Thursday, July 21, 2005

On journal articles and weblogs

If I were an Assistant Professor all over again, would I write a blog? That is today's question.

At the conference here I've chatted with a few people who say they occasionally read my posts and like them. Hearing that is gratifying. Yet I write for myself, definitely. And I like to write informally because the informality helps to keep up the flow and get the ideas out. That others might read the writing and enjoy it is some form of validation, not the type that will give a raise or a promotion, but validation nonetheless.

I believe I had much more intellectual energy when I was younger and could keep more balls in the air. So I think it's possible I could have done a substantial amount of blog like writing and a decent share of the the more formal research stuff too. But my willpower is nil. Keeping some balance on that requires discipline. I recall enough of my work habits as an Assistant Professor to know it happened in cycles, intense periods of productivity and then fallow periods, watching TV, playing pool, hanging out.

Blogging is not the same. When I write the blog, I'm focused on ideas in the piece. It's not time to let other ideas percolate. The writing is fun. But it is work too. Getting the argument coherent is work. Answering why it is interesting to me is also work. It is not the same work as writing an econ journal article where to figure out the model might take months and one has to stay with it and dig deeper to get the meaning. The blog writing is shorter. I've written in earlier posts about the need for pre-writing. There is some probing in that. But it is not as in depth and I don't have to document the thinking in the same way.

One economist who does both is J. Bradford Delong. He is prolific in both domains. His blog gets a wide readership. I wonder how many Brad Delong's there are in other disciplines.

I now want consider journals in the educational technology arena, with the Educause periodicals as perhaps the quintessential examples. Writing for them is different than writing for the International Economic Review (an Econ journal where I have a co-authored piece from way back when). The division between the writing is less sharp to me. To publish in Educause the writing has to be more formal, but the nature of the argument is similar.

This morning I had a look at Stephen Downes Principles for Evaluating Websites. The first principle is --- There are no authorities. I must say I found this disturbing. I wonder if there are degrees of authoritativeness and if publishing in an Educause periodical gives more authority to the writing than if it resides on the author's site. I also wonder if that can measured in some way. I readily admit I have bad ideas, lots of them. Some find their way into my blog. I don't want to instantaneously give authority to my ideas for this very reason.

So I wonder if my approach, throw out a whole bunch of stuff, one piece a day, and see what sticks, is a good one or if I should try to elevate some of the ideas that on re inspection I think are worth promoting and then bringing those to the journals.

But that is me now. As an assistant professor, would that be a good research strategy? For getting tenure, I doubt it is. A better strategy is for the next paper to in some ways be a derivative of the previous one and in that way carve out a niche and reputation for a certain type of work. Of course, this deep and narrow approach comes at the cost of less breadth. The blogging allows the author to dance all over the place. That is part of the attraction. One wonders if it is a good way to keep the research mind fertile.

2 comments:

Downes said...

I wonder if there are degrees of authoritativeness and if publishing in an Educause periodical gives more authority to the writing than if it resides on the author's site.

Nope. Why would it?

I also wonder if that can measured in some way.

The authority of an article can be measured. But not by its placement.

Look at the impact of an article. How many people link to it? How many people cite it? How many people would rate it as 'influential'?

I readily admit I have bad ideas, lots of them. Some find their way into my blog.

And some find their way into publications. The review process doesn't screen effectively for errors, and it entrenches other errors.

I don't want to instantaneously give authority to my ideas for this very reason.

This is a misperception. You don't give your articles authority. It is their impact on the community, and the community's reaction to them, that gives them authority.

When you say, "I don't want to give my ideas authority..." you are saying yhou know more about what is good and bad than the entire community.

Additionally, you are saying that there's no need to know the thought process behind a good idea, it's OK to present it as a finished product. No need to display the half dozen things that didn't work before you present the thing that did.

But this sort of context aides comprehension. If people don't already have a good feel for what you're up to, how will they know when you nail it?

When you tell them? No, that was back in version 14, the one you skipped on the way to the decidely mediocre (but published) version 36.

So I wonder if my approach, throw out a whole bunch of stuff, one piece a day, and see what sticks, is a good one or if I should try to elevate some of the ideas that on re inspection I think are worth promoting and then bringing those to the journals.

It's not a case of seeing what sticks. Reason and research don't work that way. It's doggedly worrying at a problem until a solution, and a way to describe the solution, works its way loose.

Journal editors, if they are smart, look for this. They don't wait for authors to send content in. They scan the blogosphere, listen to the conversations, and they take note of what has caught the attention of readers. And then they publish the post that did the trick.

Lanny Arvan said...

Stephen - thanks for the detailed comments in response to my post. I think I'm getting some of this, but not all. Part of where I'm still stuck is concern about word choice and part of this is still not fully understanding how the community comes to recognize a piece of work. Here are some questions to illustrate my issues.

(1) Is a blog post an "article" as in "journal article" or "newspaper article"?

Peer review matters, both as a filter and as a mechanism for framing argument and improving it. Ditto for having an editor on a piece of writing. Blog posts are not reviewed. Yet the readership may act in a similar way irrespective of the review process. (Some people who have linked to my stuff refer to the pieces as articles.) Does the readership rule? This is giving a different meaning to the word than I would attribute to it.

I have an internal filtering process, certainly, and can rely on it more or less extensively. I also can spend more or less time identifying other pieces that relate to my themes. And I can choose language in the writing that is more or less formal. These internal choices by me affect how the readers of the blog post will perceive it.

(2) Is there a difference between "influence" and "authority"?

One can be provocative in the writing and raise issues that are of broad interest that perhaps have not been put that way before. The raising of the issues is a necessary early step in getting the research done. But it is not a resolution of the problem.

One reason why I started my blog is that I perceived many of my colleagues in the profession to be acting as if the issues were resolved and I belieed that to be premature. Many of our core issues are still very much at the formative stage.

(3) How much time must elapse before a work is recognized as authoritative and what reactions by the community signify the authority of a work?

In the back of my head I have the scientific methoda as the validating mechanism. The original work proposes a hypothesis or a set of hypotheses. Others implement experiments to test these hypotheses. Unlike with laboratory experimentation, in the teaching and learning realm controlled experimentation is difficult if not impossible, but the experiments do provide evidence to confirm or refute the hypothesis nonetheless. After a body of experimentation has occurred, if the hypothesis seems not to have been refuted, the original work takes on an authoritative status.

That mechanism may be too restrictive. The community may very well come to believe something based on experiential but not experimental evidence and the key may be how the community reacts to the original work, not the process by which that reaction was generated.

But this is where I'm least comfortable with what you wrote.