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February 18, 2013 11:43 AM Robert Cottrell on the Value of Academic Blogging

By Henry Farrell

Robert Cottrell has a very nice long piece in the Financial Times on (inter alia) academic blogging.

To read the blog of a political scientist, or an anthropologist, or a lawyer, or an information technologist, is the next best thing to reading their mind; better, in some ways, since what they have to say emerges in considered form. These are the experts who, a couple of decades ago, would have functioned as sources for newspaper journalists. Their opinions would emerge often mangled and simplified, always truncated, in articles over which they had no final control.
Now we can read them directly, and discover what they actually think and say. We can know, for example, what lawyers are saying about a new appointment to the Supreme Court; what political scientists expect from an election; how computer scientists evaluate Apple’s updated operating system; what economists expect from a new government policy. The general reader has access to expertise that was easily available, a decade ago, only to the insider or the specialist.

And also:

Professional writers still see value in having publishers online, not so much as guarantors of quality, but because publishers pay for writing – or, increasingly, if they do not pay for it, they do at least publish it in a place where it will get read. Readers, on the other hand, have less of a need for publishers. One striking trend I have noticed in the past five years is the way in which individual articles uncouple themselves from the places where they are first published, to lead their own lives across the internet, passed from hand to hand between readers.
This is due, in large part, to the rise of social media – primarily Facebook and Twitter. Five years ago, you needed to visit a publisher’s website to see what was new there. Now, you hear about a particular article through Twitter or Facebook; a friend will share the link; you may visit the page directly but more probably you will save the link to your Instapaper or your Readability account, or mark it for reading later in your Flipboard feed, or on your Kindle or other reading device, and you will enjoy the piece later, probably offline. The article is what matters to the reader; the place of original publication may not even be noticed.
… it seems to me almost inevitable that a new business model for reading and writing online will prevail in the future, which consists of readers rewarding directly the writers they admire. Almost inevitable, because this is by far the most efficient economic arrangement for both parties, and there are no longer any significant technological obstacles to its general adoption.

This is doubly interesting. First, it’s interesting because Cottrell himself is the proprietor of the excellent website The Browser, which specializes in curating interesting material from across the WWW. It is not clear that there is a sustainable long term business model in doing this. The main value added that the Browser provides is free; I pay an annual subscription myself but primarily because I think that when people do good, socially valuable things, and you can support them, you should. Second, because it suggests the limits of a blog like ours which, unlike Cottrell’s, does not have to have a business model as such. Cottrell recommends The Monkey Cage in the article, and I think that it’s fair to say that we have been quite successful, by the measure of our initial ambitions for the blog. Still, we are also small enough that we would probably be unable to support ourselves e.g. by charging a subscription a la Andrew Sullivan, even if we wanted to. (We don’t). This blog exists because academic political scientists have (a little) free time that they can devote to providing general public goods if they want to. However, this also imposes some stark limits. Because this is not our day job, we are not able to write during those times when our teaching, administration or research demands most or all of our time. We would like to have resources that would allow us to do more – but it is difficult to get these resources because we don’t fit readily into the traditional models of e.g. competitive grant raising or foundation support. We talk about these tradeoffs on and off. It would be interesting to get the perspectives of readers, both on the specific value (if any) of what we do, on whether we should be doing more and what that more should be, and if so, what kinds of resources we could or should be looking to target.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
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