Paul Graham on blogging as a way to generate papers

January 16, 2018

Computer programmer, essayist and venture capitalist Paul Graham writes:

In most fields, prototypes have traditionally been made out of different materials. Typefaces to be cut in metal were initially designed with a brush on paper. Statues to be cast in bronze were modelled in wax. Patterns to be embroidered on tapestries were drawn on paper with ink wash. Buildings to be constructed from stone were tested on a smaller scale in wood.

What made oil paint so exciting, when it first became popular in the fifteenth century, was that you could actually make the finished work from the prototype. You could make a preliminary drawing if you wanted to, but you weren’t held to it; you could work out all the details, and even make major changes, as you finished the painting.

You can do this in software too. A prototype doesn’t have to be just a model; you can refine it into the finished product. I think you should always do this when you can. It lets you take advantage of new insights you have along the way. But perhaps even more important, it’s good for morale.

– Paul Graham, “Design and Research

Mike and I have long been drawn by the idea that blog posts, like conference talks and posters, could be first drafts of research papers. In practice, we haven’t generated many successful examples. We basically wrote our 2013 neural spine bifurcation paper as a series of blog posts in 2012. And Mike’s 2014 neck cartilage paper grew out of this 2013 blog post, although since he accidentally ended up writing 11 pages I suppose the blog post was more of a seed than a draft.

I should also note that we are far from the first people to do the blog-posts-into-papers routine. The first example I know of in paleo was Darren’s Tet Zoo v1 post on azhdarchid paleobiology, which formed part of the skeleton of Witton and Naish (2008).

Nevertheless, the prospect of blogging as a way to generate research papers remains compelling.

And as long as I’m on about blogging and papers: sometimes people ask if blogging doesn’t get in the way of writing papers. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me it goes in the opposite direction: I blog most when I am most engaged and most productive, and drops in blogging generally coincide with drops in research productivity. I think that’s because when I’m rolling on a research project, I am constantly finding or noticing little bits that are cool and new, but which aren’t germane to what I’m working on at the moment. I can’t let those findings interfere with my momentum, but I don’t want to throw them away, either. So I blog them. Also the blog gives me a place to burn off energy at the end of the day, when I can still produce words but don’t have the discipline to write technical prose.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

The photo at the top of the post is of Giraffatitan dorsal vertebrae in a case at the MfN Berlin, from Mike’s and my visit with the DfG 533 group back in late 2008. I picked that photo so I could make the following dumb off-topic observation: with its upturned transverse processes, the dorsal on the right looks like it’s being all faux melodramatic, a la:

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6 Responses to “Paul Graham on blogging as a way to generate papers”

  1. john Says:

    on a totally unrelated note…does anybody know if the dml archives (dml.cmnh.org) are dead? There has been no update there since the 4 January. Also, I’ve tried to subscribe to the list, but the subscription email bounces always back

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    That is disturbing, John. It’s been a long time since I was on the DML, but back in the day it was really important in my transition from dinosaur fanboy to scientist-and-occasional-fanboy. I hope it’s OK. You could try emailing Mickey Rowe directly.

  3. Dale mcinnes Says:

    Matt. “blogging as a way to generate papers.” I totally agree. It works in other ares as well. I don’t do papers. I do novels. It’s very much the same. Some days you have a lot of energy to write several thousand words. Those R the days I blog/ emails to burn off that excess energy. It’s because U concentrate so much on one area U must give your eyes and mind a much needed break from a gruelling routine.

  4. Mary Kirkaldy Says:

    CMNH, which hosts the DML archives, is working on the IT glitch that resulted in the archives not updating. That should be fixed soon.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Mary, that’s great news!


  6. I’ve been finding it very hard to write for my own blog recently, partly because there is so much going on elsewhere in my professional life, but also because I dread my musings never being read until after the fact and thus never making a dent. I desperately need to get back into the (good) habit.

    Matt, this was encouraging. Thank you.


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