Language Log and The Future of Science Blogging

Last night I head a talk by Geoffrey Pullum about the linguistics mega-blog language log.  Amusing as always, Pullum introduced us to the writers and took us through some of his favourite posts.  We even got to see a post being published live!  I shouldn't have to tell this audience about language log, but I did learn a few new things - did you know that Mark Liberman sometimes gets up at 4am to write posts?  Did you know Pullum has written his own computer program for keeping track of what he's said?

Recently, I was talking to a mathematician about blogging and he revealed that most research in mathematics is presented, reviewed, criticised, corrected and incorporated before the journal article reaches print.  Publishing is more about prestige while the actual research has bypassed the review process.  David Dobbs writes this week about the inflated importance of paper publishing and argues that mediums like blogging are faster, cheaper and engage the public - which should be a priority for science.

I asked Pullum whether he thought blogs would take a similar role in Linguistics.  I was expecting a reply about the self-evident nature of mathematics and how Linguistics is a subject where you really need a peer-review and editorial process.  However, Pullum was very positive about the role of blogs in research, and pointed out that many theories undergo rigorous criticism on language log, sometimes within minutes of being posted.  Further, he feels that the blog has had an effect on science journalism and that people are much more cautious about putting forward the kinds of views that Language Log takes apart (Snowclones, prescriptive grammar etc.).  Pullum also feels that blogging requires more bravery than peer-reviewed publishing:  Your idea is open to the wide world without careful consideration by many people.

Certainly, I've benefited from blogging about my research.  On the one hand, it forces me to put my research in a clear, concise format.  On the other hand, other people do some of the work for me by asking questions, pointing out problems and even, in one case, checking the validity of my data.  There's even talk of blogging being part of assessed coursework for the MSc course here.  Maybe one day, there will be no more need for the mysterious art of printing research on paper.

  • Thanks for sharing this! I'm also curious how the public nature of blogging will affect linguistics and science in general. One thing: Isn't it Mark Liberman who writes for LL instead of Philip Lieberman? I'm always confused by how many Li(e)bermans are out there 😀

  • You're right, of course! I actually wrote it correctly first, then did a search for his surname to make sure it was correct and copied the whole suggested google correction.

    This is an excellent demonstration of the power of blogs to help improve science!

  • I think blogging is also changing the nature of what we are (and aren't) willing to pay for. For instance, I no longer read newspapers. Also, my first port of call for science reading is google reader, where I can search through articles using key terms etc. Very rarely do I go to the BBC for science. Put simply: it's too content-lite. In fact, the only reading content I pay for these days are either novels or academic texts (and even that is starting to change thanks to Scribd). Maybe I'm just a cheap git.

    As for peer-review: I think opening up the process will be a massive benefit. In particular, it will allow criticism from a more diverse range of sources. This is especially true in the case of interdiscplinary papers: several statisticians (or William Briggs) could look at the stats and [insert discipline here] could check the theoretical and other content etc.

    Lastly, the reach of blogs is also getting quite impressive. Sean, type in the 'evolution of religion' into google and your post is on the first page! (Albeit below a website run by Young-Earth Creationists...)

  • I was at this talk as well I thought it was interesting what he was saying about the disparity between women in academia and the amount of women that blog.

    There's a really interesting article that was published on the same day as the talk (co-incidence I'm sure): http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/blogging_out_of_balance/