I've been wondering for some months about the role of blogging for an academic. How does it fit into my job as an economics professor? What's it worth?
My own views, of course, are coloured by personal experience. But that personal experience is more influenced by the current economic times than by my own biography.
I went on sabbatical July 2008, after spending 9 of the previous 10 years spending most of my time doing university administration: first as chair of the department, then 6 years as associate dean. I had planned to spend my sabbatical doing a lot of reading, a lot of catching up, and writing a couple of journal articles.
And then the financial crisis hit.
There was no way I could ignore the financial crisis, even if I wanted to. I'm a macroeconomist, and macroeconomists are supposed to understand this stuff. Books and journal articles take years to publish; even working papers may take months. That was just way too slow. Things changed daily. Our understanding of what was happening changed daily. Policy responses changed daily. Blogs were the only media fast enough.
So I spent many hours a day reading economics and finance blogs. And then, thanks to Stephen Gordon, I started writing my own posts on this blog.
Economics blogging has been great for me. I haven't spent so much time thinking about economics since I was in grad school. And I have learned from, and argued with, economists with very different perspectives, and non-economists. That would never have happened without blogs. But what do I tell the Dean? "How I spent my sabbatical - blogging"?
I know it will make me a better teacher of economics.
A lot of economics professors flatter themselves that they are economic researchers first, and teachers second (and never mention administration except to disparage it). But in reality it's our teaching that pays our salaries. And our influence on our students is way more important and long-lived than any influence of our research, for nearly all of us.
Blogging will make me a better teacher of economics in two ways.
First, I will be able to talk more intelligently about the financial crisis. Only part of teaching is telling the students stuff they need to learn. Equally important is nurturing their enthusiasm for economics so they learn it themselves. Teaching macroeconomics, while offering nothing to help them understand the current financial crisis, would be a great way to kill any enthusiasm for learning economics.
Second, writing blog posts is a great way to improve your skills in explaining economics simply, clearly, to a reader who may come at it from a different perspective, and in a way to grab the reader's attention. Teachers need those same skills.
Blogging is also a very effective way of my doing "community outreach". It goes under various names, but the idea is that university professors shouldn't spend all their time in the ivory tower, but should get out there and give something (and learn something) from the public. This is partly advertising (for the university), partly a public relations exercise, but also I think a response to a general sense of public duty. We are encouraged to do interviews with newspapers, speak at public events, etc. Blogging seems a very effective way to reach lots of people.
OK, I know, I've been ducking the main question: "but how does it compare to published research?".
Damned if I know. And of course, whatever I say will (understandably) be seen as self-serving.
Blog posts are published, just in a different medium. Blogs (like books, journals and working papers) are a form of conversation, but they are recorded conversation, and public conversation. Anyone can see what you said. (In fact, blogs are a lot more publicly available than expensive inaccessible books and journal articles).
Blog posts can also be cited, by other blog posts, just as journal articles are cited by other journal articles. Some citations are favourable; others are unfavourable. Just like journal articles.
Blog posts are even refereed, by the commentors especially. Sure, most of the comments are anonymous, but then so are referees for journal articles. And anyone can referee a blog post; you don't get the risk of a little clique of like-minded people all refereeing each others' work, and approving it because it confirms their views and cites their own work favourably.
But the big difference, of course, is that journal articles get refereed before publication, while blog posts get refereed after publication. Even a departmental working paper will normally be reviewed, at least briefly, by one or more of one's colleagues, before publication. Anyone can post anything on a blog.
I believe that some blog posts are as good in content as anything that gets published in a refereed journal. They may lack all the scholastic trimmings, but that's not obviously a disadvantage. But most aren't (they don't try to be). And some are really bad.
I was really chuffed when I found one of my blog posts on someone's reading list for an upper-year course. That's worth more to me than a favourable referee's report. But that's the rare exception.
Readership is one way to measure the quantity of impact of a blog. But then if readership were what mattered, newspaper articles would be worth more than refereed journal articles.
We don't have a good quick conventional measure of the quality of blog posts without reading them. There's no short-cut, like "one AER, two CJE's". That's the big difference.
Fortunately for me, I'm an old guy, and tenured, so I don't really have to solve this problem. The strongest argument for tenure is that it gives university professors the freedom to explore unconventional avenues of research which may or may not pan out or receive recognition. So I'm going to stretch that to include unconventional media. But I expect I had better try to write a couple of regular articles as well.