Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Scholarly communication: Listservs, blogs and who knows what all

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Young has a nice piece called:
Change or Die: Scholarly E-Mail Lists, Once Vibrant, Fight for Relevance
It's behind a paywall (click here if you have access), so here's the opening paragraph:
Once they were hosts to lively discussions about academic style and substance, but the time of scholarly e-mail lists has passed, meaningful posts slowing to a trickle as professors migrate to blogs, wikis, Twitter, and social networks like Facebook.
Let's start from the history. Now, I know all you young kids have only heard the stories of such halcyon days of yore, if I may use an expression common back in those times. As an early subscriber to LINGUIST, H-Net networks (for historians) and other lists, I recall it being pretty different. First, there was the issue of whether these were valuable tools or a massive waste of time since only print stuff (books, articles) counts, etc. But there was a heyday of a few years where discussion really bubbled. You could post a query to LINGUIST asking for examples of some linguistic phenomenon and quickly get a set of detailed responses (on or off the list), often from the leading specialists in the world. You could also get flamed publicly by jerks, famous or not, and those flames of course could be dead wrong.

What's happened? Well, as the article goes on to argue, specifically with LINGUIST and H-Net as examples, these folks have developed clearly defined roles in their communities. For H-Net it's the book reviews and LINGUIST is really one-stop shopping for information on languages and linguistics. Young describes LINGUIST as possibly "the largest single academic mailing list out there". Go linguists, go LINGUIST!

What gets me here is the either/or mindset of the title (and the image above) … when we get a new tool, like fMRI, it's kinda dumb to abandon all previous tools for that one. We're doing with scholarly communication what we do with our technical resources: We try to find the places they're most useful for and deploy them there.

Blogs seem better than lists for rambling thoughts and screeds, so in some sense may represent an evolution of flaming. But they are not a replacement for scholarly publishing, surely, although at least one local academic blogger is apparently arguing that line. You gotta use all the tools that make sense. Where does it stop making sense? The line for me falls just before Twitter: Over thousands of years, we've developed easier, quicker ways to record and transmit information. Clay tablets and parchments were pretty slow and expensive, printing on paper quicker and cheaper, and electronic communication even slicker. We can say as much as we need (or want, sadly) and get it out instantly.

But Twitter? From Young's piece again:
"In the last month, i unsubscribed from 4 academic lists," wrote David Silver, a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco, abbreviating his comment to stay within Twitter's 140-character limit on all messages. "Thru other means, mostly Twitter, don't feel like i'm missing much."

"I find that I almost hate e-mail now," wrote Kimberly Gibson, an instructional designer at Our Lady of the Lake University. "It feels so slow and outdated. Thus, I'm not really reading my scholarly lists anymore."

Can you really get the info you need from 140-character chunks? That's the equivalent of a whispered comment to your neighbor at a conference talk, not scholarly discussion. Beyond chit-chat, that might make for art or humor, but to abandon lists for this? Are these folks who've also abandoned reading stuff printed on 'paper'? I know I'm missing something here, but not sure what.

Image from here, with interesting and relevant discussion of this issue from a non-academic perspective.


Anonymous said...

> But there was a heyday of a few years where discussion really bubbled.

I really am struggling to say something useful and constructive here, bear with me.

Internet has changed, a lot. (Almost) From the beginning I have stood watch in my own specialty branch (linguistics, surprise surprise). I visited other branches, sure. They all seem to go down the same path.

People are easy to jump to conclusions. And the more you take people who have little education the more you get (a majority vote of) stupid responses (from an academic point of view, if and when I'm being generous).

This is why you and I see a dearth of intellectual debate. Specialists from ALL walks of life just shun away from non-intellectual debate of the net. See the archives of sci.lang for an example or the more "no comments" pieces of Language Log. I myself applaud the ones who are still there, Peter Daniels is my (intellectual) hero. Not that I have any illusions about intellectual debate itself.

To illustrate linguistic debate of my own, read on.

Recently I posted a plea of help to change the mind of a mathematician (silly me...). He had the nerve to quote me mathematics even though I am not a mathematician (this was reasonably clear from my nick) and would take the bait and say something stupid about mathematics (of course the thing in his head was that my linguistics 101 response was just non-sense, and that would be clear when and if I would say something about mathematics). The mathematician there was too lazy, self-absorbed, to fact-check (I posted


and he had the nerve to say that he, as an outsider, can go against the consensus of the linguists; I am sure we all have our pet peeves against that particular piece, but as an outsider going against one of the very few signs of a linguistic consensus, come on...). My post led to zero, 0, none, responses in linguistic channels. Not that I was surprised. The linguists were little interested... ...and why should they be, after all the scorn in public debate just for pointing out linguistics 101.

There is nothing to do to change a popular image, even and especially, if false. Just to have one more personal little tidbit to you folks there let me tell a true story. I myself come from a northern place. Anyway, once I worked in a southern place. I had a room-mate who had the nerve to write and stick a paper in my door to say to wash my hands after going to the toilet. I can only speculate but this must have been because I was sweating more than the people there and thus made a dirtier image/look. I don't know you folks but for me there is little more offensive (of course there is but for the sake of the argument) than suspecting my hygiene. Now that I have offered you an analogy I apologize and shut up.

Mr. Verb said...

Well, certainly it's even harder to carry on those kinds of debates across disciplines, but I do see some examples of people making progress on that front. For instance, I think these folks do a good job of it, although in a different realm: http://crookedtimber.org/.

DonBoy said...

I also don't see the point of Twitter as originally conceived, but the whole thing's been hijacked by the bit.ly link shortener, so that some Twitter feeds have all but turned into blogs that just post links.

Anonymous said...

While I have noticed that some professional email lists have slowed down a bit, in some part that's because others have developed - not all of which are open to all comers. I operate primarily in the world of ESL/EFL, with forays to Linguist List, and really wish there were a good Applied Linguistics list.

At any rate, the TEFLChina lists (Yahoogroups) are VERY active, as well as some special topics lists such as the IATEFL business blog (BESIG, also hosted on Yahoogroups), and TESL-L (off the CUNY server) has slowed down a bit but is still active.

Within the organization of TESOL,Inc., there are members-only lists, of which the Materials Writers and the Higher Education lists are particularly active, though somewhat sporadically so.

Because it is easier to develop lists, and there are many more lists to choose from than there once were, we see that groups like MedicalESL (a Yahoogroup) and TESLJob (another Yahoogroup) draw a more specialized crowd, and may have fewer posts overall, but remain useful to the community they serve.

learn spanish in seville said...

What's the point here??? Blogs and social media, the best way.

School going teens are really involved in these stuffs.

Sprachschulen said...

These are their hobbies now to visit social networks and make blogs. They are loving it.