Why the academic world needs blogs

I’ve been blogging for years. I do it because I think blogging is a necessary vehicle for academic writing and because I’m senior enough to get away with it. My Stat Counter tells me I’m getting a sizeable, serious and steady readership, including both academics and a broad cross-section of the wider community – but I get little or no professional credit for the work.

“A necessary vehicle for academic writing?” I hear you ask incredulously. I’d like to make a case that we academics need to make better use of the internet to disseminate our findings and the thinking that grows out of them. That is only likely to happen if dissemination of academic work through such media as blogs gets academic credit. Credit, however, only comes with credibility.

So, aside from the inertia and mindless conservatism that often afflicts many institutions, including academia, why do academic blogs lack the credibility to gain academic credit? I don’t need to explain what’s wrong with blogs in general. We all know that they tend to be wordy, subjective, and filled with often ill-founded opinions – everything that academic writing isn’t supposed to be.

I’ve browsed around academic blogs and found that there are in fact quite a few of them, including some very good ones. But a lot of academic blogs, too, are carelessly crafted – not greatly different from typical blogs. Very few of them contain material I’d assign my students to read, and I certainly wouldn’t encourage them to write their essays in a style that imitates even many academic blogs, let alone blogs in general.

That does appear to be happening. I haven’t studied this question systematically, but, as a teacher and marker of papers, I’m getting the impression that there’s a growing number of students who think conversational opinion pieces are what’s expected in a research essay. This is a danger we have to take seriously, and it’s very important to teach our students the difference between a written opinion and a research-based conclusion.

So if I’m having all those problems with the blogosphere, why have I become part of it? My reasons relate, not to the strengths of blogs, but to the weaknesses of academic articles.

What’s wrong with academic articles?

I was a journalist for more than three years in my early and mid-twenties, and, although I enjoyed journalism and learned a great deal from my practice of it, I felt finally that the tyranny of the midnight deadline was getting in the way of doing thorough research. I was eager to penetrate the appearances, get beyond conventional wisdom, and didn’t feel that journalism offered me a sufficient opportunity to do that. So I got myself into graduate school.

But, as I started to understand better how the academic world worked, it dawned on me that the penetration of appearances comes at a cost. As a journalist I had been used to writing articles and getting reactions. If I covered a hot story, I knew from the brickbats I got the next day that my pieces were being read. I watched as the course of events was influenced by my newspaper reports.

For me, therefore, it was really conspicuous how small a readership my meticulous research efforts were getting. When you do careful research, you learn interesting things – things that I felt, and still feel, are likely to interest a significant number of non-academics. For example:

In the academic world, you can’t just publish such findings in refereed journals. First you have to decide on a journal that’s likely to be interested in a particular set of research findings. Next you have to re-write the article in such a way as to place your findings in a theoretical context appropriate to your chosen journal’s editorial direction. An article in a refereed journal is expected to be 15-30 pages long, and you have to get it approved by an editor and a majority of three reviewers in a process that can last a year or two – and sometimes a lot more than that.

Once your gem is published, it’s only accessible to people or institutions that can afford expensive subscriptions to journals or databases. And only very few readers are going to be willing to wade through the theory to learn the interesting facts you’ve uncovered.

In short, if we were to design an academic publication system specifically for the purpose of making it as inaccessible as possible, we could hardly improve on the existing system. As a result, our assiduously researched findings rarely get to a general readership. Even university students are hard to motivate to read such materials. The reality of academic life is that we spend much of our lives asking interesting questions, and finding interesting answers to them, but too often they remain our secrets, buried out of sight in long articles almost no one reads.

I am not advocating a reform of the system of refereed publication. With all its shortcomings, it sets standards for quality research and provides a system of scrutiny that does a pretty good job of ensuring that some reasonable quality standards are met. But the internet presents us with an opportunity to do a much better job of circulating our writing much more widely, both amongst ourselves and into the wider community. These are the considerations that have governed my blog. Here’s how I proceed:

An academic blog: Content and examples

My approach to blogging involves revisiting research gems, both mine and other peoples’, lifting them out of their academic context one by one and writing a short article about each one. The articles are a bit more informal than academic articles, but they preserve an academic tone and they’re not simply opinion pieces. I make the articles as readable as I can without oversimplifying and try to write interesting headlines for them.

I refrain from using the blog to express my opinions, unless those opinions are research-based. During the fall, winter and spring — before I retired — I got thousands of page views a month, and the number of page views when I’m not teaching continues to increase. That suggests a readership far in excess of what academic writing usually gets.

More interesting to me than number of hits is return visits and the length of stays. I get return visits daily, and the percentage of visitors who stay more than five minutes has climbed steadily, during the most active months, from around 15 per cent to well over 25 per cent. The articles are written so that most of them could be read in five minutes or so. That suggests that my research is getting something that far too much academic research doesn’t get, a readership.

What I use the blogs for

• Disseminating research findings relevant to current issues

Example: Peak oil, suburbia and political tipping points

A critical examination of the thesis, in a recent book by James Howard Kunstler, that the rising price of oil will force rapid and thoroughgoing social change, as well as changes in the way we build our cities.

• Communicating research ideas and getting feedback

Example: How is global political action organized? A list for your consideration

An explanation of a new research project I’m working on which looks at globally networked organizations with political and social objectives as an emerging political arena that is a product of globalization. My article contained a preliminary list of such organizations. I got some interesting feedback, including comments on my list and suggestions for additions to it. It was a way of tapping into a network of colleagues who had similar interests and sharing ideas for a new research project.

• Addressing research technique issues

Example: Do ethics boards and committees pose a threat to critical research?

This article communicated my concern that the medical model on which research ethics rules are primarily based is unsuitable to critical research on politics, in two ways. It raises ethics concerns that are not real, and ignores other ethical concerns that are.

• Dissemination to the wider community

Example: Kissing frogs: Building coalitions for change in Canadian cities

This entry is addressed to my friends in Winnipeg and elsewhere who are frustrated with the way our city and others are run, but don’t know how go about trying to change it. The “kissing frogs” metaphor refers to the fact that we have to find common ground with people we disagree with if we want to build the necessary support for political change.

• Student assignments

Anyone who has taught university for any length of time knows that, if we assign a journal article to our students, a lot of them will not read it, especially if they are in first or second year. A good teaching tool at that level is an article a few pages long that raises an interesting question, shows the students how academic research can be used to answer it, and gets straight to the point doing that. Once students see the value of this kind of writing, they’ll be ready to tackle the more tedious challenge of a conventional academic article, but first we have to show them. The kinds of articles I write for my blog try to fill that bill.

In short, blogs offer both a format, and the low-cost technical means, to allow us to circulate our best research findings much more widely. Potentially this can maximize the value of the work we do, provide an opportunity to serve the wider community, and help to legitimate university research in the eyes of an often skeptical community and political leadership.

Universities should encourage their research faculty to put their findings on the internet. Ideally, this would be accomplished by crediting blogs and similar vehicles as legitimate academic publications, not on a par with refereed articles or peer-reviewed books, but roughly equivalent to think-tank articles or consulting work. This is likely to happen only if we import academic standards of quality into the blog format. Academic blogs that are rambling, conversational and poorly crafted are not a credit to the university, and are unlikely ever to capture career credits.

Originally posted 18 June 1908 on an earlier version of my blog, accessible at: http://blog.uwinnipeg.ca/ChristopherLeo/

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