The pros and cons of academic blogging

The other day a colleague of mine directed my attention to a series of articles from the Journal of Victorian Culture.  One rather innovative feature of the journal is a regular digital forum section which looks at how study of the nineteenth century will change as it is encountered through digital means (with both positive and negative viewpoints welcomed).   I started by downloading and reading the article by Rohan Maitzen.  The article – Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic practice – sounded like just the sort of thing to start me thinking about the subject of academic blogging more widely.

The author is a perpetual blogger having set up the Novel Readings blog in 2007 and adding posts to a variety of other blogs on or around the topic of literary criticism.  Maitzen notes that there was no original intention that the blog would have any impact on her academic practises but very soon it did just that.  Maitzen explains that “as I was blogging about my reading and because that reading began to reflect my investigation into the history and purpose of criticism, my blogging and my academic research began to converge” (Maitzen, p.349).  Furthermore “writing online had a different dynamic one that itself began to influence my thinking about the processes and aims of criticism” (also Maitzen, p.349).  For Maitzen then, the act and process of blogging – an activity originally initiated as a convenient method to deliver thoughts and ideas about her research in a faster and more open way – began to become part of the research process itself.  The act of blogging enabled Maitzen to firm up her ideas, and to converse with others in an open and immediate debate.

I doubt whether this approach would work for everyone – we each research and form our ideas differently – but the case of blogging for academic purposes is made clearly here.  A blog enables conversation and debate instantaneously (something that the traditional journal article is unable to do), it helps spread knowledge and ideas, and, through the writing and structuring of the blog post, helps to inform and develop conclusions and arguments.  In Maitzen’s own words blogs are free and accessible and “restores immediacy to scholarly discussion, removes logistical roadblocks to knowledge dissemination and up-ends the communication/validation hierarchy in favour of the open exchange of ideas” (Maitzen, p.352).

What’s not to like, right?  Well there are issues with the blogging model.  For starters, not all academics agree with Maitzen’s approach.  A well-regarded digital historian, Dan Cohan summed up one viewpoint of blogs as being viewed as “the realm of self-involved, insecure, oversexed teens and twentysomethings”.  Cohan notes here (this quote was taken from his blog – see here ‘Professors-start-your-blogs‘ that blogs are often viewed negatively in academia because they were originally used as publically viewable diaries by self-promoting teens.   The argument runs that anyone wishing to put themselves out there like this are only acting like an insecure teenager desperate to be noticed.  This is obviously not Cohan’s opinion and his response to such an accusation is:

“Blogs are just like other forms of writing, such as books, in that there’s a whole lot of trash out there—and some gems worth reading. It just depends on what you choose to read (or write). And of course many (most? all?) other genres of writing have elements of self-promotion and narcissism. After all, a basic requirement of writing is the (often mistaken) belief that you have something to say that’s important.”

Another issue seemingly expressed by academics is the fear of plagiarism and the need for official recognition.  By making research and arguments public in a traditionally non-academic forum (or at least a forum not recognised officially or one that gives much in the way of academic credit) there is the risk of someone swiping your ideas.  This is an issue that I have come across before, when investigating the pros and cons of producing podcasts from academic lectures.  A survey that the Institute of Historical Research posted online in 2010 (IHR Online Research Seminar Delivery Survey) asked two questions in this regard.  1) Would you be more likely or less likely to give a paper at the IHR if you knew that it was going to be podcasted?  2) Do you think it is a good idea for the IHR to podcast its research seminars?

In general most responses to the survey had positive replies to these questions, although there were misgivings about the effect these might have on the seminar atmosphere.  In particular some worried that postgraduates and early career academics would be highly concerned about the reception of their paper and fear potential negative effects in regard to eventual publication.  There was also a more general fear of embarrassment especially when presenting unpolished ideas in the public domain and concern that their paper and its contents would be ‘out of their control’ when placed online.  Two years on and I have seen very little evidence that either is the case (although this is based on my own experiences running the podcasting programme rather than based on any empirical evidence).

It is, I think, highly interesting how many academics feel comfortable presenting their research in a perceived ‘safe’ environment of the seminar room where the audience is limited but are more afraid of wider dissimilation.  There is a fear that the provision of the paper online will be misused and plagiarised.  At this point, at least, it would seem to be an imagined or potential threat, rather than anything based on precedence or evidence.

It is even more interesting that the exact same concerns presented against podcasting are also noted in literature against blogging.  The literature suggests that some fear writing blog posts because they might represent half-baked ideas, research in progress, or unsubstantiated research.  Blogs are seen as beneficial because they promote and increase professional visibility but are, at the same time, feared for the potential for negative exposure and embarrassment.  Amber K. Regis seems to think that over the last five or six years, academics have become more accepting of the format, citing institutional blogs as an example (see Amber K. Regis, ‘Early Career Victorianists and Social Media: Impact, Audience and Online Identities’, Journal of Victorian Culture (2012), 1-8.  Nevertheless, worries remain.  Do blogs dumb down?  Are they written in a hurry, therefore not reaching the stringent levels required by academia?

An additional factor often noted around 2005/6 (interestingly) is concerns over the amount of time blogging might take away from ‘more legitimate academic activities’.  This is a concern.  Blogging does take up a fair amount of time.  It is necessary not only to research a subject, but to then turn notes into something that not only makes sense but is interesting to read for non-specialists and acceptable to a specialist audience at the same time.  Both Maitzen and Regis argue that although blogging does take time, it is time well spent and can better enable the research process whilst also providing impact outside of academia.

I’ll end this post as I began by returning to Rohan Maitzen’s article from the Journal of Victorian Culture.  On the first page Maitzen lays bare her belief of how blogs should fit into academia.

“I do not think every academic should blog, and I certainly do not think blogging should replace all the other ways in which we carry on our work as intellectuals and educators.  Blogging will neither suit nor serve every academic nor every academic purpose.  I am convinced, though, that academic blogging can and should have an acknowledged place in the overall ecology of scholarship” (Maitzen, p. 348).

Maitzen is therefore calling for recognition of blogs as an academic output, to be included in such exercises as the REF.  Her vision (as is many other academics who blog) is that this format can slot into academic work alongside all the other forms, and that in many cases it might even improve the other research outputs.

What do you think?  Should blogs be used in this way?  Should we be looking to placing blogging into the ‘ecology of scholarship’ as Maitzen suggests?

If anyone has any further thoughts about the pros and cons of blogging I’d love to hear them.  Do you agree with my appraisal here?  Is there anything I’ve missed out or not emphasised enough?   Please do leave a comment below or feel free to email me at matt.phillpott@sas.ac.uk with your thoughts.

Reading

Rohan Maitzen, ‘Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic Practice’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 17:3 (Sept. 2012), pp. 348-354

Amber K. Regis, ‘Early Career Victorianists and Social Media: Impact, Audience and Online Identities’, Journal of Victorian Culture (2012), 1-8

Dan Cohan, ‘Professors, start your blog’, www.dancohen.org (specific blog post at  http://www.dancohen.org/2006/08/21/professors-start-your-blogs/)

Matt Phillpott, ‘IHR Online Research Seminar Delivery Survey (28 July 2010)

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