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.


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