Boynton’s article is one of the more restrained responses to the uproar in the blogosphere over Dan Drezner’s tenure denial at Chicago. Chicago’s reasons for denying Drezner tenure are really beside the point here — after all, Chicago is in that league of schools that seems to believe that their reputation is made more by who they deny tenure to than who they grant it to, so using that line of thinking, they’d only diminish their reputation by giving Drezner tenure. What Boynton suggests is that we may want to consider some ways in which blogging can be considered scholarship, such as some sort of peer review system for blogs.
Personally, I think blogging in itself isn’t really scholarship. It’s a tool for scholarship, much like a research notebook, or the ability to program computers. Just as you can be a great programmer and still not be a great scholar, so you can be a great blogger and still not be much of a scholar. But the converse can also be true: just as a great programmer can use her skills to design a great experiment, so a great blogger can use blogs to develop great ideas. In Drezner’s case, I have no idea whether he’s even a good blogger — apparently I’m one of the few people in the blogosphere who’s never read him.
But blogging is different from programming — it’s public. And there’s no denying that a blog could be used to publish great scholarship. If I’m somehow divinely inspired to develop the grand unified theory of physics, I could publish it on my blog tomorrow. The “problem,” according to Boynton, is that I’d get no credit for my contribution. If I was a physics professor, however, it’d be idiotic for me careerwise to post my complete theory on my blog — I’d seek publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Even if I did decide to publish on my blog despite the possibility of greater glory elsewhere, that doesn’t mean that the blog is the ideal medium for publishing such a work. In other words, the scenario of truly remarkable scholarship going unrecognized due to publication on blogs is less likely than it seems.
Blogs are more valuable as communications tools than they are as publication tools. They’re a great way to toss ideas out there to see what the response is. They’re also a great way to just organize thoughts. I can’t easily search through the text of my written work on my computer, but I can on my blog. That’s why I kept a research blog when I was a grad student, and that’s the main reason Greta and I started Cognitive Daily — to organize our research notes. Now if we want to pitch an article, or even put together an entire book, it’s easy for us to find the information we need, written in our own words. So the blog itself may not be scholarship, but it most definitely enables scholarship.
If I was to try to suggest a way for blogs to become part of the tenure/promotion process for faculty, it wouldn’t be so much based on the scholarship value of day-to-day posts. Instead, I would consider the leadership role that a professor’s blog plays. There is no doubt that P.Z. Myers, author of Pharyngula and the force behind Tangled Bank is an asset to his institution because of his contributions to the blogosphere. But that’s a different thing from saying that Pharyngula contributes to scholarship. It contributes to scholarly discussion, no doubt, and it helps inform the public of the role of science in policy-making, but compared to say, the journal Nature, its contribution to the general body of knowledge, of original research, is not very great.
And, as I said before, his own work on Pharyngula may make Myers a better scholar. But is it scholarship in itself? I don’t think so.