Blogging for Historians Survey Results

(Wikipedia)
(Wikipedia)

Between November 2012 and February 2013 the Blogging for Historians project asked for your views about blogging practises in the humanities.  The results of this survey will form part of the eventual tool kit and it is hoped that it, too, can provide some useful data for future research into blogs and social media.

The survey was advertised on the Blogging for Historians blog, SMKE website and several other blogs.  It was also delivered via Twitter and Facebook and on several mailing lists.  The survey recruited 121 participants most of whom owned a blog of their own (84%), suggesting that the survey failed to reach or interest people who only visit blogs, or perhaps, highlighting that an increasing number both write and consume blog posts meaning that they are active on both ends of the scale.  When asked for occupation 34.6% of participants said that they were academics and 23.1% postgraduate.  A further 15.4% described themselves as early career researchers.  Only 2 participants came from the archives and library sector, and a further 24% said that they didn’t fit into any of these categories.  The survey results therefore represent academic historians and humanities scholars rather than archives and libraries, which unfortunately limits the scope of the results.

Several questions related to the potential ownership of blogs allowing us to gain a more in-depth understanding of the participant’s interests and activities.  As the table below shows most participants own or participate in one blog only, although it is far from uncommon for two blogs to be owned.  Only one person had more than four blogs (eight to be precise).

Blogs owned

Blogs     Participants        Personal              Institutional        Mixed

1                     43                                   39                           4                              4

2                     14                                   11                           0                              3

3                     4                                      3                              0                              1

4                     5                                      3                              0                              2

More             1                                      0                              0                              1

A question was also asked seeking to find out how many of the participants blogged personally, on behalf of their institution, or as a mix of the two.  Perhaps unsurprisingly most participant’s blogged as individuals.  However, only four claimed to only blog as part of their institution, which either suggests that the keenest bloggers (and thus the one’s more likely to answer the survey) are those doing it for their own purposes.  That said, a relatively small number claimed to blog both personally and as part of an institution which may suggest that a number of those asked to contribute to institutional blogs are also doing it themselves as well.  The fact that four participants stated that they only own one blog but post a mix of posts for an institution and personally, perhaps suggests something about the perceived nature of blog posts; that both personal posts can lay next to one’s that reflect a professional nature.

An overwhelming 92.2% said that they write blog posts as an individual, rather than in collaboration with colleagues, probably representing the solo nature of research in the humanities more than anything else.  What was more interesting from these results was the fact that participants who worked collaboratively on posts almost equally divided between those working within their own institution (6.3%) and those working across institutions (7.8%).  Seven participants added comments which generally noted the context for blogging as a mixture of solo and collaborative activity, but highlighting the interconnectivity of the two forms.  It would seem (admittedly from only a small number of responses) that it is not always easy to distinguish a collaborative enterprise, from personal research, suggesting the interconnection of research as personal and in relation to others.  Much of this seemed to stem from blogs that are personal but written within a professional capacity that represents the department, institution, or collaborative project.  It would, perhaps, be interesting to follow up this question with more about the relationship of the personal and the collaborative in academia, and the role that blogs might play in this interconnection.

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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)