Why more academics should blog (cuz you can!)

By Razib Khan | March 12, 2013 9:23 pm

A citizen of the Republic of Letters

Many people have been talking about the Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson piece on why academics should blog. In my own opinion it’s a little hyperbolic, not everyone is the same, whether it is in inter-individual differences in attributes, or the circumstantial point where one is in their career (e.g., if you are a graduate student or postdoc then your boss/mentor’s attitude matters a lot). With that out of the way I think it is important to reiterate that more academics should blog sometimes. I suspect one issue is that the image of academic bloggers is dominated by people such as Jerry Coyne or the guys at Marginal Revolution. They blog in huge quantity on a wide range of topics. Obviously this is not suitable for everyone’s temperament or situation (it seems that after tenure there is a greater obligation to engage in communication because the biggest hurdle of impressing one’s colleagues is over with, though that’s just me).

But there are other models. There are many times on Twitter where I am party to/or interact with someone where the format becomes tedious and uninformative, and yet the individual still has very strong opinions on the subject. At this point I’m prompted to ask “do you have a blog where you could elaborate your position?” Most of the time the answer is no. And my question here is why? Many academics seem satisfied with 1999 vintage web pages with a short list of qualifications and publications. Often these are years out of date. I’ve met aspiring graduate students who approached a professor from afar to do research after browsing lab websites, only to be told that the lab’s research focus had totally moved in a different direction, they just hadn’t updated their page (this is why it is useful to do a literature search to supplement the lab web page, but shouldn’t the lab web page ideally actually inform you about the state of research in said lab?).

I don’t think it would be productive to have thousands more Jerry Coynes or Tyler Cowens. But, I think it would be productive to have thousands more Michael Eisens. Eisen can go months without posting, but when he does post it often gets a lot of people’s attention. That’s because he talks about what he knows about and what he is passionate about. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t generate a stream of content, when the wadi that is it is NOT junk turns into a raging torrent, you better take notice (and most people do).

Mind you, I am aware that Michael Eisen is gifted with a particular personality profile (which seems to be shared by his brother, Jonathan) which make trenchant blog posts to be expected, and likely relatively easy. But I think a huge number of academics fall under the intersecting conditions of:

1) Specialized knowledge
2) Passion about that specialized knowledge

To give a concrete example of why I think more academics should be blogging: I’m sick of hearing selective quotes in the media from specialists who are consulted after a big splash is made by some result in the popular press. I want to hear the specialists at length in their own words. And don’t tell me it would take too much time, from what I can tell most of the time one is interviewed by the media 95% of the content is not transmitted. Not only that, you don’t have a choice on which quotes are excised out of the full context of your assertions.

Finally, I want to concede that at the end of the day many, many, academics will never blog. And that’s OK. I just think that many more have the aptitude/inclination than currently blog due to cultural inertia. Especially if you can burn time on Twitter, you can afford to blog every few months on some topic that where you add value to the information ecology.

WordPress is easy and it’s free.

Related: The first steps towards a modern system of scientific publication.

Addendum: Here are three blogs which I follow because of my personal interests which illustrate the variety of communication styles, Evolutionary Genomics Blog, Genomes Unzipped, and Haldane’s Sieve.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Blog
MORE ABOUT: Blogging
  • Dan

    Hi Razib,

    I think you are discrediting yourself somewhat. I suspect that there are two traits predisposing to quality science blog authorship; namely ‘heavy literature consumption’ and (obviously) a strong writing ability.

    Though each of these these are probably at moderate frequency among scientists, their joint probability is much lower, and whilst it might be possible to cobble together a readable or even a quality blog without one, this would be not be without great investment of time and energy.

    Furthermore, while I accept the Michael Eisens example, I find that the few blogs that I return to (such as your own) are those which are updated regularly. For most scientists who have a modicum of ability to absorb the literature or to write entertainingly, being this prolific is a tall order. Especially if we take the time I have taken to write this short comment as any indication. Genomes unzipped is another great one, but it has a large team of authors. If each were posting on personal sites, I do not think the updates would be regular enough to maintain my attention.

    Having said all that, I take your points about communicating research and disseminating information more generally e.g. by lab websites. But blogging well is difficult!

    Dan

    • razibkhan

      I think you are discrediting yourself somewhat

      well, i’m pretty sure that that came out with the wrong connotation! in any case, the possible people who *could* blog and the number who *do* are not in the same order of magnitude in numbers IMO.

    • http://twitter.com/StuartABrown01 Stuart Brown

      You can get around the problem of not having enough updates by using a multi-author blog format. That’s the model the LSE blogs are based on – asking academics from a number of different disciplines for articles and then editing them for readability.

      The editing largely resolves the problem with writing ability, although you’re correct to say that it takes a lot of time and energy to edit things effectively.

  • Dmitry Pruss

    Writing about the things which we know well and which are, at the same time, actually important to people, is a luxury shared by only the few. There are regulatory, IP, organisational, and PC constraints which leave most of the important topics out of reach for most of the insiders in the know. I mean it may be fun to read, but we’d rather write about flowers, vacation trips, or food :)

    • razibkhan

      this is why i focused on tenured professors and academics. you really think most tenured professors are subject to these issues?

      • Dmitry Pruss

        To *some* of these issues, absolutely. IP, PC, IRB regulations, ethics panels, HIPAA, legal. Wait, you have it right here on your pinboard now, how Moffat threatens to take his critics to court, and how they take it seriously.
        And isn’t it an obsolete viewpoint anyway, that tenure assures an absolute freedom? Most professors need a contnuous flow of grants to be able to work; the safety of their peronal appointments is almost immaterial.

  • Artem Kaznatcheev

    I totally agree with the view that academics should maintain blogs in order to allow discussion and collaboration with other academics. This was the reason I started blogging. This approach has also been very successful in Math and Theoretical Computer Science where discussions on blogs can often lead to new collaborations, projects, and eventually publications.

    The idea of a blog as a collaborative tool has been taken to it’s zenith by Grower’s polymath project where the community at large collaborates to tackle difficult multi-part mathematical questions that advance the state of the art (a couple of their projects have been published). Math and TCS have also adopted tools beyond blogs, such as research Q&A sites like MathOverflow and the CSTheory StackExchance to help scientists learn quickly from each other. I would really like to see more of this in other fields.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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