Could blogs replace books? Michael Piotrowski reflects on the current scholarly debate surrounding immediacy and impact of academic work. A significant issue for blogs is the lack of formal recognition, largely down to the general lack of pre-publication peer review. Books are more formal in all respects, but this doesn’t disqualify blogs per se. Blogs and books have different strengths and weaknesses and should—at least for the time being—be seen as complementary.
This piece is in response to Science Blogging: back to the future – #wbhyp a call for Blog Parade (translation) on Redaktionsblog – part of the Hypotheses academic blog family.
In a previous post I publicized the (IMHO quite favorable) review of my book Natural Language Processing for Historical Texts by Laurent Romary in Computational Linguistics. This review ends with a rather peculiar conclusion:
As a whole, the book leaves the reader with a mixed feeling of enthusiasm and disappointment. Enthusiasm, because the content is so rich that it should serve as background reference (and indeed be quoted) for any further work on the creation, management, and curation of historical corpora. Still, I cannot help thinking that the editorial setting as a book is not the most appropriate setting for such content. The variety of topics that are addressed as well as the heterogeneous level of detail provided through the different chapters would benefit from a more fragmented treatment. Indeed, this would be the perfect content for a series of blog entries (for instance, in a scholarly blog such as those on the hypotheses.org platform) which in turn would allow an interested reader to discover exactly the topics they want information about and cite the corresponding entries. With the bibliography in Zotero and relevant pointers to the corresponding on-line corpora or tools, I could imagine the resulting content soon becoming one of the most cited on-line resources. I am sure the author would gain more visibility in doing so than having the material hidden on a library shelf or behind a paywall. Not knowing the exact copyright transfer agreement associated with the book, I cannot judge if it is too late for the author to think in these terms, but this could be a lesson for scholars who are now planning to write such an introductory publication. Is the book still the best medium?
In other words: The content of the book is great, but it should really be a series of blog posts.
I wasn’t surprised that Laurent’s review mentioned blogs. I had chatted with him on the phone some time before it was published, and he mentioned that he was writing a review of the book, and he also brought up blogs. I understood that he was concerned about keeping up with current developments, and I agreed that a “companion blog” would indeed be a good idea, and, following his suggestion, I created this blog on hypotheses.org.
When I read this, however, it boggled my mind. The idea Laurent proposes in the review was actually much more radical than I’d thought. The question, “Is the book still the best medium?” challenges not just the “editorial setting” of my book, but of scholarly books in general. Is the book still the best medium, or should it be replaced by blog posts and Zotero bibliographies? I find this an interesting but surprisingly hard question because so many different aspects come into play.
Books vs Blogs Image credit: unsplash.com and Erwin Verbruggen (CC BY-SA)
On a very general level, it sounds great. You just publish small units on your blog, and if it’s good, it’ll be noticed. This is basically the story Christof Schöch recounts in his post Anerkennung fürs Bloggen? Eine Geschichte über die Eigendynamik des Digitalen (‘Recognition for blogging? A story about the momentum of the digital’). It also takes out publishers, everything is freely available and open access, as the work of researchers has been payed for by the tax payer anyway. I agree that this is a great vision.
On a more specific, down-to-earth level, I have some problems with it, though, and I can relate to Anne Baillot’s post Auf einer Skala von 1 bis 10, so naja (‘On a scale from 1 to 10, so-so’). One important issue is—obviously—the lack of formal recognition, which is particularly important here in Germany because there are so few permanent academic positions. However, I don’t think blogging is unjustly denied formal recognition, and I fully agree with Mareike König’s “Appeal #2” in her post Wissenschaftsbloggen – quo vadis? Vier Aufrufe und zwei Lösungen (‘Academic blogging—quo vadis? Four appeals and two solutions’): Forget about academic recognition for blogs! There’s a good reason blogs don’t get formal academic recognition: the lack of peer review. Sure, in Utopia there may be post-publication review, but we’re not there yet.
On a personal level, and with respect to this book in particular, I’d add: I don’t have a permanent position yet, so I need all the recognition I can get for my work (and Laurent himself admits that this changes everything). Frankly, I don’t see myself telling a search committee, “but hey, I’ve written some really cool blog posts!” Unlike a blog, however, the book was peer–reviewed by the series editor and anonymous reviewers, so I do get formal academic recognition for it. In fact, I doubt Laurent would have written a formal review in a journal if I hadn’t written a book but just a series of blog posts—ironic, isn’t it?
This may sound apologetic, but may as well mention that I wrote this book in my own time, while I had a 50% position at the Law Sources Foundation. My work was neither payed for by tax payers in Switzerland nor in Germany. I’m all for open access and against publishers profiteering when the work has already been payed for by public funding, but I also believe that authors deserve some financial compensation for their work when this is not the case—and this would be difficult with a blog. Oh, by the way, you can find all the references from the book (and more) in my CiteULike bibliography (in particular, see the tag cultural_heritage).
There’s a lot more one could say, but I guess it’s time to come to some sort of conclusion. In my opinion, Blogs and books have different strengths and weaknesses and should—at least for the time being—be seen as complementary. Books are more formal in all respects, just like an oil painting is more formal than a graffito. So, a blog may get you street credibility, but for formal recognition, a book will be preferrable. However, and here I also agree with Mareike, this doesn’t disqualify blogs per se, it’s just that they aren’t suitable publication outlets for work for which you’d like to (or need to) get this formal recognition (one should also keep in mind that there lots of other things academics do for which they don’t get formal and immediate recognition).
I would be more conservative than Christof Schöch in estimating the payoff of blogs, but I wouldn’t go as far as Anne Baillot and actively discourage PhD students from blogging. The interesting thing about the “success story” in Christof’s post is that in the text he published was not designed as a blog post, but it was notes for a talk. This shows the flexibility of the blog as a publication outlet, and it also demonstrates a very pragmatic approach, which doesn’t require lots of effort: using it to publish stuff you couldn’t formally publish but which could still be interesting.
I would vehemently reject Anne Baillot’s notion that “Austausch ist kaum vertretbar, wo Konkurrenz herrscht” (‘exchange is not justifiable where there is competition’). It seems that this is a common and very unfortunate misconception in the humanities, which I don’t find, for example, in computer science. I can’t elaborate on this here, but I don’t think PhD students should be worried about people stealing their thesis topics because of a couple of blog posts (and if it does happen, I’m afraid the topic wasn’t that great anyway).
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Dr. Michael Piotrowski heads the Digital Humanities research group at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz, Germany. His main research interests are language technology for historical texts, document engineering, and semantic technologies for the humanities. He’s the author of the first text book on NLP for historical texts