Thinking about writing and research

Well my testing of the Twitter thread creation feature in WordPress has gone well enough. I have used it for the last couple of days and the results were successful, but not in any way inspiring. The linking method they use to bring links from the post over to Twitter is wonky. They mechanically extract the link and share it explicitly within parentheses after the original spot where it occurred. So it looks sort of out of place based on the way people share links in a modern embedded way on the internet. It’s an odd style choice, but then again Twitter itself is a forced minimum in a world of excess and overcommunication. Even the new expanded Tweet limit of 280 characters just allows a couple of sentences to be created at a time. You can elect to communicate within that shortened utterance window, but it is not really how I prefer to exchange my thoughts and ideas.

My preference is to engage in a more long form exchange of the written word. That is probably why writing academic articles and weblog posts is where I spend a lot of my time. For the most part either way you are granted the chance to put your thoughts, arguments, opinions, or logic down on the page for better or worse. Sure in the academic writing space you can face delays and rounds of revisions, but that is the nature of things so ingrained in the academy that it took an entirely new method of online pre-print sharing to shatter. That happened due to the fact that people want to openly exchange academic information and learn and develop rapidly in certain segments of the academy. That need to exchange and work toward common frameworks and applications of developing technology required a faster cycle of information exchange. Generally in the machine learning space, artificial intelligence domain, and other sciences it seems that publication in arXiv has been working for people. It is a far less gated way to get your words out into the open vs. waiting for the academic review process of some journals that take an awfully long time to evaluate content. 

A lot of research seems to be starting to form around the way pre-print sharing is changing the very nature of publishing in journals. I’ll provide more coverage of that later when I find an article worth sharing that concisely explains the current situation. That is probably a problem for more than one cup of coffee to solve. I’m only partially into my first cup of coffee and it is only slightly warm at the moment. Microwaving that cup of coffee seems like a lot of work at the moment. I’ll probably muddle on through creating the rest of this page of prose before going to work on the coffee problem. My initial goal for the day was to sit down and write a full page before switching over to editing and finishing the next installment of The Lindahl Letter for Friday, April 30, 2021. During the course of designing the trajectory of that writing effort 37 weeks were mapped out and content was drafted, reworked, and established for the first 14 weeks of publication. As of next Friday we will have traveled to the end of my generally drafted efforts. Starting in week 15 will be entering a new phase of publication on Friday and new content creation for the next week starting on Saturday. It will basically be a weekly content creation and publishing cycle going forward.

It is entirely possible that a flourish of creativity will occur and enough content will be drafted to work ahead again, but that does not appear to be the case the moment. Things seem to be lining up to a weekly content creation cycle. That is not a bad path forward, but it requires a lot more consistency in weekly writing than being weeks ahead of the point of publication. Generally the amount of tinkering and rework is about to decrease.

Reading a journal double issue

A pretty big double journal issue from the American Review of Public Administration (ARPA) showed up in the mailbox this week. It contains 808 pages of journal articles about Covid-19 from a public administration perspective. I’m going to spend the weekend reading this double issue and thinking about why each of these articles was written. I’m going to deconstruct them from the perspective of why they were put together and why each specific article was assembled. I’m really curious about why the author structured it and published it in the way it ended up on the page for readers.

Intellectual flooding (papers)

On a Monday of all days, I started to dig in and focus my academic ambitions to a very specific line of inquiry related to really flushing out the trajectories in a myriad of machine learning literature reviews. I’m walking down the path to understanding a review of reviews of sorts. That inquiry is not very targeted and the content I’m going to encounter will be more of a breath based search of machine learning knowledge. After working through that tower of academic contribution I plan to spend some type really digging into the depth of a couple of key items to form a new academic trajectory toward some survey work or coding efforts that would yield additional academic contributions on my part. 

At this point in time, I need to refocus my efforts and spend time really digging into the current stream of academic contributions. That will help me rebalance my efforts to be a mix of both productive research projects and steady inquiry into how the broader academic of academic thought is changing. Given the sheer volume of publications that are occurring right now that becomes even more challenging. That is why I elected to focus on only reading literature reviews to start. I felt that a review of reviews would help me target the core articles being referenced commonly within the reviews and help me look at what outliers the various academics found to be important. 

Today I’m going to spend more time reading those papers that were identified yesterday. It was very overly ambitious to think that I could read and digest 2-3 literature reviews per day. That is an expectation from back when all I had to do in a given day was academic efforts. Within the limited windows of a full day of adulting the ability to consume 30 pages of a journal article simply takes more time. That is the nature of things I guess as we move forward into this study of machine learning. I’m going to move along at the best speed possible and focus on making quality contributions to the academy of academic thoughts. At this point in time, trying to just spew out content is a fool’s errand to deliver errata destined for a historically dusty shelf at the academy.

Thoughts on open access journals

Yesterday I spent a few minutes writing about an internet outage that occurred on Sunday. Apparently, that outage was caused by some type of internet protocol issue downstream with a base provider of backbone services. What I thought was interesting is that none of the websites impacted really seemed to send any notice to consumers at all. They just posted a few notes on social media and moved along. My email inbox contained nothing about the outage at all. That should probably not surprise me at all, but it does for some reason. I thought maybe some of these companies would provide notice of downtime, but maybe they have learned that regular and swift communication does nothing to help them at the time of incident. Based on that they simply handle the inbound inquiries and move along. I ended up posting via the WordPress application on my Google Pixel 4 XL Android based smartphone. It was pretty easy to pull up the Google Doc and cut and paste the content from yesterday over and post it. At the time, I thought it was interesting that my desktop network was failing and the cellular one was successful. None of that was as interesting as the donut that ended up getting purchased, but that is an entirely different category of adventure. 

My notes contain an entry about creating forward looking journal articles trying to capture the trajectory of the field. Instead of writing literature reviews that are retrospective this would be an attempt to take the last 90 days or maybe 180 days of journal articles in a specific field and capture and catalog all of the next steps and future research notes. All of those compiled direction based signals about the future of research could help provide a look at the trajectory of research within the field. That type of effort could be pretty interesting to complete. It might be interesting to do a retrospective study on all the promised future research that did not make publication. It is entirely possible that the author finished it and it might not have been accepted for publication or they submitted it to a different journal. Sometimes trying to track down the trail of publications from a specific author is challenging. We don’t really have a seamless system to search all journal articles at one time. They are like little silos of intellectual capital hiding in different ivory towers. A lot of journals are starting up now that have public facing access to all of their content. Those open journals are for me the future of academic publications. Selfishly for those researchers who do not have university/college powered credentials for logins to the various journals it makes it much easier to keep up. 

As an independent researcher I have access to the premier journals in the field of public administration from my paid dues to the American Society for Public Administration. I even pay to have them send me the journals in the mail to make it easier for me to remember to read them based on the physical reminder sitting on my desk. Outside of my public administration based research interests the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning are easier to understand. Most of the researchers in those fields are very eager to share publications and preprints and you can very easily go out and start searching arXiv for electric preprints of articles. It is very easy to start reading and digging through the content. With arXiv you have to carefully watch the references of the papers you are reading to get a sense of where the literature review is being built from and what work the researchers are building upon. Those breadcrumbs provide the intellectual legacy within the academy and you are going to have to do some work to get to the foundational articles. They might not be freely available to read. Sometimes I end up going to the authors websites and reading the content that was instead of trying to get a subscription to read it. 

Wondering about the future of content

Maybe all this weblog content should be taken offline. This functional journal represented like 20 years of writing. Some of it false starts and a lot of it incomplete in nature. People seem to be trimming down backlogs of Tweets and other online content. Sometimes I consider purging it all and just moving along. This work is archived. Pulling it down from here would not even make a ripple in the grand ocean of innovation and creativity.

Working on the next writing project is always on target. Editing and working with previous work is not even on my radar most of the time. Obviously, it is something that I probably should invest more energy and effort into, but it never becomes a priority. I’m always placing value on what’s next. All of my attention and focus is on what I’m going to do next. That attention is never on what I have been doing. That is how it works and how I evaluate things. Potential matters. As a writer you don’t generally value the potential of a previous pile of work. This makes me wonder about the future of content. Library shelves provided a curated look into the collective works of content deemed memorable. Somebody thought it was important enough to log it and keep it on the shelf. Beyond any reasonable expectation for storage on a library shelf the amount of content available has accelerated to the point where no library could reasonably physically hold it, have the time to evaluate it, or provide the curation function historically associated with a library. 

Online from internet browsers we have access to so much new content being created every day that a certain degree of displacement is bound to occur. Classic novels and literature will be thinned out to the vital few gaining popular references over and over again. Academic writing is great for sign posting where the ideas were built from during the literature review and other sections explaining the origins of ideas. Outside of academic work something has to be pretty impactful to be referenced. Sometimes it takes a movie franchise to make a book super popular. Other times a super popular book will drive the creation of a movie and sometimes a franchise will develop from that seed. 

These are the things that I am super curious about today. I’m wondering about the future of content and drinking some espresso. 

People are using services to clean out Tweets older than 90 days. First, the facts are clear that this is a common enough request to need services. Second, people seem to be using these services on an ongoing basis. My own personal library of Tweets is generally useless. It is a bunch of links and one line references to things that caught my attention. Twitter is so ephemeral in how it represents the now. As time elapses the usefulness of the content expires exponentially. The value of a sporting event being televised peaks during the broadcast and replays generally are less valuable by an order of magnitude. It makes me wonder if all that content being produced has a flashpoint of value that peaks and falls off into an abyss. Within that abyss all the abandoned content just gets ignored for the most part. The only people going back to read old Tweets are generally researchers. Search engines are smart enough to pretty much ignore that forest of one line zingers and stale links that is the aging Twitter stream.

The amount of academic writing being published has skyrocketed with the advent of online distribution and journals that exist solely online. The barrier to entry of having to print and distribute a journal evaporated. That is important as to continue physically printing a journal it had to have enough subscribers to support that ongoing and expensive endeavor. Online journals have a much lower sustainment cost. This also creates the possibility of increasing fragmentation within the academic community. Following the trail of references in papers is what binds the academic community together. It is that shared activity of running down references that removes fragmentation and focuses the academy itself on the key contributions. At the same time, just seeing a reference over and over again and not being able to get access to it or really find it can be exceedingly frustrating. That is the type of problem that creates reliance on the sources of information and publications that are stable and easy to access. Working within topics that require working in multiple languages or trying to access international journals can be increasingly difficult. 

I guess given enough time to reflect on the future of content my concern about academic literature is dissipating. People will reference and get access to the ideas that influence the academy. That is going to happen based on the near perpetual desire of the people participating in ongoing academic research. Everything else outside of that is where all my wondering about the future of content ended up focusing. Content owned within movie studies and the frameworks they use to distribute will probably continue to be fragmented based on the ever growing islands of online streaming. Independent projects are more ephemeral. A lot of that content gets shared on platforms like YouTube that are here today and gone tomorrow. Given that independent content shared that way would have to be rehoused to continue distribution that content is at risk for being inaccessible. A lot of creator based individual driven content streams fall into that category. One one hand it is great that people are able to share content and some of it gains a real audience that gets to enjoy it and participate with the creator. Alternatively, what happens to that content in the long run.   

Starting the literature review process

Snow is falling outside my window. It is May 1st in Colorado. Snowfall is happening. The snow that is falling includes heavy flakes that are actually sticking to the ground. The roads are clear, but the group is slightly covered with snow. That type of weather is great to inspire a desire for hot chocolate and the start of a literature review. In my case, a cup of coffee was confused and I have started to work on a literature review article related to growing and developing talent in the workplace. That topic is something that I want to better understand. It is a topic worthy of structured academic inquiry.

Understanding the structured nature of academic inquiry could underscore why we conduct research. It could also illustrate the process of how that research occurs. In this example it could describe what a literature review involves. Most of the literature reviews I have written were not intended for publication or were eventually condensed into a single section of an article.

In this case, I just wanted to better understand the topic in question. I am not sure if that is the right or wrong way to approach this type of work. The final product might be a standalone literature review or it could end up being a section of an article to be named later.

Writing a literature review is about figuring out what exists within academic literature and how it relates to the question at hand. Undergraduates typically have access to academic databases that they have not learned to appreciate just yet in the process. Outside of school the search becomes harder without easy access to academic databases. The vast majority of journal articles are not something that just shows up in a quick Google Search. A quick Google search for, “scholarly articles on developing talent in the workplace”, may not yield everything. You cannot expect that it will yield all possible scholarly results. That is unrealistic — some academic journals are not easily searchable without subscriptions.

My process for reviewing academic literature is pretty straightforward. I have used it over the course of a number of years. I hit up Google Scholar or a scholarly database and use the references from articles to map key contributions. The academy has existed for a very long time. Contributions have been made to academic literature over a very long period of time. Figuring out how far back to review and how many of the new articles are relevant is the core of the question at hand. You really do want to understand about newer and older academic theories and how older works are being referenced.

Here are the steps I am undertaking:

  1. Define the topic in question
  2. Define the keywords related to the topic in question
  3. Search for the keywords and locate relevant literature
  4. Use the relevant literature to locate key referenced works
  5. Identify what key referenced works to read
  6. Build an outline of the literature review
  7. Read the relevant literature and fill in the outline of the literature review
  8. Complete a first draft that addresses the topic in question

Colorado snow in May

Reading academic journals

During flights I like to read academic journals cover to cover. Some of those moments of quiet reflection influenced the way I see the world. My interest in the field of public administration was sparked by a stack of Public Administration Review issues (PAR). They were sitting in the University of Kansas public administration department student lounge. My thesis advisor Elaine had told me if I did not enjoy reading journals from the field I may not have enough passion for graduate work. Students these days get so focused on drilling down into specific research areas. They sometimes cannot see the tallest trees in the forest. Mastery of a subject requires general understanding of the entire subject area.

Digital copies of journal articles have become ubiquitous. Some of them include the entire issue, but some of them are piecemeal. Single serving versions of what was a wider journey into the field. Students that only search databases may never venture beyond the edges of a targeted search. A world of knowledge becomes reduced to a limited frame. I think of it like going to an art gallery and only looking at the frames and ignoring the paintings.

Our native capacity to weave concepts together helped us build the intellectual walls of the academy. I fear that modern approaches are degrading our capacity to build new sections of the academy. We stand at a crossroads where derivative work is outpacing innovation. Now is the time to take action. The need for change is real.

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