U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What’s the Status of an Academic Blog Post?

Last week, Tim Lacy brought to my attention this interesting, recent blog post by Mark Goodacre, Associate Professor of Religion at Duke and author of the NT Blog.  Back in 2010, Goodacre had put up a blog post concerning a mysterious passage in the non-Canonical Gospel of Peter, in which a walking cross emerges from Jesus’s tomb and conducts a conversation with a heavenly voice. Goodacre suggested that perhaps the best explanation for this passage was a Greek scribal error, that rather than a cross, the walking and talking was being done by a crucified-one, i.e. Jesus.

Goodacre now reports that the peer-reviewed Journal of Theological Studies has published a critique of his earlier blog post by Paul Foster.  Goodacre feels that there’s something odd about  a major, peer-reviewed journal responding to a blog post and has some thoughts about how we might more profitably think about the status of posts like his.  While I agree with Goodacre that this incident raises interesting questions, I come to somewhat different conclusions from him.

Goodacre describes his feelings about the publication of the Foster article as “mixed.” While he’s flattered that both Foster and the JTS saw fit to respond to his earlier post, he’s also troubled by their decision:

I have to admit that it makes me slightly uneasy to see my random jottings here subjected to the same kind of detailed critique that one would normally reserve for scholarly books and peer-reviewed articles.

Goodacre rightly argues that blog posts are fundamentally unlike these more established kinds of academic publications. Their tone tends to be more informal and colloquial. And their content is often more speculative.

He argues that we lack any “established etiquette” for dealing with blog posts. So he suggests that one model for doing so can be borrowed from another, more traditional, academic genre: the conference paper:

Many scholars add a kind of rider to their conference papers, “Work in progress; not to be cited” and so on.  The point there is that conference papers are for discussion at conferences but not (yet) in formal publications.  I think I see something similar for blog sketches like mine — it will, I hope, eventually make its way to publication, but it does not yet have that kind of status. Indeed, in the case in question, I did subsequently present the idea in a conference paper (International SBL, London, 2011), which will form the basis of a future formal publication.

The problem with this argument, it seems to me, is that, unlike a conference paper, a blog post, however informal, is in fact a publication. Conference papers are wonderful in part because they stop short of publication and even allow the paper-deliverer to engage in a kind of controlled semi-publication, distributing the paper to particular people with (or without) the sort of rider that Goodacre mentions. It’s precisely because of their non-published status that conference papers can be withheld from publications.  The rules that apply to conference papers seem to me to apply to certain other digital genres, such as private e-mails.  But they can’t apply to a blog post.

So what traditional genre might provide a better analogy for a blog post? The one that leaps to my mind is the extended letter-to-the-editor of a scholarly (or semi-scholarly) journal.  For example, both the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books often feature scholarly exchanges in their letters sections.  Like blog posts, these letters tend to be more colloquial and informal than journal articles or books. They tend, like blog posts, to be written in the first-person. And, perhaps most importantly, like blog posts they are not exactly peer-reviewed (though, unlike most blog posts, a third-party—the editor of the journal—needs to approve their publication).

Nobody, so far as I know, feels that they need the permission of the author to cite such a letter-to-the-editor.  And nobody does for a very simple reason: the letter was intended for publication….and it was published.  On the other hand, I think that most of us take the contents of such letters somewhat differently from the way we take the contents of peer-reviewed articles and books precisely because, like blog posts, they have not been peer-reviewed.

But, in fact, the tale of Goodacre and Foster features peer review…of the Foster response.

So I guess I’m more comfortable with the way this turned out than Goodacre is.  Assuming that the reviewers of the Foster piece considered the significance of Goodacre’s blog post when evaluating whether or not Foster’s essay deserved publication, we shouldn’t be overly concerned about the fact that an un-peer-reviewed publication received a peer-reviewed response.

Of course, one could imagine a more difficult case. While Goodacre stands by his post (and is, in fact, in the process of converting it to more traditional, formal academic genres), one can well imagine a situation in which one writes a (typically) provisional blog post and then decides that one was wrong.  Should scholarly etiquette prohibit such mistakes from becoming the object of formal scholarly critique?

Again, my answer is “no.” When one makes a choice to publish something, one no longer has control of the text one publishes or how others interpret it. In fact, blogging allows substantially easier post-publication editing than more traditional, analogue genres.  Most of us have published books and articles that contain arguments that we might no longer make. But unless we have the rare opportunity to produce a revised edition, those old arguments are still around. But anyone can update a blog post and note that one no longer believes the argument one had provisionally made.[1]  Anyone responding to such a semi-withdrawn blog post would need to grapple with the author’s stated opinion that what s/he originally wrote was wrong.  But I don’t think authors have—or need to have—the ability to do any more than that.

Ultimately, however, blog posts and other new, digital academic genres are not precisely like any older academic genres.  While analogies—to, say, conference papers or letters-to-the-editor—can be helpful in teasing out our attitudes and practices toward these new genres, new forms of digital scholarship will thrive most fruitfully if we’re willing to see them as new kinds of objects that might need to be dealt with in new ways.

[1] In fact, one can also delete blog posts. But, thanks in part to sites like the Internet Archive, it is hard to make anything really disappear on the internet.

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The fact that Goodacre’s observation / provisional argument elicited such a strong response from a fellow scholar suggests a couple of things to me —

    — It is possibly a Really Important Argument, generating a lot of scholarly buzz even though (because?) it appeared online
    — Foster would like to “beat Goodacre to the punch,” as those of us who are fond of deploying pugilistic metaphors in academe might say.
    –Foster would prefer to engage Goodacre in a more traditional way, in which he is responding to an article Goodacre has published or has in press, but Foster is quicker with getting his ideas on paper than Goodacre is.

    Foster may have been looking for / hoping to see Goodacre’s argument appear in a more traditional academic venue and respond to it there. But, perhaps like some of us, he could only stand to wait so long before getting his own idea into print. Some blog posts write themselves, and I guess some articles might too. Perhaps Foster should have considered writing to Goodacre to see if he wanted to participate in a kind of point / counterpoint exchange in a scholarly journal.

    In any case, the “pre-emptive strike” (to use a martial metaphor) of refuting an argument before it is presented in something like a formal or finished form concerns me, especially as a junior scholar. This is one of many reasons why I don’t write much about my dissertation work, beyond the fact that 1) I have a topic and 2) I’m working on it. The last thing I need is someone making mincemeat of my argument before I even have one.

    As I noted a few weeks back, I tend to write into a problem, like tacking into the wind — don’t quite know what I think until some time after (and sometimes *long* after) I have put my process of thinking into words. To me, this is the biggest problem with taking blog posts as the kind of writing that merits treatment by the full critical apparatus of analysis/discussion in a peer-reviewed journal. Blog posts are a kind of “process” writing — unfixed, subject to revision/deletion, etc. As anyone who reads my blog knows, posts there appear and disappear and reappear in altered form, depending on the work that I need that writing to do for the writing (and the writer!) that is supposed to be more “permanent.”

    I read some of this concern in Goodacre’s post — he was kind of spitballing an idea, and someone made a formal judgment of his scholarship on the basis of writing that he would not himself consider “scholarship.” I mean, if our scholarly reputations are going to be made (or unmade) on the basis of blog posts and comments, then I am really S.O.L. (a magnificent colloquialism which I would not, by the way, use in a scholarly peer-reviewed journal).

    Perhaps the JTS is not so much trendsetting as it is recognizing not a trend but a tendency — how ideas move. They don’t stay neatly contained in blog posts or journal articles or tweets or even discourse communities. I’m beginning to think that the history of ideas is a nice, respectable, secular way of saying the Pneumatology of Ideas. “The spirit moveth wheresoever it listeth…”

    In any case, this post (yours, and Goodacre’s) is a cautionary tale, and maybe an inspiring one too. It means that the ideas (such as they are) that we put forward here might have a life beyond this tiny corner of cyberspace. This could be really awesome, or really awful. One more thing to worry about. I mean, it’s not like some of us don’t have enough problems with writer’s block already!

    • You raise a lot of interesting issues here, LD. I will say that it makes me think that I may have underplayed the complexity of what’s at stake here (though I was certainly hinting at it in my conclusion).

      A few further thoughts:

      1) I think the question of credit is very important. It sounds as if Goodacre will be writing a more conventional academic paper on this subject, but what if he didn’t? The Foster piece indicates that he made an important contribution to scholarship with his blog post…but how can he get professional credit for that fact? And will the appearance of a kind of pre-buttal of his paper make his paper less publishable?

      1a) Our current systems for getting professional credit are–except, perhaps, at a few key points in ones career–extremely blunt instruments. They do a better job of measuring the fact of productivity than the actually quality or impact of the scholarship.

      1b) Similar stories have occurred, very occasionally, with PhD dissertations, which have long been circulated prior to their publication as books. An extreme case is John Murrin’s dissertation, which was never published as a book, but, as I understand it, was thoroughly assimilated into the literature in colonial history. Of course, Murrin absolutely got (intellectual and professional) credit for the idea of colonial anglicization. And dissertations are, unlike blog posts, very formal forms of writing.

      2) There’s nothing, in principal, wrong with “process writing” directly entering the stream of scholarly discourse. But we may not yet have a good way of dealing with such writing.

  2. I think this exchange brings up a number of alternately exciting and troubling questions. Is the line between publication-ready and in-progress writing being erased by digital publishing? Will professors and graduate students soon be held academically accountable for all they say and do publicly online? Could the proliferation of digital publishing opportunities diminish the significance of scholarly journals and books when assessing the intellectual importance of a historian (or any intellectual for that matter)?

    There are many obvious benefits to a shift toward open, digital intellectual exchanges as opposed to the cloistered world of academic journals and presses. Greater opportunities for younger, less well-connected scholars to publicize their views to a large audience and less opportunity for vested academic interests to control dialogue over a particular issue by controlling prominent editorships are just two of the benefits.

    A push towards digital exchanges also frightens me however, especially as a graduate student looking at an uncertain future in a highly competitive job market. I worry that more free digital outlets will drive down the cost of intellectual production, squeezing more cash out of an already cash-strapped profession. More than anything else though, I worry about being held accountable for every idea I post online (whether it be from my blog or social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter). Many of the opinions I voice there are knee-jerk and some, like my various basketball ramblings on Twitter, are totally irrelevant to my scholarly output. Until we firmly establish a line of demarcation between what is permissible in academic debate and what is off limits, I expect problems like the one explained in the post above to persist and causing discomfort about the place of digital media in academic life.

    • I think it matters entirely what one means by “held accountable.” Any academic will have experienced how enormously generative half-formed ideas, offered over coffee or in conversation at a conference, can be. I think there’s nothing wrong with giving people more credit for such half-formed ideas (which, in a sense, taking a certain kind of blog post seriously might do). But I do think it’s important to come up with ways to distinguish between such provisional works and the more polished scholarly genres. And one certainly shouldn’t be “punished” for provisional thoughts that don’t pan out. In general, encouraging intellectual experimentation is a good thing, in my book.

  3. Matthew, my biggest problem with an article responding to a blog post is that it’s not a fair fight (she says, deploying yet another pugilistic metaphor). Scholars who blog do not generally write “scholarly” blog posts in the sense of carefully marshaling the kind of evidence needed to construct the sort of argument that would be expected in a peer-reviewed journal. Blog posts generally explore ideas in a sketchy, skeletal fashion. The genre works best with short pieces. Who says of a journal article, “TL;DR”? There’s no room in a blog post for the level of argumentation that a 10,000-12,000 word journal article allows.

    I suppose that one “side-effect” of this phenomenon might be not that it devalues the production of formal academic writing but that it raises the bar (like James Cameron in South Park?) for informal academic writing. This stinks if, like me, you use blogging to figure out whether you have the chops to be an academic at all, or whether you even want to be one.

    But maybe scholars who write serious blog posts — hey, it can happen — will see some kind of return on those efforts if academic blogging is recognized as a less formal but still recognizably scholarly kind of writing. I’m not really on board with such a change — to me, it means that I would have one more thing to worry about. But I have found that change often happens despite my best efforts to forestall it.

    However, if it comes to being judged on our Tweets, of all the ephemeral and insubstantial things — well then, as they say in the Twitterverse, FML.

    • I do think that (some) blogging should be considered to be scholarly writing…though, as I say above, it should be treated as its own genre of scholarly writing and thus, in several important ways, different from other, more formal scholarly genres. And, like it or not, I think people are beginning to recognize that (some) blogging is scholarship.

  4. Conference papers nowadays are not, it seems to me, as private or restricted as the OP suggests. They are often uploaded to sites before or after delivery; sometimes the org. in question will tell presenters that they ‘have to’ upload them. Of course many of them carry the ‘work in progress; do not cite without permission’ tag, but they are still often quite accessible to anyone who wants to read them.

    • Excellent point. I still think that many conference papers are not made available in this way and that the conference paper–at least in the field of history–remains principally an oral medium, and thus one whose address is much more limited than, e.g., a blog post….and that this fact underwrites the convention of the “work in progress” tag. It’s an interesting question, however, whether hyperlinking in a blog post to an uploaded paper that has such a tag would violate the letter or spirit of that tag.

      • As you know, different fields have different norms re conferences, and the conf paper in history probably remains more a purely oral medium than in some of the social sciences. Certainly no one reads his/her paper verbatim at a pol sci conference, they just do a summary.

        If an uploaded conference paper has a “do not cite without permission” line, then I think the blogger should ask the author first “may I link this in a blogpost?”

        Offhand I can’t recall ever linking a conference paper on my own blog, though I wouldn’t rule it out, subject to the above caveat.

  5. I have to say that I don’t feel nearly as cavalier about this as Ben. As a graduate student, I also share many of L.D.’s reservations. In my experience writing for The Junto, I have come to recognize two major issues with academic blogs, both about reception. First, as has been noted, some readers don’t read blog posts in the spirit in which they are written and which generally define the form, i.e., informality. I like to think of an academic blog as a tool to elicit discussion and create new dialogues. And I write most of my pieces there with that purpose in mind, not to make some final pronouncement or argument about something.

    The second issue is that some readers engage blog posts primarily to disagree with them. My post on Gordon Wood elicited some very heated reactions, both for and against. However, a few of the more critical among the readers both misrepresented what I wrote and attacked me personally, at least partly because of what seemed to be a highly contrarian approach to reading blogs, i.e., reacting negatively to a blog post that they likely only barely scanned before commenting. That experience has made me more cautious in choosing topics for blog posts and in my writing of them generally.

    As bloggers (and authors), we cannot control how people read our work but we can be more cautious and judicious in what we “put out there.” The blog format allows people to react to our writing quickly and, hence, at times viscerally. At The Junto, we tend to write more about historiography, not our academic works-in-progress. To be honest, I wish more people would write about their works-in-progress. It could be an amazing way to get serious feedback on ideas from others in the field. But because many people read blog posts in the ways described above, that is something that many bloggers unfortunately are not willing to do, myself included.

    Imagine the dialogues that could arise if we, as readers, considered our engagement with blogs in a different way, a more communitarian way that truly prioritized the creation of discussion and development of ideas rather than the zero-sum approach in which one gains from putting someone else and their ideas down. I realize that is the nature of the relationship between historiography and the academic profession, but the point of Ben’s piece was to say we need to think about blogs differently.

    • Just to clarify, Michael, I didn’t mean to sound “cavalier” about the underlying issues here, which are complex. As I say at the end, we need to treat blog posts as the new sort of objects that they are. And I’m not 100% sure what that entails.

      I do think that it’s reasonable to assume that people might cite an academic blog post without asking the author and that doing so violates no existing professional norms. I’m also unconvinced that creating a new norm that requires one to ask a blogger whether or not to cite their post(s) is necessarily the right way to go (I’m going to say a bit more about this in a comment below).

      But I also think that that fact might indeed (as Andrew suggest below) lead one to be careful in various ways about what one posts to a blog.

      Finally, as I indicate above, I think that things turned out reasonably well in the particular case that prompted my post.

      • I’m also unconvinced that creating a new norm that requires one to ask a blogger whether or not to cite their post(s) is necessarily the right way to go

        I’m not sure Michael Hattem meant to agree w/ the Mark Goodacre position (as outlined in the OP) analogizing blog posts to conference papers. On that point Ben Alpers in the OP is, I think, right. Blog posts are published; they do not carry an implicit “do not cite without permission” rider. Conference papers are different, not so much in their availability perhaps as in their status, as the OP suggests.

  6. The problem with writing about work in progress is that when you do that, you don’t make so much progress on your work.

  7. Great conversation. My views on academic blogging have changed somewhat since we started this blog six years ago. I used to be very cavalier about what I posted, with the thought that readers will be generous–that they will take my posts for what they are, often half-formed works-in-progress. But recent experience has taught me how naive such an understanding of academic blogging was. As Michael points out in his comment above, readers are often willing to pronounce on you as a scholar based on one blog post that they may or may not have read with any care. So the game has changed, at least for me.

    One minor note: in an age of Twitter, papers given at academic conferences need to be treated as published works of a sort, since someone in the audience is free to tweet every last word of such a paper, at least as much as they can process and type.

    • As Michael points out in his comment above, readers are often willing to pronounce on you as a scholar based on one blog post that they may or may not have read with any care.

      I agree that one needs to use some discretion when posting to a blog (as I say in the post, a blog post is a publication and should be treated as such).

      But the problem of careless (or ungenerous) readers is not at all a special problem of blog posts (not that you were suggesting it was). The most formal, peer-reviewed publications also get misread. Again, blog posts are, in this way, more like other forms of academic publication than we might think.

      Certainly people can–and do–tweet the contents of papers that they’re listening to at academic conferences. But can you imagine someone citing such a tweet in an academic publication?

  8. I meant to mention in the post that a colleague of mine (in another discipline, fwiw) recently cited an article and a USIH post of mine in an academic paper and asked me whether I minded the way she was using my work. As it turns out, I didn’t…but I was honestly surprised that she asked. And I remain unsure whether I ought to have veto power over how someone else uses my work. Obviously, I have a choice whether or not to publish something…and part of the burden of this conversation is when one ought to consider that one has, in fact, published something. But once something is published, I truly believe I lose the right to demand that it be read in a particular way…though I am, of course, free to disagree with them about their reading once they, too, decide to publish.

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