The latest edition of the myrmecological newsletter is online here. It may well be the last, according to editor Gordon Snelling:
We have close to 200 members and I can count on two hands the people that have regularly supported Notes by sending in material for publication… I feel like I am banging my head on a wall at times and honestly I am losing the motivation to keep this going.
Notes from Underground has come and gone before. The printed newsletter was inaugurated in 1988 by Harvard University’s Norm Carlin, Stefan Cover, and Mark Moffett, and served for five years as an active and much-appreciated conduit for field anecdotes, cartoons, taxonomic rants, and calls for specimens. When Harvard’s social insect group evaporated in the early 1990’s, Notes from Underground went with it.
The internet would seem to offer a better medium for a newsletter like Notes, and 2003 Notes from Underground was reincarnated. Editorship and inspiration passed to Army Ant specialist Gordon Snelling, and first few installments saw activity reminiscent of the previous decade. But after an initial burst of collecting reports and myrmecological musings, participation waned to the extent that Gordon now grovels for submissions and installments arrive months behind schedule. What happened?
Certainly not a decrease in general myrmecological interest. After all, more ant scientists practice more ant research now than ever before. The Ant Course has an admissions backlog, and IUSSI meetings are packed.
Rather, I think that Notes did itself in by never moving beyond a standard print newsletter format. Even though it is disseminated online, Notes competes with, rather than takes advantage of, the internet. In 1988, a periodic printed newsletter was the ideal medium for sharing collection notes, or requesting specimens. A centralized editorship and print distribution was the only workable medium available, so people used it.
In 2008, we’ve got all manner of websites, blogs, online forums and chat rooms. I can publish with Notes, which faithful to the print format appears every few months and goes through a central editorship, or I can have instant gratification and use any of the other venues on the internet. Why would I send my collecting report to Notes and have to wait three months for it to appear? I can post it now, here on my free wordpress.com blog. Or I can participate in the Ant Farm Board, or La Marabunta, or any number of other places. If my article entailed enough work to be worth putting through an editorial process, I can go with a more formal journal like Myrmecological News.
This is not to disparage Notes. It’s full of great stuff- I read every word when it comes out and wait eagerly for the next one. But from the perspective of a contributor, Notes does not offer anything unique. It combines the worst aspect of the formal journals- an editorial waiting process- and layers it over an informal content that could be published instantaneously on blogs and web forums. So it’s no wonder that everyone reads it but no one contributes.
I would like to see Notes from Underground continue. There is a strong myrmecological community that still needs to share information and ant gossip. And I’d prefer to see it coalesce towards a single community instead of spread across numerous sites. A way to do this, I think, is to restructure Notes as an active, real-time community. One that still has featured articles, but one that also allows instant postings for discussions of scientific articles, specimen requests, and anecdotes from the field. Perhaps one that melds a front-page of news and articles with a forum like Benoit’s brand-new Formicidae forum, with a portal to journals and member’s home pages and blogs. I can’t help but think that the myrmecologist community would come together around the right medium. What do you think?