I just came back from Deidesheim, a small town (yet with an oddly epic entry in English Wikipedia — what’s up with that?) located in an area of Germany best known for its excellent Riesling, where I participated in the annual meeting of the SciLogs blogging community. My role in Deidesheim, together with my colleague Merja Mahrt, was to nominate a blogger for the SciLogs ’12 best blog award (here’s the winner!) and to give a talk on research on scholarly blogging (slides below).
The past ten days have been a whirlwind tour of sorts, with no less than three (!) different events related to scholarly/science/research blogging that I attended, and I want to take a moment and reflect on some of the things that were discussed and record a few thoughts they provoked.
So let’s start with a list of the events.
Weblogs in the Humanities, Munich
Last week, I presented at the conference Weblogs in den Geisteswissenschaften (Weblogs in the Humanities), organized by the Deutsche Historische Institut Paris and supported by hypotheses.org, a platform operated by Cléo, a section of the CNRS. The newly launched portal de.hypotheses.org is aimed at the German-speaking scholarly community and follows the model of its French parent. Weblogs (or carnets de recherche, as they are branded under the hypotheses label) are more widely read in France than they are in Germany, a factor which I think partly explains their uptake. Another key to their success seems to be the way they are supported, for example, each blog is provided with an ISSN, making it easier to cite. As part of the editorial team behind de.hypotheses.org, I’m excited to see whether the platform will succeed and follow in the footsteps of its French counterpart, which hosts an impressive 300 scholarly blogs. The conference was certainly an indicator that the topic is on a lot of people’s radar. More detailed reports from the event can be found here (keynote speaker Melissa Terras, in English), here (Wenke Bönisch, in German) and here (Anton Tantner, also in German). During a break, I had the chance to interview Melissa for my postdoc project and was myself interviewed for the German Humanities portal LISA. Thank You to Melissa for taking the time to chat with me and to Georgios Chatzoudis for asking some very thought-provoking questions!
Symposia on e-Social Science, Oxford
Next I flew to England for the first time in several years, to visit the Oxford Internet Institute and attend two events, Social Science and Digital Research: Interdisciplinary Insights and Digital Social Research: A Forum for Policy and Practice. There was also a dinner on Monday to mark the formal ending of the Oxford e-Social Science Project and a breakfast on Tuesday morning, where the Euorpean Commission’s SESERV project was discussed and recommendations on how to integrate e-social science methods into teaching and research more closely were formulated. All of theses events were related to the Oxford e-Social Science project in one way or another, therefore the aspect of digital scholarly communication was just one facet of that larger theme. People had a broad discussion of research and teaching practices in the social sciences and how e-science fits into the mix. I found Christine Borgmann‘s keynote on reproducibility very thought-provoking. We take it for grandted that open data will make the research process more transparent and hopefully this is true, but what reproducibility actually amounts to is widely contested and especially tricky in the context of the human and social sciences.
SciLogs Meeting 2012, Deidesheim
After my visit to Oxford, it was on to Deidesheim via Düsseldorf. The SciLogs meetup was yet a different event than both the Munich conference and the symposia in England. SciLogs is comparable to scienceblogs.com in that it’s run by a publisher (Spektrum der Wissenschaft), who has launched it largely as a source of popular science content and that it has an orientation towards the natural sciences (though there are also blogs on history, linguistics and a variety of other fields). It was exciting to chat with people who have been involved in science blogging for years and to learn more about what drives them. I was particularly impressed by the enthusiasm that the sciloggers have for their blogs and their readers. Blogging is hard work (as the gracial pace of my postings here illustrates…) and Spektrum Verlag can be quite proud of the community it has built around the idea of better informing people about scientific research.
Below are some somewhat random points that I found noteworthy.
Scholarly/academic/science/research blogs are written by a wide variety of people (e.g. scholars, journalists, librarians, science enthusiasts), for a wide range of audiences (e.g. self, peers, people in the same field, practitioners, politicians, general public) with a variety of purposes in mind (self-fulfillment, knowledge management). It’s important not just to regard them exclusively as a form of science communication, but to see the many roles they take on for a range of users.
Just as scholarly bloggers and their topics are a diverse bunch, readers and commentators of S/a/s/r blogs have different reasons for visiting and participating. A key motivation among commentators could be that they can add their view to a post. This may seem obvious, but it’s interesting for several reasons. For example, there is fairly little dialogue going on in posts that have a lot of comments. The commentators simply add their take and then leave, without engaging with the blogger or with each other. Debates that do have a lot of actualy discussion sometimes devolve into arguments between individual users that have little to do with the original post. This isn’t a bad thing, but it illustrates that it’s a bad idea to give in to the temptation that a large number of comments translates into success. Or, perhaps speaking of personal success is alright as long as one doesn’t mistake it for societal impact. Another thing is the relation of commentators and readers. It’s not trivial to figure out whether fewer comments means less attention on the part of readers.
In order to play a role in main-stream scholarly communication, as it is still conducted primarily via monographs and journals, scholarly blogging must integrate some of the conventions that exist in these forms (quality control, long-term availability of content, citability), if it is to succeed as a formal genre of scholarly communication, while preserving its intrinsic strengths (speed and simplicity of publication, the potential of interaction via comments, the ability to embed images, video, audio, data and code, the ability to link and quote, the ability to track one’s impact via metrics). The adaptation can happen in multiple ways, and it only applies to formal scholarly communication — what happens informally or for other purposes remains uneffected, as does blogging about science by journalists or hobbyists. Blogging about science and scholarship is obviously in the public interest. The question is, should this be left to the researcher, or should it be incentivized by institutions? As Klaus Graf put it somewhat radically at the conference in Munich, is a researcher who doesn’t blog a bad researcher?
I’ve already shared this bit of personal news with a few friends and colleagues, but I thought I’d blog about it as well — especially since I’m woefully behind on my Iron Blogger schedule.
After a fairly long time in the making, I have been awarded a three-year research grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) for the project Networking, visibility, information: a study of digital genres of scholarly communication and the motives of their users (summary in German on the DFG’s site). The project investigates new forms of scholarly communication (especially blogging and Twitter) and their role for academia. My key concerns are usage motives, i.e. why scholars use blogs and Twitter, and how these motives correspond with usage practices (how they blog and tweet), rather than how many researchers use these channels of communication or what makes them refrain from using them (see this blog post and the study mentioned in it for that kind of work). My main methods will be qualitative interviews with a sample of 20-25 blogging and/or tweeting academics, along with in-depth content analysis of the material they post in these channels over a prolonged period (>1 year). Identifying usage patterns and relating them to the participants’ narrative about their use will be another key objective. Ultimately, I hope to find a (tentative) answer to the question what role blogs and Twitter may play for the future of digital scholarship, and whether they will remain a niche phenomenon or become mainstream over time.
The project follows up on my work on corporate blogging and connects strongly to what we have been doing at the Junior Researchers Group “Science and the Internet” over the past year, but the focus on interviews should result in a more user-centric analysis. As someone who has been doing (applied) linguistic analysis to make inferences about social processes, I feel much more comfortable actually talking to the people I want to study, rather than just crunching numbers on how they tweet. Big data social science research is obviously and understandably en vogue these days, but I hope to find a good synergy between qualitative and quantitative approaches in my project.
My new institutional home for the next three years will be the Berlin School of Library and Information Science at Humboldt University. I’m grateful to Michael Seadle for supporting my project and really look forward to working with my new colleagues at IBI (that’s the German acronym, which, as far as I can tell, is preferred to its more entertaining English equivalent). I also look forward to working with colleagues from the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG) where I’m currently supporting the project Regulation Watch. Finally, I plan to keep in close contact with the colleagues in Düsseldorf, both at the Junior Researchers Group and the Department of English Language and Linguistics, where I have learned virtually everything I know about being a researcher. I am especially indebted to Dieter Stein for his enduring support and for his contagious enthusiasm for all aspects of scholarship.
Sic itur ad astra!
For an overview of previous work I’ve done in this direction, have a look at my publications.
Most importantly, our weblogs became tools with which to think about our research, its values, connections and links to other aspects of the world. They altered the way in we approached online communication, and have influenced the writing of both dissertations. This is the motivation for this article: a need to look at what weblogs do to our academic thinking. (p.251)