Will Blog Posts Get Credit?

A newspaper or magazine article will be read by thousands, while one is lucky if ten people read an academic paper.  So if you want influence, write for the popular media, right?  Well, those thousands of newspaper readers will soon forget everything you said, but a few academic readers may well write papers influenced by your paper.  People almost never look up ten year old newspaper columns, but they do often read ten year old academic papers.  So an academic paper may still have a better chance at long term influence than a newspaper column.

A key difference is that academics organize into a network of specialists with social norms requiring them to cite related previous work, and to situate their publications so that they can be found by others working on similar topics.  These norms make it hard for an academic to republish previous work as his own.  In contrast, a newspaper columnist can easily repackage the central idea from someone else’s ten year old column, with no one noticing.  We pick columnists for their clever style and personality, not their original and important ideas.

So where will blog posts fit in?  While most academic papers and books are long, many ideas worthy of academic attention can be clearly explained in a short blog post.  In fact, many academic papers and even books consist of a short good idea and then a lot of other not especially useful material that shows the author can do impressive hard work.  So in principle, blog posts could fit into the world of academic work. 

But, if social norms allow academics to ignore blog posts, by not citing clearly relevant and influential blog posts just because they are blog posts, then blog writers will have little incentive to offer insightful comments that can be fit easily into an academic network of cited insights.  Blog writers will instead have the incentives of newspaper columnists, to provide an engaging style with little expectation of originality or cumulative expert influence.  Such blog writers might well cite each other, but more as a way to create an engaging multi-character show for their readers. 

So can we create an academic blog world, where blog posts get academic credit?  If someone gets a Nobel prize for developing an idea that was first explained in someone else’s carefully written but short blog post, will that blog author be celebrated, or will he be ignored as the sort of distraction that academics can’t be expected to pay attention to?  A lot will depend on whether blogs can organize themselves into networks of specialists, so that it is feasible for someone working on a particular topic to find the careful serious blog posts related to their topic.  This is obviously harder to do for many small blog posts than for fewer larger papers or books.  But it is not obviously impossible, and this is the blog world I hope to live in.

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