I don’t see academic blogging as some revolutionary new mode of scholarly communication. It’s just a new(ish) way of doing certain things that some academics have always done, such as write in a personal voice about ideas that don’t fit comfortably in traditional peer-reviewed papers. To bolster this view, I’m always on the lookout for examples of “blogs from before there were blogs.”
A colleague recently pointed me to a great example of which I wasn’t previously aware (embarrassingly)*: Leigh Van Valen’s self-published journal Evolutionary Theory. The following passage is from Van Valen’s memorial volume published by the University of Chicago Press:
Van Valen’s research papers tended to be “of enormous scope, genuinely imaginative and strikingly original,” said Jablonski, yet his ideas were often too innovative, too daring to get printed. “It signaled to Leigh that there was a dearth of outlets for such research. So he launched his own.” The paper that introduced the Red Queen hypothesis, rejected by several leading journals, appeared in 1973 on page-1 volume-1 of Evolutionary Theory. It was soon recognized, said Jablonski, as “one of the most important ideas in modern biology.” In 2008, Nature, which had turned down the original study, acknowledged the extraordinary influence of this seminal work, exemplified by numerous follow-up studies confirming Van Valen’s 35-year-old theory. Unpredictable and quirky, Evolutionary Theory soon developed loyal readers. “We used to look forward for each issue,” Jablonski recalled. Delivery was somewhat irregular, and esthetics incidental, but that was consistent with the journal’s motto: “The primacy of content over display.”
Other ecological examples of “ecology and evolution blogs from before there blogs” (or in one case, a non-blog that could’ve been a blog):
- John Lawton’s mid-90s View From the Park column in Oikos, which remains an inspiration for my own blogging, and I believe for Brian’s as well. (example, and my response)
- Dan Janzen’s mid-80s Thoughts from the Tropics column in Oikos (example).
- Bob Holt’s series of essays for the Israel Journal of Ecology a few years ago.
Can you think of other examples of blogs from before there were blogs? Either from ecology and evolution, or other fields? I’m particularly interested in those by and for academics, as opposed to public outreach or policymakers or etc.
In light of the success and influence of blogs from before there were blogs, I’m a little surprised that journals don’t try this sort of thing more often. Ok, I’m sure there aren’t that many people with some pre-existing name recognition who’d want to write an opinion column and who’d be good at it. But there must be a few, surely?** And while there’d be obvious advantages to just doing it as a blog, doing it as a column in a journal would reach a different audience, would be easier to do***, and would be easier to cite.
*Actually, I think I was aware but had forgotten. I have a vague memory as an undergrad of paging through what I thought was a strange and homely-looking journal in the Biology Dept. library. I think it was Evolutionary Theory.
**This relates to something I wonder about. How many ecologists would be good bloggers who aren’t already doing it? To a first approximation, the answer is presumably “none”, because there are no barriers to entry. Anyone who wants to start a blog can easily start one. So presumably the only ecologists who’d be good at blogging but who aren’t already doing it are people who don’t realize that they would be good at it and would find it a rewarding and enjoyable use of their time. Which probably isn’t literally zero people, but probably is very few, since people are mostly pretty good judges of their own abilities and
time allocation how best to allocate their own time. (UPDATE: edited for clarity.)
**You’d have to write only one piece/month, too low a frequency to build an audience for a blog.