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! 😉
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 works 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. 😉
*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. 😉