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.
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.
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,