Attack of the Career-Killing Blogs
When academics post online, do they risk their jobs?
The academic purist's response is a resounding "no." He represents one extreme of the spectrum, in which the only writing that "counts" in academic life (in the category of "publications," at least) is peer-reviewed in the traditional manner. The shrinking number of books published by university presses has put this position in jeopardy. Moving across the spectrum, the fact that a large number of books by academics (tenured and not) are published by non-peer-reviewed commercial presses (Routledge, for one) further diminishes the purist's position. But should blogging, certainly at the other extreme of the spectrum, be included in a professor's publication record?
The current antipathy toward blogging may have something to do with the fact that universities have no tools for judging blogs. And most people agree that blogs would need to be evaluated through some kind of peer-review mechanism if they are to be taken into account. "It is utterly absurd to propose giving someone credit for activity with no barriers to entry," Holbo says.
Peer review, however, is not a static practice. Some disciplines in the sciences, physics in particular, have had great success bypassing the cumbersome apparatus of traditional peer review (in which a large corporation owns a journal, which has a standard board of editors and is published regularly, and sold at a very high price) in favor of self-policed Web sites on which scientists (often the same ones who edit the expensive journals) post and critique their research papers. Rather than waiting months for publication, and then months more for reaction, they receive immediate editorial scrutiny from the very set of peers they most want to hear from.
Perhaps the most significant challenge to the traditional peer-review practices comes from open-source projects like the Public Library of Science, which, though their journals are peer-reviewed, are available to all readers. Michael B. Eisen, an assistant biology professor at Berkeley and one of the co-founders (with Harold Varmus) of PloS, believes that academic bloggers face similar challenges to those of scientists who publish in open-source journals like his.
"One of the main issues we face in trying to convince junior academics to publish in PLoS instead of more established journals is their concern about how such publications will look at tenure time. I keep trying to convince people that, in an ideal world, tenure decisions should be made on the quality of one's work, not the venue of its publication. And there's no reason this shouldn't apply to things like blogs as well," he says.
So, how might a blog be peer-reviewed? The market provides a number of viable models. eBay, for one, has established an efficient rating system for buyers and sellers, based on the number and quality of transactions they execute. In a noncommercial medium, Slashdot uses a "Moderation and Meta Moderation System," in which moderators are awarded higher or lower "karma" according to how well they police the discussions on the site. (The "Meta Moderation System" judges the moderators' moderators.)
How would these apply to blogs? One can imagine a rating system in which visitors to a blog evaluate what they read and leave feedback—the significance of which is weighted according to what kind of reputation and background they have. A physicist's views would carry more heft on a physicist's blog than on a sociologist's (and vice versa). Someone who has a reputation for leaving serious, informative comments will be ranked higher than the Web surfer who just glances at a few lines before jetting off to the next site.
The objection that the above proposals are relative, open to manipulation, and depend too much on individual judgment makes sense only if one has never been involved in the vicissitudes of the peer-review system. In the end, peer review is just that: review by one's peers. Any particular system should be judged by its efficiency and efficacy, and not by the perceived prestige of the publication in which the work appears.
If anything, blog-influenced practices like these might reclaim for intellectuals the true spirit of peer review, which, as Harvard University Press editor Lindsay Waters has argued, has been all but outsourced to prestigious university presses and journals. Experimenting with open-source methods of judgment—whether of straight scholarship or academic blogs—might actually revitalize academic writing.
As for Daniel Drezner, you needn't worry about him. After being turned down by Chicago, he received a number of inquiries and this fall will be a tenured associate professor of international politics at Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He heard from a number of other schools, too. How did Tufts learn he was available? They read it in his blog.
Robert S. Boynton is the author of The New New Journalism. He teaches magazine journalism at New York University, where he is up for tenure.He does not have a blog.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.