Over the last year I have seen several blog posts and articles discussing the merits of being an academic blogger, most recently this piece by Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson (HT: John Hawks). Having been blogging on my research interest – the intersection of economics and evolutionary biology – for around two years now, I thought I would offer an interim assessment.
I am a PhD student at the University of Western Australia, studying an area that no-one in Australia (as far as I am aware) specialises in. Beyond my supervisors, who themselves have not researched in the area before, I am relatively isolated from a community of colleagues and collaborators. There is no shortage of people at UWA who are interested in the topic, but the task of finding people who are both interested and engaged enough to spend the time critiquing my ideas has been difficult. One of the primary reasons I started the blog was to build that a group of virtual supervisors who could do just that. While I could have (and did) engage with some people by email, blogging about my material and ideas has allowed me to find a small a network of people who are willing to comment on my papers, give advice and to engage with ideas. Most of them I would not have found through other means.
Beyond the narrow interest of producing my PhD thesis, this network has led to a few opportunities that would never have otherwise arisen. One great outcome is a conference bringing together economists and evolutionary biologists (announcement not too far away I hope) that I am now involved in planning. The idea emerged completely through a contact made via this blog.
Blogging is also part of my commitment to openness. I release my working papers before publication, and it is exposure through the blog that leads to them being read. I like the idea of publishing my work in open access journals and intend to publish in them where I can, but that is unlikely to happen regularly before I am happily ensconced in a tenured academic position. But through blogging and public release of my working papers before I submit them for publication, my ideas are readily available, even if the final product is behind closed doors.
On the negative side, blogging has slowed down my rate of writing for other purposes. Partly that is because I am heavily time constrained – I work four days a week and am a part-time PhD student with a goal of submission at the end of this year (making it four and a half years for completion). My evenings and weekends are precious and an hour of blogging is one hour less of paper writing. But with my blogging, my writing is of higher quality and, importantly, is being read. That said, much of my blogging often finds its way back into my other work. When I need a short summary of a paper, I often have one at hand. Blogging is also a major source of ideas. Most items on my list of new paper ideas have come from development of a blog post.
My favourite part about blogging, however, is the way it sharpens my thinking. I want to put ideas out into the public domain, debate them, have them swatted down at times, and see them become stronger and more robust. When I am putting together a post, I think about the people who read the blog and I imagine how they will critique it. Many times I have written something and realised I didn’t believe it or couldn’t justify it, and didn’t post it. It’s a realisation you may not come to if you simply play with the ideas in your head. Of course, many times my posts have still been swatted down. But it is more efficient to have ideas knocked down in the blogging stage than during peer review.
I have also found blogging particularly useful in analysing other people’s work. As an example, I’d been aware of Ashraf and Galor’s paper on genetic diversity and economic growth for a few years, but I never understood the building blocks of their argument until I decided to put together my series of posts on the paper.
From here, my intention is to keep blogging, but I have not decided what form it will take. This largely reflects the uncertainty of what I will be doing beyond completion of my PhD at the end of this year. However, I like to think that as long as I am actively researching, I will be putting that material into the public sphere through a blog.