The Sciences

Why more academics should blog (cuz you can!)

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMar 13, 2013 1:23 AM

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A citizen of the Republic of Letters Manypeople 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 Often these are years out of date.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.

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