Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Re-thinking the Blog Carnival

PDQ Submission
If you’re not familiar with the term a Blog Carnival is a series of blog posts which are collections of links to other blog posts. An example would be the History Carnival or Four Stone Hearth. The carnival aspect comes from the fact that each post is compiled by a different editor and held at a different weblog. The original aim was to try and put posts from various bloggers which may have been missed in front of a wider audience. What I’ve been thinking about for several months is that it may be worthwhile re-thinking the concept of a blog carnival.

The thing that’s pushed me into posting is the exciting potential of Sebastian Heath and Billur Tekkök’s project Greek, Roman and Byzantine Pottery at Ilion (Troia) which inspired Shawn Graham to compile some of his posts into a free e-book Electric Archaeology. The exciting thing about these books is that they provide material in a form that’s citable in front of a technophobic audience. You can simply cite Author, date, Title, and as the publisher. This may get sniffs from people who would call this vanity publishing, but would be happy supplying camera-ready copy and their own referees to a ‘respectable’ publisher. You can’t have everything and for everyone else it provides a canonical reference to cite. Importantly to the reader this e-book can be provided at zero-cost, and for the publisher it is lo-cost or no-cost. If this approach were applied to blog carnivals, it would be possible to create a periodical available as a CC licenced e-book and a hardcopy with ISSNs. This would provide canonical citations for blog posts which for various reasons haven’t been re-written for academic journals. Could this be used to create a bridge between weblogs and the unwebbed?

There are good reasons for creating a more permanent blog carnival. Weblogs come and go, even the carnival posts themselves come and go. The impermanence of a weblog makes citation of a weblog post a bit of a gamble. I suspect that HTML will be readable by computers in 20 years time, but I wouldn’t like to say how many of today’s weblogs will still be accessible. A permanent blog-carnival would give a better chance of some ideas being archived. Archiving may prove important in the future. While a warning over weblogging is that ideas can be lifted, so too a permanent record could be used to demonstrate precedence. You can insert your own PhD thesis referee horror-story here.

Light-review may help authors re-think posts and help clarify ideas which the author might not have realised were ambiguous. Additionally my case some of my entries would benefit from porof-reading for mispellings and bad grammar. The alternative would be to include an obviously deliberate spelling mistake and claim that all other mistakes are deliberate, but that would lose credibility after a while.

At the same time there are also advantages for authors in pooling posts into a carnival. Some posts are very much products of their time and may lack the impact that they could have had, had they been read sooner. Juxtaposition of posts on similar topics can also create new discussion around a subject. There are practical reasons why an academic journal wouldn’t have three reviews of a film like ‘300’. For an electric journal would not be an issue. A journal based on weblogs could, if permissions could be gained, also use comments on posts used, as well as entries responding to other posts. It wouldn’t necessarily be Current Anthropology, but it could be similar in intent.

Finally there is no choice between publishing a weblog post in a blog carnival or in a personal e-book. The open nature of weblogs would render the idea that a carnival/journal had exclusive reproduction rights for an article ridiculous. It would be message rather the medium it was transmitted in which would affect its acceptance.

To some extent this idea has already been tested. The Open Laboratory recently published its second edition. Around fifty entries were selected from 500 to produce a commercial book intended to be read as a hard-copy. A regular and smaller journal in a similar vein, intended to exist primarily as an e-book should be feasible. If it’s not obvious then I haven’t seriously edited anything, so I could be talking rot. On the other hand a blog carnival can be created in a few hours. A month from submission deadline from willing participants to getting the downloadable e-book would seem to be feasible.

So what would it look like?

My guess is that in hard copy it would be an A4 saddle-stitch book on Lulu. This would work for up to 88 pages. The reason for this size is that it would be the same size in the e-book file, and the printers I’m familiar with take A4 paper. If A4 is really bad news for North American computer printers then it would have to be another size. I know an e-book can be read and searched on a screen, but if you want to spend a lot of time reading something paper is better. If you want to hand a copy with comments on to a colleague then you’ll find they respond better to sheets of paper than they would to a monitor with annotations scrawled in permanent marker on it. Paper isn’t going to be obsolete for a long while.

On the inside there’d be contents and possibly a foreword from the editor(s). The entries would be more eclectic than you’d find in academic journals. There could be articles on work in progress, or comments on other articles or book chapters similar to the BPR3 project. Bloggers would probably be a good source of reviews. In short the usual range of opinion and commentary on the discipline which you find in blogs. There wouldn’t be a need to show that what you’re submitting is an original and outstanding piece of research, merely that it’s interesting and worth making a note of. Additionally there could be CC-licenced photography, which would work better in the e-book than the hardcopy. Knowing what material is being made available would be helpful. This might not make it a proper academic journal, but that wouldn’t be the aim. Personally I see weblogs as closer to an ongoing conference than a journal.

The articles would have a title, author name and affiliation - if applicable. A common complaint against the internet is that anyone can put up a website. Counter to this I would argue that one of the good things about the internet is that anyone can put up a website. It reduces barriers to publication, and just because something is on the web there’s not compulsion to take it seriously. At the end of each article would be the URL of the original post. Again, this would be a bridge between weblogs and non-blogging academics, not a replacement of either.

The big problem I see is how light review should be. Proof reading from another person is always a help, but more is required. If you want to demonstrate how weblogs can be used for intelligent discussion it would be helpful not to be including gibberish. I have no reason to think that Duane Smith writes nonsense, but I lack the linguistic skills to be sure. For what is intended as a permanent compilation of posts how far should I go checking his work? I’ve picked on Duane Smith, not only because of my own ignorance, but also because he has a basic logical thread to his posts. It means that even though I don’t have the skills to check his translations I can assume his blog posts are reasoned, even if not everyone would agree with him. For this reason I would say that I’d be justified in including his entry Semi-Literates in the Hinterlands of Ugarit? Nonetheless a team of editors, preferably including one who could point to Ugarit on a map, would be desirable.

The whole thing would be released under a BY-NC-ND licence, which would make it duplicable for electronic archives without exposing the authors to commercial exploitation. As for frequency, an edition on a quarterly basis would be feasible. The History Carnival runs on a monthly cycle and Four Stone Hearth is fortnightly. This may well result in short editions, but would mean that the immediacy of the web was being used.

Good idea? Bad idea?


coturnix said...

Very interesting idea. I think Bio::Blogs already does something like convert all entries into PDF and deposits them somewhere:

Of course, just like there is a difference between 'Science', 'New York Times', 'People' and 'National Enquirer', so the thousands of existing blog carnivals have different formats, needs and goals.

david meadows said...

It's a good idea ... I've been thinking of printing out assorted items of my own blog to generate 'compendium' posts more easily (you know ... those stories that go on and on and on) ... lulu isn't the only one though, although it would probably turn out the nicest copy. one i looked at a while ago (blogcollector):

Bill Caraher said...

One of the best examples of this is over at the Valve ( which publish books of their "book events" which include lengthy blog posts and the comments. In this way, they provide some form of peer review (and a particularly transparent one).

Their book events focus on a particular book and encourage a discussion of this text centered on several longer blog posts. For us, one could imagine, for example, a "book event" centered on Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages or Elizabeth Clarke's History, Theory, Text. We could solicit contributions and then pen responses and then bind them all together in a book and publish it through Lulu.

Alun said...

I think that’s an excellent idea. Brett Holman and I are/were discussing trying to put together a book of blog posts themed around Fear through HNN. The idea was to have a brief chapter talking about the different aspects of Fear and then ask bloggers to respond in with examples from their own historical interests. It was an attempt to get some coherence in a publication which would have been drawing historians from all sorts of periods and specialities. I think focussing on a book would be a stronger idea and either of the books you suggested would be good choices. The reason we haven’t pushed on with with the Fear project is that we’re not sure there would necessarily be much interest.

The other problem we’ve identified is cost. If the target is a proper book, then it would be a shame if it were not available via Amazon and similar. That’s fine, but once you start doing that there’s the problems which money raises. In the UK branch of Lulu it would cost about £10-£20 per book to publish. I haven’t identified all the costs yet. You pay £70 initially which buys one book and a block of 10 ISBNs, but additional books beyond the first have administration fees, so it’s not exactly a simple £70/10. I think the US version may be very different, something like $50 or $99 per book. In any event, that isn’t a lot, but then there’s the cost of sending out review copies and that authors will probably expect a complimentary copy which becomes more expensive if you have many authors. Ideally because the aim would also to be to have a CC e-book version for free it wouldn’t be likely to make a profit. If authors are sold on the idea of making the book accessible for free as well as the subject matter then maybe this isn’t a problem, but it would be helpful to find a sponsor to fund the losses.

As Coturnix points out above there are different levels of publishing, so the two ideas aren’t exclusive. I could push on with a quarterly blog carnival / journal, and would you be willing to organise a few people into making a Valve-style book event Bill? Experience of problems with the quarterly could then be used to make the event fun more smoothly.

Bill Caraher said...

Let me talk with some folks about it. As you may know I am involved in an AIA Interest Group dedicated to the Medieval and Post-Medieval Mediterranean. We've been talking at that group about creating a working papers type site (modeled loosely on the PSWPC site:, a coordinated book discussion overseen by a couple of editors would be a nice stepping stone or alternative to this kind of project.

The real issue is, as you might reckon, that we need to get a few cornerstone scholars to commit to writing for it. The Valve had folks like Michael Berube who would generate a buzz about the topic and attract readers and comments from outside the blogging circle.

In any event, this is a long answer to your relatively simple question. I will bounce the idea around some people and see what kind of response we get.


Tom Elliott said...

I too think this is a great idea. Topics will of course vary as editors step up to the task of a volume.

I'd like to put in a word for digital archiving -- in addition to the print version, I think we'd like to see all authors commit an ecopy XHTML or an open XML authoring format like TEI, whatever they're using, but not PDF) to a preservation repository, where it would get curated and whence it would be available under the agreed licensing terms that are discussed above.

If there's broad interest, this is an aspect that ISAW would probably be interested in getting behind (including making a commitment to long-term availability).

Thoughts? Shall I look into it?