• Blogging: Is it good or bad for journal article readership?

    While at the AcademyHealth Annual Research Meeting last week I had several conversations with editors and board members of various journals, among other attendees, about how blog summaries of academic literature change readership of journal articles. Do blog posts broaden access to people who would not otherwise ever know anything about health policy-relevant research? Or do they allow people who might otherwise read academic papers to skirt by without doing so? (And, if so, is that really a bad thing?)

    My guess: both! Let’s face it, almost nobody who isn’t a researcher or a policy wonk is going to read an article in an academic journal. To the extent that a blog summary reaches beyond the rarefied research and policy communities, it extends the reach of the literature and the ideas it conveys. If one is interested in building a case for the broad relevance of health services and health economics research (among other subject areas), this is unambiguously good.

    It is no doubt true, however, that many in the field use a blog summary as a substitute for other ways of engaging the literature, including reading the papers it references. Yet, I submit that few read an entire paper anyway. What people often do is read the abstract, then maybe the introduction and concluding discussion. Perhaps they add to that a light skim of other sections. Very often a blog post includes more about a paper than is in an abstract, and hits many of the points made in a concluding discussion, as well as some that aren’t made. So, though a blog post may be a substitute, it may not be substituting for any less engagement with a paper’s original and related ideas.

    Finally, I am also confident that for some a blog post is a complement to reading the whole thing. Scanning tables of contents for possible papers of interest is, perhaps, the floor of habitual engagement with the literature. Academics and researchers should probably do at least that. Yet, I know from conversations that even this gets overlooked by many. The torrent of literature is so voluminous these days that even keeping up with tables of contents is not so easy for the busiest researchers and academics. At least a post on one’s favorite blog might bring to one’s attention a paper that one really does want to read.

    What I think may worry some journal editors, board members, and other schoars is that blog posts might be “dumbing down” research to reach broader audiences. (I imagine Twitter further heightens this unease, even if it does expand the potential audience.) That’s certainly a worthwhile concern. It is possible to lose valuable nuance when attempting to simplify and interpret. But broadening access need not mean distorting the message. It all depends on how it’s done. I would hope TIE could be (and is) viewed as part of a “solution” to increasing understanding of the value and content of research. I would most certainly be upset if it was (or is) viewed as “distorting” or “dumbing down” research, or somehow as “the enemy” or a “bad influence.” If anyone in the field feels that way, I encourage him or her to bring that to my attention.

    I emailed about this with Nicholas Bagley, who responded

    When it comes to my work, I’m delighted when someone blogs about it. I figure only a tiny sliver of the population has the time to read the whole thing. The chance to expose more people to my ideas is exciting, even if they get just a simpler version of those ideas. And I’m skeptical that those who are really interested in the topic will decline to do so because they’ve read a summary; probably they wouldn’t have read it anyhow.

    Also, if I had to read everything you and Aaron blogged about, I wouldn’t do much else. Reading summaries gives me a breadth of knowledge that orients me when I engage more deeply in a particular set of problems.

    Responding to an early draft, Bill Gardner wrote me,

    I think that blogs can give you free space to think across disciplines and publish things that do not have a home in specialist journals. They also allow you to publish a more science-based commentary on current events than even an op-ed page will allow.

    (See also Bill’s recent post on research translators.) Comments are open on this post for one week so you can weigh in too. Having said that, I’ll be away and off-line for much of the next week, so please excuse the very long delay in posting your comment.

    @afrakt

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    • Blogs are fantastic for a pedagogy tool. The summaries of research papers in blogs are accessible enough to students who have not yet mastered or can appreciate the statistical nuances in these papers. I do think among academics, blogs channel traffic to papers. I think there is some evidence of associated with being mentioned on Marginal Revolution and downloads from SSRN. http://www.voxeu.org/sites/default/files/file/DP8558.pdf

      I have been told that blogging is not a good use of time for academics trying to get promoted. I think this is true early on in your career for two reasons. (1) The turn around for journal submissions is long so you need to constantly feed the pipeline to have enough success to be promoted. This leave little time to blog. (2) You are an unknown commodity with respect to expertise. Why would anyone read your blog when other known authors are writing on the subject. There is a power rule with web traffic that would be difficult to overcome in the beginning, in particular, when no one knows who you are.

    • As a an MD/PhD student, blogs are a great way for me to gain insight into literature that I might not have expertise in but am interested in how it would interact with the knowledge I have in my subject area. Blogs allow me to intelligently speak on or provide reference to other material that I would not have had time to see. Blogs rise to the top, with links and references from good blogs to other quality material. This interlinking is essential, and while it may invite groupthink, having more eyes read through and comment on ideas is very helpful. Keep up the good work!

    • Paywalls make this a difficult topic, that is, it’s hard to read articles at $5-30 a pop. Even when I otherwise have access, i won’t myself blog articles that others cannot read.

      Some journals can be persuaded to free an article up. Sometimes it’s by author appeal. We’ve successfully initiated that on occasion. But too often, it’s ‘no’.

      • On the other side of the paywall, as someone without access to many journal subscriptions I love blogs on journal articles to which I don’t have access. Good blogs (TIE and others) give me more than I would get just by reading the abstract, which is all that I’d be able to do without bankrupting myself.

        Sure, an open access world with great blogging would be the ideal, but until journal articles are available without a subscription or $30/article cost, I’ll take blogs to supplement the publicly-available abstract. Too often abstracts gloss over interesting findings (or troubling methodological issues) that you wouldn’t know about without reading the whole paper; without access to the whole paper I rely on the blogs of those with access to let me know.

        • Re: the paywall issue-

          It is one of the reasons I highly value my association with a university and medical library. If you have the ability, many universities have public computers you can access on their campus libraries during business hours and are automatically logged in behind paywalls since it comes from their network. Generally not a public service they promote, but I have not seen a university that won’t give out a guest passcode (if needed) to log onto their public computers to access full articles.

    • As a working allied health professional and full-time student, I appreciate the topic variety and succinctness blogs like TIE offer. I am able to stay abreast of the latest legal, policy and clinical trends and research without limiting my other obligations. This, I believe, gives me an advantage both professionally and academically. The key, which TIE is exceptional at, is for blogs to provide all relevant citations…and then some! Thanks, and keep up the fascinating work.

    • Blogging is much like internet dating ten years ago. The medium has a partial taint (I dont think I need to give examples), and that goes for social media in general.

      TIme does have something to do with writing outside of conventional channels. However. those who want to see blogging and microblogging take off need to get the resistors to overcome their preconceived notions of the net.

      I believe some avoid SM because they have no interest. However, many individuals have biases–and without asking why they feel the way they do, and working through them, they will continue to shun a useful mode of connection.

      Brad

    • Rather than worrying that their work is being “dumbed down,” researchers should either learn or cultivate a relationship with someone who knows how to communicate research findings in clear English. This is an undervalued skill but absolutely critical to the health policy process. I wish more graduate programs would spend time on this skill.