the blogger’s transformation of the academic sphere
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.