“Blog” is not a beautiful word. In fact, it conjures a range of negative perceptions. Aren’t blogs just online diaries — like food blogs, mommy blogs, antique-railroad blogs? Isn’t blogging what people did 15 years ago?
As a communication medium, blogging is as diverse as any other, such as books or television. You don’t go around knocking all books just because Fifty Shades of Grey is a book, right? Of course, there are bad blogs and pointless blogs, just like there are bad books and pointless books. Media observers have pronounced the death of blogs consistently for the past decade, yet over that time, we’ve seen blogs settle into the media landscape.
In higher education, blogs are a regular part of the reading diet for a substantial number of academics, particularly junior scientists.
It’s hard to understand how faculty blogs fit into the academic scene, because they are so different from one another. Academic blogs aren’t classified into the Library of Congress system. Some blog authors will write about anything, defying characterization. They might include posts on topics as varied as research findings, sexism in academia, career advice, academic politics, and dinner recipes. Typically that kind of blog will have a limited reach, because its idiosyncratic nature relies on the scholar’s personality and ability to write in an engaging manner on popular topics.
In contrast, many academic fields have an active “blogosphere” with professionalized blogs that are written in a casual style but have a clear focus on academic work. For example, the field of economics is recognized for having a particularly active blogging environment.
Regardless, in every field, scholars run academic blogs that reflect the professional discourse, and sometimes those blogs will drive the broader conversation. Even if you don’t read academic blogs, they may be driving the conversation in your discipline. It typically takes several months for traditional peer-reviewed journals to publish research and then publish rebuttals and responses. In blogs, the same kind of academic conversation can take place over the course of days, or even hours.
While some academic blogs have a robust readership, gauging their actual impact is a murky task, at best. Undaunted, a set of academic blog authors (that includes me) have published a new paper to assess the reach and impact of academic blogs in our shared field, ecology. We assessed the readership of our sites, the types of topics that tend to be circulated most widely, and the qualitative impact of our sites on colleagues within our discipline. Among our findings:
- Blog posts in our field were more widely viewed and circulated than peer-reviewed academic papers.
- Before a blog is well established, having a high frequency of posts builds an audience more rapidly.
- Blogs with single authors who post periodically steadily expand their audience over the course of years.
- By contrast, multi-author blogs with multiple posts a week may have a more rapid growth, reaching a large audience in a relatively short time.
- Some of the most positive outcomes from blogging are the ones that are the most nebulous to quantify, such as the formation of new collaborations, the positive influence on readers’ career decisions, and the scholar’s increased visibility in the academic community.
The popular conception of academic blogs — particularly in the sciences — is that they are a mechanism for outreach. Blogs are seen as a way for scientists and science writers to share research results directly with the general public, and reach a broader audience, without the rigmarole of publishing in a magazine or a newspaper. There still are science blogs aimed at the public (such as the Scientific American blog network), though much of the science communication in the media happens through more formalized articles.
But science blogs serve a far more important function within the profession itself: Many blogging scientists are writing mainly to communicate with other scientists. These “science community blogs,” are designed to reach STEM students and professionals. The blogs may discuss science from a more technical standpoint, though the most popular topics are discussions about academic life and culture, much as in these pages of The Chronicle, though designed explicitly for scientists.
Blogs are not a substitute for the peer-reviewed literature, but they do provide a way for scholars to communicate about their discipline without the barriers associated with academic journals. The amount of time and work it takes to publish and comment on blog posts is minimal. This often brings in a diverse set of perspectives and allows scholars the freedom to delve into topics that they otherwise might not discuss in more formal venues. Sure, that lack of a barrier might result in a loss in the quality of discourse, but ultimately, research results and theories are evaluated in the larger marketplace of ideas, regardless of their origin. If you haven’t looked for some of the top blogs in your own field, it might be worth a search. You may be surprised by what you find.
If you’re thinking about doing some academic blogging of your own, here are some observations and suggestions.
- Most blogs only have an impact with consistent and long-term effort. So if you run your own blog, and you’re not ready to commit for the long haul, it might not be worth your effort. Alternatively, you could join up with others in your field to create a multi-author blog. Or, if you just want to write a single post about a topic that matters to you, many blogs will accept guest submissions.
- Some blog posts will spread quickly over social media, and others just kind of sit there and gather little attention. It’s very hard to predict in advance.
- Keep in mind that, because blog posts can be more visible than your professional writing, they do need to represent you among your peers (and anybody who might be interviewing you for a job).
- While some folks have said that blogging might seem unprofessional to search committees and other people with authority, experienced bloggers have found the opposite. Blogging can bring you into more conversations in your academic community, and as long as you write professionally, it will enhance your professional profile.
Terry McGlynn is a professor of biology at California State University at Dominguez Hills and a research associate at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. His forthcoming book, The Field Guide to College Science Teaching, will be published by the University of Chicago Press. His website is Leaflitter.org, his blog is Smallpondscience.com, and his Twitter feed is @hormiga. Browse his previous columns here.[“Source-chronicle”]