Robert Cottrell on the Value of Academic Blogging

by Henry Farrell on February 15, 2013 · 7 comments

in Blogs

Robert Cottrell has a very nice long piece in the Financial Times on (inter alia) academic blogging.

To read the blog of a political scientist, or an anthropologist, or a lawyer, or an information technologist, is the next best thing to reading their mind; better, in some ways, since what they have to say emerges in considered form. These are the experts who, a couple of decades ago, would have functioned as sources for newspaper journalists. Their opinions would emerge often mangled and simplified, always truncated, in articles over which they had no final control.
Now we can read them directly, and discover what they actually think and say. We can know, for example, what lawyers are saying about a new appointment to the Supreme Court; what political scientists expect from an election; how computer scientists evaluate Apple’s updated operating system; what economists expect from a new government policy. The general reader has access to expertise that was easily available, a decade ago, only to the insider or the specialist.

And also:

Professional writers still see value in having publishers online, not so much as guarantors of quality, but because publishers pay for writing – or, increasingly, if they do not pay for it, they do at least publish it in a place where it will get read.
Readers, on the other hand, have less of a need for publishers. One striking trend I have noticed in the past five years is the way in which individual articles uncouple themselves from the places where they are first published, to lead their own lives across the internet, passed from hand to hand between readers.
This is due, in large part, to the rise of social media – primarily Facebook and Twitter. Five years ago, you needed to visit a publisher’s website to see what was new there. Now, you hear about a particular article through Twitter or Facebook; a friend will share the link; you may visit the page directly but more probably you will save the link to your Instapaper or your Readability account, or mark it for reading later in your Flipboard feed, or on your Kindle or other reading device, and you will enjoy the piece later, probably offline. The article is what matters to the reader; the place of original publication may not even be noticed.
… it seems to me almost inevitable that a new business model for reading and writing online will prevail in the future, which consists of readers rewarding directly the writers they admire. Almost inevitable, because this is by far the most efficient economic arrangement for both parties, and there are no longer any significant technological obstacles to its general adoption.

This is doubly interesting. First, it’s interesting because Cottrell himself is the proprietor of the excellent website The Browser, which specializes in curating interesting material from across the WWW. It is not clear that there is a sustainable long term business model in doing this. The main value added that the Browser provides is free; I pay an annual subscription myself but primarily because I think that when people do good, socially valuable things, and you can support them, you should. Second, because it suggests the limits of a blog like ours which, unlike Cottrell’s, does not have to have a business model as such. Cottrell recommends The Monkey Cage in the article, and I think that it’s fair to say that we have been quite successful, by the measure of our initial ambitions for the blog. Still, we are also small enough that we would probably be unable to support ourselves e.g. by charging a subscription a la Andrew Sullivan, even if we wanted to. (We don’t). This blog exists because academic political scientists have (a little) free time that they can devote to providing general public goods if they want to. However, this also imposes some stark limits. Because this is not our day job, we are not able to write during those times when our teaching, administration or research demands most or all of our time. We would like to have resources that would allow us to do more – but it is difficult to get these resources because we don’t fit readily into the traditional models of e.g. competitive grant raising or foundation support. We talk about these tradeoffs on and off. It would be interesting to get the perspectives of readers, both on the specific value (if any) of what we do, on whether we should be doing more and what that more should be, and if so, what kinds of resources we could or should be looking to target.


LFC February 15, 2013 at 6:56 pm

Quick reactions:
This is a side point, but it bothers me that Cottrell assumes everybody is on Facebook and Twitter, everyone has a Readability or Instapaper account, a Flipboard feed, a Kindle or other reading device.

I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, don’t own a Kindle or any comparable reading device. I do have an account at Diigo where I occasionally save articles but I don’t know if this is comparable to a Readability or Instapaper account, since I have no idea what those are. I also have no idea what a Flipboard feed is.

Though Twitter and FB may be helpful for hearing about articles, they’re not essential. One of the points of blogs is to link to other interesting material, isn’t it? So if you visit blogs you find links to other places. If you (a generic “you” I mean) put yourself in the hands of a “curator” to act as a filter, that’s reposing an awful lot of faith in the curator’s judgment.

On the questions at the end: The Monkey Cage is a good blog but would I pay to receive it? I tend to doubt it. (And as for Andrew Sullivan, not only would I not pay to read him, I have doubts whether I would read Sullivan if someone paid me to do so.)

LFC February 15, 2013 at 7:26 pm

P.s. I’m aware of course that you said this blog doesn’t want to charge a subscription. On “other resources you should be looking to target,” I don’t know. Perhaps someone else will have some suggestions.

Josh February 16, 2013 at 2:50 am

Hi. Long time reader, first time commenter. As a political science major (junior in college at NYU) I find this blog an entertaining and invaluable read, and I am sure I am not alone in that opinion. I’m not saying every college student can afford to contribute or subscribe, but I am sure there are a number out there like me who could (or whose parents could) contribute a small fee for a subscription service to this website.

Perhaps consider a reddit-like model? Standard users who do not pay have access to all content, but less ability to interact with authors, posters, commenters etc, while those who do pay the subscription are given slightly greater voice on the website, if only in the sometimes limited comment section.

Not sure if either of those ideas would be ideal for the direction this blog wishes to go in as it develops, but in any case, I look forward to watching it grow.

John G February 17, 2013 at 4:05 am

How much is paying for The Browser like paying for The New York Times? To some degree, seems like the same model–one in print (the classic) and another printed on some type of computer screen. But it’s a different model too. I was linked on The Browser and I don’t write for The Browser. But the NY Times indeed pays staff writers. I admit, I don’t know what percentage of The Browser’s staff are paid writers… then again, it was really nice to see my traffic go up because The Browser linked to one of my posts.

Is an assumption here that once a site attracts enough readers… that it would be almost ridiculous to not charge a fee? I certainly will assume that the staff on The Monkey Cage would like readers to contribute a nominal fee. That’s basic equity transaction analysis. I profit from reading the Monkey Cage, but I don’t pay anything. Something is not equitable there… Conversely, some blogs rely on advertisers, which works. If the advertising is not intrusive, all parties can be happy.

The Monkey Cage should be linking political science research and questions through utilizing–and starting–current conversations. I do use The Monkey Cage to read about political science stuff in the world. The Monkey Cage should focus on growing its readership. They’re agenda setting. That matters more than the couple of dollars that I probably wouldn’t pay in a subscription fee.


fitz February 17, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Sites recommended by Robert in the FT include : the browser, the millions, the monkey cage (of course), asymco : we seem to lack a decent, not aggressively marxist or po-faced, film-related site …

LFC February 18, 2013 at 11:05 am

If the Monkey Cage increased its ‘resources’, its bloggers would probably still have the same limits on their time. So I presume these additional resources would be used to hire paid staff? Not entirely clear from the OP.

Re this (from comment above):

I certainly will assume that the staff on The Monkey Cage would like readers to contribute a nominal fee. That’s basic equity transaction analysis. I profit from reading the Monkey Cage, but I don’t pay anything. Something is not equitable there…

Is every transaction from which X “profits” “inequitable” if X doesn’t pay something? Let’s say someone just “profited” from reading your comment. Should that person pay you something?

JohnG February 19, 2013 at 2:30 am

LFC, I guess I could say that I often tweet M. Cage posts for my followers (i.e. present and past students). So I’d have to add those transactions into it…

Pay me for my comment? Why not. You can buy one of my books on my blog: see the link below.

More seriously, people don’t go come to this blog to read random comments–nor would people pay comment by comment. As per the original post, should or would people pay for the daily posts on this site–or for paid staff? Well, you’d need to know your audience demographics. Would I? No. I only pay for prof. journals and some weeks go by when I don’t have time to read those, let alone blogs. But, if the audience here consists of thousands of politically orientated followers–then it probably is in this blog’s interest to create access points for subscribers. Say, $10 a month get’s you daily emails with two sentence briefs–and links…instead of Morning Joe…. Morning Cage.

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