Why not more scholarly bloggers?

I just sent off a draft of a chapter on scholarly blogging to Axel Bruns for his upcoming Uses of Blogs book, and I run across an article in The Scientist on science blogs called “The Power of the Blog.” The tag line reads: Few scientists have caught on to the Internet’s power of posting, commenting, and debating — where are the rest?

Great question.

While they never answer directly, they do present an indirect answer:

As more academics pick up blogs, scientific publishing may also change. Not only can you bypass traditional publishing with a blog, but also tools are becoming available to better organize information.

Yes, blogging is a natural fit for the academic, the teacher, and the researcher, but somehow those who blog seem to miss the fact that it is threatening to those who are established in academia, to financial interests, and to… well to decorum.

Put yourself in the shoes of a tenured associate professor who has spent the last decade or two stacking up peer-reviewed publications. I won’t name names, but I can think of some faculty who have been publishing a half-dozen articles a year for many, many years. They are playing the game by the prescribed rules and doing a pretty good job of it. Then someone asks “why don’t you have a blog?”

The natural answer is “why should I?” From the perspective of the non-blogger, there are two possible paths blogging may take. First, it may be declared the Pet Rock of the aughts.

The other possibility is that it will have a significant impact on scholarly life, publishing, and institutional structure. In that case, the successful scholar is put in the position of someone waiting on line at the supermarket. You are near the head of the line, when a new checker opens up. He looks like he is super-efficient, and that line seems to be moving pretty quickly, but (a) he may keel over at any moment and everyone in the line will lose out, (b) even if the line is moving quickly, do you really want to be at the end of it? Sure, as a relatively big name in the field, you are going to attract an audience, but you’ll probably never pull the same kind of audience that some of the superstar grad student bloggers do.

Sure the decision isn’t that black-and-white. You don’t give up other scholarly pursuits completely to go “all in” on blogging (or, at least, most don’t). But the truth is, rather than writing this entry, I could be working on a half-dozen other projects that would actually show up on a vita. The direct payout is not at all clear.

Yes, there is the social networking aspect. And it is true that I have met people through this blog that have been really cool to meet, and who have helped my career. But I deeply suspect that the ROI is just not here. Academics don’t like to be made out as careerist, they are supposed to be above all that, but the modern university system can be cut-throat, and I fully sympathize with those who turn around and say “why should I waste my time?”

I blog for a three reasons.

First, I blog because I enjoy it. I am very opinionated and not very social, so it gives me the chance to mutter on about this or that without feeling as if I am buttonholing anyone. And there are other pleasures I derive from the process of creating a blog that have nothing really specifically to do with being an academic.

Second, I have a feeling that blogging is much better for me as a scholar than it is as an academic. That is to say, some of the people I have met and discussions I have had through the blog have really made me understand the world a bit better, and I hope that some of the things I have written here have helped others learn more about their own world, if only in a small way. None of these things are really related to my standing in the profession, or whether I have any chance of making tenure somewhere, they are instead more closely tied to why I became a professor in the first place: to profess.

Third, as I have written in the past, I am a true believer in social computing, and blogging in particular. I’m not sure quite the direction it will take or how it will affect information professionals, but I think the impact will be slow (by internet standards) and profound. The kinds of things we have been talking about for years — open access to scholarly product, individualized education, learning communities will happen. Not today, and not next year, but gradually and profoundly.

So, The Scientist writes up a story that says “This has the potential to change the world, why aren’t more people doing it?” and the answer is contained right there in the question. This has the potential to change the world, and not everybody loves world-changing. Those who do are probably already blogging.

I think what needs to be stressed is that blogging is another tool in the arsenal of a good academic. Email and listserves don’t get you tenure either, but no one says “I don’t have time for email.” (OK, everyone says that, but everyone still uses it.) Blogging is a communication tool with a unique set of characteristics that can be helpful in creating and maintaining distanced professional, as well as friendly, relationships. See? That’s not so scary. So, where’s your blog?

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3 Comments

  1. Posted 8/3/2005 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Alex,
    I am glad to see this issue being discussed. It is a tricky issue for academics. I think one way handle it is to self-archive AND submit for peer review to publishers that accept pre-prints for publications. I am trying this out now for the first time on a wiki.

  2. Posted 8/5/2005 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    I think there’s an additional factor, or one that goes along with the world-changing. Moving some scholarly discourse into blog format would necessarily change the discourse itself.

    Right now, the scholar who is churning out publications in his or her field is typically churning them out within a tightly circumscribed loop of circulation. They have an audience whose composition is understood, who will read and use the scholar’s production in predictable and controlled ways, and will grant the publishing scholar a predictable incremental amount of reputation capital for his/her production.

    Move into a blog format, and the circulations of what you’re doing change enormously, at least potentially. Those conversations (this is especially acute in the humanities) which are now confidentally sustained between two parties who control the terms of their mutual discourse and authenticate each other’s way of writing and thinking are suddenly strongly disrupted, laid open to many new voices and scrutinies.

    That seems like a good thing to me, and yet, it’s not all good. Some scholarly work really does require a very high fidelity signal between two carriers which is easily disrupted by noise on the channel, does require a focused conversation between specialists. I think the problem in the humanities is that a large number of conversations that should and could be taking place in plain sight, between scholars and wider publics, are misclassified as conversations only specialists can have. But the reclassification of scholarly work through blogging should still properly leave space for conversations which are substantive, contemplative and highly specialized, with no burden to be communicative in a wider or more rapidly mobile context.

  3. Chheng Hong
    Posted 8/10/2005 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    I think the problem is people are used to associate (successful) publication with pain and suffering. Thus, even when they find an alternative and interesting way to publish, they feel guilty and doubtable about that. Fun and joy is nothing to do with the contemporary culture meaning of academic career. Many of my friends, including some paper machines, who are very productive on (academic) blogs keep complaining how suffering to write up a conference paper. I think they would be more productive and enjoy their career when publication is done in the form of blog.

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