The academic contributions of blogging?

This on CT.

I realize this topic has been discussed much already (e.g here, here, here, here, here, here) and elsewhere (e.g. Brian Leiter, but also in the mainstream media: e.g. The Guardian, Chicago Tribune) numerous times already. I am bringing it up because I have been asked to speak to a campus-wide audience about academia in a digital world and I have picked as my topic: “Can blogs revive academic debate?” I only have about fifteen minutes to talk and I want to touch upon several points. What better way to prepare for such a talk than to try out some of the ideas on a blog? There are two main points I want to address and thought I’d discuss here a bit. I welcome your feedback. First, I want to talk about blogs as a great medium for debate of all sorts that does not always seem possible in one’s immediate physical surroundings. Second, I would like to consider how the material posted and discussed on blogs relates to published material and whether there is any potential for such contributions to count toward one’s academic achievements and service. I elaborate on the second point below. There seems to be some amount of disagreement in the blogosphere on this issue and I wanted to bring it up for some more discussion.

One emerging theme seems to be that there are definite benefits to blogging for many academics, but these are often not very tangible. In addition to the general intellectual exchange many of us likely find of value (or hopefully we would not be spending so much time on it) is the feedback we receive on specific research related posts that has the potential to influence our thinking and writing. This has certainly happened to me and I consider it a somewhat tangible benefit although one that only shows up indirectly on my CV. (That is, I may have publications that benefitted from valuable feedback on blog posts.)

A potentially important aspect of blogging by academics concerns whether blogging activity can count in any way toward getting a job or promotion and tenure. Another approach has been to ask whether it may work against those goals. Daniel Drezner, Brian Leiter and Brian Weatherson have specifically dismissed the idea that blogging should be counted as rigorous scholarship although they seem supportive of the idea that it could be considered under one’s academic service. Here, I would like to challenge the position of dismissing blogging as relevant scholarship altogether.

I would like to do this by comparing blog writing to journal publishing, undoubtedly one of the most wide-spread and accepted measures of academic achievement. There are posts on blogs that are certainly much more original and careful in their arguments (and more clearly written) than many articles that get published in academic journals. I think people’s reluctance to consider blog writing as comparable to journal publishing comes from thinking about journals in a somewhat romanticized and unrealistic manner. Sure, the most prestigious journals may not be the best comparison group (although even they publish articles one wonders about), but plenty of work gets published in peer-reviewed journals that would make most people either yawn or hurl the journal straight out the window. So why be so incredibly critical of blog writing when many don’t seem to be nearly as critical of journal publications.

I am not suggesting that blog posts as they exist would likely be published in journals. The format of the medium is too different for that. (After all, you’d have to have the requisite literature review instead of linking to a few relevant pieces, or give much more details about methods and analyses where data are concerned – just to name a few obvious differences.) But one extremely important component of the journal publishing process is very much present on blogs (or can be): the peer review process (this claim is in direct contrast with Brian Leiter’s assertion a while back). Blogs that allow comments make it possible for others to discuss the posted material. In many ways this is much more conducive to intellectual exchange and the advancement of knowledge than publishing articles in journals that no one will ever read. Not only is the original post available to all subsequent readers but so are the reactions of others. Sure, there are all sorts of limitations present. It may be that the most appropriate people are not reading the post and so those who would be able to offer the most helpful and relevant critique are not present in the discussion. But this is often likely true in the journal refereeing process as well. After all, how absurd that one’s chances of a job or promotion and tenure are so gravely dependent on the whimsy of no more than two or three people out there? (This is not an exaggeration. The likelihood of a new candidate on the market getting a good (or any) job in a field like sociology is tremendously increased by a publication in a top sociology journal.)

Again, I am not suggesting that blogs be considered a replacement for journal publications. I am just suggesting that dismissing them completely in the area of academic contributions seems like a mistake. If the journal publishing process was less flawed then perhaps there would be less need to look for alternatives. But since the traditional measures by which we evaluate academic contributions have serious limitations, it may be worth considering the potential role other venues may play in the process. I don’t have the answers. I have no specific recommendations as to how this could be achieved in a tangible manner. But I think it is a discussion worth having.

Just one more point on all this. It may well be that a better comparison and more relevant discussion to have here is whether contributing to public discourse – through articles published in the mainstream media (possibly a better comparison to blog writing than journal publishing) – should have any input in hiring and promotion decisions. It is not clear whether this matters in current practices (or whether it might actually hinder people’s prospects) and that’s another important point to consider in this discussion.

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