research. The internet I first encountered in 1993-94 had Gopher and .alt newsgroups, and later, web-pages by individual academics. Regularly visited example for PhD research: University of Notre Dame’s political scientist Michael C. Desch and his collection of easily accessible publications.  It’s a long way from that free environment to today’s “unlocking academic expertise” with The Conversation.

 

Photo: davidsilver/Flickr.