Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Well, look at that...

Most of the feedback I've gotten about this blog over the past couple of years has been generally positive, thought most of it is usually qualified with formulas to the effect of "I don't know where you find the time" and "What concrete purpose does it serve?"

Well, over the summer, a commentary of mine came out in the journal Medical Hypotheses. It's entitled "Mad Neanderthal disease? Some comments on "A potential role for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction" (Riel-Salvatore 2008). Regular AVRPI readers might find that title sounds familiar, and they would be right. "Mad Neanderthal Disease?" was also the title of a post I wrote last winter in reaction to the publication of a paper by. S. Underdown (2008) and the considerable media buzz it generated.

After I wrote that post, a reader - who happened to agree with me - asked me what the point of posting this (and other things) only to the web was, since, in practice, my comments left no durable trace in 'The Literature' (y'know, the stuff that leaves a tangible papertrail). I've always said that I think of blogging first and foremost as a way of forcing myself to articulate first reactions to articles and newsreports that I read, and to engage a wider audience in debates over archaeology, anthropology, and other topics. This post was a case in point. I received several comments on it, including one that pointed me to a reference to Homo sapiens cannibalism/handling of the dead that I'd overlooked in my original post, and - very recently - another one that brought to my attention an old paper on a very similar model (Wolbarsht 1975) (in fact an extremely similar model, down to the virus, ethnographic comparisons, and mode of transmission).

So, having taken the time to write the post anyway, all I had to do was pull up the file that contains its text (I save all of my posts as individual text files, should Blogger ever decide to cancel this fair blog), add the missing ref, format it for length and style, write a short cover letter to the editor, log on the Medical Hypotheses online submission service, and voila!, a submitted paper. In all, it took maybe an extra hour of work. Funny thing is, had I not blogged about this, I don't think that I would have bothered to write a comment on the Underdown paper in the first place, probably reserving my thoughts for 'over beer' discussions with colleagues.

Arguably, this is not exactly a full-blown peer-reviewed publication. However, it goes to show two things: first, blogging is useful as a catalyst to write, engender debate and refine one's ideas. In my case, this is further demonstrated by another paper of mine (this one currently in press in a bona fide peer-reviewed archaeology journal) that incorporates edited passages of an earlier post; in this case too, the time that elapsed between my writing that post and my writing that academic paper (along with the discussion that post generated) was crucial in helping me develop ideas I originally put together over two years ago now. This ties into the second thing I want to say about blogging: it can have a very real, tangible academic output. Between converting/adapting/incoporating blog posts into 'proper' (or rather, standard) academic papers and helping one to develop thoughts without actually setting out to write in the formal, somewhat more rigid style and structure of an academic paper, blogging can certainly be a stimulus for one's academic output. And this, of course, is in addition to the benefits of making academic literature accessible to a larger public, providing a critical assessment of discoveries that are 'published' only through press releases (*cough*cultofthepython*cough*), and other benefits discussed by Hawks in a thoughtful post about two months ago (John, if you read this, congrats on the tenure, btw!).

Now, I'm not saying this will be true for everyone, and I'm definitely not saying that all my posts are 'papers in becoming' or inherently worthy of publication in peer-reviewed venues (far from it). However, I would argue that it is certainly not a waste of time that might have been devoted to other pursuits, which I think the rest of my academic and personal record demonstrate (this is in addition to the fact that it actually doesn't consume as much time as many people seem to think). Obviously, this approach means that I'm occasionally blogging about 'work in progress' and one might rightfully argue that this exposes me to a form of intellectual 'sniping.' But, beyond the fact that I don't think too many people would want to do that in the first place (especially with my position on some debates!), the beautiful thing about blogs is that everything is neatly chronicled online, with dates and all - if one adds to that the occasional mention of my posts by other bloggers, what this all amounts to is what I think is a fairly secure barrier against sniping, should I ever need one. Plus, most of these ideas I've already presented at meetings anyway, so it's not like they've been exactly secret!


Riel-Salvatore, J. 2008. Mad Neanderthal disease? Some comments on "A potential role for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction." Medical Hypotheses 71:473-474.

Underdown, S. 2008. A potential role for Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies in Neanderthal extinction. Medical Hypotheses 71:4-7.

Wolbarsht, M. L. 1975. The Demese ef the Ne'enderthels: Wes Lengege E Fecter? Science 187:600-601.


Stephen Chrisomalis said...

This is a great post, and part of the reason why I have taken the plunge myself. I got invited to a conference last month on the basis of some random musings I posted on the Phaistos Disk, and so I am definitely heartened to see that academic blogging is paying off for other people!

- Steve Chrisomalis

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Yeah, I definitely think there's a lot more to academic blogging than many people yet haven't realized! Looking forward to some more of your posts.

Anne Gilbert said...

I have a slightly different "take" on blogging and related "nonacademic" activities, since I'm a Starving Writer(writing a Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals. My blogging has helped me articulate ideas that have been churning around in the back of my head about writing, specifically, the things I'm writing about. As I say, it's not an "academic" blog, but articulating some ideas(and reading various kinds of literature, and then sometimes reviewing it) has been enormously helpful in my own process.
Anne G

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Hi, Anne - well, different folks, different strokes, I guess, but I think it's important to emphasize the aspect that blogging can really help sharpen one's thinking, no matter what the field.