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.