Thursday, January 29, 2015

Why Books and Articles Anyway?

Inspired by the intersection of Patrick Dunleavy's post on academic blogging, and Andrew Sullivan's farewell to the blogosphere a month later, as well as my own tortured struggle with the long form, I've decided to consider the possibility of a research environment with no requirement of writing books or even journal articles. I don't mean a world without these things, nor even that books and articles be banned from academia, only that they stop being a necessary part of the job. Some academics would write books on occasion; a few more would pen an "original article" or essay under some form of editorial oversight, perhaps even peer-review. But most academics would no longer communicate this way. Instead, in addition to their research and teaching, an academic career would make essential use of a blog and a Wikipedia editing account.

First, then, academics would basically take it upon themselves to keep "the encyclopaedia that anyone can edit" as informative as absolutely possible on whatever subject they happen to be knowledgeable. They would edit in their own names, and their contributions would be visible to anyone, including prospective students and hiring committees. Also, their peers would get a good sense of their intellectual character by negotiating with them directly about what belongs in any given Wikipedia article or sub-article. Keep in mind that there's basically no limit to the granularity that Wikipedia affords. There can be an article on every planet in the known universe, every country on each of them, and every book written on its soil. We just have to let scholars organise them into, among other things, the relevant national literatures. (Or however else they want to organise it.) If academics took this responsibility upon themselves they'd quickly dominate the editing on many subjects, though they'd have to deal with the suggestions of laymen and journalists, too. I think it would be healthy.

But every scholar should also have a platform for free expression of their own ideas, unconstrained by the demands of "consensus" among (like I say, increasingly academic) Wikipedians. To this end, they should each have a blog. Anyone who's worth anything intellectually should be able to maintain a blog, posting something interesting and cogent at least once a week. This would amount to putting their ideas out there for criticism by interested peers. Since we're talking about specialists, here, the readerships would be manageable, I think, as would the pace of the conversation. I sympathise with Sullivan about needing to get off-line, but his audience is also huge compared to mine. Most academic blogs would have only dozens of readers, but they'd be really, really good ones. They'd be peers. As is already the case in academia, some blogs would be widely read by many people, others would be largely unknown. Presumably, this would correspond to the relative status of the blogging scholar.

Under this system, which (as Patrick Dunleavy has emphasised) would be entirely free (though one wonders if Blogger, Typepad, Wordpress and the WikiMedia Foundation might not think to charge the universities for the bandwidth and storage space at some point), it would not be at all difficult to determine who should be hired and promoted and receive tenure. Everyone's scholarship would be an, if you'll allow it, "open book", that they could begin to work on already in grad school. (I'm not ready to do away with the dissertation, however.) When looking for a job, you'd just write a letter pointing to your best work, which the committee would then simply verify online. There'd be an interview, of course. You'd still have to hold a lecture, etc. But no one would have to care about how many "peer-reviewed, top-tier publications" you've produced. The quality of your mind would be much easier to assess by looking at your online contributions and behaviour.

For highly competitive positions at top universities one might also look at stats. Blogs have easily quantifiable and comparable traffic, and Wikipedia provides some quite detailed user stats in addition, of course, to logging every single edit you make (even the one's that don't stay in the article). The system could probably be gamed, but remember that the decision-makers could just resolve to let a great deal hinge on the actual writing of the applicant, only using stats in a few extreme cases, where all the applicants are known to be real people, with real networks.

Obviously, a PhD student looking for their first tenure-track position would not need a substantial online profile. But after ten years as an associate professor, you should probably have at least 300 blog posts, created a dozen or so Wikipedia pages, and have a demonstrable presence in discussions, if you're looking for a raise. (Those are off the cuff benchmarks. Different standards would develop in different fields in practice.) Basically, we'd be talking about a system that rewards academics for making their knowledge available to everyone all the time, who are willing to discuss their ideas, and who have a proven track-record of admitting when they're wrong.

Yes, like I say, every now and then you want someone to write "the book" on the subject to recenter the discussion or move it forward. And more often you want someone who really masters the form to write a good paper about something. But for the most part, a scholar's contribution can be made more efficiently. Okay, this is very much a blog post: written quickly and off the top of my head. I'm sure I'm missing something here, but I thought I'd put the idea out there. Have at it.


Jonathan said...

What we're missing here is the area between the factual / basic information, which you don't even need a real scholar to compile, and the hyperspecialized / esoteric. For example, I can write something that just lays out what's actually there, but in a highly original way. It is authoritative, the product of specialized knowledge, but also what anyone else should have come up with if they simply saw what was in front of them. There is a reason why wikipedia is the province of amateurs, and why it needs to be. I think I'd also insist that the blog is an area for experimentation and development, and that the traditional article / book is where that comes to fruition.

Thomas said...

But we agree that scholarship coming to fruition is much rarer than the vast amount of published books and articles would have us think, right? Like I say, I'm not against books and articles as such. I just think most scholars, most of the time, really only have their ongoing, tentative experiments to report on, or some new way of reframing basic facts by connecting them to other basic facts.

The great thing about Wikipedia is that scholars can go there to see what laypeople are being told about their subject. They can then correct it if need be and engage directly in dialogue with the amateurs who hold the mistaken view. It's one long teachable moment.

I think editing Wikipedia and writing blog posts should be commonplace scholarly activities. While publishing a paper should be quite rare, and books rarer still. The main pressure to do so, at present, is that we can't think of any other way to make hiring and tenure decisions. What I'm suggesting is that a public record of a scholars experimentation and development, as well as their contribution to the everyone's understanding of the basic facts, can perhaps serve as a basis for most such decisions in the future. More than adequate for staffing maybe 90% of our universities with competent, interesting teachers.

Andrew Gelman said...


This one's worth a longer discussion. As you might recall, I had two posts last year on Why do I keep publishing in journals (see here and here).

How does blogging fit in? I'm not sure.