Monday, September 24, 2007

OrgTheory's Take on the Blogger's Transformation of Scholarship

I very much like this post by Fabio Rojas of OrgTheory on how bloggers have transformed the academic sphere:

On presentations and blogging presentations:

Presentations are opportunities for people to recieve the advice they need to improve their work, in a setting that carries little risk. This is consistent with the idea that science has a component of professionalization, which as Elizabeth points out, assumes a degree of trust between speaker and audience, similar to a student and teacher. Blogging research talks seems consistent with the first view and inconsistent with the second view. My opinion is that one should be sensitive to what a workshop is about, but not let professional development become a shield against honest public critique.

There is another issue raised by presentation blogging. Traditionally, active researchers belong to an ”invisible college” of fellow scholars working on a topic who certifiy what counts as knowledge in an intellecual niche. The purpose of workshops is to vet your papers before they are submitted to the key journals. One benefit is that fellow researchers get a chance to point out flaws, which is what science is all about. Another benefit is strategic: by responding to comments of likely reviewers, or people in the network subscribing to similar views, an author improves their chances in the review process. The process is not full proof, but in areas with well defined boundaries and dense social ties, workshopping a paper in a few key places greatly increases the chance that your paper will appear competent and plausible to the people assigned to judge it.

This obviously raises issues for "live-blogging" colloquia and workshops. I enjoy and benefit from live-blogging, even if I can't do it myself. But I very much appreciate having a virtual seat in other conferences that I can't attend due to time, money, opportunity. But I do understand what Fabio is saying about how "works-in-progress" conferences are much more delicate to handle. It is one thing to live-blog a conference in which all the papers have been published, or all the panelists know that the session will be podcast, blogged, or otherwise publicly promoted. Indeed, panels on "blogging and scholarship" seem like there should be no expectation of privacy! But for others, particularly research conferences or works-in-progress, I think participants would get nervous about having their drafts discussed in so public a manner.

Again, perhaps this is a quirk of legal scholarship--we want to claim our ideas and works as intellectual property as soon as possible, and it's not like we publish research that is intended to be replicated and falsifiable. Also, because of our lack of peer review, the response-criticism comes after publication. Workshopping helps work out the kinks in our papers; but it's not necessarily the time for "public critique" that Rojas claims as a good. Perhaps this will change with the advent of more peer-reviewed journals and interdisciplinary scholarship, but for now it seems unlikely that public critique will enter into the early stages of legal scholarship, even if live-blogging is much more common now.

Also, there's the problem with writing about someone else's claimed, but yet-unpublished ideas. Is the communication of a work-in-progress at a workshop the same as "releasing into the public sphere for discussion" that goes with publication? Now that publication is a continuum--you can put up a draft on SSRN before you get published by a journal--when do you release your words to the wind? Is there a difference between circulating drafts among colleagues in the field and at your school vs. to an audience at a workshop, who may then live-blog it and extend the reach and number of reviewers? Does it matter who does the releasing? It is one thing if I post a draft on SSRN of a not-fully developed work; quite another for someone else to do it without my knowledge or express permission, whether on a blog or by forwarding my draft. There's that whole disclaimer on most "drafts" posted on SSRN: "this is a work-in-progress and may not be cited or circulated without express permission by the author." Ah, we legal eagles. Anyway---I hope that no one live-blogs my panel next week!

On the networking aspect of workshops and colloquia:

Presentation blogging has the potential to change this system because it provides a chance for the discipline at large to respond to a work. Public discussion allows scholars who are not in one of these “invisible colleges” to provide additional information about a project. A person might attend a presentation, or download a paper, and write a response, which then draws its own counter responses. As to be expected, most comments will be of little value, but by expanding the paper’s audience, there is a chance that a insightful person outside the network can point out flaws, or improve the paper in other ways. Furthermore, scholars inside the network can read these comments and develop a more refined view of the paper, and of their own work.

To borrow a phrase from Mark Granovetter, the review process for many papers is built on a network of strong ties, which creates redundancy of information. Presentation blogging creates the opportunity for weak ties among scholars, generating new information. Thus, for some papers, presentation blogging has the potential to transform the production of knowledge, from a system based on chains of presentations and reviews in circumsribed settings, to a system where the broader discipline becomes a source of criticism and insight.

I very much like this insight by Rojas. It is true that podcasting and live-blogging extend the reach of academia. Each subset of the AALS is a smaller network of scholars who tend to go to the same conferences, know each other and each other's work, and in many cases, have gone to school with each other (surprise, surprise, Top Five'rs). But the blogosphere has extended the reach of my network to include others who don't write in my particular field, and live-blogging conferences has exposed me to different scholarship and other areas of law. And I do like my virtual seat at the table at other conferences. And I am very much a fan of Granovetter's "the strength of weak ties" argument.

So, live-blog away, those of you who are so inclined at those conferences in which scholarship is shared at the end stages. For those of you are considering live-blogging works-in-progress colloquia or research conferences, then perhaps you should think a bit before blogging someone else's work. But that said, I don't think there's anything wrong with blogging a report on how the conference is going in general, who is presenting on which topic and what their general argument is, etc. If it's on the conference schedule of presenters, topics, and abstracts, then it is fair game. But as to more precise articulation of someone else's argument (things are lost in translation; presentations do not capture arguments as well as papers do; if the author wanted to publish a draft on SSRN they can do so themselves) as invitation for public discussion (again, who is doing the inviting), then I don't know. I'm just not sure at what stage the wider, bloggable "public critique" enters the discourse.


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