To boldly go and spread it about

December 23, 2005

It's about time British academics blasted off into the blogosphere, argue Andrew Oswald and Mary Visser

It was a warm November afternoon in 1477 when the trouble began.

England's first printed book, The Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres , tumbled from the press, and communication in English was never quite the same again. The troublemaker's name: William Caxton.

Ideas and the written English word still combine today, as then, to stir humans either to passionate ire or to fervent acquiescence.

Black lettering on a white background is the primary vehicle by which important concepts have traditionally fought it out. Now, however, the new battlegrounds are websites and blogs.

What is happening and how does this matter to academia?

The concept of a personal website is fairly familiar. Within universities, blogs are a place where academics can publish their research or write a mini- polemic, technical or non-technical, for their readers. Indeed the young wonder how we survived before the internet.

Yet many academics still have no real working website, and some may not appreciate the way that news of their work might spread if they did.

A blog, in case you have rarely run into one, is an evolving web-based journal that generally allows readers to post comments. Blogs can, therefore, become productive debating chambers in cyberspace.

Great universities need great ways to share knowledge. The quality of information technology in a university is today fundamental to its chances of success. The best institutions will leave behind the mediocre partially because they have a clearly conceived, and carefully delivered, IT strategy. So universities have to make good predictions about the top technologies and then back them with cash. Furthermore, the leading universities need to invest before their customers demand the latest and greatest.

To get a feel for the future, it is hard to better a pithy introduction to one of the world's most famous blogs, the Becker-Posner blog, set up by two University of Chicago scholars in 2004. Its opening words defined blogging as a major new social, political and economic phenomenon, describing it as an "exemplification of Friedrich Hayek's thesis that knowledge is widely distributed among people and that the challenge to society is to create mechanisms for pooling that knowledge". The internet enables the instantaneous pooling (and hence correction, refinement and amplification) of the ideas and opinions, facts and images, reportage and scholarship generated by bloggers.

Both economist Gary Becker and Judge Richard Posner are pro-market thinkers. They argue for the efficiency of competition, and their blog, as they see it, is an example of how to compete in a global market of opinions.

Our hunch is that more UK academics would benefit from regularly putting up their work and comments on a blog. If the purpose of an academic is to be in the ideas business, a personal website with only a picture and a list of courses taught is not much use.

We speak from experience. One of us runs a site - mixing newspaper articles and technical research papers - that generates a flow of responses from countless nations at strange hours of the day. One of the nicest things is that on most mornings there is an e-mail from a Thai professor, American journalist or Australian undergraduate suggesting something or fiercely disagreeing with an idea on the site.

Of course blogging is still new. Whether blogs will ultimately transform or displace the personal website nobody knows for certain. The data show that students like blogging. Uptake at universities such as ours has been high - and it has been intriguing to watch how students have adopted, adapted and occasionally corrupted the medium for their own purposes.

It is no surprise that most of our academics are only just beginning to experiment with blogs. Will it ultimately be a vibrant technology for them too?

First, blogging is in tune with the culture of higher education. It is egalitarian. It embodies the principle of academic freedom. Chat that spans disciplines and continents is easily facilitated.

A recent debate on a student blog, for instance, talked about whether the subject of economics was now unspeakably boring and suggested that the new psychological research on economics might rescue the subject from its technical tedium. Blogs give students a place to complain productively on air.

Second, blogging aligns with the modern outward-looking aims of higher education, such as raising a university's international profile.

Publishing in a blog is also immediate. This is not a medium for peer-reviewed contributions to the academic debate. Different protocols apply. This is where the academic can be a semi-journalist for a while and communicate more freely. Half-formed ideas can be floated to see if they inspire or evoke comment and response. Once in a while, they will tap into the Zeitgeist and gain intellectual momentum.

Third, blogs are easy to use and the technology is now sufficiently flexible, reliable and scalable to evolve with academic demand.

So what is holding academics back? Some will fear the overhead of maintaining a blog. They will see the blog as a treadmill that, once started, must be updated daily. In practice, there is no compulsion to update a blog unless you have something to say.

A potential worry in novices' minds is that their blog will have crazy or rude things posted by readers. Our experience with student blogs is that it is the exception for an entry to be annotated with defamatory, racist or otherwise inappropriate comments, and anyway these can easily be deleted.

Some will feel that their discipline is just not suitable for blogging.

Physicists are not yet likely to publish their Catherine Zeta Particle discovery on a blog. So far, a preponderance of academic bloggers come from fields within social science and the humanities. Politics, economics, English and philosophy are the best represented. Perhaps it is easier for these areas to find resonances within popular culture.

One fear, that intellectual property will be stolen, is potentially real.

Researchers will want to be careful that premature publicity does not scupper the chances of later publication. On the other hand, reference to an archived blog entry might one day enable proof of authorship to a ground-breaking thought. Again, this is an area where practice varies across disciplines.

We believe British academics would gain from having active websites and should at least consider going boldly into the blogosphere.

Andrew Oswald is professor of economics and Mary Visser is deputy director of information technology at Warwick University.


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