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Attack of the Career-Killing Blogs

Slate, November 16, 2005

When academics post online, do they risk their jobs?

“Here goes nothing. I shouldn’t be doing this. I’ll be going up for tenure soon,” reads the first post of the blog that University of Chicago political scientist Daniel Drezner started in September 2002. Sure enough, this past October, Drezner was denied tenure. And although his department claimed that blogging hadn’t been a factor in the decision, junior academics across the blogosphere were traumatized. Drezner had seemed a top candidate. He has impeccable credentials (two masters degrees and a Ph.D. from Stanford); his essays appear in the top journals of his profession; and his next book will be published by Princeton University Press.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of academics keep blogs these days, posting everything from family pictures to scholarly works-in-progress. While few are counting on their Web publications to improve their chances at tenure, many have begun to fear that their blogs might actually harm their prospects. Last July, “Bloggers Need Not Apply,” an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education about an anonymous Midwestern college’s attempt to fill a position, laid out the perils for academic job-seekers who blog. “Our blogger applicants came off reasonably well at the initial interview, but once we hung up the phone and called up their blogs, we got to know ‘the real them’?better than we wanted, enough to conclude we didn’t want to know more,” wrote the pseudonymous columnist.

But academics aren’t just concerned about the public display of an applicant’s personal eccentricities. Many perceive blogs as evidence of a scholar’s lack of seriousness. Shouldn’t he be putting more time into scholarship, they wonder, and less into his blog? And if a blogger does have something serious to say, why is he presenting it in a superficial medium, rather than a peer-reviewed journal?

At the same time, it is hardly a secret that lots of peer-reviewed material and articles in prestigious academic reviews are neither very good nor widely read, while some of what appears on academic blogs is of high quality and has a large readership (some of it, obviously, isn’t and doesn’t). So, it’s worth taking a closer look at the question: How can a system that ostensibly cares only about the quality of one’s arguments and research automatically include the former and exclude the latter?

In many respects, Drezner’s predicament was merely a cyber-version of an age-old dilemma. Whether online or off, the kind of accessible and widely read work that brings an academic public recognition is likely to draw the scorn and suspicion of his colleagues. Furthermore, so-called public-intellectual work won’t count for much when it comes time to decide whether one gets tenure. In most disciplines at large research universities, tenure is directly related to the number of peer-reviewed books and articles one publishes. Teaching and community service are factored in but are usually far less important than one’s publishing record. “For the time being,” says John Holbo, an assistant professor of philosophy at the National University of Singapore and the founder of a group blog called The Valve, the most academic bloggers will receive is “a bit of ‘service’ credit, for raising the department’s profile.”

On the one hand, some resistance to the proliferation of blogs is understandable. The value of academic culture is that it stands apart from the ephemeral marketplace. Universities are by their very nature culturally conservative and slow to change. The odd situation would actually have been if universities had automatically embraced blogging. Holbo suggests that from one perspective, blogging is an affront to the traditional idea of the university. “You want to graft this onto the last living medieval guild system?” he imagines a senior scholar protesting.

But in another sense, academic blogging represents the fruition, not a betrayal, of the university’s ideals. One might argue that blogging is in fact the very embodiment of what the political philosopher Michael Oakshott once called “The Conversation of Mankind”?an endless, thoroughly democratic dialogue about the best ideas and artifacts of our culture. Drezner’s blog, for example, is hardly of the “This is what I did today ?” variety. Rather, he usually writes about globalization and political economy?the very subjects on which he publishes in prestigious, peer-reviewed presses and journals. If his prose style in the blog is more engaging than that of the typical academic’s, the thinking behind it is no less rigorous or intelligent.

To take only one other example, John Hawks, an assistant anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, posts three to five essays a week on subjects like evolutionary theory. He writes about science with the breadth of the late Stephen Jay Gould and doesn’t see a big difference between most of his online and offline output. “Much of what I write online is scholarly. When I review an issue in human evolution, it is a genuine review. If I criticize something, I back it up,” he says. Indeed, his essays are festooned with citations.

So, might blogging be subversive precisely because it makes real the very vision of intellectual life that the university has never managed to achieve?

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.