Since early April I have written approximately 15,000 words on Malaysia’s 13th general election. That is the length of one and a half academic articles in the social sciences. It is about 1/4 of a decent sized academic book; as a comparison, my thick-ish book was 87k words of text plus another 13k or so of references. The posts are spread out over four blogs (this one, New Mandala, Nottingham’s CPI blog, and the Monkey Cage). They comprise original research on an important topic in contemporary comparative politics, exploit a new data source, engage with existing scholarship, and use the latest methods.
Is this the future of academic research and publishing? Some might think so. In fact, the idea of producing new scientific research in real time, in a publisher-free, open-access format, for immediate consumption by close network of fellows scholars is the epitome of what research ought to be like in the internet age. No waiting for an editorial decision. No territorial gatekeepers at the reviewer stage. Real time feedback on each step of the process. The possibility of dialog with critics.
Maybe so, but as a natural contrarian, I’m skeptical that these changes are on the horizon. And now I have one data point. So here are some notes and reflections on this process of “long form research blogging”. Of course, I welcome further thoughts from readers in the comments.
Different than Scholar-Blogging
Over the past ten years we have seen a rapid growth of “scholar-blogs,” particularly in political science and economics. These are blogs which publicize new research, either working papers or new publications, alongside shorter commentaries on current events from an informed disciplinary perspective. The list of these is endless, and they are great (my regular reads include the Monkey Cage, Blattman, Consider the Evidence, Economist’s View, Phil Arena, Dart-Throwing Chimp, Bellemare, Understanding Society, IPE@UNC, and probably 50 more that I am forgetting). But rather than platforms for publishing, these scholar-blogs are more like dissemination mechanisms for existing work.
Producing new research, published as a series of blog posts, is much more rare. My posts have not been about summarizing research produced elsewhere, but rather about producing something new, here, in pieces. The closest parallel I can see is Sides and Vavrecks’ The Gamble, which we saw unfold in real time during the 2012 presidential campaign. But even they had a contract with Princeton University Press before they started.
The observation here is that while I see lots of scholar-bloggers these days, their blogs are not yet widely used to publish new research.
Full disclosure: throughout these posts, I have violated rule number 1 of writing. That is, I have not thought particularly hard about who my intended audience is. Is it political scientists? Asianists? Malaysians citizens?
Part of the reason for this is the blog’s history. My wife (girlfriend at the time) and I started it nine years ago as a way to keep our parents informed about our daily doings overseas. In the early years, most posts were about how neat it was to see an orangutan eat a banana, things like that. I have only recently come to focus on a wider audience, and to understand the professional function of blogging. (And the personal still creeps in: my next blog post will be a review of two new craft beers from Bali.)
That said, I think that the very nature of long form research blogging also makes it possible to neglect one’s audience. Because there’s no editor or reviewer, there’s no acute pressure or incentive to target the writing. If I were writing for a journal, I would spend much less time on explaining what exactly is happening in Malaysia, and would be much more sensitive to what other scholars had written and where my exact contribution lies. Which brings me to my next point…
Interaction, Citation, Attribution
One of the main supposed benefits of open access, real time publishing is instant feedback and interaction. I have had some good interactions in the comments and with other academic bloggers, for sure. These interactions have been substantive. But to be honest, I have not had nearly the level of deep and continuous feedback that would represent a new mode of academic knowledge production. It’s basically the same level of commentary as if I were to share a new working paper.
Citation and attribution is a related issues. I find it easier to organize citations via academic publications in a references section than via hyperlinks. Pingbacks are a nice feature, I suppose, but not enough.
Perhaps the conclusion is that academics are busy people. And, as a result, the format or the technology of the academic paper is not what stands in the way of deeper real time interaction.
Rereading my past posts, the writing is verbose, and at times very pedantic. Some of that can be attributed to massive jetlag of the Ithaca-Jakarta trip, but not all of it. Another driver is surely the unclear audience (see above), which left me explaining things that a professional audience would understand, while also resulting in digressions where I established my bona fides on important technical points. Another problem was simply the speed at which I was writing, which made my usual strategy of “leave it in the desk drawer for a month, then revise” impossible.
If you think that great writing takes time, then any publication platform designed to speed up the writing process to something close to real time is bad news.
Finally, the real question for a career-minded scholar (which is everyone): what is the professional benefit of long form research blogging? The ideal outcome would be an increase the audience of people who read and cite my work, but I have no idea if that will happen. Maybe I am just getting new twitter followers in Petaling Jaya and Sibu.
Another question is on the future of these posts. Can I revise these posts into a paper, then submit it to a journal? Or by publishing them online, have I made it impossible for me to produce a “real” publication—one with a CV entry, and that Google Scholar can find—because that would be self-plagiarism? Here, I don’t yet know. I may actually have to contact some journal editors to see what they think.
Here’s the point: My analyses of GE13 are not anything like the core of my professional identity. That’s why it doesn’t bother me too much if they cannot be published in a real journal, and that’s why I embarked on this experiment on long form research blogging. So long as that is true, I am skeptical that long form research blogging will ever transform academic research and publishing.
Kindred Winecoff May 20, 2013
Great post. I know nothing about Malaysia. In spite of that, or because of it, I’ve really enjoyed these posts. I want to know more about Malaysia (and Indonesia) as they are both intrinsically interesting places and because I have a sense, admittedly uninformed, that they have the potential to become increasingly important in world politics over the next few generations. Because the topic is so far off from my normal research it is unlikely that I’d take the time to read the scholarly literature normally, but it’s more likely that I’ll do so now. If I did I’d probably start with your book, which is in my Amazon wishlist now but wasn’t before you started blogging on the subject. I know that doesn’t mean much, but it’s not nothing…
This is, I think, a big comparative advantage of blogging. It doesn’t have to be as “good” as a professional article. It just has to highlight what is interesting or important about the topic, bring some theory/evidence to bear on this interesting/important topic, and the reader will get something out of it.
Could you turn it into an article? Probably, if you wanted to. John Quiggin blogged draft versions of every chapter of his Zombie Economics book (Princeton UP) at Crooked Timber, and used it to incorporate comments and revise his drafts. Laura Sjoberg turned her posts at Duck of Minerva on feminist IR into an article at ISP (or maybe ISR… can’t remember now). I’ve blogged on topics as “thinking out loud” as a precursor to more serious work, and intend to do more of that in the future.
The feasibility of this will obviously vary by topic. Some journals will be interested in a detailed look at Malaysia’s recent election, others won’t be. Some will be hesitant to publish revised/refined versions of blog posts. But that’s not the only possible reward. In the recent TRIPS survey something like 70% of scholars thought that scholarly blogging should count as academic service. I’m sure this varies enormously by department, but it’s a marked change from just a few years ago. Perhaps in a few more years it will count as “research” as well. It will never replace a peer-reviewed article or book, but that doesn’t mean that it has no scholarly value at all. Eventually that might be recognized. If so, being ahead of the curve could be advantageous.
(I remember I owe you an e-mail. I’ll get to it soon, I expect.)
Tom May 20, 2013
Thanks for reading and commenting, Kindred. This is great.
I think that you’ve articulated a middle-ground position in which long blog posts like this are complements to journal articles as a currency for academic credentialing, T+P, etc. As much as I agree, I think that this still leaves us in a position in which the exact role of self-published, non-peer-reviewed research has an unclear value. Which means that its value can be contested.
I was actually thinking of your long post on the Reductionist Gamble as another example of something close to original research being published online first. I didn’t include it because I guess I forgot. But this does exemplify new research ideas being published first online.
But I am super pleased to hear that I’ve gotten at least one more person interested in the nitty gritty of Malaysian politics. Really, it’s great.
Kindred Winecoff May 20, 2013
That post on Reductionism was intended to be the first in a series. I have the second fully written and the third begun. I haven’t posted them yet because a) I want to think a bit more about them; and b) I’ve had more pressing work occupy my time lately. But I will come back to them soon, as these posts are a bit of an experiment for me: I’m going to try to get a revised/refined version of them published somewhere at some point. The goal is to process-trace how we got from “complex interdependence” to OEP, in a way that might be useful for undergrads or new graduate students, esp those (like me) who didn’t have a ton of exposure to the discipline before going into grad school.
So blogging on the topic is kind of like circulating a working paper in stages. I have no idea if it will be “worth it”, but it allows me to kill at least two and possibly three birds with one stone: first, to think through these issues myself; second, to write about them in public so that others can be involved in the conversation; third, to possibly get a published paper out of it somewhere down the line.
I’ve not done this with anything I’ve intended to submit to a journal before, but I have done it with posts that were adapted/refined and then published at ForeignPolicy.com, NationalInterest.com, and Footnote1.com. Those experiences have been positive. Again, I know that professionally these don’t count for a lot, but not writing them counts for nothing.
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