Hypotheses: History of an International Collaboration
The German Hypotheses portal, de.hypotheses, celebrates its 10th anniversary soon. Our German partners suggested an interview with the OpenEdition team. Below is the English translation. In the interview, our colleagues in the Research Blogging Service discussed what makes Hypotheses special and how blogging has changed in the humanities and social sciences in France and Germany.
- Hypotheses is an international platform for research blogs founded in France in 2009. At the time, humanities and social science blogs were not very common in Germany. Blogs were seen as a place for private thoughts, a sort of online diary. How and why did the idea come about to share humanities and social science projects in France in blogs?
People’s view of blogs in 2009 was the same in France as in Germany. It was a personal place to talk about your favorite sports team and post recipes or photos of your holiday. There were a few science blogs, including ones for the humanities and social sciences, but despite their serious subject matter, the medium itself was still too closely associated with subjective opinions to gain a foothold in academia. But the founders of Hypotheses wagered on blogs, and the wager paid off.
Multiple challenges had to be overcome. First, we had to unite individual initiatives. We had to show people how many humanities and social science blogs there were and lend them credibility by consolidating them under one banner. After all, we’re stronger together!
The purpose was basically to help bloggers break out of the traditional academic publication structure and all its constraints and give members of the humanities and social science community a quick and easy way to openly share an informal—in terms of both form and content—version of their work. It was also an avenue for publishing articles that had not yet been finalized, sharing work that had been done, provoking thought, and tossing around ideas that may or may not become new topics of research.
The implicit idea was to help develop a new way of writing about scientific research by creating a space for intellectual and editorial experimentation, which is what makes up the bulk of collaborative work and knowledge sharing, even outside of academia. That was the other major part of the project, shattering the old model of transmitting knowledge through direct scientific communication and giving anybody and everybody the chance to read about, and even participate in, humanities and social science research through content published directly by researchers themselves and through other discussion spaces, such as a post’s comments section.
Even today, not everyone thinks of blogs as a place for scientific publications, but the mindset is changing. We’re seeing more and more Hypotheses blog posts being cited in traditional academic publications. That’s not to say that we intend for blog posts to carry the same weight as, for example, an article in an academic journal. They are meant to serve merely as a complement, most importantly because there is no scientific review of the posts. On the other hand, the benefit of blogs is that they offer users a certain freedom, which is the essence of science blogs.
- The French community makes up the largest Hypotheses user base, with a catalog of over 3,800 blogs (compared to 300 in German). How do you explain this difference? Who are the people or institutions responsible for the success and recognition of blogging as a format for scientific publication?
Well, we didn’t invent science blogging at Hypotheses! But the use of blogs to publish science content developed in France over the years thanks to a variety of initiatives and support from public agencies and organizations. That said, Hypotheses did, and still does, play a major role in lending credibility to and popularizing scientific blogging, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. It has taken a lot of work, because when Hypotheses first launched, there were a lot of preconceived ideas and skepticism when it came to talking about research in blogs. The success of the experiment can be attributed to Pierre Mounier and Marin Dacos, the brainchildren behind the project and the ones who lobbied hard among the academic community and explained why the idea wasn’t as crazy as it sounded!
The members of the Hypotheses scientific boards were also significantly involved, as they provided the project with a firm scientific foundation and personally helped to promote Hypotheses in their professional circles, including by using their own blogs.
But the birth of Hypotheses and its role in helping legitimize scientific blogging in France were also products of a semantic pivot. Instead of calling it a blog, the platform’s founders chose to refer to Hypotheses as a “lab notebook” in French, a reference to traditional physical lab notebooks that made the connection to academia explicit. The new name likely soothed the fears of political decision-makers and financiers at the time and helped the project blossom and come into its own, even though Hypotheses remained a platform for blogs. Bloggers themselves did the rest. They created a positive atmosphere, began using the new platform as part of their daily work, and became far-flung ambassadors for a project that had become international in scope. Users have told us that Hypotheses is still highly useful and important today, and they are as much a part of it as we are.
- The German version of the platform, de.hypotheses, has been around since 2012, as has the Spanish version, es.hypotheses. The Research Blogging Service works closely with partners in Germany and Spain to oversee their portals and the needs of their communities. Why did you decide to promote science blogging across Europe and beyond?
It’s difficult to give a complete answer, first, because some of the decisions that were made and that led to those partnerships happened before our time, and second, because those decisions were part of a broader strategy involving not just Hypotheses but OpenEdition as a whole, especially our international development colleagues. You should interview them next!
But what we can say is that the expansion of Hypotheses to the rest of the Europe and beyond is in keeping with the project’s underlying philosophy. Hypotheses is an open platform where anyone in the academic humanities and social science community can start their own research blog to share their thoughts and work with as many people as possible. It’s a trans-disciplinary, multilingual platform with a decentralized publishing system. It would be unthinkable to try and keep it contained in France. The rich scientific, editorial, and cultural diversity of Hypotheses comes precisely from a belief in openness that we work to cultivate and that we hope to expand even more in the future.
It is also a reflection of scientific research itself, for which Hypotheses is one outlet. Research projects frequently involve international teams, so it wouldn’t make sense for Hypotheses to reflect otherwise.
We should note that the international growth of Hypotheses was also the result of being in the right place at the right time. It’s hard to imagine branching out in new geographical, cultural, and scientific directions without good partners by your side, experts in areas that we don’t fully comprehend. For example, we were fortunate enough to be able to work with the German Historical Institute and the Max Weber Foundation, who have helped grow the German version of Hypotheses, spread the word about the platform as a whole, and generate interest in it.
- Hypotheses celebrated its 10th anniversary two years ago. How has scientific blogging changed since the platform launched? What current trends are you seeing? What has endured and what has fallen by the wayside?
From its inception, Hypotheses was designed as a space that encourages a variety of publication styles. We have individual blogs, group blogs, blogs by laboratories and libraries, field blogs, pop science blogs. And blogs don’t always fit neatly into one category. One of Hypotheses’ strengths is that authors can use any writing style and publication approach they want. It’s precisely this philosophy that has made and still makes the platform special: a belief in experimentation and innovation.
It would be impossible to fully analyze the different ways people use the platform. Even a study of changes in use over time wouldn’t make sense because of how quickly it has grown. The platform hosts over 6,000 blogs today, whereas there were only a handful 10 years ago, so it’s difficult to draw any conclusions on usage trends.
However, one practice we’ve seen develop over time, and which has become a fixture of the platform, is group blogs run by teams or institutions or attached to research programs. Group blogs often play a major role in centralizing and tracking information and communicating on a specific subject. These professionals don’t always have resources or a budget for communication yet feel the need for it.
The platform is also important in that it provides a place to present preliminary results of research that is still underway, instead of waiting to publish a completed study, which is often the realm of books and science journals. Notes from archaeological digs are one good example of this use.
Then there’s the thought-provoking nature of many blogs by researchers and doctoral students, who use their Hypotheses blogs not only to share research results, but also, and maybe especially, to discuss study conditions, methodology, career difficulties, and sometimes, more broadly, to discuss how the world of science research works. Posts from these types of blogs often generate the most discussion, whether in the comments section or on social media, which is a natural extension of Hypotheses.
Some blogs also have an educational aspect, another important purpose of Hypotheses. Many of these are blogs published by master’s students and are great ways for students working under an advisor to learn about scientific writing.
- Have you noticed any difference in the way researchers from different countries blog? Do historians from Spain blog differently from French or German historians?
Hypotheses lets users express the individual cultural traits of their scientific communities by offering a high degree of freedom in what they publish. This includes the ability to blog in their own language. In terms of language, we have noticed that German bloggers write in English or publish bilingual posts more often than Spanish or French bloggers.
But aside from that observation, we don’t know very much about the differences. It would be interesting to learn more, if only to see the academic and editorial diversity at the international level and make the platform as open and accessible as possible. It’s something that deserves a closer look, with help from our partners. It would give our team a good excuse to travel around Europe and see everyone!
- Hypotheses is home to more than 6,000 blogs, 3,800 of which are in the OpenEdition catalog. What are the technical challenges of managing a platform of this size? For instance, what kind of maintenance and security issues are involved?
To our knowledge, Hypotheses is the largest international humanities and social science blog platform in the world. Managing the technical side involves quite a lot of work.
We use WordPress, open-source software developed by a large, worldwide community. Around one-third of all websites on the planet now run on WordPress! We don’t have to worry about developing software, since none of that is done in-house. But the site still requires regular updates to software, themes, and plug-ins, which can be complicated. Updating a site with 6,000 blogs is much more tedious and finicky than updating a single blog. And we don’t have a lot of outside support for it because WordPress sites of this size are extremely rare.
Because of this, adding new features to Hypotheses—something on our to-do list to meet users’ publishing needs the best we can—is also a technical challenge. Every theme and plug-in must be carefully tested before being rolled out to ensure that it doesn’t upset the stability or security of the site once it goes live. Those are the two major technical obstacles: ensuring maximum stability of the website so that everything runs smoothly and users can read and post to Hypotheses anytime, anywhere; and ensuring that Hypotheses remains a place where bloggers can post without fear of spam, intrusions to their blogs, or losing their content.
Speaking of which, we are very concerned with the long-term storage of content published on Hypotheses, in particular to ensure the content can be cited. The entire platform is backed up regularly, and back-ups are stored in a highly secure location in the IT department at CERN in Lyon.
The vast majority of this work is done by our colleagues in OpenEdition’s IT department. They work behind the scenes to keep the website up and running and make sure that the technical requirements are clear and simple for users, so they can concentrate on publishing content.
- What does a day in the Research Blogging Service in Marseille look like? How many people does it take to run the platform and what are their roles? How do you split up responsibilities?
The Research Blogging Service currently consists of four people. Nathalie Casanova, our communication officer, just joined the team. She is in charge of everything related to user support: the support forum, the blog discussion list, training, etc.
Céline Guilleux works part-time in our service and part-time in the Academic Blogging Service, which oversees the Calenda platform, as the scientific validation officer. She’s the one who processes applications for new blogs and catalogs them once they’ve been set up.
Michel Tamarin is the Hypotheses web project manager. He works directly with the OpenEdition IT department to coordinate technical operations for the platform, from maintenance to upgrades.
François Pacaud is the Research Blogging Service manager. He oversees our department’s general structure and coordination as well as the operations side, including training and partnerships.
Although the Research Blogging Service is responsible for the day-to-day work on Hypotheses, providing user support, ensuring that the publishing and technical aspects run smoothly, and getting the word out about the content, we don’t work alone. As with all OpenEdition platforms, Hypotheses is a team effort. It wouldn’t be what it is without daily contributions from many colleagues and their diverse, complementary knowledge, ranging from computers to communications to administration.
It’s hard to describe a typical day because our work varies so much and also depends on what we’re doing at the time. What we can say is that some our everyday work consists of answering emails, whether they’re internal requests or user questions. There are also recurring tasks, like creating and cataloguing blogs and answering questions on the support forum. Mostly, we do what needs to be done in the moment, which can be updating the platform, working on a particular project, attending meetings on service, unit, or platform operations—or even being interviewed at the request of our partners!
- What are the big questions right now among French Hypotheses users?
One question that has had the Hypotheses team scratching its head for several years now is the exact nature of our blogging community and the connections between members. We have gleaned some answers here and there through places like the blogger list and Twitter, but we have only a piecemeal understanding of the community. We are always trying to help add structure by offering different features, like the support forum for French bloggers that we launched in 2020.
Because of that, it’s hard to say precisely what the community is talking about right now, especially since the platform’s discussion sections are, first and foremost, as they should be, a place to bring up technical and editorial issues, which we try to resolve daily. At this time, for example, there is very little discussion on research blogging itself, its role in academia, and all the questions that come with it. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t happen in the future.
- How will Hypotheses and research blogging evolve in the future? Can you tell us about any new upcoming features?
We don’t see any reason why Hypotheses should slow its growth in the coming years. We expect to continue running a growing platform that users love.
As part of this growth, the first change coming up is a new version of the portal, hypotheses.org, which will act as a direct gateway to Hypotheses, with clearer, more detailed information than is currently there.
We will also continue enhancing the platform with new features. The next ones to be released, if the testing goes well, will make it easier for users to create multilingual blogs and will attach free licenses to all or part of each blog so as to bring Hypotheses blog posts to a wider audience.
We are generally never at a loss for ideas, just the resources to make them come true! For instance, we’re currently exploring ways to automatically categorize content on the platform. We’ll see if that happens.
- Do you have a favorite blog? If so, what is it?
We don’t have favorite blogs, exactly, though some do appeal to us more than others, either because they are particularly beautifully designed or because their content is of personal interest. Rather than focusing on individual blogs, we like to emphasize the diversity of subjects, languages, publications, and forms of Hypotheses blogs. That’s where the real value of the platform lies. It’s always fun to see what bloggers have to offer and what they’re capable of when they receive the right support. I suppose I’d say that our favorite blog is always the next one, the one that doesn’t exist yet and that we’re sure will surprise us!