Statisfaction

[Meta-]Blogging as young researchers

Posted in General, Statistics by Pierre Jacob on 11 December 2014

Summary of the article.

Hello all,

This is an article intended for the ISBA bulletin, jointly written by us all at Statisfaction, Rasmus Bååth from Publishable Stuff, Boris Hejblum from Research side effects, Thiago G. Martins from tgmstat@wordpress, Ewan Cameron from Another Astrostatistics Blog and Gregory Gandenberger from gandenberger.org

Inspired by established blogs, such as the popular Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science or Xi’an’s Og, each of us began blogging as a way to diarize our learning adventures, to share bits of R code or LaTeX tips, and to advertise our own papers and projects. Along the way we’ve come to a new appreciation of the world of academic blogging: a never-ending international seminar, attended by renowned scientists and anonymous users alike. Here we share our experiences by weighing the pros and cons of blogging from the point of view of young researchers.

[To blog…]

At least at face value blogging has some notable advantages over traditional academic communication: publication is instantaneous and thus proves efficient in sparking discussions and debates; it allows all sorts of technological sorcery (hyperlinks, animations, applications), while many journals are still adapting to grayscale plots; and it allows for humorous and colourful writing styles, freeing the writer from the constraints of the impersonal academic prose. Last but not least, it is acceptable to blog about almost any topic, from office politics to funding bodies, from complaints about the absurdity of p-values to debates on the net profits of publishing companies, not to mention quarrels about the term “data science”.

For young researchers, some aspects are particularly appealing. By putting academics directly in touch with one another through comments and replies, young researchers are given the opportunity to “talk” directly on technical subjects to some of the most renowned names in their fields—and indeed a surprising number of senior researchers are avid blog readers! This often proves much more efficient than trying to awkwardly stalk the same professors at conferences. Through such interactions, young academics can show off their many interests and skills, which can do much to fill out the picture painted by their academic CV.

Beyond those low and careerist considerations, we see blogging as a good tool to learn and to share scientific ideas. According to popular belief, only a third of all started research projects end up in a publication; but all of them can at least end up on a blog. So if you indulge in a bit of off-topic study or burn a few hours playing around with a new methodology it need not fuel your performance anxiety: a blog post explaining it will still feel like a delivered product. And you will very likely get some interesting feedback—though rarely to the depth given in journal reviews.

Finally, using blogs to advertise articles and packages seems particularly useful at the early stage of a career, where you might not be invited to that many conferences, or might only be given some dark corner of a giant poster session to talk about your work.

[… or not to blog ?]

Some cautionary notes now, blogging can be risky! As the adage goes, “better to keep your mouth shut and appear a fool than to open it and remove all doubt”. Beyond the quality of the content being shared, blogs are also sometimes disregarded by academics as a frivolous medium; there is a risk that your colleagues will see your blogging hobby as a pure waste of time.

A second risk is to disclose too much information about promising research leads. There should be some balance between ideas shared and ideas kept secret, so that blogging does not jeopardize publication. Other platforms that formally establish precedence (such as arXiv) might be better suited for the initial presentation of new and exciting work. For this reason it seems wisest to blog a posteriori, though the interest of these blogs will be less than their potential to function as real-time research diaries.

A third risk is genuine time-wasting. For those who have never tried, it can be surprising to discover how many hours are needed to write each post. It can be frustrating in the beginning when reader statistics indicate an audience of just one or two spam-bots and some curious relatives. On the other hand there are still a limited number of academic blogs on statistics so far, so the market is far from saturation: any new blog can quickly garner a decent amount of attention. Of course it can be hard to keep a regular posting schedule, which is necessary to maintain a stable reading base.

To conclude, blogging can be a clever way to bypass the hierarchical structure of academia. It gives everyone a direct and fast access to everyone else. In some respects it helps to alleviate key problems affecting young researchers, such as the lengthy reviewing process of top journals and the lack of communication space.

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