What are ‘working papers’ for when we have social media?

I’ve always had an odd fascination with working papers. I like seeing ‘ideas in motion’ and I often suspect that much of value gets chipped away through the disciplinary process of peer review that I (reluctantly) recognise is a necessary feature of our intellectual landscape. However simply publishing a PDF on a university website doesn’t quite do justice to the opportunities now available

The LSE Inequalities Institute publish working papers on a Medium blog, as well as providing a PDF version with full appendices. I’m instinctively drawn to this idea but it raises an obvious question: how does a working paper differ from a blog post? It could be a matter of intended audience, writing style or length of the piece. But it’s important to consider this when social media is ubiquitous, both within the academy and amongst many of the potential audiences for social scientific research outside of it. This is particularly pertinent for a project at the LSE given the continued presence of the Public Policy Group blogs there, encompassing a wide range of sites with a well established readership outside the academy.

However if the point of working papers is to generate productive discussion then I think they could serve a clear purpose while utilising social media. This is why using a Medium blog to publish working papers appeals to me so much. The annotation, sharing and conversation tools built into the platform are fantastic, though perhaps rather unevenly utilised. In view of these, the formality of a working paper relative to a blog post seems like a virtue rather than an anachronism: it provides lots for an engaged community of readers to get stuck into. There’s a great promise in using Medium to publish working papers but the success or failure of such a project rests on cultivating a dialogue: on Medium itself but also on other platforms through which the paper circulates. One which will, hopefully, feed back into the trajectory of scholarly work which the working paper captures a single moment of.