Proving causation
21 October 2013
Analysis of "Deal or No Deal" results
18 November 2013

This is the 100th post on “Learn and Teach Statistics and Operations Research”. To celebrate, I am writing about the joys of blogging.
Anyone with an internet connection can blog these days, and do! It is the procrastinator’s “dark playground” to read blogs on pretty much anything you want to know. (For an explanation, with pictures, of the dark playground, where the instant gratification monkey holds sway until the panic monster arrives, see this entertaining post: Why Procrastinators Procrastinate.)
I started to blog to build a reputation for knowing about teaching statistics and operations research. This would lead people to buy our apps, subscribe to our on-line materials and watch my YouTube videos. Many blogs are set up, like this, in order to build credibility and presence on the internet. I’ve found it quite exciting to watch the readership grow, and I particularly love it when people comment. I also like to feel that I am doing some good in the world. The process of writing is also a learning process for me.
Here are some lightly structured thoughts about what I’ve learned over the last 99 posts.

A blog is not a scholarly research paper

As I come from an academic background, I have had to remind myself that a blog is different from a scholarly research paper. A blog isn’t scholarly, it isn’t based on research (unless you can call time in the shower that) and it isn’t on paper.

Blogging rewards bad behaviour.

The more opinionated you are, and the less evidence you use to support your argument, the more readers you get.  You must remove equivocation. Often after I write my first draft, I go through and remove statements like “in my opinion” or  “it seems”.  This is the antithesis of a scholarly paper, which must be carefully stated in balanced and measured tones.

Blogs are personal

It is good to be personal in a blog. In journal articles we avoid the use of first person language as if the paper were somehow written by itself. This can give rise to convoluted sentence structures and endless passive voice. When I write my blog, I talk about my own ideas, and even aspects of my life. I mention side tracks, and give a little bit of myself. And I prefer to read blogs that have a bit of the author in them. I think you need a little touch of narcissism to enjoy blogging.

Quantity is more important than quality

Volume in blogging dominates quality. Some might argue that this is also true for academic papers. In a blog you are better to dash off one opinion piece a week, than put the same effort into one scholarly paper. If one falls flat, it really doesn’t matter.

Blogs give instant gratification

Blogs have a quick turn-around, ideal for people with short attention spans who want instant gratification. In academia the delay between doing the research and seeing it in print is measured in years. By the time an article has been through the review process, you have almost forgotten why you did the research in the first place. And don’t really care anymore. But when you blog and click “Publish”, it is out there in the world for all to see.

People read blogs

People read your blog. It is an amazing feeling to send out my thoughts into the world and watch the viewing stats on WordPress, knowing that hundreds and sometimes even thousands of people are reading my opinion, literally all over the world. And sometimes I even get emails from fans, telling how my post has helped them or inspired them to work or do research in the area of statistics education. Or else I find that an educational institution has set a link to one of my posts for their students to read. In contrast I wonder if anyone has ever read my journal articles, apart from the reviewers. Not only do people read your blog, but you can see where they live and what they read, and even what search engine terms brought you to the blog. Some search terms boggle the mind, first that someone entered them, and secondly that they led to my blog! The term “rocks” has led to my site 66 times in the last two years, which I am sure was disappointing for the searcher. The most common search term is “causation”.

Blogging does not get you promoted

Though blogging is fun and great for attention-seekers, it does not improve your PBRF ratings (in NZ) or whatever the measure of publication activity is in a specific country. Nor does blogging count for promotion or tenure. This may be simply a matter of time to allow attitudes to change, as erudite blogs can get scientific findings out into the public domain far more rapidly than the old print-based system.

People can be mean

A blogger needs to have a thick skin. I don’t yet, and have to remind myself that I didn’t research my article, so it is only fair for people to offer opposing views. In fact, one the great qualities of a blog is that anyone can respond and improve the quality of the blog. I love it when people leave comments; it is the emailed “hate-messages” that are a bit upsetting.

Keynote speaker

One spin off of a successful blog is that you get asked to be a keynote speaker.
Actually I’m kidding on that one. I’d love to be a keynote speaker, and I’m pretty sure I could entertain a crowd and give them something to think about for an hour or so, but it hasn’t happened. Yet. Any invitations?


  1. “Though blogging is fun and great for attention-seekers, it does not improve your PBRF ratings (in NZ) or whatever the measure of publication activity is in a specific country. Nor does blogging count for promotion or tenure. This may be simply a matter of time to allow attitudes to change, as erudite blogs can get scientific findings out into the public domain far more rapidly than the old print-based system”
    We had some discussions about it at the UC (College of Education), and I raised the point that we should consider or at least suggest whoever looks after PBRF in TEC that scholarly blogs and grant applications should be given their due recognition and points award. I tend to use or view blogs more of a repository of ideas, like an external hard drive of mind. Interestingly, some of the best blogs are on stats and economics (Andrew Gelman, and R-bloggers are stellar examples).

  2. […] blogging”… (even if I do not agree with “a blog isn’t scholarly”, since it is clearly a matter […]

  3. Robert says:

    “Blogging rewards bad behaviour” – yes, indeed, we are learning how to write in a personal and slightly provocative way, and when I see academic papers leaning in that direction I really enjoy them. Andrew Gelman is mentioned above, and I think you can see the influence of the blogging experience sneaking into some of his papers. If it makes them more engaging and readable, then I’m all for it!

  4. I strongly disagree with about half of your points. We have to remember that the purpose of science is not to publish papers, but to generate and communicate knowledge. As such, there is no fundamental difference between a blog and a scholarly paper, the purpose of both is to communicate with other scientists. There are several disciplines (mathematics and theoretical computer scientists from my experience) where novel ideas are generated, and there are online resources like blogs and Q&As that have integrated themselves into the scientists’ workflow (for instance cstheory.SE gets cited in theory papers). Disregarding blogging is fundamentally secondary is a disservice to both blogging and science overall.
    I don’t think that owning up to your words is bad behavior. When somebody writes “in my opinion” in a scientific paper, they are just distancing themselves from an assertion that they just made. It is a sign of bad writing, as is passive tone. Unfortunately, science has built up a culture of awful writing, and only an exceptional few publish papers that are enjoyable to read. If more graduate students were forced to blog then maybe more future scientists would know how to write in a matter that makes reading fun.
    I can’t disagree more vehemently on “quantity is more important than quality”, and this goes with “people read blogs”. As a writer, when you output quantity for the sake of quantity, you are being disrespectful to your audience. As Dijkstra once said: “if you can spend 20 minutes to save each of your readers 1 minute, then it is polite to do so if you expect at least 20 readers.”
    I agree that blogs provide instant gratification, are more personal, and actually read. However, I think the type of readership coupled with the instant gratification can be damaging for blogs, it is always easier to do outreach blogging instead of blogging aimed at other scientists when you just look at the stats. I know I always struggle with this, my more pop sci-y posts that explain well known ideas easily get 10 fold the views of research posts that containing novel ideas, and this subconsciously pushes me to write more popular posts over technical ones.

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