I came across an interesting article this week called The Antropocene Biosphere: Supporting ‘Open Interdisciplinarity’ through Blogging. Honestly, I have no idea how I found this because I was looking for articles on organic no-till cover crops in agricultural journals, not something that usually takes me to journals like Trends in Ecology and Evolution. But the words blogging and open caught my eye and it was a 3 page article, so I went for it.
In case you’re wondering (because I was) anthropocene is an adjective that describes “the current geological age, viewed as the period which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment”, according to the dictionary.
Word of the day: Anthropocene–right now in geological history
Before you start getting overwhelmed, understanding this or any other geological age is really not important for this blog post. What I want to talk about how a group of 13 faculty from 11 different disciplines, came together to have an interdisciplinary exploration of this topic using blogs.
How Did the Blog Work?
How did they do this? Someone selected a paper by Erle Ellis that integrated multiple disciplines (“ecology, anthropology, evolutionary theory and sociology“) into a discussion of the Anthropocene, as the central topic of the project. Each week, faculty wrote blog posts about their disciplinary perspective on points from Ellis’s article (here’s an example of a post by a wildlife biologist), but then interacted with faculty from other disciplines by reading and commenting on each other’s blog posts and weekly in-person reading group sessions. The author, Erle Ellis, also participated in the discussion through the blog comments. After ten weeks of interaction, they hosted Erle Ellis for a lecture and a panel discussion (which was recorded and posted on Youtube) where the author could respond to common themes and questions generated by the faculty. When you visit the blog, there is evidence of further interaction with students through a essay content for graduate and undergraduates students. And all this is archived on the blog for you to see for yourself.
In their paper describing the project, the authors described two methodologies used to do interdisciplinary science: focused and open. Erle Elllis took a focused approach when he write his journal article in a peer-reviewed academic journal and integrated multiple sciences together to create an academic theory. While the Anthropocene Biosphere Project faculty used what they describe as an open approach, broadening the discussion to many and different topics without any imposed format or expectations. You might also call these two approaches closed (published in a subscription journal, although it is listed as free access) and open (available on a blog and youtube).
Why I really like this
I threw out the rest of my to-do list for today to write this blog post because I was so excited about what I learned. First, I am excited to find an example of how open resources can be used in science and education. There is so much flexibility and possibility in all of the Open areas (open access, open science, open data, open education resources, and more), that is can be intimidating. This article clearly describes a process that we could replicate in our fields and at any academic level.
Second, I am already thinking about the incredible educational benefit to doing a project like this. These type of projects and conversations are (hopefully) already taking place on our campuses, but not always in a way that makes then accessible to undergraduates, graduate students, even the general public in the US and internationally. I think that students and the public should be able to see both the process and the result of our research and science.
This project kept the science alive and growing after publication
But the most exciting part is how this project kept the science alive and growing after publication. We devote months, if not years of our lives, to a project; write it, polish and perfect it for publication, and then it leaves to languish on library shelves or digital archives, hopefully read by a few students or scientists (there are statistics on how many articles get read and cited; they are not encouraging, don’t go look them up). Or, your work could be explored and expanded into different disciplines (and doubtless generate many more citations).
I was impressed and surprised by the attitude of the author of the original article being discussed. He fully supported the project and used it as a way to continue his research:
“And Ellis himself attested to the success of the project in generating useful responses to his paper, stating that it ‘vastly deepened my understanding no only of the broader implications of my work, but more importantly made me think more deeply about a number of elements of my theory, helping me move forward in important new directions. This is a process I would recommend to any scientist aiming to deepen their theoretical world.” (from journal article Trachtenberg et al 2017)
Faculty who participated in the project described how this process “forced us to chisel windows to widen our perspective” in their academic silos and changed even the way they thought about their own subject.
So, is anyone as excited about this as I am? How would you take this idea and “remix” it?