Blogging in the Academy: Batts et al, 2008

Sep 22 2008 Published by under Blogging

A small literature of review/commentary papers on the application of blogging technologies to academic disciplines has been developing in traditional journal outlets. A recent effort by ScienceBloggers Shelley A. Batts, Nicholas J. Anthis and Tara C. Smith has been published in PLoS Biology as a Community Page.

Batts SA, Anthis NJ, Smith TC (2008) Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy. PLoS Biol 6(9): e240 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060240 [pdf]


This commentary (freely available, btw) seeks to:

propose a roadmap for turning blogs into institutional educational tools and present examples of successful collaborations that can serve as a model for such efforts. We offer suggestions for improving upon the traditionally used blog platform to make it more palatable to institutional hosts and more trustworthy to readers; creating mechanisms for institutions to provide appropriate (but not stifling) oversight to blogs and to facilitate high-quality interactions between blogs, institutions, and readers; and incorporating blogs into meta-conversations within and between institutions.

Fair enough. Now, I haven't moved terribly far from my earlier perspective on blogging in the context of academic jobs, specifically research science.

My first response is similar to a comment on Dr. Free-Ride's post suggesting that too much formality would "ruin the blogginess". It's true. Adding the potential for career evaluation, or even for that matter a professional standard of expectation, would ruin the process. I see strengths in the informality, incompleteness of thought, risk taking on "coming all over jackass" (as Bill would have it) and frank invitation to discussion.

I still see this blogging as a mostly informal academic medium, rising to the level of a seminar class or conference roundtable at best. I have difficulty envisioning how it might be used to advance my science directly. I do enjoy the public outreach aspects of blogging about drug abuse and related topics. Unfortunately I think this is one domain where too much additional formality and institutional approval fights against the outreach mission. You may have noticed the commenter perspective that feels that any whiff of connection of any viewpoints on recreational drugs with "The Man" leads to a distinct resistance to listening to the message. I doubt that formal endorsement by my University or funding agencies would help with this. The discussion of careers and funding and the like...well I suppose that would be unaffected by official endorsement/tolerance of my blogging.
Returning to the paper from Batts and colleagues, the meat of the argument opens with the Stanford Blog Directory as an example of how an institution might start into the blogging waters. Makes perfect sense since it is likely that just about every scientific institution at this point has at least one blogger, promoting your current stable of effort is a great place to start. GrrlScientist recently discussed some numbers, the most memorable being the clock indexing a new blog created every two seconds! That is a lot and a fair number of these are going to be people associated with just about every walk of life, from motherhood to government to corporations to academia. As GrrlScientist notes in her post, however, there are some difficulties in trying to assess how many blogs might count as, for one example, "science blogs". By extension one might assume a similar difficulty in trying to quantify blog numbers in any other academic discipline. This difficulty makes the "everyone's doing it" argument hard to make although pointing to elite (!) institutions such as Stanford perhaps allow one to use the keeping up appearances (or with the Joneses) lines of attack with one's own institutions.
The PloS Biology commentary then goes on to reference slightly more formal uses of the blog technology, generally for informational outreach purposes (an admirable fit, in my view) as well as suggestions of efforts more specific to traditional academic missions. Here is where the argument is okay but starts to founder in the sea of anecdote. It is all well and good point to a few examples, but the academic missions of various players (my focus in on professors and research scientists, of course) can be diverse and in many ways mutually incompatible. I think there is hope, but I have yet to see a commentary (or blog posting for that matter) which really nails down any sort of generalizable argument that blogs will advance the scientific mission. This may be because I am correct in my thinking that the analogue here is to scholarly BS sessions that occur at meetings, in the hallway and when on seminar visits. The sort of interaction that is very difficult to quantify in terms of direct result, but many scientists feel is critical to the enterprise. If this is all the "there" that is there, so to speak, this line of attack will always be satisfyingly [I meant "unsatisfyingly"] anecdotal and it will be difficult to show the uninitiated why they should blog.
The Batts et al piece then ends with issues of quality control. Here they talk about Technorati and search engine status as the traditional measures of blog.....something. Clout, authority, audience...YMMV. Also about the efforts such as self-enrolled quality standards ( researchblogging.org, HONcode, etc) or web-based awards. I'm not so keen on this sort of thing. First and foremost because I think that blogging authority should stand on its own merits, meaning that if you write something informative and useful one day you may write complete tripe the next. So having some sort of credential has no purpose other than to use as a crutch built by the high-quality writing of a blogger to support their crap. Who needs that? The second point is related in that we have specific examples from within science as to why it is an error to rely on reputation, track record and other credentials to determine the utility or quality of the product. Why would we want to subject this new communication form to the same old limitations? It is especially peculiar to me when SuperTurbozBlogger OpenAccessEverthingsz nuts are the ones that also call for credentialing and blogger codes-of-conduct and the like.
With that said, however, I can certainly understand that if the goal is to gain official institutional approval from colleges, universities and research institutes that this type of formalization into familiar old structures is a bonus.
One slight disappointment with the Batts et al paper is that the authors had run a survey on this topic about a year ago, which I discussed a bit in a related context. This was pre-assimilation for me and I was actually surveyed by the author team via email as well. Unfortunately this publication does not have any of the survey results; I suppose it is possible that the informal email comments played a role, however. It is true that the state of the art in this sort of commentary on blogs in science (or blogs in academics) is very much pre-data. So this is not a strong knock on the authors of this one. And perhaps they will be publishing their survey data in another venue.
To wrap up, I applaud this effort. It is, admittedly, little more than a brief commentary but it does contain several citable bulletpoints. I imagine that if people really want to mainstream blogging into the Academy, this is a critical contribution. There must be traditional hard-media (or close enough, as is PLoS Biology) citable, preferably peer-reviewed articles available to advance an incremental argument. It is getting very close to the point where the commentary should give way to data articles- surveys of bloggers, data-heavy accountings of the blogosphere, etc but this is a needed contribution at this point.
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Update 09/23/08: Additional thoughts from Nick Anthis, John Wilkins, Brian Switek, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Tara Smith, Dave Munger. I somehow forgot to mention in the post that Wilkins recently published a similar commentary on the role of the science blog.
More updates: Larry Moran of Sandwalk, The Evilutionary Biologist, a response to the blog commentary from Nick Anthis,

16 responses so far

  • First of all, it's great to see these young scientists and/or tenure-track faculty members convert their interests and enthusiasm into a nice, peer-reviewed manuscript.
    Second, I tend to agree that the informal nature of even science blogs is far more important for public outreach than enforcing all sorts of standards to the medium that would simply make it yet another staid and static communication mechanism. I view science blogs as I do pub science discussions - in fact I will often have a beer while reading (and writing) simply to add authenticity to the experience.
    Instead of making blogging outreach more formal, I suggest that the academy (i.e., promotion and tenure committees) actually give some honest credit to faculty who pursue public outreach efforts, blogging among them, especially to those folks who are good at doing so.
    Finally, I was not originally a really big fan of badges and accreditations, etc. but I did opt for the HONcode accreditation primarily due to my topical area - herbal and dietary supplement info on the web is often highly suspect and I wanted some assurance given to readers that I meet some internationally-administered standards. Keep in mind that I did this not for any career advancement or professional validation but rather as a guide to readers that they could trust the objectivity of my information on dietary supplements and natural products, Rx or otherwise.
    Thanks for this excellent coverage.

  • You know, I think one of the things I value about pseudonymous blogging is mny freedom from "da man." At one point I had high hopes for Faculty of 1000, but I have often wondered reading it the degree to which people alter what they say about a particular article.
    I think there may be a role for scientists blogging as themselves, but I also think that scientists will never feel uncensored when they blog as themselves. One of the greatest things to come from pseudonymous blogging has been the candid career and scientific advice that is available (think Female Science Profesor or Dr. Isis...that's right. I just equated myself with FSP. I'm just that hot.) that might not be available if people felt they may be judged. I think more people than we realize use this as a resource. And if there is one lesson to be learned, if it can be linked to your real name, you will always be judged for it.

  • juniorprof says:

    Faculty of 1000, but I have often wondered reading it the degree to which people alter what they say about a particular article.
    Let's just say we use EXTREME caution. And they bug the bejesus out of us to get more reviews (or whatever you call those things).

  • So then, JuniorProf, you've made my point. Pseudonymous blogging it is. At least this way I don't get death threats when I post a pair of shoes people don't like.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Faculty of 1000 is a motherfucking joke. Nobody with a lick of sense pays any attention to that garbaggio or wastes their time writing commentary for it. It may be a faculty of 1000, but if so it's not #s 1-1000, but 1001-2001.

  • juniorprof says:

    Faculty of 1000 is a motherfucking joke. Nobody with a lick of sense pays any attention to that garbaggio or wastes their time writing commentary for it. It may be a faculty of 1000, but if so it's not #s 1-1000, but 1001-2001.
    Ouch!!! But PP, its a line on the promotion & tenure application (or so I was told).

  • PhysioProf says:

    But PP, its a line on the promotion & tenure application (or so I was told).

    Yeah. So is "Peer Reviewed Manuscripts for the Upper West Side Journal of Broadway Median Entomology".

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    Tenure is for suckers.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Sorry about the implied criticism there Abel. I should back off that one. You and Orac and PalMD skirmish with the anti-science types in an elevated enough domain that it is important to bring your credential guns to bear. I'll have to reconsider my position a bit in light of your respective issues and venues of debate.

  • Stephanie Z says:

    Frankly, I think the most important element of academic blogging is that you're creating a blog, a personal document. You engage students in the lab by letting them experience science first hand. You reach them in the classroom or through advising by being someone they want to listen to or emulate; they experience your enthusiasm through empathy. Yes, the subject matter may be interesting on its own, but how people are introduced to it can nurture or kill that interest.
    Blogs can carry that personalization into written communications in a way that's previously been restricted to popular books and articles. Using stories, posts about personal topics or, uh, strongly defined narrative personalities, blogging gives more people opportunities to empathize with academics.
    So the critical thing about academic blogging is how it doesn't fit old models of academic output. It's valuable because of its informality. Not that I have any idea how to preserve that informality while recognizing and rewarding academics who blog.

  • No worries about the implied criticism - I didn't take your point as criticism. In fact, I tend to agree with you that blogging authority should stand on its own by content alone. I've just gotten enough grief (from what I am guessing are non-scientist readers) about my being a pharma shill for things like my criticism of Airborne or dichloroacetate that I thought it useful to go through the HONCode application.
    Believe me, I'm the last one to advocate for more rules or work, etc., for something that is intended to be a hobby.

  • Alethea says:

    I am correct in my thinking that the analogue here is to scholarly BS sessions that occur at meetings, in the hallway and when on seminar visits. The sort of interaction that is very difficult to quantify in terms of direct result, but many scientists feel is critical to the enterprise. If this is all the "there" that is there, so to speak, this line of attack will always be satisfyingly anecdotal and it will be difficult to show the uninitiated why they should blog.

    You're smack on target, there. Besides, who says anyone should blog?
    I've become only pseudo-pseudonymous for the simple reason that I like for the rare reactions to my BS contributions to get back to me. But I generally prefer interacting with pseudonymous bloggers, and can never remember their IRL names, because that blogging identity has become prevalent in my representation of them. I don't think it is uncommon for us to assume any number of alternate identities (parent, citizen, professor, employee), and only when you are being downright libelous is it worthwhile to either conflate or fully segregate these.

  • Nat says:

    Thanks for highlighting this DM, else I would have missed it. But you're right on when you say that those people who want to promote blogs as important mainstream academic efforts now need to take the next step and provide some positive evidence of their impact.
    I echo everyone's feeling that the informality of blogs is a critical aspect underlying their utility. Frankly, blog related activities, be it reading, writing, or commenting, are fun. Take away that informality, upon which the fun is predicated, and voila, you've blown up fun.
    It's the same reason why I use Facebook to keep in contact with my friends, and don't use any of the score of scientist-directed FB clones out there to maintain many scintific contacts. Facebook is fun, ResearchGate/SciLink/Laboratree/Epernicus/BlahBlah simply isn't.
    The connection between the fun of blogs and pseudonymity is one worth thinking about further. As someone who blogs under his own name, I will certainly admit that that fact alters the way I write something, and might alter whether I choose to write on a particular topic at all. Do I at times envy the pseudonymous ones? Hell yeah. Do I envy it enough so that I would change? Not at this point. It's still fun, even though I have to keep myself from dropping the f-bomb every third word (which, IRL, I can do with the best of them).

  • juniorprof says:

    Facebook is fun, ResearchGate/SciLink/Laboratree/Epernicus/BlahBlah simply isn't.
    Totally agree, and facebook is useful for scientific purposes. You can post papers, etc., for friends to grab off your site. Moreover, look at the way Bora uses facebook for his scientific interests... if you're not facebooking with Bora you're missing out on seeing its utility in action.

  • Nick Anthis says:

    Thanks for writing such a detailed post on the new paper, DrugMonkey. I think you raise some valid points, and I've addressed them in a new post.

  • antipodean says:

    "Faculty of 1000 is a motherfucking joke.
    Only from your tiny blinkered little lab worldview. Clinically it's more relevant. If you're already reading all the originals with enough specialist knowledge to really understand it then it is a waste of time.
    When it's done well it's like a good editorial.
    -antipodean

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