Rethinking Blogging-as-Scholarship

Back in 2005 and 2006, a lot of law-professor bloggers wondered whether blog posts could and would serve as ways to advance scholarly ideas about law. At the time, I was very skeptical:

Can blogs help advance legal scholarship? I think the answer is that they can, but that the format isn’t well-suited for the job. The key problem is the tyranny of RCO, reverse chronological order. RCO means that blog visitors see the most recently posted material at the top of the page. A visitor may see one or two posts on the screen, but needs to scroll down to see earlier posts. This isn’t the only way to visit a blog. Readers can follow direct links to earlier materials, and can search through archives (or query search engines) for particular materials. But this is relatively rare. For the most part, blogs direct readers to the most recent post first.

RCO helps ensure that the difference between blog posts and law review articles is something like the difference between short term and long term memory. Blog posts tend to be about what happened today, yesterday, maybe last week. They are quick reactions to current events and current issues, and for the most part are forgotten a few days after they have been posted. In a sense, blog posts end up as an online equivalent to faculty lounge conversation: They tend to be quick thoughts, comments, and perspective that offer an interesting tidbit about a broader question. Posts might plan the seed of a future article, or stimulate readers to think of old questions in new ways. But the time horizon is short. Blog posts may support and influence traditional scholarship, just as short term memory can work its way into long term memory. But the two are usually quite distinct.

Fast forward to the present, and I now think my old self was wrong. Or at least a bit off. I now think blogging actually does provide an effective way to present new scholarly ideas in many cases. In this post, I want to explain why my view has changed.

The main reason my view has changed is that I think the legal academic culture has changed. In the past five years, legal blogs have become an acknowledged and accepted part of the world of legal scholarship. Exactly why is open to debate. It might be because more law professors are blogging. It might be because our experience has been that what profs say on their blogs is usually the same as what they say in their articles. Perhaps the new online journal supplements have blurred the traditional paper-vs-on-line distinction. Whatever the reason, there seems to be more of a convergence between scholarly blogging and “traditional” law review articles today than existed 4 or 5 years ago. That convergence encourages more scholarly blogging and recognizes its value.

Citations in the Westlaw JLR database are an imperfect metric, but they tend to confirm the change. Consider the number of times that the phrase “Volokh Conspiracy” and/or “volokh.com” appeared in the database. (Usually, although not always, these phrases reflect a citation to a particular post appearing in a law journal.) In 2005, the phrases appeared 24 times in the JLR database. The year 2009 isn’t over yet, with roughly 20-30% of issues schedule for a 2009 publication not yet out and on Westlaw. Still, the phrases have appeared 108 times so far in the JLR database. That’s a lot of cites. Out of curiosity, I did a quick check of my own citations — vain, sure, but at least to an interesting end — and I would estimate that about 25% of the citations to my own work in the last year have been to my blog posts rather than traditional journal articles.

In short, I think we’re seeing a shift in how law professors and legal journal editors view blogs. The old lines have blurred. Blogs have become a significant part of the scholarly conversation. I didn’t expect this to happen, at least so soon. And I don’t know whether the trend will continue. But I think the trend is a real one.

Advances in the technology widely used by legal bloggers have facilitated the changes. My skeptical view from 2005-06 (see excerpt above) was based on the blogging technology generally in use at the time. Back in 2005, comment threads were still pretty new. We didn’t start experimenting with them here until late 2004. At the time, it was also very hard to link posts or hide the bulk of a long comment behind a hyperlink. Also, my recollection is that Google did not index blogs in the early days of legal blogging. Further, it was odd at the time, if not unheard of, to use google or any other search engine to do legal research.

Over time, all of that has changed. Searching the web for legal scholarship has become common. Blogs are indexed and available via Google minutes after they are posted. The culture of comment threads has developed more, encouraging more feedback between authors and readers. It has become easier to link posts and hide long text. All of these changes have helped create an environment much more conducive to scholarly blogging than existed in 2005-06.