Evaluating the blog-article experiment

Last week I tried out Rolf Hut’s idea of academic publishing in the form of a blog post, rather than an article. I did this by rewriting an existing article into a blog post.

Having let a couple of days pass, I thought now would be a good moment to collect my thoughts and evaluate my experience.

Let’s start with the numbers: the original article has about 3,000 words. This was determined by the highly accurate method of copy and pasting the entire text from the pdf into Word, so it may not be entirely accurate, but it should be good enough. The blog post (excluding the explanatory pre-amble) was only 1,000 words. In other words, I’ve definitely succeeded in making the article shorter. The question of course is whether I’ve lost any essential details. I don’t think so, but I do have some caveats.

I spent a lot fewer words on the details of my test set-up and data analysis procedure. This makes the paper an easier read for people who are somewhat interested in what I concluded, but harder for people who need all the details. The latter group will now have to track down several different references. That wouldn’t be hard, because I embedded direct hyperlinks in the text, but it does mean switching between different documents / web sites to get the full picture. I think this trade-off between a streamlined story and providing all the detail is inherent in Hut’s proposal. After all, chopping up the paper into units that are published in different places is a big part of it.

I noticed when writing the post that I adopted a much more informal writing style. I think this makes the text more pleasant to read. Of course, in principle there’s nothing preventing me from adopting that same style in a journal article. Well, apart from reviewers complaining the language is too informal (and yes, that is a thing that happens unfortunately). As they say though: the medium is the message, and I do think writing a blog post, rather than a journal article, does encourage a ‘looser’ style.

Where there any downsides? Not really. The main annoyance was the lack of a good ‘cite-while-you-write’ reference manager, but that could easily be fixed by writing the post in Word first, rather than directly in the WordPress editor. I’m also sure that if this type of academic blogging takes off, tools like that would be developed.

So, having had this experience, would I consider publishing solely via blog posts? For the moment, the answer is no. The main reason for that is the findability of my posts. My field still has a very small online presence; e.g. I haven’t been able to find anyone on Twitter doing research on my topic, despite some 700 attendees at the last conference I went to. I know that if I publish my work in certain journals it will attract attention. If I just publish it as a blog, especially here on my own cite, I doubt as many people will find it, even if Google Scholar did index it.

Another issue is that I need to get grants to fund my work, and at the moment funding agencies still think journal impact factor is an important criterion. Using a journal level metric to judge individual articles is in my opinion a rather silly practice. However, as an ‘early career researcher’, it is also the reality I have to live with. I’m all for trying out new ideas, but I’m not going to risk my career for them.

I will however, consider turning all my future articles into blog posts and publishing those ‘side-by-side’ -copyright permitting- and see how that goes.

A third issue I have with the blog publishing model is the issue of archiving. Although this also goes for all digital-only publications. Journals that are published on paper have copies distributed in hundreds of libraries all over the world. At the moment, if I want to read a hundred year old paper, I can ask our library staff to get the journal out of the basement, regardless of whether the publisher is still in business. But will you still be able to read this blog post 20 years from now? Let alone 100. After all, I’m not even paying WordPress for this account. I certainly doubt you will be able to read this should WordPress ever go bankrupt. This is not an insurmountable problem of course, but I do think it needs to be carefully considered if we move to any form of digital-only publication.

To end on a more positive note: I think a benefit of blogging that Hut failed to mention was comments. Comments allow people to react to an article, in the best case leading to discussion with the article’s authors and other interested researchers.Science advances by the debates and discussions that surround new findings, and I think blog comments offer a new way of continuing those debates. Of course proper moderation of these discussions will be essential, especially for controversial subjects like climate change.

All in all publishing in blog form is an interesting experiment, and I hope it will manage to take off. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts as well. Did you read both my paper (it’s open access) and the post? If so, which do you prefer, and why? And what do you think about the future of the blog-article? Let me know in the comments below.




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