Blogs in Academic Research

I asked this morning for a way to automatically add paragraph numbers to blog posts. Why? Thanks to an e-mail from reader Edward Chiu, I realized that there’s really no way for researchers to adequately cite to blogs. This is a big deal in the legal world, and I imagine it would have applicability in broader academia as well. If I write a law review article, I need to tell the reader where I got a fact/opinion/etc. In order to do so, the norm is to simply identify the publication, the author, etc. and the page number.

But with electronic writing, you don’t have page numbers. And in the legal profession, there is a strong push to identify “pin-point” cites. If you have a long post with dozens of paragraphs, it’s hard for someone to identify the source of the particular assertion.

When I started the first law journal to publish exclusively online back in 1994 (the Richmond Journal of Law & Technology), we had to deal with this. Fortunately, we got the citation bible (The Bluebook, edited by the Harvard, Columbia, Yale and Penn Law Review editors) to adopt a standard citation convention for online publications. More details are here:

Our answer was not unique – courts had been doing this in some jurisdictions – but it was easily translatable to the online world. All writing has paragraph numbers (even if there’s just one) – and if you can direct someone to the precise paragraph number, they’re more likely going to be able to identify the source of the assertion you’re citing. (To see this in action, see for example this article in the current issue of JOLT.)

I think if there were a way to automatically add paragraph numbers to posts, it would make it easier for anyone citing to blogs. This would eliminate one potential barrier to acceptance in academic research, and go just a bit further to legitimizing blogs as a communication medium. Even though blogs are in some way time-sensitive, it’s not hard to imagine something on a blog being useful down the road in a research setting. (In fact, I think blogs may be invaluable as a way of capturing background information on subjects that may not make it into more traditional, formal publications. But that’s a different subject.)

There’s some stuff that needs to happen under the hood as well. Instead of providing hypertext anchosrs to the individual post, you’d want to tie the anchor to the post and to the paragraph. That wouldn’t be hard – just something to contemplate as we build it.

Unfortunately, I can define the spec but don’t know the first thing about programming in Radio. Ideally, this would be supported in other blog platforms like Blogger and Movable Type. I’d love to work with someone on this. Anyone else have thoughts on the usefulness or necessity of this?

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