Why I blog

Recently I did a short audio interview with Mark Carrigan for his digital sociologist series about my academic blogging (you can listen to my answers here). Responding to Mark’s questions have made me think some more about the reasons why I blog as part of my academic work. Here are some:

  • I enjoy it! At the risk of outing myself as a word nerd, I love writing about ideas and investigating social life, which is why I chose to become a sociologist. My blog gives me the opportunity to do this writing in a different way from the usual academic format.
  • Academic blogging is a refreshing alternative to writing long, detailed academic pieces – journal articles, book chapters and books. It takes many hours of dedicated attention and focus to produce these pieces of writing. Once written, they must go through the review and publication process, which again takes months or even years. In contrast, I can quickly write a blog post, finish it, press the ‘Publish’ button and it is immediately out in the world.
  • Related to this is the notion of control over my work. When I write a blog post and publish it, I have full control over its content and form.
  • I can use the blog to present ideas that would otherwise not have a forum. For example, I have written quite a few ‘how to’ posts in relation to using social media for academia and tips for conducting academic research. These posts are not traditional academic pieces and would not have a place for publication and sharing if it were not for the blog.
  • Blogging affords me the opportunity to comment very quickly on current social issues, a far cry from the long lead times of traditional academic publishing (see, for example, my post on Kate Middleton’s pregnancy, which I wrote and published within 24 hours of the announcement).
  • I can use the blog for research purposes in various ways. First, to present some ideas I am currently working on in their early form. Second, to outline some of the findings of an academic piece that has been completed and published. Third, to respond to or comment on other academics’ work.
  • Blogging gets my ideas out from behind paywalls and makes them accessible to everyone. It therefore allows for an exchange of ideas not just between academics but with anyone who cares to engage. Sociologists write about ‘society’. What we research is about people, and with blogging, it can for and with people too. As academics we should be sharing our ideas and research with everyone, not just those who can access our work in university libraries or can pay for it.
  • While blog posts do not go through the standard processes of academic review and quality control, blogging provides a form of ‘post-publication’ review. People can read, comment on, share, tweet or blog about, reblog or cite the material, all of which are forms of engagement and commentary on the work.

The negative aspects of blogging? The only one I have yet identified is the additional time commitment required. For the reasons outlined above, I believe this is a small price to pay.

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