Research on academic blogging: what does it reveal?

I have written previously on this blog on the pros and cons of using social media for academic work, including a discussion of why I blog and what I have learnt from using these media. As part of a chapter on the digitised sociologist that I am working on for my Digital Sociology book, I have been reviewing other people’s research on academic blogging.

Numerous accounts of using social and other digital media for professional academic purposes can be found on websites such as the LSE Impact of the Social Sciences and The Guardian’s Higher Education Network. Some more traditional academic articles have also been published in journals on these topics. These accounts have identified some interesting trends and implications.

Academic blogging has been described as ‘conversational scholarship’, a means by which academics can attempt to loosen their formal style of writing as part of communicating to a wider audience (Gregg 2006). It is argued that the practice forces academics to think about their research and writing in new ways, bearing in mind the multiplicity of potential audiences and the ways readers can respond to the material presented (Kitchin 2014, Kitchin et al. 2013). Some bloggers use their writing as a way of developing ideas and seeking engagement with others before they formalise their ideas into a more traditional academic piece (Adema 2013, Carrigan 2013, Daniels 2013, Estes 2012, Gregg 2006, Maitzen 2012). This use of social media for developing scholarly writing and ideas has been described as being an ‘open source academic’ (Carrigan 2013).

Several scholars discussing academic blogging have noted that they often serve the purpose of sharing information and providing advice as part of a gift economy of producing material to share freely with others. From this perspective scholarship and knowledge are not viewed as a marketable commodity but rather as a social good (Adema 2013, Gregg 2006, Hall 2013a, 2013b, Mewburn and Thomson 2013). Here the general sharing ethos and participatory democracy that are viewed as characteristic of social media engagement more generally are interpreted in a more specialist academic context.

Academic blogs and other forms of writing on digital platforms are also beginning to challenge scholarly publishing modes and invent new forms of publication. Blog posts are now often cited in more traditional academic forums, some scholarly journals are incorporating blogs, multimedia or open access repositories as part of their online presence and academic presses are experimenting with new digital modes of publication, including shorter online book formats with faster than usual turn-around times between acceptance of the manuscript and publication. Scholarly publishing is developing as hybrid and multiple, drawing both on legacy forms of publishing and on novel modes introduced by digital formats and platforms.

Public digital scholarship practices such as blogging are also sometimes represented as overtly political and resistant acts. It is argued that these types of practices allow for scholars to experiment with digital publishing and engagement at the same time as resisting the dictates of the scholarly publishing industry and producing new forms of knowledge dissemination (Adema 2013, Gregg 2006, 2009). The content itself of blog posts, Twitter comments and other social media communications may be directly political, with these tools providing a forum for academics to challenge government policies and programs (Kitchin 2014, Kitchin et al. 2013, Wade and Sharp 2013). They can also provide an opportunity for academics to share their frustrations about higher education procedures and policies and their own experiences as academic workers (Adema 2013, Gregg 2006, 2009, Mewburn and Thomson 2013).

On the negative side, blogging opens up academics to great public scrutiny, not only from their peers but from any other audiences. As I noted in a previous post on the risks of using social media for higher education work, some academic bloggers have found themselves the target of trolling, sexual harassment and even threats of violence in response to their public writing. This is particularly the case for members of marginalised or disadvantaged groups, such as women and racial or ethnic minorities. Those academics who express their opinions on controversial issues or who challenge powerful institutions or commercial interests are also often the target of comments questioning their professional integrity, as well hate messages and even death threats (Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications Draft Report 2013, Chapman 2012, Cottom McMillan 2012, Kitchin 2014, Kitchin et al. 2013, Wade and Sharp 2013).

Academics themselves using digital media as part of their professional identities need to think carefully about how best to manage their private and public personae when doing so: how formal their self-presentation is, to what extent they make personal comments about themselves or others, the nature of images of themselves that they upload, to what extent they allow or respond to comments from others (Barbour and Marshall 2012). The freedom of expression that forums such as blogs and social media sites offer academics can also be the cause of their downfall. Several cases exist involving the censure or disciplining of academics for statements that they made on social media sites of which their university disapproved (Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications Draft Report 2013).

Posting one’s work on online media may be considered a risky practice because of the loss of control that eventuates. Academics need to be aware of the multitude of ways in which the content created by one author or group of authors may be re-used and transmitted via different modes of publishing (reblogged or excerpted on other people’s blogs, tweeted in tiny ‘grabs’, commented upon and so on). In receiving wider dissemination in the public forums afforded by the new digital technologies, scholarly writing may develop ‘a social life of its own’ (Beer 2013, Beer and Burrows 2013) as it circulates in these forums and control over it is lost by the author.

The possibilities of plagiarism have also been raised by some academics as a risk of engaging in digital public scholarship. Some academics who blog have noticed that their content has been used by others, sometimes verbatim, without any form of attribution to its original source. This experience has led them to reconsider the benefits of blogging (see, for example, an account by Williams 2013).

Some writers have commented on the vulnerability that social media engagement such as blogging may engender in scholars who are used to formal academic writing styles and traditional procedures of publishing, in which one’s writing is vetted by one’s peers before it reaches an audience and people outside academic do not have the opportunity to comments on one’s research (Estes 2012, Gregg 2006, Kirkup 2010, Kitchin et al. 2013, Maitzen 2012). Quite simply, engaging as a digitised public scholar may be too confronting for some academics.

In the early years of academic blogging, there was often suspicion of the practice on the part of other academics, and people who maintained blogs were in some cases discriminated against when seeking tenure or promotion or otherwise viewed with disdain for being self-aggrandising or wasting time (Gregg 2006, Kirkup 2010, Maitzen 2012). Although negative views of academic blogging have certainly not disappeared, they appear to be slowly changing as universities seek to prove that they are engaging with the public and conforming to open access mandates and policies. Indeed some academics are now concerned that in the quest to achieve community engagement and impact, universities will begin to pressure academics to use social media tools, albeit under restrictive guidelines developed by the university and in the interests of anodyne public relations rather than challenging ideas or engaging in political activism (Mewburn and Thomson 2013). In a workplace in which many academics are already feeling overworked and under continuing stress to produce research publications as well as attract students (Burrows 2012, Gill 2010), such demands may be viewed as unreasonable.

The research and commentary reviewed here outlines a diversity of perspectives on academic blogging, many of which are relevant to academics’ use of other social media as part of their professional work. The benefits of blogging are clear, but so are the potential pitfalls in what has been a largely under-researched practice. More research and scholarship is required as part of mapping how academic blogging is undertaken, how it might be changing in response to other developments in higher education and the broader politics of the practice.

References
Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications Draft Report (2013): American Association of University Professors.
Adema, J. (2013) Practise what you preach: Engaging in humanities research through critical praxis. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 16 (5), 491-505.
Barbour, K. and Marshall, D. (2012) The academic online: constructing persona through the World Wide Web. First Monday, (9). Accessed 27 September 2013. Available from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3969/3292
Beer, D. (2013) Public geography and the politics of circulation. Dialogues in Human Geography, 3 (1), 92-95.
Beer, D. and Burrows, R. (2013) Popular culture, digital archives and the new social life of data. Theory, Culture & Society, 30 (4), 47-71.
Burrows, R. (2012) Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. The Sociological Review, 60 (2), 355-372.
Carrigan, M. (2013) Continous publishing and being an open-source academic. Accessed 22 December 2013. Available from http://digitalsociology.org.uk/?paged=2
Chapman, S. (2012) Hate mail and cyber trolls: the view from inside public health. The Conversation, Accessed 3 August 2013. Available from https://theconversation.com/hate-mail-and-cyber-trolls-the-view-from-inside-public-health-9329
Cottom McMillan, T. (2012) Risk and ethics in public scholarship. University of Venus, Accessed 4 August 2013. Available from http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/university-venus/risk-and-ethics-public-scholarship
Daniels, J. (2013) From tweet to blog post to peer-reviewed article: how to be a scholar now. Accessed 11 December 2013. Available from http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/09/25/how-to-be-a-scholar-daniels
Estes, H. (2012) Blogging and academic identity. Literature Compass, 9 (12), 974-982.
Gill, R. (2010) Breaking the silence: the hidden injuries of neoliberal academia. In R. Flood and R. Gill (eds) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge, 228-244.
Gregg, M. (2006) Feeling ordinary: blogging as conversational scholarship. Continuum, 20 (2), 147-160.
Gregg, M. (2009) Banal bohemia: blogging from the ivory tower hot-desk. Convergence, 15 (4), 470-483.
Hall, G. (2013a) About Media Gifts Accessed 7 August 2013. Available from http://garyhall.squarespace.com/about
Hall, G. (2013b) The unbound book: academic publishing in the age of the infinite archive. Journal of Visual Culture, 12 (3), 490-507.
Kirkup, G. (2010) Academic blogging: academic practice and academic identity. London Review of Education, 8 (1), 75-84.
Kitchin, R. (2014) Engaging publics: writing as praxis. Cultural Geographies, 21 (1), 153-157.
Kitchin, R., Linehan, D., O’Callaghan, C. and Lawton, P. (2013) Public geographies through social media. Dialogues in Human Geography, 3 (1), 56-72.
Maitzen, R. (2012) Scholarship 2.0: blogging and/as academic practice. Journal of Victorian Culture, 1-7.
Mewburn, I. and Thomson, P. (2013) Why do academics blog? An analysis of audiences, purposes and challenges. Studies in Higher Education, 38 (8), 1105.
Wade, L. and Sharp, G. (2013) Sociological Images: Blogging as public sociology. Social Science Computer Review, 31 (2), 221-228.
Williams, L. (2013) Academic blogging: a risk worth taking? The Guardian, Accessed 13 December 2013. Available from http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/dec/04/academic-blogging-newspaper-research-plagiarism

30 tips for successful academic research and writing

Next month I am running a workshop on academic publishing for early career academics. As part of preparing for the workshop I jotted down some ideas and tips to share with the group which I thought I would post here. In the process of writing 12 books and over 110 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters over a career which has mostly been part-time because of juggling the demands of motherhood with academic work, I have developed some approaches that seem to work well for me.

These tips are in no particular order, apart from number 1, which I consider to be the most important of all.

  1. Choose something to research/write about that you are passionately interested in. I find that most of my research and writing tends to spring from wanting to find out more or understand more about a particular phenomenon that intrigues me. In explaining it to myself I end up explaining it to others, hopefully in a new and interesting way that is worthy of publication.
  2. Be organised – planning time use is essential when there are many demands on your time.
  3. Make sure that you set aside one or more periods of time each week when you devote yourself to research and don’t let other demands impinge on this time.
  4. So I can easily see what I need to do and by when, I use a white-board with a ‘to do’ list with tasks listed monthly and their deadlines. I rub off tasks as I complete them (usually with a great sense of accomplishment!). Very low tech, I know, but effective as a visual reminder.
  5. Plan your research in chunks: this morning, today, this week, this month, next few months, this year, next three years. Have a clear idea for what you want to achieve in these time periods and try to stick to this as much as you can.
  6. I don’t tend to think more than a year ahead when it comes to research outcomes I want to achieve, but I find it helpful to write up at least a one-year research plan at the beginning of each year. Some people may also want to prepare a 3- or 5-year research plan.
  7. Be strategic about every bit of research time available. Think about the best use of your time. Difficult cognitive tasks requiring intense thought often need a lengthy period of time, so plan to do these when this is available to you. Easy or less time-intensive tasks such as correcting proofs, editing or formatting a journal article or chapter for submission or reading some materials and taking notes can be fitted in smaller periods of time.
  8. Use whatever research time you have to do something, however small the task.
  9. Make a start. Once you have an idea for a piece of writing, create a file for it on your computer and write down anything, however rough and however brief, even if it is just a provisional title and some notes about possible content. It can always be polished and developed later or even discarded if you decide eventually not to go ahead with the idea.
  10. Organise your writing into different computer files: articles in progress, submitted articles, accepted articles, conference papers, blog posts, book proposals, grant applications etc.
  11. Organise your PDF journal article collection under topics in files on your computer.
  12. If you are feeling unenthusiastic or have hit a wall – leave that piece of writing for a while and work on another piece of writing.
  13. If no external deadline has been set, set yourself deadlines and try to meet these as much as you can, so that you can then move on to the next piece of writing.
  14. Use your writing in as many different ways as you can – conference papers, articles/chapters, books, blog posts. Turn the small (unrefereed) pieces into bigger (refereed) pieces whenever you can and vice versa. What starts out as a blog post can be later developed into an article, for example. Conversely some of the main arguments of an article can be used in one or more blog posts.
  15. Never let a conference/seminar paper stay a conference/seminar paper – turn it into an article/book chapter as soon as you can. If there is simply not enough substance for a piece that is the length of a journal article or book chapter, consider polishing and referencing the paper appropriately. Once it is at a standard where you consider it ready to be available to others, publish it on your university’s e-repository as a working paper. That way, anyone will be able to access the paper digitally and reference it.
  16. Decide on an appropriate journal as you are writing an article and tailor the argument/length to the journal’s requirements before you finish it.
  17. Once you think that you have finished a piece of writing and are ready to submit it, put it aside for a least a day and come back and read it again with fresh eyes. You will most probably notice something that could be improved upon. Once you have done this and are feeling happy with the piece, go ahead and submit. As another commentator has argued, you need to conquer your fear and send your writing off into the world: ‘we owe it to the words we have written to send them away’.
  18. Receiving feedback from academic referees on a writing piece or research proposal can sometimes be demoralising. Don’t let negative comments get you down for long. Grit your teeth and revise and resubmit as soon as you can, however tedious it feels. See this as an opportunity to make your piece the very best it can be. If the article has been rejected, take a good hard look at whether the referees’ comments are valid and if necessary, revise and then submit it to another journal. Remember that all successful academic writers have received negative feedback at times: that is simply part-and-parcel of academic writing and publishing.
  19. Rather than simply deleting material when you are editing a piece of writing, make ‘edits’ computer files into which to ‘paste’ this material when you cut it (I make several edits files under topics). You never know when you may be able to use this material somewhere else.
  20. Think about how one writing piece can lead to another as you are writing it.
  21. Make sure that your abstract is well-written and will lead others to your work (see here for guidelines on writing an effective abstract).
  22. Keep on top of the latest research published in the journals you use for your research. One easy way to do this is to sign up to email alerts with the publishers of the journals and you will be notified by them of the contents of each new issue.
  23. Inspiration for research can come from many places. Attending conferences and seminars and reading the latest academic literature in your field are all extremely important, but so are other strategies. As a sociologist, I have generated many ideas from listening to good quality radio programs, reading newspapers and my favourite online sites and blogs regularly and engaging in social media such as Twitter and Facebook with people interested in the topics I research (see more on social media at no. 25).
  24. Connect, connect, connect. Publicise your research and make connections with other researchers as much as you can. Make contact with others working in areas related to your interests even if they are in different departments or in other universities. Join relevant research networks or start your own.
  25. Strengthen your online presence. Think about using social and other digital media to promote your research, engage with the community and make academic connections. Set up a profile on Academia.edu at the barest minimum. Make sure your university webpage is kept up-to-date with your latest publications and research projects. Write blog posts (if you don’t want to commit to your own blog, do guest posts for others’ blogs or for online discussion forums), sign up to Twitter and relevant Facebook pages, put your PowerPoints on SlideShare, make Pinterest boards (see here for my introduction to social media for academics).
  26. Use digital bookmarking sites such as Scoop.it, Pinterest, Delicious or Bundlr to save interesting material you have found on the web (see here for a discussion of using tools like these for academic work).
  27. Use a computerised online reference manager such as Endnote, Zotero or Mendeley. Get in the habit of loading citations straight into this each time as soon as you come across them.
  28. Think carefully about who you collaborate with on research before agreeing to do so. Good collaborators will add immensely to your own work: bad ones will make your life difficult and you won’t be happy with the outputs you produce.
  29. Seek out the advice or mentorship of more experienced academics whose research you respect.
  30. Take regular walks/runs/bike rides. This will not only keep you physically fit but will also provide a mental space to think through an argument or come up with new ideas. Some of my best ideas have come when I have been in motion and my thoughts are unencumbered.

Further Resources

PhD2Published: http://www.phd2published.com

Writing an article in 12 weeks: http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/tomprof/posting.php?ID=1107

Getting published: what academics need to know (advice about books only): http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/apr/27/getting-published-academics

How to publish your journal paper: http://www.apa.org/monitor/sep02/publish.aspx