In 1989 Australia a technician at Melbourne University, named Robert Elz, switched on the Internet. At the other end of the link was a University of Hawaii academic, Dr Torben Nielsen. His first words were: “Link is up …”.
Seventeen years on the Internet offers unprecedented opportunities for academics to engage with the world. By using websites to post working papers and finished articles, and blogs to engage in discussions with the broader public, the Internet may potentially be the largest change in the way academics convey ideas since the invention of the printing press.
Making academic work available on one’s own website has many advantages. As undergraduates, postgraduates and the general community increasingly turn to search engines such as Google Scholar, work that is readily accessible is more likely to be read and cited. A spate of studies has shown that making articles available online boosts citations by 50 to 250 per cent. If you want to have your articles cited in other countries and other disciplines, your best bet is to post them on your website.
Despite the clear benefits of posting articles online, only about one-seventh of the research conducted by Australian academics is freely available on their websites. Go to the typical Australian academic’s website, and you will see a list of their publications in chronological order. While a website with full-text papers says to the reader: “Here are my papers - please read them”, a stale bibliography is more like saying: “I have written some clever papers - you should go to a library and read them.” To a reader who does not have access to a library, work that is not online might as well not exist.
A standard excuse for academics failing to post their papers on their websites is that copyright law prevents it. Yet as advocates of open access have pointed out, 93 per cent of journals have policies that permit authors to post a copy of an article on the author’s own website. Of the remaining few, most have no objections to authors posting a pre-publication version of their article. In disciplines where books are the norm, academics can often obtain the consent of their publisher to post a sample chapter, or a link to the full-text version at Google Books.
Just as the printing press helped speed the decline of Latin, so too the Internet is undermining existing ways of conveying information. As Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin observes (pdf file 673KB), the “wired intelligentsia” now assume that “they can find out pretty much anything on Google”. For academics who are willing and able to make their research Google-friendly, the Internet offers plenty of new opportunities for conveying ideas to a broad audience. But it also suggests that libraries could be going the way of their card catalogues.
For those raised on the virtues of careful scholarly research, the declining patronage of libraries may seem a disturbing development. Common to most social scientists is a love of libraries - where the bliss of browsing is exceeded only by the delight of discovering the perfect volume. For centuries, the received wisdom of academia has been that carefully trawling through books and hard copies of journals is a necessary condition for producing high-quality scholarly output. Today, there are fewer reasons than ever for scholars to visit a library - making it increasingly critical for academics to make their articles available on their websites.
Alongside the rise of Internet-based research has been the growth of blogs, a form of Internet journal which allows you to post short articles daily or weekly. Over the past five years, the number of blogs has grown exponentially. There are now millions of them worldwide and tens of thousands in Australia alone.
Blogs have also proliferated within Australian academia. Among the best-read academics in the blogosphere are Tim Lambert (a computer scientist at the University of NSW), John Quiggin (an economist at the University of Queensland) and Kim Weatherall (a lawyer at the University of Melbourne).
For an academic, blogging is a tempting proposition. As George Washington University Professor Henry Farrell observed last year: “Academic blogs offer the kind of intellectual excitement and engagement that attracted many scholars to the academic life in the first place, but which often get lost in the hustle to secure positions, grants, and disciplinary recognition.”
Yet academic blogging presents a difficult trade-off. On the upside, it provides a chance to engage with colleagues and non-specialists. A decent blog will have hundreds of readers each day; some have thousands. No Australian blog matches the readership of the nation’s largest newspapers, but plenty have more readers than the average academic journal.
For academics with an interest in public policy, blogs are an ideal chance to offer one’s own disciplinary perspective on current events. On issues such as climate change, copyright law reform, or congestion-pricing for roads, discussion on the blogosphere is considerably more sophisticated than in the broadsheets. They can be used as a teaching tool: both to post additional readings and to cultivate students’ interest in the subject. Blogs can even lead to unexpected spin-offs: I am currently co-authoring a paper with a brilliant student from the University of South Australia who contacted me through the blogosphere.
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