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

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.

Social media for academia: some things I have learnt

2012 was the year of my big experiment: trying out various forms of social media for academic purposes. I was in many ways a social media novice when I began, as I had only really dabbled in Facebook, Academia.edu and LinkedIn before my period of experimentation began. But around the middle of last year I made the decision to jump in with both feet and try as many social media platforms as I could, all in the name of sociological experimentation as well as personal interest in what I could achieve using these tools.

Here are some of the things I have learnt thus far:

  • Twitter is an invaluable tool for academics. Through using Twitter I have made wonderful connections with a range of people I never would have encountered otherwise across a diversity of countries. I have had fascinating conversations in real time not only with other sociologists but also bioethicists, philosophers, nutritionists, anthropologists, fat activists, medical practitioners, graduate students, health care administrators, people working in digital technology development for medicine and  health  … the list goes on. Using Twitter I have been able to share not only links to my own research and blog posts, but also to many other news items, blog posts and academic articles and have benefited enormously from other people’s sharing of such information.
  • Starting my own blog has also been a great decision. My posts have allowed me to share some thoughts quickly and easily with anyone who cares to read them, and to engage in a conversation with those who have taken the trouble to comment. Allowing my research and ideas to reach a much wider readership has been a major benefit of blogging.
  • I discovered Pinterest, and have used it extensively to gather material for research purposes. Several of my recent publications have now included hyperlinks to one or more of my Pinterest boards to allow readers to view the materials to which I refer. I recently presented at an academic conference using two of my Pinterest boards simply by calling up the links on the laptop provided on the podium and showing relevant images as I talked.
  • I have found that uploading my PowerPoint presentations to SlideShare works well to give others ready access to them. I now try to upload the slides to SlideShare before my presentation, so that when I deliver it I can include in my final slide the links not only to my blog and Twitter account, but also to the SlideShare of the talk I had just presented. Audience members can then access the slides immediately if they so desire. I then tweet the link so anyone else who might be interested can take a look.
  • Curating tools like Delicious, Scoop.it or Bundlr are essential for collecting posts and news items from the web under topics that you have specified. Here again these collections can be used in academic publications as useful links to further information. You can also tweet the links or post them on Facebook etc. so that others know about them.
  • Specialist Facebook pages can be made to link to others working on or interested in a topic and build a community. I made three such pages last year.
  • Storify is a useful tool that you can use to quickly gather material from the web, including Twitter posts and Instagram images, and collate a ‘story’ by bringing a diverse array of such material together. I made several ‘stories’ last year using this tool, several of which I have used in the same way as I have used my Pinterest boards and Scoop.it and Delicious collections, by gathering research material and also linking to the ‘stories’ in my publications. As part of researching my new book The Social Worlds of the Unborn (due to appear later this year in the Palgrave Pivot series) for example, I made a Storify on news coverage of the announcement of Kate Middleton’s pregnancy late last year. I was able to tweet the link to the Storify the day after the announcement, then use a link to it in a blog post and have included it in my new book as well (along with links to my relevant Pinterest boards and Scoop.it collections on the unborn).
  • A curating tool that you can program to automatically bring together articles from certain websites or by topic is a boon. I use Prismatic for this.
  • I have also learnt about ‘strategic tweeting’: that is, selecting the best time of the day to tweet when people will be likely to be checking their feed, taking into account different time zones. Although I am based in Australia I have many followers in the northern hemisphere, so I have learnt to allow for this when tweeting. If there is something that you really want to catch people’s attention with, you will probably have to tweet it several times at different times of the day or on different days.
  • You can use the ‘altmetrics’ provided by social media tools (eg. number of Twitter followers, number of views of your blog) along with the more usual metrics on citations produced by Web of Science or Google Scholar to demonstrate in job or grant applications that you are participating in engagement with the public as well as making an impact on your field.

Using the tools I mention above has allowed me to keep on top of developments in my current areas of research interest, many of which are rapidly changing as new research or technologies emerge.

As a final observation: I have learnt that the immediacy and range of digital publishing is a feature that no academic should discount. If you want your research findings and ideas to stay behind paywalls, accessed largely only by the relatively small number of academics in your field, and wait for months or even years for even these readers to be able to do so while your material proceeds through the publication process, then avoid using social and other digital forms of publishing. If you would like to see your findings and ideas instantly available to a wide range of readers, then using digital media is the way to go.

See also my previous posts A sociologist’s adventures in social media land and Digital sociology part 2: professional digital practice.