Scholarly blogs, a space on the side for academic dialogue by Marin Dacos and Pierre Mounier. Part 2/2

(The text below is the follow-up to Scholarly blogs, a space on the side for academic dialogue, part 1, published on this blog on March 2, 2012.)

2. New written forms for old conversations

The encounter between the web and the humanities and social sciences in particular has given rise to a profusion of initiatives, and above all to proposals associating practical and theoretical dimensions. These initiatives have tried to set the foundation for the future of academic writing. This new form of science fiction written by academics on the subject of their own practices has given birth to proposals that attempt to draw the best from digital forms by basing themselves on their own distinctive properties. This has regularly led to complex propositions. Thus in 1999, the book historian, Robert Darnton, proposed a model associating a paper support, with the publication of a short work, and the electronic support, broken down into a pyramid of five levels: detailed argumentation (demonstration features); working documentation (source elements or the interpretation of these sources); theoretical or historiographical considerations, teaching propositions, and exchanges and debates with readers[1]. Other projects are based on different ideas: a “Cognitive Overflow Syndrome” for Valentine Roux, seeking to change scholarly writings using the logicism of Jean-Claude Gardin[2] ; the necessary creation of a scholarly hypertext, so as to connect documents between them—the HyperNietzsche by Paolo d’Iorio[3]. These projects are still at the prototype and experimentation stages. There are also isolated proposals in an editorial world that may appear surprisingly stable in many respects.

Commentary as model for the open peer review

We notice the same phenomenon when traditional forms of publication try to borrow characteristics apparently similar to standard procedures. Let us take the example of peer reviewing of articles in journals, which today is anonymous and private: could the process become more open, transparent and collective based on a system of publicly visible comments in blogs? In 2006, the journal Nature tried to open up the process by publishing articles submitted for publication online, asking readers to participate in the selection procedure of articles by the addition of public comments associated to the texts. Those behind the experiment admitted that it was not a great success: “Despite the interest aroused by the experiment, only a small proportion of authors chose to take part. However, the authors who did take part in the experiment expressed greater satisfaction than the editors of the journal. A small majority of articles received comments but not very many, despite considerable efforts to encourage comments. Most comments lacked technical substance. The results of the experiment show that researchers are reticent about open commentary becoming more widespread. Nature and its publishers will continue to explore the participative uses of the web. But for the time being, at least, we have decided not to implement open peer review[4].

On the permeability of editorial objects

This experiment in trying to open up article selection procedures has suffered, it seems, from several initial choices. The key factor is that in peer validation, evaluation is anonymous. It is therefore possible to be very critical without compromising ones relations with the author, which is not possible with comments. Anonymity frees up experts’ assessments, by protecting their identity and allowing them the privileges of the expert status set in place by the journal for the evaluation of proposals. For the traditional expert, there is a double advantage. For Web 2.0 comment authors, there is a double disadvantage: they are not protected by anonymity, and so it is not in their interests to be too severe, and they receive no symbolic remuneration from the consistent effort of developing a structured argument, so the authors of comments give up their own rare and precious time, without any formal invitation to respond. Curriculum vitae cannot really accommodate such comments as: “Author of online comments for Nature and Science magazines”. Furthermore, assimilating a commentary published on a blog with a commentary published in a journal, means gambling on the permeability of editorial objects. However this permeability is largely anticipated, and purely abstract for the moment.

A deep change in paradigm in scholarly writing logically takes time and will encounter obstacles that are difficult to overcome in the short term. In 2009, the biggest change of user habits has not come from solid theoretical constructions or established publishing places, it has come rather from elsewhere, from the least noble and most banal of academic tools: the research notebook. The notebook is simple and rudimentary, but reduces the technological complexity of the process. Moreover, the symbolic risk is less pronounced than in the framework of classic editorial forms, such as books, journals, encyclopaedias, anthologies, etc. Because of its low academic profile the blog sits in the blind spot of learned society, that is to say, a place where researcher are free to express themselves.

A new form of disputatio

From the disputatio in the scholarly republic, science was built up around the heuristic virtue of the exchange of ideas, in written and oral forms. The academic form of the seminar, where researchers present the results of recent research to peers and students, is the result of this. It is the locus of the first expression of a thought; thoughts after all do not slip from researchers’ brains primed and ready for battle, instead they seek out their form through words, formulations and articulations, fed on researchers confrontations with themselves, and their listeners. In many aspects, online research notebooks resemble a written form of seminar, a “permanent seminar” as André Gunthert[5] would say. In a seminar, ten or twenty minds are tied up in the time and space constraints of its formalised rituals, and often the key ideas of a Monday morning session will have already dissipated by lunchtime; a research notebook however provides a more stable and more available form of seminar. It can be consulted by researchers in other towns, in other countries, or on other continents. Furthermore it is preserved over time and available for generations to come, in future contexts, for thematic or methodological interactions that are unimaginable today. It is also open to occasional readers, faraway, half-attentive readers, with no professional investment. There has been no study into secondary reading practices and how notebooks enrich the whole of society from a cultural or academic perspective. For the notebook relates an academic activity that is usually very discreet: “You can literally see the work in progress—which is nothing to be sniffed at in a period when society demands accounts for everything.”[6]

Controlling exposure

The failure of Nature’s open peer review initiative is significant as an experiment that suffered from under- and over-exposure. Over-exposure was an issue because researchers contributions were visible; they had no control over them; all control was given over to Nature. However, giving up this prerogative is not without its risks, especially if the commentary constitutes a judgement on the work of a colleague, and remorse is not part of the deal. Even open archives enable an author to cover a contribution with a new one. Commentary systems do not allow this. What remains unthreatening in a colleague’s notebook, in a public peer-to-peer relation, is not such a simple issue for an institution receiving 10,000 proposals for articles per year. Under-exposure was an issue because by contributing to Nature website, the researcher was not affected by the journal’s legitimacy: the comments are public and open, but they do not signify selection or labelling in any way. Furthermore they are drowned out in the after wash of articles that will never be published by the journal, and may even be removed, once the experiment is over. What about the world of blogs? It is noteworthy that research notebooks are a place of predilection for brief reading notes that flourish from author to author, providing a kaleidoscope of readings of a text. We should consider the research notebook as one of the constitutive sites of the researcher’s digital identity. It is a significant part of the digital home of the notebooker. Researchers can control their own exposure, moderate their comments, add addenda and errata, update their work, and associate lists of their own publications to their posts, as well as links and logos showing their institutional affiliations. For example, promoting a prestigious establishment is as easy on a blog as on other digital identity interfaces (Facebook, Academia.edu, etc), and is thus quickly ratified by search engines.

The rhetoric of the strike

In their own digital homes, researchers are credited for all their own contributions, however modest or amazing, rare or numerous. Their homes are irradiated by the styles of their authors who with panache and talent deliver their thought through clever allusions and unsaids, through well targeted criticism or through multiple manifestations of intellectual allegiance and maybe, where possible a dose of humour. Implied reference, so misplaced in the world of academic publications, is not so out of place when writing notebooks. The strike, where words are struck out, enabling authors to say what they nearly said, while also saying they never actually said it at all, is a good example of this. It is the figure of preterition that is refreshed and renewed here. There are also smileys, small images expressing a set idea, also known as “emoticons”, which are characteristic of fast informal communication in forums and text messaging. Invented by the academic Scott Fahlman, in 1982[7], the smiley was intended to avoid certain ambiguities of tone that written language does not always allow, especially when the style is terse and writing is fast; today they are prevalent in instant messaging communication. While they are less present in research notebooks, they are nevertheless present and fairly common. It is another sign of the assumed subjective character of the research notebook. This tendency was already in preparation in the retreat from the royal “we” for the “I” of the researcher, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, in the last twenty years. The notebook is an individual, personal space that has potential for academic discussion, from peer to peer, from person to person, that can be illustrated not only to help demonstrate the ideas, but also as we decorate our own homes, to give a tone, a colour, and human warmth. Based on a special mode of speech, they work on a subjective rhetoric, unlike the neutral style used in classic publications. What we might call “the rhetoric of the strike” gives special colour to research notebooks online.

Figure 3 The smiley explained by Wikipedia http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Emoticon.svg

Silent dialogue

The dialogue in notebooks operates in a similar fashion to the rhetoric of the strike. Observers sometimes tend to measure the success of the research notebook model by counting the number and length of comments. These provide a misleading and generally poorly adapted indicator; citation frequency should also be measured, gauged from backlinks[8], which are integral to the economy of writing and reading notebooks. This would enable us to only note a small minority of reactions with the homogenous ecosystem of notebooks. In publishing outside the web, the blog has not acquired sufficient legitimacy and is not considered established enough. The author of an article twists and turns in a myriad of ways to cite a notebook without actually citing it, because the notebook is not considered a real publication, even if it is a powerful repository of ideas. Furthermore, we should not forget the silent conversation that takes place between authors and their readers.

Visiting a blog is like visiting the home of its writer, a complex individual, whom we address directly when we write a comment. The behaviour of the readership of research notebooks, as far as we know for now, seems to confirm this hypothesis: the research notebook is not a locus of classical publication. It seems that the readership of notebooks is more concentrated and more faithful than that of journals. This is at least the impression we have when comparing site traffic for the most visited journals on Revues.org, the portal for journals in the humanities and social sciences. Technical and statistical measurements were taken in identical conditions and are therefore comparable. For each site we have drawn up a “loyalty rate”, which is the number of visits divided by the number of visitors. The closer the rate is to 1, the rarer it is to see a visitor return to a site in the same month. When the rate goes above one, it means more people return. This measurement highlights low rates of loyalty in the consultation behaviour of journals (1.2 to 1.5), while notebooks have fewer visitors but visits are of a higher quality: the number of people returning regularly to consult the notebook is higher: (1.9 to 4.4). [9]

Journal or notebook Individual visitors
(May 2009)
Visits
(May 2009)
Loyalty rate
Politbistro (notebook) 1000 4400 4.4
L’édition électronique ouverte (notebook) 5000 17000 3.4
Evaluation (notebook) 3000 7500 2.5
Quanti (notebook) 2600 5500 2.12
Culture et politique arabe (notebook) 10000 19000 1.9
Cultures & conflits (journal) 26000 39000 1.5
Cybergeo (journal) 40000 58000 1.4
Balkanologie (journal) 4200 5400 1.3
Clio (journal) 36000 43000 1.2
Nuevo mundo (journal) 85000 98000 1.2

Figure 4: Visiting statistics from a selection of notebooks on Hypothèses

Conclusion

The research notebook produces a decentring of writing loci towards less codified and less formal spaces than traditional publication spaces, picking up from more volatile and less individual forms of conversation. A recent study from the Association of Research Libraries, looking at current forms of academic communication, including blogs of course. On one of them, the authors of the study remark: “Though blogs may receive more attention in the popular media as vehicles for political commentary, celebrity gossip, or personal musings, this form of digital content is being put to interesting use by scholars, as well. In some ways, blogs may be thought of as an ‘updated’ version of the traditional listserv. For example, the scholars who created PEA Soup, a blog focused on philosophy and ethics, were eager to re-create the ‘water cooler conversations’ about their work – working through new ideas informally – that they otherwise lacked as members of relatively small departments. ‘We were more interested in the electronic equivalent of walking down the hall to talk to your colleague, but with people all over the country and world,’ according to one of its founders.”[10] We note through these analyses that what is at stake is less the economy of writing than the economy of reading. What has been revolutionised in the last ten years is above all access. By laying the foundations of a new relationship with the readership, the research notebook offers the opportunity to reinvent academic writing around more conversational forms, reconnecting with the old traditions of academic debate, while adopting a new rhetoric adapted to the new space under construction. We may note too that the oldest open-access archive, ArXiv, uses backlinks to academic blogs, by detecting and highlighting them[11]. Such a rapprochement between such divergent objects seems to show that convergence can take place not through the contamination of more established academic forms, to the point of fusion—creating open notebook-journal-archives—but rather through the consolidation of each space. From this point of view the notebook becomes a cog in the academic machine, highlighted by the exchange of data between different tools, that is to say through the interoperability of the different types of objects and academic loci. This is not exactly Darnton’s pyramid but it isn’t far away.


Bibliography

Sources

ARXIV, 2009: “Trackbacks”, Arxiv, online, URL: http://arxiv.org/help/trackback/ Consulted 24 July 2009
DORIGO, 2009: Tommaso DORIGO, A Quantum diaries survivor, online. URL: http://www.webcitation.org/5iUBKmLfl
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GUNTHERT, 2009: André GUNTHERT, Actualités de la recherche en histoire visuelle, online. URL: http://www.webcitation.org/5iUBip6IC
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WIKIPEDIA, 2009: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, online. URL: http://www.webcitation.org/5iV9uPE6d

Other citations

BLANCHARD, 2008: Antoine BLANCHARD, “Ce que le blog apporte à la recherche”, La science, la cité, online. URL: http://www.webcitation.org/5iUAxXVIH
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DARNTON, 1999: Robert DARNTON, “The New Age of the Book” The New York Review of Books 46, no. 5, 18 March, 1999, online. URL: http://www.webcitation.org/5iV7P634j
GREAVES et al., 2006: Sarah GREAVES et al., “Nature’s trial of open peer review”, Nature, décembre 2006. URL: http://www.webcitation.org/5iT1OanU5
GUNTHERT, 2008: André GUNTHERT, “Why blog?”, Actualités de la Recherche en histoire visuelle, online. URL: http://www.webcitation.org/5iT16xsza
JACQ, 2002: François JACQ, “Aux sources de la politique de la science: mythe ou réalités? (1945-1970)”, La Revue pour l’histoire du CNRS, N°6 – Mai 2002, online, URL: http://histoire-cnrs.revues.org/document3611.html Consulted 24 July 2009.
LATOUR, 1993: Bruno LATOUR, Petites leçons de sociologie des sciences, Paris.
LATOUR and WOOLGAR, 1986: Bruno LATOUR and Steve WOOLGAR, Laboratory life: the construction of scientific facts, Princeton.
LE DEUFF, 2006: Olivier LE DEUFF, “Folksonomies”, BBF, n° 4, p. 66-70 [online]. URL: http://bbf.enssib.fr/ Consulted 23 July 2009
MARON, 2006: Nancy MARON and Kevin SMITH, Current Models of Digital Scholarly Communication. Scholarly Communication, November 2006. URL: http://www.arl.org/sc/models/model-pubs/pubstudy/index.shtml Consulted 24 July 2009
MORTENSEN, 2002: Theresa MORTENSEN and Jill WALKER. “Blogging thoughts: Personal Publications as Online research tool.” in Researching ICTs in Context, p.249-279. Andrew Morrison, (dir.), Oslo
NARDI et al., 2004: Bonnie A. NARDI, et al. “Blogging as social activity, or, would you let 900 million people read your diary?” in Proceedings of the 2004 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work, 222-231. Chicago, Illinois, USA: ACM, 2004. URL: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1031607.1031643 Consulted 24 July 2009
RAYMOND, 2001: Eric S. RAYMOND, The Cathedral & the Bazaar, Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, New York.
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Notes

[1] DARNTON, 1999
[2] ROUX and BLASCO, 2004
[3] D’IORIO and AMBLARD, 2000
[4] GREAVES et al., 2006. translation by Marin Dacos
[5] GUNTHERT, 2008
[6] GUNTHERT, 2008
[7] FAHLMAN, 1982
[8] Backlinks are established in the opposite direction to hyperlinks. They signal to a blog that another blog has established a link pointing to them.
[9] An individual visitor is more precisely an individual workstation that has made at least one request to consult a page on a website in the course of the month under study. If the workstation consults the site several times during this period, it is only counted once. The visits measure the number of visits carried out by all visitors during the period studied. What is at stake is a session, defined as a unique IP address, which accesses a page, and then asks for three other pages without allowing more than an hour between requests. We will naturally expect problems with the measures, when a workstation is shared by several people, for example, and they all visit a site, this appears statistically as a single visitor; or when a proxy separates the work station from the resource, (a proxy hides a great many accesses, whether from the same workstation or different workstations); or when the reader accesses a page and decides it isn’t what they were looking for.
[10] MARON, 2006, p. 28
[11] ARXIV, 2009


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