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Sunday
Sep182005

Applying 'Boss' Blogging to a Research Lab

I work in a research lab of about a dozen people, and our mission (from my simple perspective) is to do great research, which boils down to a) doing good work, and b) writing about it and getting it published. We continue to experiment with different ways to do this well, having tried (among others):
  • setting up small 'working groups' that meet weekly,
  • writing frequent internal 'tech memos',
  • encouraging teaming up on authoring papers,
  • and presenting work in weekly lab meetings (including short 'chalk talks', paper reviews, and research status reports)
We're still looking for new ideas, and after reading Seth Godin's excellent eBook Who's There?, I've realized we've missed a possibly great one: 'Boss' blogging for research. I recommend you read the entire work, but here we're interested in BOSS BLOGS (as opposed to CAT BLOGS and VIRAL BLOGS). From page 14:
BOSS BLOGS are blogs used to communicate to a defined circle of people. A boss blog is a fantastic communications tool. I used one when I produced the fourthgrade musical. It made it easy for me to keep the parents who cared about our project up to date... and it gave them an easy-to-follow archive of what had already happened. If you don’t have a boss blog for most of your projects and activities, I think you should think about giving it a try.
It's that last line that lit the bulb: Why not have each student write his or her own boss blog in which she regularly journals about her research directions, status, challenges, successes, and failures? Such a blog (they can be internal so that only other lab members could read them) might accomplish the following:
  • encourage regular writing of short pieces, which would migrate into publishable work,
  • utilize peer pressure to motivate writing and thinking,
  • provide measurable production statistics, at a finer granularity than number of papers published, and early enough to indicate the need for help,
  • provide a central place for advisors to check for progress (in addition to, or in support of, weekly meetings),
  • provide a public forum for seeing the researcher's current thinking, and
  • provide a archived of research directions, questions, and progress

Issues
What are some of the issues with this? The first I can think of is concern that too much writing would be required. However, the whole point is to write, so as long as the blog is focused on the boss's main work (research), I don't see it as a problem.

A second concern is redundancy between research notebooks (often paper-based lab notebooks) and blogs. I think these perform different tasks: I see paper notebooks being used for capture (meeting notes) and brainstorming (ideas), and the blog used for condensed thinking, status, and research-related opinions (e.g., issues and ideas re: infrastructure, tools, etc.)

A third concern is redundancy with our current wiki. (We've used an internal wiki for a few years now, one of many excellent ideas from my fellow programmer.) However, the wiki functions as more of a group information repository (knowledge base), whereas the blog would be personalized and focused on the researcher.


Related Work
From a quick perusal there seems to be a growing collection of great thinking about this topic, though I'd like to differentiate between a single blog by a researcher for outside consumption, vs. a group of blogs written by members of a research lab. Of course there's a lot of overlap. Here are a few highlights that I've found (others welcome):

Research Blogging?, by Sven-S. Porst: He brings up these issues: Limited readership (too specific and technical), writing takes time, thoughts not coherent enough to write about. Advantages: documentation (historical), communication (but indirect), contact outside lab.

Notes for my talk about blog research and research blogs, by Lilia Efimova: She has lots of thoughts, many about the social implications, but there are also research-specific ideas, esp. here and here. She lists the following blog uses:
  • for making notes about things I read
  • for saving pointers to the delayed reading. When I have time I add notes and remove the post from to read category
  • for capturing ideas and thoughts
  • for (occasional) reading news from others
  • as my representation in internet. At least I had something to refer to David Gurteen expressing my interest in knowledge-logs
Finally, here she says her blog provides a conversation for growing ideas, and a way to make some free space in memory.

Personal knowledge publishing and its uses in research, by Sébastien Paquet: He calls this "personal knowledge publishing":
Personal knowledge publishing quite simply consists in an activity where a knowledge worker or researcher makes his observations, ideas, insights, interrogations, and reactions to others' writing publicly in the form of a weblog.
He lists the following uses of personal knowledge publishing for research:
  • Helping in selecting material
  • Visible web of interpersonal trust
  • Managing personal knowledge
  • Obtaining speedy feedback on ideas
  • Facilitating connections between researchers
  • Clustering content relating to emerging fields
  • Fostering diversity
  • Opening up windows in the Ivory Tower(s)
Importantly, he differentiates this from k-logging (aka klogging):
I wish to make a distinction between personal knowledge publishing and knowledge logging or K-logging. K-logging is actually the more general term of the two. It encompasses personal knowledge publishing, which consists of publishing on the Web for everyone to see, as well as "inward" K-logging, where knowledge sharing is restricted to an organization, and typically supported by an intranet. The distinction has to do with the scope of distribution, but not with the tool itself.


I'd love to hear how other research groups have utilized blogs for moving their research ahead.

Reader Comments (4)

I wondered what wiki software you are currently using in your lab?

September 30, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPascal Venier

Hi Pascal. We're using [ PhpWiki | http://phpwiki.sourceforge.net/ ], which works fine. It's backed by MySQL.

September 30, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matthew

Check out the GTD ideablogs at ideablog.eu

November 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterStewart McKie

Thanks, Stewart. Good luck!

November 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell
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