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GLOBAL: Academic blogging opens new world

Academic blogs dramatically extend the boundaries of conventional peer review and academic readership. Even in our niche field, the pool of attentive readers and reviewers is huge. With engaging content, regular updates and savvy marketing, academic bloggers can build a community of peers that would fill seminar rooms, lecture theatres and conference venues many times every day. Statistics we have seen indicate that a blog run by a couple of academics can generate as much internet traffic as the conventional websites of an entire faculty.

Peer review is a central foundation of academic credibility. But it is an imperfect process. Many academic authors find existing peer review methodologies are an impediment to timely publication. Months can pass following submission while authors wait patiently for comments from their faceless peers. It is considered good academic form to acknowledge the 'helpful comments from anonymous readers' but this ritual of gratitude can hide a sense of frustration with long-awaited feedback that fails to grapple with the core issues or is overly preoccupied with matters of style.

At the same time, reviewers who have carefully commented on submitted material can be dismayed to find that it is subsequently published (or resubmitted) with banal responses to their diligent feedback. In the world of academic publication, to have passed peer review is to receive an academically credible, but often superficial, imprimatur. Publishing in a respectable peer reviewed journal means that other academics can, with a modicum of confidence, make a judgement about your work without even reading it.

Peer review has a long and distinguished history. It is a product of an academic world in which small communities of experts could be called upon to make informed judgements about specialist topics. It is a system configured for a time when fat envelopes sent to distant pigeon holes were the standard currency of academic exchange.

But as the number of people with a stake in academic research and opinion has multiplied, alternatives to traditional peer review have started to emerge. The claims to exclusive expertise made by academic peers are now less sustainable than they were in the past. The massive growth of the internet has changed the rules. A global network of debate and discussion has proliferated. Academics cannot escape the interactive reach of Web 2.0.

This needn't be seen as a threat. There are many opportunities. For those frustrated with conventional peer review frameworks there are now additional ways to publish, to assess, and to be assessed.

In June 2006 we established a "blog" called New Mandala. Our aim was to provide regular posts containing "anecdote, analysis and new perspectives" on mainland Southeast Asia. We comment on contemporary developments, especially political tumult in Thailand and the ongoing stalemate in Burma. We report on research in progress, we flag potential areas of interest, and we seek feedback on our more traditional publications.

Many posts provide serious academic commentary; some are more light-hearted; and some are downright silly. We have written most of the 1,500 posts ourselves but we are working with a growing number of guest contributors who see New Mandala as an alternative forum for their work.

Since its establishment, New Mandala has received more than 11,000 comments from our widely dispersed readership. These are spontaneous contributions; some are anonymous (just like conventional peer reviewers) and some are fully attributed. They go online for public consumption almost as soon as they are written. Everyone can read how our unruly community of peers responds to our work.

Of course, comments from the great electronic yonder are a mixed bag. But they have the virtue of immediacy and immersion in current debates. Many come, quite literally, from the frontlines of newsworthy events.

When commenting, for example, on political protests in Thailand it is sobering to receive feedback from peers who are actually rallying on the streets of Bangkok. When discussing the work of another scholar, it is exhilarating (and occasionally humbling) to have a response - within days or even hours - direct from the horse's mouth.

Comments from readers of our academic blog discuss the validity, thoroughness, methodological soundness, accuracy, relevance and bias of the ideas we present. Some develop into sustained conversations that challenge our existing frameworks and fertilise our next generations of thinking. Others are more readily dismissed as ill-considered and self-interested rants. But even some of these encourage reflection on how effectively we have communicated our message beyond conventional academic circles.

There are many other positive spin-offs for academics who venture into the blogosphere: academic blogs provide a useful middle-ground for communicating with the media. Blog posts generate journalistic interest and often provide the raw material for comments when media outlets are hungry for a sound bite or an opinion piece. If journalism is "the first rough draft of history", then blogging gives academics a chance to have a greater say in the drafting process.

And, perhaps most important of all, blogging maintains the daily discipline of writing. At a time when administrative loads distract many academics from their interpretative vocation, writing online is one way to keep the tools of argument and analysis as sharp as possible. Blog posts provide valuable building blocks for more formal academic articles.

Academics hungry to be involved in timely and open-ended conversations about their output may find that blogging is an attractive option. It is about expanding the academic community of peers. It is about creating an environment for unlimited review.

* This:is a version of an article that first appeared in the ANU Reporter, see news.anu.edu.au

*Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly work in the ANU's Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies. New Mandala can be found at: www.anu.edu.au

Comment:

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Alessandra
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