Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Blogs and Academic Research: Complements or Substitutes?

Can a good blog help a young researcher gain tenure by improving her academic writing? Given our time budget constraint, you might assume that blogging and doing research are substitutes. But could the two activities be complements? The Becker-Posner blog provides one model. These prominent academics receive many thoughtful comments and Gary often responds to the better points and highlights how his own thinking on a specific issue has been affected by the comments.

While my blog receives no where near the number of comments that these superstars receive, I have learned from folks who have posted comments and I’ve sometimes been disappointed that they have been posted anonymously so I can’t contact the writer to start a discussion on the topic.

But suppose that a blogger received no feedback at all, could this activity improve one’s research? Given the “open source” nature of the web, I have sometimes been reluctant to write out some of my preliminary “half baked” ideas on my blog. I fear both being viewed as a fool for my silly ideas and being “robbed” of my good ideas. Thus, there is a selection issue of what serious academics actually choose to post. As I have said in the past, too much economic blogging is too close to day to day current events. The Economics Roundtable often reads like an extension of the Economist Magazine.

Returning to my core point, a good blog could help its young author gain tenure if it helped the author focus on what are core questions that people care about. From my site meter, I can see specific patterns of what interests people on “environmental and urban” topics and what people don’t care about. If journal editors are people (and they certainly are), then the site meter could actually be used as a leading indicator of what research questions to focus on at the margin.

Blogging improves one’s writing ability and this leads to better intros and conclusions of research papers. In attempting to grab folks’ attention, the blogger is forced to be clear and concise. This can’t be a bad thing for an academic.

If blogging is addictive, if bloggers use it as a procrastination tool then of course it will displace research.