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the blogger’s transformation of the academic sphere

Fabio

Thanks to Elizabeth (an anonymous commenter at jeremyfreese.blogspot.com) for inspiring this post.

A few days ago, an important issue was raised about blogging and academic norms: is it acceptable for a person to blog about a workshop or seminar presentation? In the comments, two excellent points were raised. First, research presentations in universities are treated a public events. The presenters also get “credit” for doing them and they are advertised to the university community. This is consistent with the idea that science is organized skepticism – you can say what you want, but others can comment, long as they do so in a professional way. Second, research presentations may be interpreted as forms of professional development. Presentations are opportunities for people to recieve the advice they need to improve their work, in a setting that carries little risk. This is consistent with the idea that science has a component of professionalization, which as Elizabeth points out, assumes a degree of trust between speaker and audience, similar to a student and teacher. Blogging research talks seems consistent with the first view and inconsistent with the second view. My opinion is that one should be sensitive to what a workshop is about, but not let professional development become a shield against honest public critique.

There is another issue raised by presentation blogging. Traditionally, active researchers belong to an “invisible college” of fellow scholars working on a topic who certifiy what counts as knowledge in an intellecual niche. The purpose of workshops is to vet your papers before they are submitted to the key journals. One benefit is that fellow researchers get a chance to point out flaws, which is what science is all about. Another benefit is strategic: by responding to comments of likely reviewers, or people in the network subscribing to similar views, an author improves their chances in the review process. The process is not full proof, but in areas with well defined boundaries and dense social ties, workshopping a paper in a few key places greatly increases the chance that your paper will appear competent and plausible to the people assigned to judge it.

Presentation blogging has the potential to change this system because it provides a chance for the discipline at large to respond to a work. Public discussion allows scholars who are not in one of these “invisible colleges” to provide additional information about a project. A person might attend a presentation, or download a paper, and write a response, which then draws its own counter responses. As to be expected, most comments will be of little value, but by expanding the paper’s audience, there is a chance that a insightful person outside the network can point out flaws, or improve the paper in other ways. Furthermore, scholars inside the network can read these comments and develop a more refined view of the paper, and of their own work.

To borrow a phrase from Mark Granovetter, the review process for many papers is built on a network of strong ties, which creates redundancy of information. Presentation blogging creates the opportunity for weak ties among scholars, generating new information. Thus, for some papers, presentation blogging has the potential to transform the production of knowledge, from a system based on chains of presentations and reviews in circumsribed settings, to a system where the broader discipline becomes a source of criticism and insight.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 23, 2007 at 4:29 am

8 Responses

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  1. Is no one going to bring up the issue of publics here? It seems to me that what is really going on is that the “invisible college” has borders that claim to be open in so far as the research seminar is publicly advertised, but are in practice closed to almost everyone except those who have a link to elite universities. Blogging a talk means that an insider is sharing information with the rest of us. It seems to me that what the “manners” proponents are crowing about is that someone left the door to their special room open. And that is, indeed, what blogging the talk has done.

    So, if your so-called public research seminars are blogged, they really are public, and the only thing being disrupted by blogging is the comfort level of those insiders who would rather their public talks were only delivered to a few other insiders.

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    Tina

    September 23, 2007 at 3:48 pm

  2. That’s exactly – what Elizabeth (over at jeremeyfreese) and I are trying to articulate. Blogging might redfine the “correct” audience for work in progress, away from insiders to a broader disciplinary public. In some contexts (job talks, grad student work, “private” workshops), it’s probably bad. But my spin is that it can be positive, because an author can get a wider range of response.

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    fabiorojas

    September 23, 2007 at 5:08 pm

  3. Looks like the main discussion on this topic– on ‘Assumptions’– has wound down. Thank goodness. And now a new one. Yikes. I’d just like to say before I go off into the night that I like the general gist of the points made here (which a colleague at another ‘elite university’ made to me as well). In short, the blogosphere has the nice potential of mitigating some of the status-reproductive aspects of the Matthew Effect. Everyone can benefit from that. And while I think these blog discussions are pretty clunky (the fact that this is now continuing on a separate thread, and Jeremy has yet another one going on his blog are more indicators of such clunkiness), there is no doubt that they can be very valuable for those who choose to participate in them, especially if you’re the kind of person (as Brayden says he is) who sees blogging as complementary with writing papers, etc. The issue is not whether blogs can be valuable in these respects. The point is that these upsides have corresponding downsides, and that in our zealousness to take advantage of the updsides, we should be mindful of the downsides. The question that we didn’t fully agree on was where precisely to strike that balance. But if no balance is struck, the end result may undercut the worthy ideal articulated in this thread– i.e., seminars and such that were at least semi-public before (e.g., we welcome anyone and everyone to our seminar) may go private. That would be a perverse outcome indeed.

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    Ezra Zuckerman

    September 23, 2007 at 5:43 pm

  4. Ezra: You definitely raise a good point – the balance between “public” and “private” in academia.

    I’ll revert to being an organizational sociologist and point out that academic organizations are ambiguous things; people do not always agree on exactly what should be going on inside an academic unit, even inside a single seminar. Jason Owen-Smith accurately summarized my own view on presentations – as a matter of courtesy, I ask people’s permission to blog about work in progress, unless it was broadcast to a lecture hall of hundreds of people. It resolves the ambiguity and maintains collegiality.

    You mention the outcome of private invitation only seminars. In fact, this already happens to a great extent and it hasn’t rocked the academic system. For example, here at IU soc, we have a junior faculty working group. We show each other work that ranges from raw to highly polished. And the rule is generally “what happens in workshop, stays in workshop.”

    However, as Jeremy might point out, you don’t get professional credit, nor is it advertised to the university community, or the media. It’s an extremely private seminar. And there are many other “private workshops” that happen all the time, which indicates that many folks already appreciate the need to limit access to work in progress.

    My sense is that academia is already built on an interlocking system of private and public events, and that most working scholars can distinguish between them. But there does seem to be some ambiguity, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to have a scholar state that this is not a “public presentation,” or that they don’t want unfinished work widely circulated. I won’t come up with a fixed rule, but I think a little common sense might go a long way here. Just ask around, be nice, and you’ll be ok.

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    fabiorojas

    September 23, 2007 at 6:33 pm

  5. Lots of sparks and fire, but isn’t it the case that technology is already making this a non-issue? With all due respect…I obviously read this blog from time to time!…blogs are kind of 2005. They are obviously inferior to available alternatives if the point is to reap the network benefits that Fabio describes. I doubt we will be talking about blogs in five years. Discussions of blogger etiquette, always tiresome, increasingly take on the quality of discussions of the proper use of a party line.

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    mitchell

    September 23, 2007 at 9:44 pm

  6. Here’s something that (to the best of my recollection) hasn’t been addressed:

    To what extent does this discussion change when we include the additional variable of blogger anonymity? I was inspired by Ezra to email the three journal editors who participated in an ASA forum on the publication process, in order to inform them I had blogged the event and to give them the relevant links.

    I was looking at the scroll-down list of choices for which address to send the email from: my anonymous blogger email, or my institutional address? I chose the institutional one. I figured if I am talking about them, then it was courteous to let them know who I am.

    One of the editors responded with an opinion worth considering; namely, I should put my name on my blog: “You have the right to say whatever you wish, but in turn you should announce who you are.” And as a preemptive qualification: this statement was made to apply to the context of polite academic discourse, not psycho blogger attacks.

    In sum, should there be different norms for anonymous bloggers? Most of whom are lowly grad students afraid to “come out?” Perhaps we should all just come out, as suggested? Perhaps It would create more accountability. And perhaps it would inhibit the free exchange of ideas among those with lower status.

    Contrary to Ezra, I think the blogosphere is a relative equalizer within academia (felt need to be anonymous notwithstanding). I can’t just whip off a response to a journal article or conference presentation and expect it to be published. But I can blog. And to me that means something.

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    anomie

    September 24, 2007 at 12:42 am

  7. FYI – Andrew Gelman (Columbia University) provides a nice example of a bloggable research seminar. His quantitative political science seminar not only allows anyone to download the papers but you can also download the discussants’ feedback. The most recent seminar featured a paper by David Nickerson (Notre Dame, political science) discussing the use of experimental methods to explore the effects of interpersonal influence on voting decisions, etc. Alex Scacco offered feedback.

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    brayden

    September 24, 2007 at 3:25 am

  8. [...] the blogger’s transformation of the academic sphere « orgtheory.net Presentation blogging creates the opportunity for weak ties among scholars, generating new information. (tags: academic research blogging communication sociology) [...]

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