Advice: Why some academics SHOULDN’T blog (or use Twitter, or Facebook, or…)

I came of age as an academic more or less in parallel with the rise of online tools that changed how many academics work. When I was an undergrad, email was just starting to come into widespread use. I only started using it my senior year (1994-5), and I handled my email using Telnet. Senior year was when I also started to play around a bit with the world’s first popular web browser, Mosaic, then less than two years old and the forerunner of today’s Firefox. I’m old enough to remember a time when search engines didn’t exist, and then a time when they sucked. The best of them in the late ’90s was AltaVista, because it had millions more pages indexed than competing engines. Miiiiillllllions!πŸ˜‰

I will now pause this post while younger readers mock my age. Younger readers: begin your mockery…NOW!

[pauses, looks at watch, wonders idly why MTV doesn’t show videos any more, the way it used to back in the good old days…]

Ok, welcome back! So, like I was saying, while I’m young enough to have grown up with the internet, I’m also old enough to have learned a fair bit about how to be a scientist and an academic before the internet mattered to anyone but Tim Berners-Lee. And because the internet took off so quickly, there aren’t that many people like me. You don’t have to be that much older than me to have become fairly set in your professional ways before the advent of what used to be called “electronic mail”. And you don’t have to be that much younger than me not to be able to remember a time before, say, Google or Facebook.

Which I think gives me a fairly unique perspective on the role of online tools in the production and communication of science. I’m not someone who reluctantly accepts email as a necessary evil, I don’t find Faceplant and Tweeter or whatever the hell they are to be incomprehensible, and I don’t think blogs are just vanity publishing. On the other hand, while I know what Twitter and Facebook are, I don’t use them myself. I don’t use keyword searches to keep up with the literature, and I only use Google Scholar’s recommendations as a supplement to scanning the titles of new and forthcoming papers from a (lengthy) list of journals. I still decide where to submit my own papers based on traditional criteria, weighted in a traditional way. I don’t use any reference management software. I think that pre-publication peer review is just as important as ever, and that “post-publication review” is a non-starter. Etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of my older colleagues look at how I operate and wonder “Why does Jeremy Fox bother blogging, when he could be writing papers for Nature and Ecology Letters?” And I wouldn’t be surprised if many of my younger colleagues look at how I operate and think “How can Jeremy Fox be a blogger and yet not see any reason to be on Twitter or Facebook, and still see plenty of value in glamour mags like Nature and Ecology Letters?”*

But I’d like to think that I’m not merely a fence-straddler. It’s not that, because my professional habits were partially formed before the internet took off, I now use some random subset of all the online tools that someone like Jaquelyn Gill uses, or that I’ve given up some random subset of the practices I learned from Peter Morin. Rather, I use some online tools a lot, others a little, and others not at all because that’s what works for me.

Every word in that last italicized phrase is important. My way of working does work. Hard as it may be for some of my more senior colleagues to believe, yes, I do find blogging to be a really good use of my time. It doesn’t take a lot of time away from activities I could otherwise be pursuing, and in return I’ve gotten multiple papers I wouldn’t otherwise have written, a much higher profile in the field, and a lot of positive feedback from readers. Conversely, hard as it may be for some of my more junior colleagues to believe, my way of filtering the literature keeps me very well and very broadly-informed about what’s going on in ecology and other fields, finds me a lot of cool papers that I never would’ve known to search for and that never would’ve been recommended to me by my friends or Google Scholar, and does so without taking much time. Insofar as both my older and younger colleagues struggle to understand how this could possibly be, I suspect it’s because they’re forgetting that my way of working worksΒ for me.

Now, in some cases, what works for me would work for anyone. For instance, I use email. It’s been a long time since you could be an academic without using email. But in other cases, my way of working would not work for everyone, or even for most other people. Sometimes, that’s because I’ve consciously tailored my way of working to what I know to be my own strengths and preferences. For instance, I like blogging, I’m able to write good posts pretty quickly and pretty often, I’m tenured, I’m in Canada (so I don’t have to chase grants all the time), and I’ve built a big readership. That means that, in deciding how much of my time to allocate to blogging, the cost-benefit calculation is quite different for me than for someone who doesn’t like blogging, or writes slowly, or etc. In other cases, what works for me works because I’ve developed into the sort of person who can work well in the ways that I work. Just as I’d presumably have become a different sort of ecologist if I’d gone to work with Bruce Menge rather than Peter Morin, presumably I’d have become a different sort of ecologist if I’d, say, taken up Twitter and Facebook years ago. Everyone “coevolves” with their own ways of working–we choose them, but using them feeds back and affects us, making us different than we would’ve been had we chosen to work in different ways.

All of which explains why I’m all for it when folks explain why their way of working works for them. That helps students figure out their own ways of working, and helps more experienced people like me learn new ones, or at least make more thoughtful decisions about sticking with our old ones. Like I said, I didn’t always use Google Scholar; I tried it out on the suggestion of a colleague. And I still don’t use Twitter, but thanks to Meg and commenters I now have a much better appreciation for why some people do (I myself have been guilty of failing to appreciate that what doesn’t work for me may well work for others).

All of which also explains why I have little patience for people who think that others who work in different ways than them must be doing it wrong, or at least less well than they could be doing it. I’m sure that ecologists younger than me are, as a group, really sharp, that they really love doing good science, and that they basically define “good science” more or less the same way I do (and insofar as they don’t, well, it’s not as if more senior ecologists all agree on exactly what “good science” is). So if many younger ecologists work in ways that I wouldn’t choose myself, well, I’m sure they know what they’re doing and that it works for them. And I’d say all the same things about ecologists older than me. Because in my experience, when it’s really dead obvious that there’s an objectively-better way of doing something, they all adopt it, rapidly. That’s why, very shortly after email was widely adopted, journals starting accepting ms submissions and sending our review requests via email rather than via hard copy. Email was obviously a better way of doing things, so everybody, even the most senior ecologists, quickly and happily switched (and then shortly afterwards switched again, to online ms handling systems). In contrast, it is not nearly as obvious that all ecologists who aren’t on Twitter, or on Facebook, or using Google Scholar, or blogging, or whatever, would be better off if they were (or that the field as a whole would be better off). Which is why all ecologists aren’t on Twitter or whatever. Now, maybe someday they will be–but that will be because the field will have changed to such an extent that not being on Twitter or whatever is no longer a viable option. And if you say that day can’t come soon enough, ok fair enough, tell people why you like Twitter or whatever and maybe some of your colleagues will try it too. There’s more than one way to be a successful ecologist, so own your choices and explain them to others as best you can. But be careful not to cross over into telling others that they’re wrong, or even suboptimal, not to do as you do. Personally, I prefer to trust people, young and old, to figure out their own ways of working, and to save my critiques for the science that they produce.

This post was prompted by reading a recent blog post by Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon. His post asks whether, these days, financial investors “must” be on Twitter if they’re going to make informed investment decisions. And his answer–and remember, this is coming from a guy who sends dozens of tweets a day, follows over 1200 people on Twitter, and has over 92,000 Twitter followers himself–is “no”. Here’s the final paragraph of his post (emphasis in original):

All of which is to say that while I’m sure there are many investors out there who would be lost without Twitter, there are surely just as many for whom it would be little more than an unhelpful and noisy distraction. The great thing about Twitter is that the value and the conversation take place among people who want to be there. Telling people that they have to be there, or else they’re missing out, is actually not helpful. Because the one thing we can probably all agree on is that people who feel obliged to be on Twitter are very unlikely to either contribute or receive much of value at all.

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Though I did try just now.πŸ˜‰

*I actually hope there are people older and younger than me who think these things. Because I have a perverse streak, and so I kind of like the idea that something about the way I operate is annoying or incomprehensible to everyone.πŸ˜‰

40 thoughts on “Advice: Why some academics SHOULDN’T blog (or use Twitter, or Facebook, or…)

  1. Great post Jeremy – as you know I am older than youπŸ˜‰ – and it was great to see that a younger person such as yourself does NOT use keyword searches or automatic downloads to keep up with the literature. Like you I scan journals myself, make up my own keywords for my database manager (everyone of the 10000+ papers which I have read myself, and being old, have in a filing cabinet!) and find lots of articles that I woudln’t find otherwise. In fact I am busy writing a blog about something similar.



    • Brian McGill, who’s a bit older than me, doesn’t use keyword searches to follow the literature either. Though I’m considering setting up a few for Plos One, just to make sure I don’t miss anything from that journal that’s really crucial to the research I do.

      • I am younger than you, but also have not (generally) used keyword searches to keep up with the literature to date. (I do them occasionally to make sure I haven’t missed something, but it’s not my main approach.) But I am about to change that, I think — I just can’t keep up with my scanning of TOCs approach. My main hesitation in giving up the scanning of TOCs, though, is that I find a lot of good examples to use in teaching that way, and I’ll miss those with keyword searches. My hope is that Twitter will help me find some of those articles, but I’m sure I’ll still miss others.

      • Interesting! Come back and let us know how the switch works out for you.

        Your point about stumbling on examples for teaching is a good one.

  2. I personally think Facebook has little to no value beyond some initial networking as a follow-up to meeting a peer at a meeting or workshop. However, by quickly scanning my twitter feed, I am able to perceive what the current hype or big-ticket item is in my field outside of the “water-cooler talk” at my home institution. By thinning out my twitter feed to include only academic peers or institutions, it is actually a very viable, efficient news source for new papers, workshops or blog posts. Facebook, on the other hand, is a great way to learn which one of my highschool friends recently got hitched or what everyone’s cats are up to.

    • Thanks Nick. Your comment is a good illustration of the message of the post I think-what works for you wouldn’t work for me, and vice-versa. One reason I’m not on Twitter is so that I can *avoid* the latest trendy bandwagons.

      Although in practice, I’d guess that what’s trendy on Twitter often is the latest stuff from Science, Nature, or PNAS. So I’m probably as aware of the latest hot paper as I would be if I filtered the literature the way you do. I have a post in the pipeline about this.

    • I used to agree. Then I got invited to participate in a symposium at ESA via Facebook. Times are a-changing.

      • My dream with this blog is to become famous enough that I can stick with my current way of doing things even after everyone else switches. If you’re famous enough, people will regard such idiosyncracies as interesting, and will adjust to them. Like how the President of Harvard back in the late 80s or early 90s (Derek Bok? going by memory here…) used a manual typewriter rather than a word processor or computer. He could get away with it, and even be thought interesting for it, because he was President of Harvard. Similar, 20 years from now, when everyone else has a wireless brain scanning Bluetooth headset so that they can all send thoughts directly from one brain to another via the internet, they’ll still have to send me email. And I’ll be able to get away with it!

        There’s a saying that the poor are crazy, the rich merely eccentric. My hope is that there’s a corollary, to do with scientific fame rather than riches, and efficiency of work methods rather than eccentricity.πŸ˜‰

      • See, that was your mistake right there, being on Facebook in the first place. I’m not on Facebook, so no one can invite me to anything that way. And so since no one ever has, I’ve never had occasion to feel “Hey, look at that, Facebook turned out to be useful to me as an academic!”πŸ˜‰

    • Facebook is very useful for me to stay connected to what’s happening at my field station when I’m not there. When there’s a big flood, or a new project on site, or a bunch of new students working on site. Lots of people I know well from the fiels station, and really like, are heavy facebook users. When we see one another once every few years, it’s like we’ve been in intermittent contact the whole time. That’s pretty cool.

  3. The nagging thing (for me) about staying on top of the literature is, that you can never know what potentially career-changing papers one is missing, i.e., never sees. Given the current sad state of antiquated affairs, we don’t even have the functionality to set up an intelligent assistant who would do much (not all) of the searching, ranking and discovering for us.

    And I find the hours on hours reading titles in potentially important journal ToCs a colossal waste of my time: I spend more time searching and tracking literature than I spend actually reading it. Yet, there probably exists hardly a source that I would be able to abandon.

    Finally, journal rank as defined by IF would match the data better if reversed, i.e., top journals to the bottom:

    • Thanks brembs.

      There are potentially *career-changing* papers? I’ve never read one, not even as a beginning grad student. Can you elaborate on what you mean by “career-changing”?

      Scanning TOCs doesn’t take me all that long, at least not longer than I’m prepared to spend. But my feelings on this may just reflect the fact that I’m used to doing things this way, so whatever time I spend doing it doesn’t feel to me like wasted time, time I could be spending doing something else.

      Re: journal rank by impact factor matching “the data”: that isn’t data on which journals publish the highest percentage of papers that I and my close colleagues find interesting and important. So I’m afraid it doesn’t make me inclined to filter the literature any differently. And if, as suggested in that article, one just eliminated journals entirely, you’d *still* have all the negative consequences that are mistakenly attributed to the existence of a hierarchy of journals. I’ve posted on this before and I’ll have another post on it later this week.

      • Career-changing papers are those that lead you down research avenues that you would have otherwise never taken. Sort of like the paper on the Price equation you mentioned in another comment. It’s impossible to tell how many of these articles are out there which one never sees! Incidentally, this is precisely why one needs to look at random titles: precisely for this sort of serendipity – just not to the extent I feel forced to. I scan 35 ToCs per week and it’s anywhere between 15min and 1h per day. Together with all the other literature-search-related stuff (about 130 additional RSS sources) it’s probably around 10h per week which I consider to a large extent wasted. I’d pay 100EUR a month to whoever would save me 7 of those 10 hours every week..

        Re: journal rank: in fact, ‘perceived importance’ is (along with citations) one of the few things that actually do align with IF (weakly but significantly):

        Allen, L., Jones, C., Dolby, K., Lynn, D., and Walport, M. (2009). Looking for Landmarks: The Role of Expert Review and Bibliometric Analysis in Evaluating Scientific Publication Outputs. PLoS ONE 4, 8.

        Evangelou, E., Siontis, K. C., Pfeiffer, T., and Ioannidis, J. P. A. (2012). Perceived information gain from randomized trials correlates with publication in high-impact factor journals. Journal of clinical epidemiology 65, 1274–81.

        However, sound methodology, retractions, sample size, effect size overestimation, crystallographic quality, replicability and a few other metrics are either not related at all or inversely related. So let me rephrase my sentence above: for anything but ‘importance’ an inverted hierarchy would match the data better. If importance trumps reliability, then IF is your friend.

      • For me, one great thing about scanning ToC emails is that you stumble upon papers that are interesting precisely because they are outside your main field of active research, but within the wider bounds of your curiosity. Yes, there are a lot of papers of no relevance, but I always have a sense of the unknown when I read down through the titles. Sometimes I happily discover papers by old friends, sometimes candidates for journal clubs (I generally think it’s very dull when people present a paper that’s directly related to their work), sometimes just a title that spikes my curiosity. Often, I find nothing at all but, for me, it’s a bit like metal detecting.

      • I’m with you on the career-changing papers. There were some articles that entirely shaped by trajectory as a scientist which I stumbled upon, while browsing journals, that I never would have found with a search that I would have done at the time. I really miss going to the library and picking the actual volumes off of the shelf and browsing through them.

  4. Great points Jeremy. And what I find more frustrating is someone who all of a sudden invests lots of time and/or resources into a “new” way of doing things (e.g., adding thousands of papers to an Endnote database), but then never uses it. Their old system was working, but they felt pressure to change and adopt things outside of their modus operandi.

  5. I am pretty much a digital native. I learned to search for literature on the internet before I set foot into a university library (slight dramatization). I DO use keyword searches. It is all about using the right keywords and having multiple searches going on that allow you layers of more or less specificity. With twitter and within the lab, additional papers come to my attention all the time. I am pretty sure I am not missing anything, definitely always have something interesting to read on my list. It’s come so far, I don’t even store PDFs on my harddrive because hard drives can be lost in a computer crash and seriously, they just take up space on the drive that I need for other stuff. Cabinets full with 10k+ papers are nice if you are there to stay. But try moving across the Atlantic a couple of times with that kind of baggage. My literature stays in ‘the cloud’… which basically is the storagedom of the publishers and online libraries. It is like taking the library with you at all time instead of having an incomplete copy of the library filling your office.

    But the most important advantage: When I look for something specific, I know I am looking everywhere and not just in the journals specialized into my field or with a certain impact factor. Because, when you start going through the journals’ tables of contents, you also start reading certain journals and ignoring others.

    However, everybody should work the way they are most comfortable with, everything else is inefficient.

    • Oh, when I have something specific I need to search for, I search for it! For instance, when I need to make sure I’ve seen all the papers on some topic about which I’m writing a review, or planning a research project, or whatever.

      But to search for anything, you have to know what you’re looking for. Personally, I find that very limiting. For instance, insofar as I’m known for any single idea, it’s the idea that the Price equation can be applied to solve lots of conceptual and analytical problems in ecology. I’ve written a whole series of papers on this, all in leading journals. And you know how I learned about the Price equation? Not via a keyword search! And not via being taught about it in a class, or told about it by a friend (it was only *after* I started publishing on the Price equation that I began meeting people who’d heard of it). I learned about it because I routinely scan the TOCs of leading journals, including Evolution, and the lead article in an issue a good while back was a paper by Steven Frank on the Price equation. I read it because it sounded kind of intriguing, and because it was the lead article in Evolution that month so I figured it was probably important. I could share many such anecdotes.

      • Well, my keyword search is performed automatically every day, so I don’t have to initialize any search manually. I also have a search that gives me in principle one single list of TOCs of any journal somehow related to neuroscience, daily. I get the results for different keywords and search parameters in different emails. This allows me to choose to look at the specific searches first and then have a look at literally everything else in a single email, independent of where it was published and without the need to visit each journal.

        You found your paper because some reviewers thought it was important and put it into a leading journal. What if the reviewers of an article important to you don’t share your opinion and the article ends up in a journal that you don’t consider ‘leading’ and is not on your search list? What if somebody on twitter, who is close to your field found an important paper and you miss his comments and the paper in total?

        Keyword searches and the extensive use of online databases give you all the flexibility you want, if you use them wisely. Many people don’t use them well and I don’t blame them.

      • Hi Dennis,

        You seem to mean something different by “keyword search” than what I meant. If I’m understanding correctly, you use keyword searches (e.g., on “neuroscience”) merely as a trick to aggregate all journal TOCs in one place, thereby saving time b/c you don’t have to open multiple emails or visit multiple websites. You’re not using keyword searches as a filter, a way to pick out some small subset of the neuroscience literature. Which is fine–your way of using keyword searches is a clever timesaver–but when I say I don’t filter the literature using keyword searches, I’m talking about a different use of keyword searches.

        Sure, reviewers of a given paper for a given journal might not have the same opinion of the paper as I would if I read it. In fact, I’m quite confident that often they wouldn’t. But the same is true of the people you follow on Twitter, or whatever. Scientists disagree with one another. If you think you can avoid the filtering-related consequences of that fact by filtering the literature via social media, well, I respectfully disagree. I have a post on this coming out on Wed., but it overlaps a lot with this old post:

      • hi Jeremy,

        yes, I have several automated, re-occurring searches with different keywords representing different scopes and specificity. So, I DO filter the literature to highlight my subfields but in parallel get a list including the whole body. It’s true, it’s a tremendous time saver and I use the time to follow both ‘strategies’ of literature research.

        When it comes to twitter recommendations: the difference is, I know who recommends the paper. It is not some anonymous reviewer. This is important to me because I know that people from different fields usually don’t see the value of science done differently. More importantly, when following the ‘recommendation’ of a reviewer for a high impact journal, it also includes some crystal ball viewing of the papers ‘impact’ and if it fits the ‘scope of the journal’. On twitter people judge simply on how much they liked or disliked the paper.

      • All true enough, and fair enough. On the other hand, reviewers read papers far more carefully than the average post-publication reader. And if I don’t know or agree with many of the people who review for leading journals, well, in many cases that’s a feature, not a bug. If everybody who reviewed for and submitted to, say, Ecology was a clone of me, I would actually be *less* inclined to read Ecology.

        I have an old post on pre- vs. post-publication peer review that is tangentially relevant here:

  6. Jeremy – you are right on all particulars. I’ve got a few years on you, but also consider myself in that in between stage. I first heard of email when I was graduating from college (and I thought it was an arcane technical thing that would never make it out of the university cricle!). I was in business through the 90s when email became required (at least in business – from what you say it was a little slower in academia) and the world wide web took off. But I still remember having to use the paper based version of citation indexes, writing down lists of papers I wanted to read, and spending every Friday afternoon in the library copying articles. I was proud of knowing the library of congress call number of even obscure journals. The online access to papers has to be one of the greatest gifts to academics!

    But I whole heartedly agree with your basic point. I recall when I was in graduate school my adviser still used OS/2 (an operating system produced by IBM that was supposed to compete with windows) and WordStar (control-q,control-k to cut if I remember). Everybody else made fun of him, but I thought he was smart. Incremental benefits did not outweigh learning curve costs.

    Ironically I have been both wordprocessing and programming since 1982 (way ahead of most people) but remain a slow adopter of social media (I blog obviously and read quite a few blogs, but I only lurk passively on Twitter and Linked-In and Research Gate, and I don’t even have a FaceBook account and have never even bothered finding out about some of the new stuff Instagram(???) ).

    On Simon’s specific of papers. I find myself in the middle. I have a filing cabinet full of papers I photocopied. However somewhere about 10 years ago, I started storing things electronically on my hard drive. So I’m still hybrid (although slowly all the papers I refer to frequently are now on my hard drive and increasingly books as well). But when I really get down to the business of writing a paper, I have to print out all of the relevant papers, reskim them, and annotate them in ink. I can edit a ms online, but I cannot digest material online to as deep a level as I can with old fashioned tactile mode.

    The time to worry is when you see somebody who adopts EVERY trend or NO trend. These people clearly are not thinking. But the ones who are in the middle are presumably picking and choosing whether consciously or subconsciously.

    • Re: worrying about people who unthinkingly adopt every new tool, or unthinkingly ignore all new tools, there’s probably an analogy here to evolution. Something about the evolution of optimal mutation rates (a question that has in fact been studied theoretically and experimentally). What’s the optimal rate of trying out new ways of doing things that probably won’t work well for you (at least not as well as your usual way of doing things), but sometimes might work better? A very loose analogy, but perhaps not so loose as to be worthless…

    • There’s also an analogy here to the evolution of “evolvability”, where I mean “evolvability” in a rather specific sense well grounded in standard population genetics. Rich Lenski’s group recently had a Science paper on this. They showed that, in their long-term E. coli evolution study, a mutation that’s initially strongly favored by selection also changes the fitness effects of subsequent mutations so that they’re neutral or negative rather than positive. That is, it closes some evolutionary “doors”. So lines in which this mutation occurs initially increase in frequency, but eventually decline and get outcompeted by more “evolvable” lines in which that initial favorable-but-door-closing mutation didn’t occur. Those more evolvable lines eventually accumulate more favorable mutations and so eventually end up fitter. Now, for this to work you obviously have to have the right balance of population genetic parameters (e.g., if the initial door-closing mutation is *really* beneficial, it will just sweep all the way to fixation, thereby making the entire population less evolvable forever).

      I think there’s probably an analogy here to possibly getting stuck doing things the way you first learned to do them, and tailoring your ways of working around the tools that you first learned to use. This may well be beneficial in the short term, but it could close off some “fitness-improving” avenues for you in the long term.

  7. Mosaic… . I saw my first one on a high school field trip to MIT. As I browsed text-only library-like material, I decided that what was to become the “web browser” was a thoroughly boring innovation…

  8. Thanks Jeremy for another excellent blog, one that has resulted in me posting a reply, for the first time. As someone who is from the era that Apricot was the fruit of choice for the make of your computer, I identify with the hybrid mentality and fully endorse “…it works for me..” ethos.

    I have an office full of boxfiles with 1000s of papers ordered by author replaced with an external hard-drive full of a jumble of .pdfs. I used to dedicate a couple of hours a week pouring through abstract indices with a list of keywords to keep abreast of my research arena, yet today I feel (with old age?) I am unable to replicate this activity due to the broad spectrum of media outlets from which science is disseminated. I fully support this increased access to science. It is me who has not adjusted accordingly, primarily through academic progression that does not give me the necessary time and secondly I have not worked out a method to cover all bases. Intriguingly I find from a post above I am not alone in needing to print out papers when writing and also in my case editing/reviewing.

    Without question I am one who should never blog as I would take way too long worrying about the syntax, etc. However, over the last year I have evolved to become an avid Twitter user as I find this an efficient means to find out about grant calls. Horses for courses……….

    • I do have 5 file drawers full of paper reprints and printouts, on which I used to make copious marginal notes. But I’ve managed to get away from that. So unlike Brian, I basically don’t use my old hardcopies anymore. I’ve been feeling a nagging urge to organize my growing store of pdfs, and will probably check out Mendeley or something at some point. You know, when I have some free time.πŸ˜‰

  9. I enjoyed your post. During my PhD studies in the early nineties, I used to spend a lot of money copying articles in the library. Now I use the same tools you mention for following literature. Some content alerts and the links in the web sites of the journals about other articles citing the article I liked. However, I have adopted facebook and twitter recently. The first is a game but the latter is very nice. It works for me! I have created a blog, but I rather use it to post news and articles of others, not writting something. I still try to find ways of utilizing this tool better. Maybe it does n’t work for me after all. I try to adopt. Because I like to adopt. But I still need to print something in order to read it. I need to write things using my pen on the borders of an article, in order to understand it. I guess that I am old!

  10. Nice post, I largely agree with it. Everyone needs workflows that work for them, even though there is a synergy in having common workflows. I could care less what technology academics find best helps them identify the literature they need, though I doubt all researchers share either your success or confidence in their ability to stay abreast of our exponentially rising literature.

    At the risk of a tangent, I should mention that their are other technological / cultural changes you don’t explicitly mention here where I don’t feel “what works for me” is a matter of choice. Ecologists can choose to ignore twitter just as they can ignore the cocktail parties at conferences that others find useful. But adopting practices like posting source code on Github or sharing preprints onisn’t just about what works for the individual, but what is good for the scientific community as a whole. Unfortunately, I think some of these practices fall under the same prejudices, where uptake is less among a generation trained without these practices or the technology that facilitates them. Or maybe that’s too pessimistic?

    • Thanks Carl. Reassuring to have a technically-sophisticated youngster like yourself agreeing with me here!

      Your tangent may be a tangent, but it’s an important issue. You’re absolutely right that there are some things we do because they’re good professional practice. They might not benefit us as individuals, at least not in any direct, obvious way, but they’re good for the field as a whole. And I agree that what constitutes good professional practice can change over time, and that some folks may have trouble keeping up if following good professional practice obliges them to learn to use unfamiliar technologies. (As an aside, I do think that some–not all!–younger folks underestimate just how “foreign” things like Github, ArXiv, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. are to more senior folks. Stuff that seems easy or obvious to one person can be *really* hard for someone else to understand and appreciate. That’s why my “why read blogs?” post is written at such a basic level, and emphasizes analogies between blogs and old-school activities like conferences.)

      The concern I have is that there’s a blurry line between activities that individuals are free to pursue or not, depending on what works for them, and activities they’re obliged to pursue (perhaps even at some cost to themselves) because it’s good professional practice and good for the field as a whole. For instance, in an old comment thread where I talked about my way of filtering the literature, I was told explicitly by a commenter that it was bad for the field as a whole. Because everyone who filters the literature the way I do is preserving the existing journal system and putting off the day when everyone submits everything to unselective, open access journals like Plos One. In response, I simply denied that I have any obligation to filter the literature in a way that wouldn’t work for me so as to promote the putative good of science as a whole.

      Curious to get your thoughts on this (both this specific example, and more generally). How do you decide when some change in traditional scientific practice is so obviously good for the field as a whole, relative to the cost it imposes on individuals, that everybody ought to be obliged to do it? (whether by professional norms, or enforceable rules) For instance, data sharing seems to be on the road to becoming mandatory, and that’s a quite recent change to traditional practice in ecology. But there’s clearly much less agreement about, say, whether one has a professional obligation to only submit to Plos One or similar journals, or post preprints online.

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  16. Good article and very interesting lot of comments. My background is in CS, masters thesis was on Navigating Hypermedia, more specifically the possible use of “Guided Paths” through Hypermedia… interestingly had 1 paragraph or so about Tim Berners-Lee developing this system called the WWW at CERN. Perhaps I should have stayed in the field? Seems like it became something…πŸ™‚

    Anyway, it seems to me that the tools we use for information navigation are constantly evolving and there are interesting uses (and mis-uses) of these tools. For example, a Blog can be a great example of a “Guided Path” – if the blogger is an expert then they can guide us through their field of knowledge with external links and explanations (meta-info) about why these items are important. Similarly, Twitter might be seen (or used) as the “Hive mind”, with trends and important stuff becoming noticeable (and at a different time-scale than blogs). Of course the effectiveness of these tools depends on who you’re following/reading…

    I also think that we can sometimes miss the serendipity of browsing a library – many of you get a similar effect through reading journal ToCs. Is following trusted bloggers + Twitterers is perhaps similar in some ways? (Do we need to pay some bloggers to keep us up-to-date by scanning these in various fields? Micropayments perhaps? This has also been explored in various hypermedia systems in the past and sadly something that the WWW itself doesn’t really support.)

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