New (and final?) Notes from Underground

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 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?

12 thoughts on “New (and final?) Notes from Underground”

  1. I think this is right on the money. An RSS feed for the front page and the ability to subscribe (with email alerts) to particular forum threads would be ideal. If done right, this could revolutionize the communication among professional myrmecologists (I think there are a lot of options already for keen amateurs). Given a little bit of promotion, it could quickly become the first stop for all kinds of posts and information (i.e. specimen requests, jobs, field assistant opportunities, etc., etc.)

  2. I guess Notes from the Underground needs help from someone more familiar with dynamic web-publishing and a passion for both ants and blogging to reincarnate as a true electronic publication. But, where can we find such a person? mmmhh…

  3. Don’t look at me! You wouldn’t believe how hard a time I had just getting this blog up and running, and that’s a relatively simple thing. I nominate Scott, since he commented first and sounded plenty enthusiastic.

  4. I vote for Scott, but Alex is also a good candidate. Looking at his blog (which I really enjoy!) he seems to have a lot of spare time 😉
    Here is my wishlist:
    1. Aggregate content (blog posts, scientific articles,…) that is published elsewhere on the web with the possibility to comment on these items.
    2. Some dynamic-web publishing for longer articles where readers (without blogs) can contribute. Make the GUI super simple.
    3. A forum for shorter rants and discussions.
    4. Let the community be myrmecologists. As Scott pointed out there are already enough sites where amateurs can communicate about how to build the best ant farm in the universe.
    5. Do a great job on the technical implementation and give readers plenty of opportunity to interact. Design it beautful and clear.
    good luck.

  5. Hi, thanks Alex to cite my forum. Like you I will be sad if Notes from Underground would disappear. I hope that people will try to participate (personally I’ll do).

    To answer to the wishes of Jochen, the forum that I have created is based on most of the ideas that you just formulated (even the design! but unfortunately I’m not very good on this part).

    The idea is to create a common place for scientists to have discussion about topics related to ant biology / news. I was active on different forum for many years, but realized quickly that most amateurs (not all) are only interested by how to build an artificial nest and to keep ants at home (by the way, some of those informations can be useful and rich in ideas sometimes for lab experiments). However, I found that a place for scientists (and enlighten non professional) was lacking for direct discussion about ant biology.

    Also, being French, and knowing some of the French and Belgium students, we thought that it could be interesting to develop a place to allow people from different countries to meet each other (even virtually) other than every 4 years for the IUSSI meeting.

    I could develop more about the different reasons why I have created the forum, but in that case I would need a full blog 😉

    I have only created the basis of the website and now I am very open minded about the directions to give it. So I encourage every scientists to subscribe and participate. The participation of the members is crucial to design what it could be.

  6. I don’t vote for Scott. He is rubbish at web pages. His site is very simple and just static HTML. That is so 1990s. We need someone that is part of Web 2.0./Blogosphere. Jochen sounds like he knows what he is talking about. I vote for Myrmecos as artistic director with Jochen as technical advisor.

  7. Benoit’s forum is excellent (I had not looked before my first comment). I particularly like the separate RSS feeds for each forum topic. If a blog-like front page, with news and articles, were added to this forum, it would appear to be just what Alex suggested. I still think it would be important to let everyone know about it in some way other than word of mouth, so that it does become the first stop for the majority, if not all of the ant research community.

  8. I don’t think we should just preempt the existing Notes. After all, there is a lot of good material there as well as a membership list. It might be worth contacting Gordon Snelling and James Trager to get their input on the project.

  9. Yes, I agree. A blending of the content of Notes with new types of communication (i.e. forum) and publication (i.e. blog-like front page) would be ideal. Purely from a historical perspective, it would be great to keep the name and spirit of Notes alive.

  10. The forum is brand new and does not have its definitive form yet. Many things can be add easily, like a portal, a chat room, a newsletter,… Also if some members show a specific interest for it, it would be easy to add new categories that could look like blogs.

    Concerning the name of the forum, who manage it or its shape, I don’t really care. What is important to me is the idea behind to have a real place of discussion concerning ant biology and an interactive website for ant scientists.

    Finally, thanks for your comments on the forum. That’s nice ;). I begun to have doubt on the fact that was a good idea or not. I suppose it is just due to the fact that people are very busy and it is not yet an automatism.

  11. Gordon C. Snelling

    Folks, sorry I have not had more input on this subject but had a death in the family to deal with. Now I would love to thank you for all your input in this matter. I have long been unhappy with the current format for notes, but lack the skill to make any real changes. Additionally on many occasions I have asked for suggestions but gotten no response. So I am very glad things are now moving along. Dr Ant, my father and I have discussed the “Portal” idea and all agree it is a good plan. We would welcome other growth as well. However Notes must remain true to it’s origin in some ways as well. As has already been stated there are plenty of hobbyist oriented sites which I have no desire to see Notes become. I absolutely understand the need for eliminating the delay in time between submission and the contribution seeing the light of day, however I believe there is an absolute need for at least some submissions to be gone over before being put out there for all the world to see. We already have the listserv I use to let people know about new issues of Notes I have already been considering increasing the use of it for announcements etc. So folks keep making suggestions and we shall see if we can give some new life to Notes.

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