Top 10 Comparisons of Academic versus Website Writing.

A new directive has come down for us School of Doubters: publish or perish.  Get a new posting up every 2-3 weeks, or be replaced by someone else who can.  Sound familiar?  Academia, perhaps?  If you don’t publish as a grad student, you won’t get that great postdoc.  If you don’t publish as postdoc, you won’t get that faculty position.  If you don’t publish as faculty, then maybe no tenure or promotions.

So how does writing as an academic compare to writing for SoD?  My first peer-reviewed paper was published in 1985, followed so far by 82 more.  April 15th will be my one year anniversary at SoD.  Not counting this one or comments on other posts, I have 15 separate entries for SoD.  (Yikes! Some quick math reveals that my posting rate is lagging that once every three weeks dictum.)

My (almost) year at SoD has been fun and educational – particularly in reading what my colleagues write.  Overall it is part what I expected and part what I didn’t.  Because it seems to be de rigueur for publishing online, I made a top ten list!

  1. Production style. For SoD my general method has been… Have an idea rattle around my brain for a couple of months (like this one).  Get a motivational kick in the butt, like an email from Dan that maybe I ought to write something soon.  Sit down at my computer.  Bang out a couple of pages in an hour or two.  Proudly show it to my wife.  Be told that I look like an arrogant ass.  Rewrite. Post.  In my science career…  Have an idea rattle around my brain for a couple of months. Get a motivational kick in the butt, like really wanting to find out if my idea is any good.  Design an experiment or mathematical approach to test the idea.  Spend months or more likely years carrying out all the work, analyzing the data, and writing up a paper suitable for publication. Submit to a journal. Be told by reviewers I am completely wrong or make no sense.  Revise and submit elsewhere.  Repeat until a journal accepts it.
  1. Pipeline. As a scientist, I am generally working on several ideas at the same time. When I get something done, off it goes, but that can mean stretches when there is nothing even close to being ready.  Some years I may publish 5 or 6 papers, but in other years zero or one.  Fortunately, my science evals take a longer view – averaging out productivity over 3-5 years.  Suppose, however, I had a “dry spell” of 6+ months at SoD without posting.  I imagine our Dear Leader would be unappreciative of such extended breaks for contemplation and refocusing.  Websites need fresh content!  Thus I started my time at SoD with a nifty list of things I wanted to write about.  I could have taken a weekend and banged them all out.  And then… what?  Long dry spell?  Getting myself fired?  Instead, I still have a list of educational/scientific/career issues to address and I will continue to dole them out every 2-3 weeks so as to avoid the wrath rained down on the unproductive.
  1. Permanence. You know that ’85 paper of mine. Thirty years on and it still gets occasionally cited.  You know that series on Creationism I did for SoD about a year ago?  Well, it’s still there, floating in the ether, and may exist on the internet long after I physically cease to be.  But is anyone ever going to read it again, now that it has disappeared from the front webpage and it may take several clicks to locate?  Perhaps not.  Thus everything I write for SoD seems to come with a lifespan of about a week.  Therefore, this leads to…
  1. Self-plagiarism. Anybody who has spent any time in academia is well aware of the colleague who apparently has one or a very limited set of ideas and basically rewrites the same paper over and over again. While not unethical, it does generate sneering comments over drinks at meetings.  Without the flogging of the same idea or concept over and over again, however, the majority of opinion websites would cease to exist.  There are some places I like to check into regularly for varied reasons, but by now I know that Jerry Coyne hates the idea of free will, PZ Myers can’t stand Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, and Jaclyn Glenn loves to make fun of lame Christian YouTubers.  After a while it becomes, “Really?  Haven’t I read or seen that same thing from you about a dozen times already?”  But what am I going to do once I finish my list (which will likely happen in a few months)?  I really love what I wrote about Creationism and want more people to read it.  Should I just tweek it some and repost?  How about my opinion piece on tenure?  Open access publishing?  After all, I only have a finite number of opinions.  Very soon it will be: Self-plagiarize or go dark.
  1. Freedom. Writing for scientific publication is torture. Every attempt at making your paper an enjoyable read with clever analogies or fun turns of phrase is squelched by reviewers and editors. Circumspect language is the rule.  After 30 years of this training, I have to admit that I was probably a much more interesting writer at 21 than I am now.  And, of course ‘science’ has crept into every aspect of my life. I tell my wife that I have a high degree of statistical confidence that I probably love her.  She is markedly unimpressed.  Writing for SoD is liberating in that I can have an opinion that I don’t need to defend either with statistics or cited references.  In fact, I can pontificate on education, science, life, and careers without having a resume of 10 peer-reviewed publications on each.  Bit by bit, I am rediscovering the 21 year old writer!
  1. Lack of freedom. Although stylistically constrained, I am free as a scientist to successfully or unsuccessfully pursue any research direction I wish. Aah, the joys of tenure!  I don’t have and never will have tenure at SoD.  I realize that the family of websites I am a part of has a point of view and obviously at SoD am expected to stay within a range of topics.  I can’t post articles expounding on the chances of UK basketball team going undefeated this year.  And if I had a sudden conversion to Creationism and began claiming the Earth is only 10,000 years old, or became a rabid men’s rights advocate, I don’t think I’d have the chance to even finish this sen…
  1. Readership. By Web-of-Science my papers have been cited 2478 times (although we all know that a citation doesn’t mean the paper was actually read). I strongly suspect that my musings for SoD have already been read by more people than will ever read the entirety of my scientific output.  Indeed, a short article I wrote as a lark for the Zocalo website about a test I gave my students has reached a wider audience, by orders of magnitude, than all my peer-reviewed papers combined.  Maybe it will be embossed on my tombstone: “He cheated.”
  1. Vitriol. I have had some nasty reviews of my scientific manuscripts. I have had numerous people disagree with my conclusions, both in person and in print.  But as much as my scientific adversaries can disagree with my science, they can still like ME!  And I can still like THEM!  This seems very different on the internet.  If someone holds up a contrary opinion, they are not only wrong but also very likely to be stupid, racist, liars, assholes, and generally “a piece of shit”.  Often all of this is deduced from a single article, a quote, a comment on a website, or a single tweet.  Comment sections often rapidly degenerate into ping-pongs of exchanged insults.  An us versus them mentality (with them always being the subhuman idiots), is inimical to quality science and education.  The frequency with which postings on the internet becomes invitations to send or receive personal attacks is horrific.  If I do go dark, this is the one thing I won’t miss.
  1. You need 10 things for these lists, and I only have 8, so this is just filler.
  1. I said I’m out of ideas! Why are you still reading this?


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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

1 Comment

  1. February 12, 2015 at 1:10 am —

    Hah, cracking that whip seems to have done the trick!

    It might be worth re-posting things from the archives every so often, actually, now that we’ve been around long enough to have an archive. It’ll be two years in March!

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