Andrea Novicki has published some of her notes on the session that I organized with Jason Goldman at ScienceOnline2012: "Blogging in the undergraduate classroom". I'll write up my own notes when I have some spare time, as it was a great session with many good experiences shared by the group of attendees.
This morning I read a notice from our Division of Continuing Studies, pointing to how their online resource library had received more than one million visits so far this year ("Vast distance education online resource open to all").
With more than one million page visits to the UW-Madison Continuing Studies online Distance Education Resource Library so far in 2011, no one can dispute that interest in online education is flourishing.
That is definitely something for the university to be proud of. But in breadth of outreach, I have a lot more impact writing alone here than the Distance Education Resource Library. Since the first of this year, my logs show 2.7 million visits here on this blog.
Naturally, the audiences are not the same, and total visits is a misleading comparison, since our sites have traffic with a long tail of one-time readers, and a small cadre of repeat visitors. Thanks to every one of you!
I don't track statistics like these to argue that one model is superior to another; they have different (and complementary) goals. Comparing the numbers is essential, though, because the comparison gives them perspective.
Traffic is one way to quantify a website's importance, but it is most useful to compare traffic among sites with similar missions. Saying that "I had XXX visits," may sound very impressive, but showing how that number compares between credible and well-known web resources makes the number into useful information. A blog can do spectacularly well relative to a fully resourced education outreach project.
MIT OpenCourseWare receives 1.5 million visits a month ("OCW Site Statistics"). Their offerings are uneven in quality, but they provide a unique service by archiving lectures as they are created.
I am investigating the technology to offer substantial open course elements here on my blog. This semester I began offering our laboratories from a section of this website, and my lecture slides have moved to Prezi, making them easily sharable. After a semester to try out the new format, I think we may be ready to move onward with a full scale open courseware approach.
So keep watching here over the next month, as I lay the groundwork for my spring course.
John Timmer's reporting on the rise and fall of the hypothesis that XMRV causes chronic fatigue syndrome is the best I've seen so far on the topic: "How a Collapsing Scientific Hypothesis Ended in an Arrest"
Something worth reminding: basic analysis of lab samples is often based on evolutionary theory:
The key piece of evidence came in an evolutionary analysis of XMRV origins. Researchers found that the most diverse group of XMRV sequences come from a single prostate cancer cell line called 22Rv1 that was grown in lab dishes. All of the XMRV sequences isolated from patients clustered within the evolutionary tree derived from the cancer cell line, meaning the ancestors of the viruses supposedly found in patients had all come from a single lab-grown cancer cell line. The clear implication is that the sequences came from the cell lines rather than patients.
There is much to say about the errors, retractions, and fraud involved in the story. I'll just point out that some of the key revelations of fraudulent analysis came from the blog erv, whose author Abbie Smith first reported that figures from a Science paper had been used in conference talks, relabeled with entirely different contexts added.
Daniel Lende reports on the AAA panel on Digital Anthropology: Projects and Platforms.
Golub also advocated for anthropology to embrace a home grown approach to our online projects. Rather than following a professionalization model – of chasing after something like Wiley-Blackwell and for-profit publishing backed up by money, law, and company clout – we should develop our tastier craft beer model. This home brew approach has greater potential to yield original voices, and will avoid the many compromises and limits that come with chasing after that professional platform dream. This advocacy for a “do it ourselves” approach is important, and was a major highlight of the overall session for me.
The panel brought together people working on many interesting projects, and Lende gives a nice description of each.
Zachary Cofran has been dissertation blogging about his work on dental development in robust australopithecines: "Data, development and diets". An interesting look at how the skimpy pattern of data in the fossil record can guide how research is developed.
I'm pointing to this because (a) one month is a much faster publication-to-citation conversion than is possible in print, and (b) Social Text is just one of those places where I didn't imagine I'd be cited.
Paul Krugman comments on how the growth in academic blogs in economics is a continuation of publication trends that long predate the World Wide Web: "Our blogs, ourselves".
First of all, policy-oriented research was never as centered on refereed journals as we liked to imagine. A lot of the discussion always took place via Federal Reserve and IMF working papers, and even reports from the research departments of investment banks. The rise and fall of Fed policy via targeting of aggregates, for example, was not a debate played out in the pages of the JPE and the QJE.
Second, even for more academic research, the journals ceased being a means of communication a long time ago – more than 20 years ago for sure. New research would be unveiled in seminars, circulated as NBER Working Papers, long before anything showed up in a journal. Whole literatures could flourish, mature, and grow decadent before the first article got properly published
It's a model worth examining, as Krugman notes the effect of blogs is to broaden the conversation to people who once were locked out of these conversations, but who are nevertheless affected by them.
Christie Wilcox makes a case that every lab should be doing science outreach on social media: "Social media for scientists Part 1: It's our job, and Part 2: You do have time. Her rationale is worth spreading:
Yes, part of the solution to this problem is to invest in better education. But even assuming we do that, we are ignoring the millions of Americans who are no longer in school. We can make the next generation more scientifically literate, but we have to consider the current generations, too. Adults over age of 35 never learned about stem cells, nanotechnology or climate change in school, so they depend on the media to learn what they need to know. These are the people who vote. They are the ones whose taxes pay for scientific funding. We need to reach out to them, and to do that we need their trust.
I'm not sure social media are necessarily the best way for most labs to make an impact on the public. You may do better working with other institutions, or by going into a collective with other labs. I know that one great way to increase your lab's profile is to get your department or program to set up a group blog, where the lab's home page is one contributor along with other labs. Two new posts a month, as Wilcox suggests, is a good start for a single lab but won't drive much interest; weekly or biweekly posts by a group of five labs would build much more attention.
Consultant and former humanities student James Mulvey offers advice for how to make your online writing have more impact: "Expand your blog's reach". Yes, I've been linking several former-academics-now-consultants lately. By leaving the cocoon, they've found ways to do some things better that academics do poorly. Plus, I liked his intro:
It’s March. I’m running a chainsaw, the Cantos of Dante pounding in my headphones over a techno beat. While this might seem like a confused union -- European trance music and high art -- for Robert Harrison’s small online audience it is just another typical opening segment for Entitled Opinions, a literary podcast. Topics range from the extraterrestrial origins of Jimi Hendrix’s musical genius to the ritual of sacrifice. Bizarre at times, pretentious for some, and unapologetically devoted to the aestheticism of literature, Entitled Opinions is not your traditional literary podcast. But it’s a show that has perhaps done more for promoting the humanities than any scholarly monograph in my recent memory.
You have to start doing something to make a difference...but when you start, you might use a little advice about how to get the word out.
(via Jason Antrosio)
An interesting conversation has emerged over the last few weeks on several economics and legal blogs, usefully encapsulated by Kim Krawiec at The Faculty Lounge, "Why Doesn’t Everyone Blog?" The point of departure is a series of analyses from Development Impact, showing that academic blogs in economics shape how people access the academic literature, scholars' reputations and influence, and institutional reputation. Strong social science stuff, and I'm linking because I think the science blogging ecosystem may benefit from similar self-examination (which I know some scholars are beginning).
Anyway, the obvious question: Why aren't these demonstrable benefits more widely encouraged?
What explains this disconnect between bloggers, nearly all of whom are convinced that their “nonsense” provides substantial professional benefits for themselves, their institutions, and the profession as a whole, and regular academics?
Tyler Cowen's reaction at Marginal Revolution, "Does blogging help one’s professional reputation as an economist?", includes the quip:
[W]hy do not more economists blog? I believe it is because they can’t, at least not without embarrassing themselves rather quickly, even if they are smart and very good economists. It’s simply a different set of skills.
Well, it is easy to embarrass oneself, but I don't think that's the explanation. I think it's generational, that there are a few pioneers with established careers making good use of the new forms of communication, and that younger people are more and more comfortable with them. They don't all call themselves bloggers, but they're changing how academia works.