Academia online

The Australian’s Higher Education supplement today has a piece by Bernard Lane on academic blogging (quoting Mark B and Ken P), and another piece by yours truly on why academics should put papers on their websites, and blog, if so inclined.

My opening line (“In 1989, Australia a technician at Melbourne University named Robert Elz switched on the internet.”) seems to have been omitted by the sub-editor, so the full text is over the fold.

Don’t miss out on the world library, The Australian, 21 June 2006 

In 1989, Australia a technician at Melbourne University named Robert Elz switched on the internet. At the other end of the link was a University of Hawaii academic, Dr Torben Nielsen. His first words were: “Link is up…”.
 
Seventeen years on, the internet offers unprecedented opportunities for academics to engage with the world. By using websites to post working papers and finished articles, and blogs to engage in discussions with the broader public, the internet may potentially be the largest change in the way that academics convey ideas since the invention of the printing press.
 
Making academic work available on one’s own website has many advantages. As undergraduates, postgraduates and the general community increasingly turn to search engines such as Google Scholar, work that is readily accessible is more likely to be read and cited. A spate of studies has shown that making articles available online boosts citations by 50 to 250 percent. If you want to have your articles cited in other countries and other disciplines, your best bet is to post them on your website.
 
Despite the clear benefits of posting articles online, only about one-seventh of the research conducted by Australian academics is freely available on their websites. Go to the typical Australian academic’s website, and you will see a list of their publications in chronological order. While a website with full-text papers says to the reader: “Here are my papers – please read them”, a stale bibliography is more like saying: “I have written some clever papers – you should go to a library and read them”. To a reader who does not have access to a library, work that is not online might as well not exist.
 
A standard excuse for academics failing to post their papers on their websites is that copyright law prevents it. Yet as advocates of open access have pointed out, 93 percent of journals have policies that permit authors to post a copy of an article on the author’s own website. Of the remaining few, most have no objections to authors posting a pre-publication version of their article. In disciplines where books are the norm, academics can often obtain the consent of their publisher to post a sample chapter, or a link to the full-text version at Google Books.
 
Just as the printing press helped speed the decline of Latin, so too the internet is undermining existing ways of conveying information. As Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin observes, the “wired intelligentsia” now assume that “they can find out pretty much anything on Google”. For academics who are willing and able to make their research Google-friendly, the internet offers plenty of new opportunities for conveying ideas to a broad audience. But it also suggests that libraries could be going the way of their card catalogues.
 
For those raised on the virtues of careful scholarly research, the declining patronage of libraries may seem a disturbing development. Common to most social scientists is a love of libraries – where the bliss of browsing is exceeded only by the delight of discovering the perfect volume. For centuries, the received wisdom of academia has been that carefully trawling through books and hard copies of journals is a necessary condition for producing high-quality scholarly output. Today, there are fewer reasons than ever for scholars to visit a library – making it increasingly critical for academics to make their articles available on their websites.
 
Alongside the rise of internet-based research has been the growth of blogs, a form of internet journal which allows you to post short articles on a daily or weekly basis. Over the past five years, the number of blogs has grown exponentially. There are now millions of blogs worldwide, and tens of thousands in Australia alone.
 
Blogs have also proliferated within Australian academia. Among the best-read academics in the blogosphere are Tim Lambert (a computer scientist at the University of NSW), John Quiggin (an economist at the University of Queensland) and Kim Weatherall (a lawyer at the University of Melbourne).
 
For an academic, blogging is a tempting proposition. As George Washington University Professor Henry Farrell observed last year: “Academic blogs offer the kind of intellectual excitement and engagement that attracted many scholars to the academic life in the first place, but which often get lost in the hustle to secure positions, grants, and disciplinary recognition.”
 
Yet academic blogging presents a difficult trade-off. On the upside, it provides a chance to engage with colleagues and non-specialists. A decent blog will have hundreds of readers each day; some have thousands. No Australian blog matches the readership of the nation’s largest newspapers, but plenty have more readers than the average academic journal.
 
For academics with an interest in public policy, blogs are an ideal chance to offer one’s own disciplinary perspective on current events. On issues such as climate change, copyright law reform, or congestion-pricing for roads, discussion on the blogosphere is considerably more sophisticated than in the broadsheets. They can be used as a teaching tool: both to post additional readings and to cultivate students’ interest in the subject. Blogs can even lead to unexpected spin-offs: I am currently co-authoring a paper with a brilliant student from the University of South Australia who contacted me through the blogosphere.
 
But blogs have downsides too. Posting a daily entry takes time that could be better spent on research, teaching or relaxing. Debating with commenters can easily become a distraction from the tedious work of getting a “revise and resubmit” back to a journal. And for junior academics, there is always the risk that professorial colleagues will view blogging as a sign that one is not a “serious” academic. From my own perspective, blogging has been a rewarding complement to my research – but the medium is not for everyone.
 
Over the decades, Australian universities have not always embraced change. A few months after connecting the nation to the internet, Melbourne University boldly asked its staff whether they wanted email. Almost every respondent said no.
 
Today, amidst the demands of teaching, administration and research, many academics reasonably wonder why they should bother with cyberspace. The answer is simple: the internet is rapidly becoming the world’s library. Posting articles on a personal website is the equivalent of making sure one’s book is on the shelf.
 
Once you’ve done that, the bloggers are the rowdy folks in the café next door. Join us if you have time.
 
Dr Andrew Leigh is an economist at the Australian National University, and has been blogging for nearly two years, at http://andrewleigh.com.

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9 Responses to Academia online

  1. Sacha says:

    Good on you Andrew. Interestingly, and I don’t know why, but mathematicians seem to be far less adept at using the net for blogging type activities than many other groups of people. I don’t know of any Australian ones who have a blog – perhaps it’s due to the fact that many are slow in taking up new ways of doing things.

  2. Good work andrew. Robert Elz should be mentioned more. I’m no insider but the stories I have heard over the years about Elz (plus the official contribution) suggests to me that there is a film or at least a PhD in there for the right writer.

  3. Tama says:

    Great article. Blogs are a great tool and might just put the “public” back into “public intellectual” (or whatever slightly less pretentious term we could use to indicate the extreme importance of academia engaging as widely as possible beyond the walls of the ivory towers of the university).

  4. Patrick says:

    Good article. But count me a tradionalist – no amount of trawling the internet, extremely useful as it is, beats time in the library – but maybe that is just a law-biased perspective.

    But posting your articles on your website is definitely a good idea, and even better on SSRN (although there are copyright problems with that).

  5. Peter says:

    You say it was 1989 when Australia “joined” the Internet. I recall sending data over dial-up connections between ABS offices as far back as 1979, and was sending emails and files between UNSW and US universities in 1987.

    I notice that one of the documents cited by the link you give says:

    “In the early 1980s, a permanent Australian email connection to the U.S. ARPAnet was established.”

    http://www.anu.edu.au/people/Roger.Clarke/II/OzI04.html#7584

    Roger Clarke: “Origins and Nature of the Internet in Australia” (Version of 29 January 2004).

  6. Andrew Leigh says:

    Peter, they’re fascinating stories. I remember as a kid wanting to connect my Vic20 (3.5kb of RAM) up to a bulletin board, but we couldn’t afford a modem for it.

    More relevantly, I’m no Internet historian, but 1989 seemed to be the date that most of the boffins use, so I just adopted it. Anyhow, they cut the line out of the piece!

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