The Value of Blogs in Academia

11Feb07

Professor Trodden at Cosmic Variance has asked the blogosphere how academia can best incorporate blogs as part of the educational and research community. This is a topic of particular interest to me (at to a few of you) and I reproduce the comment that I left below. I’ve recently been thinking about how current and forthcoming ‘net technologies can be better implemented in the academic community, and I hope to write more about this when I have a chance.

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Dear Professor Trodden,

In ‘the big picture,’ it is important to note that the blogs are a major part of the social networking aspect of ‘The Web 2.0.’ That is to say that one cannot only speak about the potential of a single blog, but must consider the entire network (the “blogosphere”).

The most efficient interface to the blogosphere is RSS. Through RSS readers users can subscribe to any number of blogs that they wish to keep up with. New posts are compiled by the RSS reader (e.g. Google Reader) so that users don’t have to manually check each blog to see if they have been updated. Thus new posts are delivered to a single place like e-mail or a magazine subscription.

This is where the democracy of information becomes relevant. Anyone can start a blog and post anything. However, end-users (i.e. readers) ultimately have the power to subscribe/unsubscribe. Thus users can pick only quality content of interest to keep up with, providing incentive for bloggers to uphold content standards while discouraging poor blogs that nobody would read.

Within a community (say, the Physics Blogosphere), blogs become known through trackbacks and links. This naturally occurs as part of the discussion that occurs in the blogosphere. As a secondary consequence, it introduces users to other blogs to further strengthen the network.

The most important aspects of the blogosphere, I think, are the simultaneous opportunities to share useful information and to discuss it. Through RSS users only need to subscribe to the voices in the dialogue that they choose to; for example, a high school student may choose to focus on public-outreach blogs, while a researcher may choose to keep up with ‘arXiV discussion’ blogs.

The benefits of this kind of discussion and information dissemination are priceless for those who utilize it. Through eprintweb users can have new arXiv preprint abstracts delivered to their RSS reader along with their blog subscriptions, making the chore of checking the arXiv as easy as picking up the morning newspaper. The arXiv has also recently experimented with trackbacks, which — if implemented carefully — could interface the arXiv with the discussion of the blogosphere. This type of discussion already occurs in blogs such as CV and is incredibly helpful since one of the responsibilities of physicists (as early as grad students) is to keep abreast of new papers. With the wider physics blogosphere participating in a discussion of new eprints, one is able to have a better sense of ‘hot’ and ‘interesting’ new papers than if one were only skimming abstracts independently with only cursory background knowledge.

Perhaps an idealized situation is something like this:

A graduate student wakes up in the morning to check his/her RSS feeds. The student skims through his arXiv feeds (say, hep-ph and hep-th) and tags one or two articles relevant to his research for later reading. He also finds a new post from a physics blogger about a nwe paper in astro-ph that is tangentially related to his/her research. The student reads the blogger’s “for a general physics audience” summary, which is much more understandable than the paper’s abstract. He decides that this paper is also something he should read in the near future, but is concerned because he doesn’t have the proper astrophysics background to properly digest the paper. Luckily the blogger who made the original post also provided links to review articles on the topic, which the student also bookmarks for later printing and reading. Realizing that this paper may be of wider relevance to his research group, he puts a link on his groups private research blog with his own preliminary thoughts. Later in the day another graduate student in the group, who happens to be away giving a talk at another university and so must communicate remotely, posts a comment in the private blog asking a question regarding the derivation of a particular equation in the paper. There is some discussion and eventually the PI posts a comment with a proper derivation (the blog is LaTeX enabled!).

Down the line other blogs discuss this paper, which has generated discussion in the blogosphere. The graduate student can now ask questions or contribute more generally to the blogosphere discussion from his group’s own perspective. Some of his comments generate a suggestion from a reputable professor-blogger that he attend a local conference to hear about other related developments. At the conference, this student — who has been keeping abreast of current research topics through the discussion on the blogosphere — is able to communicate effectively with other researchers, leading to invitations to give talks at other universities and perhaps ultimately a postdoc offer down the line.

Perhaps elsewhere there is an undergrad who, while reading outreach blogs, finds a link to the original discussion or the paper on the blogosphere and is inspired to look into the subject. Despite not having as strong a background as a graduate student, she is able to get the main idea of the research and decides to get involved as an undergraduate research student in a similar topic at her own university. Perhaps when she begins to look at graduate programs she will be slightly more familiar with which schools are active in her field of research.

It is possible that this student also periodically maintains a blog of her academic interests. She decides to write about her graduate school decisions, being careful to write diplomatically about individual institutions, but describing in detail the factors that she decided were important and which were not. She includes tips on how to polish a fellowship application or how to be prepared for a grad school open house. Down the line other undergraduates find this post and bookmark it, taking the advice to heart for their own grad school applications.

Let me take the story one level further and connect two different scales. Suppose the original grad student’s PI contributes regularly to a physics-outreach blog. The PI may make a comment or two about the paper that generated all of the above commotion, but may also choose to write about the process by which all of this is occuring — i.e. sharing the story of how research is done and what ‘real scientists’ do on a day to day basis. Somewhere around the world a high school student is surfing the blogosphere and finds the posts and gets a glimpse of what it’s like to be a physicist. Out of curiosity the high schooler subscribes to the blog feed and, over the course of time, it breaks down many of the misconceptions the student had about scientists being antisocial or strange. Of the hundreds of students who may have similar experiences, perhaps one or two choose to pursue physics in college, thus starting the cycle once again.

In summary:

  1. The blogosphere (not just individual blogs) is also a relevant entity to consider when deciding how blogs fit into academia.
  2. RSS is the relevant interface for dealing with the blogosphere, where blogs subscribed to or unsubscribed from based on the quality of its content. (”The content of its character,” if you will.)
  3. Blogs are an effective method for information dissemination and discussion, where information and discussion are spread through the larger blogosphere network through links. Interfacing with eprint servers like the arXiv are a way to generate academic discussion.
  4. Different types of blogs (subsets of a community’s blogosphere) appeal to different individuals involved in academia, spanning the gamut from high school students to professors. The cross-linking within the larger community blogosphere is important to maintaining a robust network.
  5. The net effect is that blogs can be used as an extension of in-person collaboration, a research tool within a group, an ongoing academic discussion about new papers, a vehicle for outreach, etc.



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