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Archive for the ‘advice’ Category

Here’s her worry:

I have concerns about the notion that blogging will soon become the choice method of academic communication, or, worse yet, the notion that blogging ought to replace traditional forms of academic publishing.

No one is suggesting blogs will or should replace traditional academic discourse. Journals are still alive and well – which is one reason the open access movement is gaining steam, even in legal scholarship.

If anything, blogs bolster the abilities of scholars to do good work in traditional forums – journals, conferences and classrooms – because blogs are conversations with peers, students and (scariest of all) the general public.

This exposure isn’t trivial. If readers like what you say on a blog, they are more likely to read your longer pieces – articles that might otherwise remain obscure and unread even by specialists in the discipline.

It’s also false that blog writing is inherently inferior to journal articles:

If blogging replaces more traditional forms of academic discourse, we lose the ‘sober second thought’ and in depth analysis that comes with researching and writing a peer reviewed paper.

Blogging can’t have in-depth analysis? Not so. That’s up the the author.

It is true that most blogs – even those by academics – are not composed of 50 page treatises where a few original ideas are buried by dozens of footnotes. That’s just as well. Shorter commentaries and serialized essays have value. They can improve writing skills, muse aloud, gather feedback from other scholars, and create communities of academics. As an example, see Brian Leiter’s new legal philosophy blog.

Even better, blog posts can seed larger projects. They offer a form of peer review – something many critics, disillusioned authors and judges say is lacking in legal scholarship, despite the best efforts of 2L student editors who valiantly fix professors’ footnotes.

All this, and on a more timely basis than offered by traditional journals’ publication schedules.

Which leads me to my next point: We need more Michael Geists.

Blogging allows experts to give sage commentary on the news of the day in something more than a sound-bite on the evening news. In blogs, law professors have the opportunity to educate the public about the law, especially in areas of controversy (as with the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in the Leo Teskey case). Insofar as blogs have political clout and the attention of media outlets, they also give law professors the opportunity to raise alarms, create awareness about developing legal issues, and spur legal reform.

Try doing all that in a law review article.

For further reading about the pros and cons of academic blogging, here’s a quick round-up:

Those who disagree with Prof. Billingsley can take a look at one of my first posts to Thought Capital: How to Write an Academic Blog. Law professors, your audience awaits…

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In an earlier post, I said that centralized, national repositories like PubMed Central perform the important service of making scholarship easier to find. I neglected to mention and recommend two resources that allow researchers to search sets of open access repositories. Both of these use the Google Custom Search Engine, which limits the scope of a Google search to specific websites.

Here they are, with deep-links to pages where you can search for articles:

  • OpenDOAR (Open Directory of Open Access Repositories)
  • ROAR (Registry of Open Access Repositories)

You’ve not heard of them but know about PubMed Central? You’ve just made my point.

Visiting either of these, it will quickly become clear that these sites are mostly concerned with the nuts and bolts of the open access movement. Helping researchers find open access materials isn’t the first priority, and that is unfortunate. These directories, if they hope to recruit a wide following, should put more focus on serving up archived papers.

The same goes for you, Directory of Open Access Journals – although of these open access directories you’re the site with the cleanest design.

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Henry at Crooked Timber has a post called The Political Economy of Bibliographies in which he asks the sensible question: why do social science publications have different house styles for citations?

It’s a good question, but I’m going to focus on something else he says, because it gives me the opportunity to do something unusual – make a radical suggestion.

He says,

[L]awyers likely do have good reason to have those long confusing footnotes bristling with references.

No, they don’t.

They are just participating in bad habits of misdirected scholarship.

The problem is an artifact of overwrought legal scholarship where breadth of research materials replaces depth of cogent analysis. I blame authors’ overactive sense of precedent, and student law review editors who are forced to ignore poor writing skills. The result: papers devoting more page space to citations than to the authors’ own ideas.

Perhaps this could be changed by an annual award for the law review article with the fewest footnotes?

While it can be useful to a researcher when an article they read has a citation for every statement, that’s only the case if the notes are of good quality. Most are not.

Footnotes tend fall into five groups:

  1. Trigger citations, which appear early in the paper and link readers to essential texts that have provoked the article.
  2. Plagiarism avoidance, identifying the origin of quoted and paraphrased material.
  3. Exploratory notes, where the author has license to make tangential comments on the topic or literature.
  4. Padding pointers to sentences written by someone else saying exactly the same thing, usually in no greater depth than that of the citing paper. This may be an over-cautious defense against plagiarism, in which case their prominence tells me legal scholars are mostly recycling other academics’ ideas, stringing together statements that may as well be cut and pasted from journals and reports.

The first and second are essential, the third is disposable, and the last is noxious clutter.

In a different context, judges have good reason to not like the footnotes that appear in lawyers’ facta. The lawyers cite things that don’t count as usable precedent, or reference well-known cases that are easy to find.

The formatting of legal citation is similarly distraught, and that’s where my radical suggestion comes in.

Journals should get rid of uniform citation style guides, apply a Principle of Parsimonious Citation, and use open access to get the job done.

Whew. That wasn’t easy to say, and goes against deeply entrenched editorial instincts. But it comes from realizations that don’t beggar common sense, and is an argument to trim citations to their bare essentials:

  1. Just give useful information. Readers just need a simple set of information that allows them to find a reference. Anything else is noise.
  2. Completeness is overrated. Thanks to search technologies, we usually don’t need full citations to track down a reference. Even the simplest citations return unambiguous search results. When a Google search won’t get you the information via the journal’s home page, commercial databases will serve it up without much fuss even if you only know the title of the article. So, in most instances all you need is a variant of: [Author’s name; Title of document; Date of authorship]. Toss in a localizer to identify paragraph, page, or section and the reader has everything they need.
  3. Open access does it better. It gets rid of the need for uniform styles, and makes documents easier to find with less information. It also propels online referencing: why bother with ordering and punctuating defunct volume and issue numbers when a digital object identifier (DOI) will do the job?
  4. Citations demand no syntax. Formats are mostly arbitrary. So as long as citations are consistently styled within a document and don’t confuse the reader, don’t fuss over it.

I don’t expect people to agree with this, especially in a traditional field like the law. Instead, I’d expect complaints to the effect that courts need authoritative citation styles, and that this sets the default standard for legal scholarship.

Not so. Even if there is a trickle-down effect, courts using neutral citations don’t need authoritative style guides to locate publications. Judge’s law clerks can probably find information using standard research tools better than anyone else.

Worries about the ‘officiality’ of the law are just public relations laden with bad metaphysics. It ignores how citations function: footnotes are just about flagging sources of interest and finding them, nothing more.

If we are going to use a uniform standard of citation – either to avoid styles that don’t look pretty, or to guide authors who can’t be trusted to think about this for themselves – it should do four things:

  1. Use neutral citations that identify cases without referencing print reporters.
  2. Be short and intuitive, because there is no reason it should take 208 pages and multiple lectures in a first year law course to master this.
  3. Be fluid, to accommodate a wide variety of documents – and the legacy of proprietary or hard-to-find print volumes.
  4. Be open access, because there is no reason to lock citation recommendations within a book.

While we are at it, why not use the styleguide to improve the habits of legal scholars? Prior to press, tag footnotes with metadata along the lines of ‘Essential reading’, ‘See, no plagiarism’, or ‘Just padding’.

Postscript:

In Canada, it is normal to follow the McGill guide, but LEXUM and CANLII are spurring movement towards more universal standards of citation – see the Canadian Citation Committee.

In the US, judges use either the Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation or the ALWD Citation Manual. Their differences are documented at:

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Where’s a researcher to go if they are interested in neuroethics, neurolaw and moral cognition? Follow the publications, of course.

I’ve assembled a quick list, in no particular order. So far, it has heavy emphasis on the places where empirical research is being conducted.

In the USA:

In Canada:

Note: In Canada, neuroethics is principally concerned with legal and bioethical evaluations of neurotechnology. To my knowledge, these centers are not conducting research on the neurobiology of moral decision-making.

This list isn’t comprehensive, so make known in the comments any neuroethics or neurolaw programs.

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With a quick apology for the very oblique pun in the title of the post, here’s the offending headline. It comes from the Associated Press, and I think it represents a pernicious evil in contemporary journalism… the ‘paraphrase – source’ headline format.

Chimps Deserve Human Rights, Group Says

Three things are wrong with this:

  1. The headline is inaccurate. Not only are legal rights different from human rights, nobody in the story is arguing chimps should have human rights. The lawyer for the Association Against Animal Factories, an animal rights group in Austria, makes that clear in the piece: “We mean the right to life, the right to not be tortured, the right to freedom under certain conditions… We’re not talking about the right to vote here.”
  2. It has a vague referent. What group? It only serves to communicate someone other than the journalist said something, an impression not helped when the story contradicts the headline.
  3. It uses a headline syntax that should be expunged from journalism. First comes a paraphrased statement that can’t even be dignified as a quotation. Then some punctuation. And finally, there’s the clue the statement isn’t something made up by the journalist. In community news there’s, Man bites canine, dog barks. In political journalism we see, Opposition is wrong – politician. In science journalism we have to read, Everything causes cancer: study. Doing this ignores the heart of the story. Some group says something. So what? Chimps Deserve Human Rights, Group Says is not the story. The story is Humans fight over chimps’ legal personhood.

Writers shouldn’t get all of the blame. They don’t usually compose headlines; copy-editors have that job, and they need to know how to write a short, interesting headline that sells the story. Unfortunately, they often don’t have the time or interest in the story to get it right, so they are using the accursed paraphrase – source method of headline generation as a crutch.

Please, journalists, stop doing this. You are wasting print. Just be declaratory. Reveal the story, not a press release.

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  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (Horizon, 1946)

These rules, unlike Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing, are about the use of language rather than the construction of stories.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has read his work that Orwell thought the corruption of language corrupted society. He was particularly critical of how it allows us to use euphemisms and neologisms to accept and promote facts and beliefs we would otherwise find objectionable.

This is an important reminds to writers that our choice of words matter. Like any technology, language requires skill from those who would wield it as well as the wisdom to use it well. We see this in recent debates about framing science to give it political effect, and the ever-controversial use of the word ‘genocide’ – a neologism coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a legal scholar and Orwell’s contemporary.

  • Your writing exercise for today: a short story about how a misplaced comma brings about the end of civilization. Just keep the pandas out of it.

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With news of Vonnegut’s passing, here are his Eight Rules of Writing Fiction, which can be adapted to non-fiction as well:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999)

I think #5 is an important tool for writers. It tells us we need to think about the conclusion first, and get right to the point.

Update: Screenwriter Jane Espenson comments on how these rules apply to scriptwriting.

Update: Welcome to members and visitors of The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, who have been passing through in droves via this post on their blog.

If you are interested in essays about writing, and good advice on how to do it well, pop over to this compilation of articles by writers about writing. It is aimed at writers of science fiction, but it is an admirable introduction to the craft of writing and the business of publishing.

If you just want another list: here are George Orwell’s 6 rules for writing.

You may also be interested in the following blogs by American and Canadian writers, some of whom I’ve included on my blogroll.

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