It is easy to do academic research without anyone knowing really what you are spending your time and money on – and with anyone I do not only mean the outside public, but also the academic community itself. Even in 2014, when the possibilities to show others what you are working on are almost endless, (too) many academics are sticking to the traditional, peer reviewed, and printed media to disseminate their ideas, and share established conclusions rather than work in progress. Many colleagues hardly invest in an online presence. Admittedly, there also is little reward in doing so: the internet does not have a very high status in the ivory tower, you cannot (or will not) be cited from blogs, and demands for excellence are such that it may feel counter-intuitive to share unpolished arguments, loose thoughts, and other ideas that might subsequently prove wrong, misguided and foolish. If you want a smooth academic career, you’d better spend your time on other things than on telling the outside world what you are actually doing.
I am convinced, however, that, ultimately, this is not the right way: we, the scholars, should be there, publicly available, and showing ourselves and the public what we are doing, what our plans are, what our approach is, and how our projects develop. First, because we are paid by our societies, which gives us a moral duty to be as open as we can be about what is happening. Second, because we need to move away from the misguided idea that scholarship results in fixed knowledge. Scholarship is a process, continuously in development and always changing – promising strategies fail to return meaningful results, but lead to new questions or to different answers than we expected. In the end, our results may be much less relevant to most of our colleagues than the process that led to them. By communicating about what we are doing when we do it, we may foster discussion and help each other.
About two years ago, I received a quarter million euro grant from the Dutch government for a four year project on urban commercial investment in Roman Italy, and a project blog was already in the proposal. The project – Building Tabernae – started April, 2013, and is now about to enter a new phase, in which some results will start emerging, and new data will be gathered. The blog, I hope, is a way to force the scholar in charge of this project – me – to record and communicate the project’s successes and failures, and everything else that one encounters when investigating commercial investment in Roman Italy, and to be available for discussion with specialists and non-specialists alike.