Malcolm Gladwell and the Value of Blogs

Posted on July 31, 2006 by

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Malcolm Gladwell reviewed our book in The New Yorker this past May.  Soon after, he twice noted our work on his blog.  Given that Gladwell comments on his blog infrequently, it was nice to see him comment multiple times on The Wages of Wins.

Since commenting on our book Gladwell has posted two more times.  His last entry examined the value of blogs vs. the print media.  Gladwell, who participates in both worlds, disputes the notion that blogs could ever take the place the print media.  In his view, blogs are a derivative of the print media.  The last paragraph of his entry summarizes his viewpoint: 

“One last point: I must say that my own experience with this blog has only hardened my belief in the intrinsically derivative nature of blogging. As those of you who read the New Yorker know, I wrote a review of the book Wages of Wins this spring, and then blogged about it. The review and my posts prompted a good deal of comments, both on this site and on other blogs. But when I did a search, I was unable to find anyone, among the many who commented on my comments on Wages of Wins, who had actually read the book itself. That’s weird, I mean, it’s a short book. And it’s really not that expensive. But nobody—even those who were in highest dudgeon about the book’s conclusions—seemed to want to do more than comment on those who had already commented. Isn’t that the very definition of derivative?”

Now there are a few items of interest in this paragraph.

First of all, Gladwell again mentions our book, which is still a very cool thing to see.

Second, Gladwell chides those who have commented on our book without first reading what we had to say.  And he makes the note that our book is short (which is true) and inexpensive (which is also true).

Most importantly, though, his comment led me to think about the value of blogging.  Recently Brad DeLong – an economist at UC Berkeley – and JC Bradbury – an economist at Kennesaw State – both commented on the value of blogging by academics.  Given that both DeLong and Bradbury each have successful blogs – Brad DeLong’s Semi Daily Journal and JC Bradbury’s Sabernomics – it is interesting to read what each of these writers think about the value of blogging for those in academia.

DeLong listed a number of benefits associated with blogging and bemoaned the lack of attention this received from university deans.  Bradbury echoed these sentiments and also examined the difference between writing peer-reviewed academic articles and writing on a web log.  As Bradbury notes, the peer-review process is slow and cumbersome.  It literally takes years between the time one begins working on an article and that article finally is published.  Consequently, as Bradbury notes, by the time one received feedback from a wider audience you have long since forgotten what you originally said. 

As is often the case, I agree with Bradbury.  The peer review process is slow and does not provide timely feedback. 

Given the difficulties associated with academic publishing, could blogging – which gives more immediate feedback – ever replace peer-reviewed journals?

I think ultimately the answer is no, for the same reason Gladwell thinks blogs cannot replace the print media.  As Gladwell notes, “newspapers continue to perform an incredibly important function as informational gatekeepers—a function, as far as I can tell, that grows more important with time, not less. Between them, for instance, the Times and the Post have literally hundreds of trained professionals whose only job it is to sift through the mountains of information that come out of the various levels of government and find what is of value and of importance to the rest of us. Where would we be without them? We’d be lost.”

Academic journals also serve as gate keepers.  The journals at the top of the food chain reject most of the papers that are submitted.  The material that is accepted is generally the best work in the field. The difficulty of the process and the demand placed on the writer forces one to bring your best game.  Furthermore, the peer review exposes your work to the expertise of others and also, and this is perhaps most important, prevents one from making statements and claims that are not supported by the evidence. 

Those who try and avoid this process – and the people who do this know who they are – invariably produce work of lower quality, making mistakes reviewers would easily spot.  In the blogosphere, though, these mistakes can pass unnoticed by an audience that does not understand the methods the person is employing or the basics of economic theory.

So as Bradbury notes, blogs should not take the place of peer reviewed work.  Rather, such work should be seen as a valuable supplement to the formal research academics are hired to perform.

Now, should academics receive credit for blogs?  I think this depends on the quality of the work. If the work is good then clearly blogs can bring added positive attention to an institution.  If it is poor, though, the attention received by the academic institution would not be so welcomed.  So in the end, if we want blogs to count in academia then maybe these also need to be peer reviewed.  Of course, I am not sure how one would organize such a peer review process.  I am sure, having recently chaired a tenure and promotion committee, I would not want to add to the mountain of material we already review in this process.  Then again, maybe I would have time to review more if I wasn’t so working on my blog.

– DJ

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