In most universities there is little incentive for academics to blog. It is therefore somewhat surprising that an increasing number of academics are taking it up. We realised that there is surprisingly little work done on academic blogging. We therefore started exploring which academics were blogging and what they are blogging about.
The sheer number of blogs made our seemingly modest ambition actually quite difficult. Eventually, we compiled a list of 100 academic blogs using a variety of search methods to get as broad a set of English speaking blogs as we could. We then used a basic content analysis technique to examine the activity on these blogs, which cover a range of academic disciplines. We reported our findings in a recent paper in a journal called Studies in Higher Education.
All our bloggers hailed from countries where English is the principle language; 5% were from Canada, 6% from Australia, 40% from the USA and 49% from the UK. It is a weakness of this study that neither of us had the skills to translate blogs in other languages. Our definition of ‘academic’ encompasses a wide range of people, ranging from doctoral scholars, to postdocs, lecturers and high-level academic managers.
Our analysis suggests the existence of nine categories of post type. These include, in descending order: academic cultural critique (41% of blogs examined), closely followed by research dissemination (40%). In descending order the rest were: academic practices (34%), information (24%), self-help advice (17%), technical advice (15%), personal (8%), teaching advice (7%) and career advice (4%). We did find far more scholarly writing than we expected, albeit in a more relaxed voice than we might find in scholarly journals. The blogs featured a range of writing styles, but the most common was what we called an ‘informal essay.’ Informal essays often contained the results of research, but leave out many of the conventions of academic writing, like referencing and a high use of technical terms.
It more difficult to identify who the bloggers thought they were writing for. Indeed, many did not explicitly state on their ‘about’ page or elsewhere, who they expected to be reading the blog. We therefore had to undertake a more imaginative exercise where we made informed guesses about the implied readership from each blog’s content and tone. We found that the most common implied audience was an academic one. Then, the second most popular audience was a professional audience. In other words, most bloggers seem to be writing for people like themselves, both inside and outside academia.
Academics are now urged to blog in order to reach a broader audience. However, we found more evidence of conversations within the blogger’s discipline than expected. Most academic blogs seemed to address themselves to an academic audience of peers, rather than interested members of the public or even students. There was slightly more talk about academia itself, as a workplace and profession, than there was about research.
We also examined the blogging format, which allows bloggers to link to each other’s posts. They can thus hold virtual conversations about topics of mutual interest. The conversations operate much like a giant virtual staff room. On one table, sits a group of people discussing workloads. On another, a group discussion is taking place on how their research is going. Near the door, a table of visitors to the university are discussing a topic of shared interest with researchers.
There is now a lively online discussion on the value of blogs as a form of research output. We have some sympathy with this argument, given the high number of disciplinary conversations we saw in our sample set. Our pilot study suggests that we should, perhaps, be more wary of the idea of counting blogs as a form of research impact outside the academy, given the relative ‘insider’ nature of the content we observed. ‘Insider’ does not always mean ‘bad.’ There is a need for academics to talk to each other to advance the state of knowledge in their respective disciplines. We would argue that blogs provide a speedy, easy format to allow this conversation in an open access format.
While we are sceptical of the public reach of blogs, we suspect that this might be something that increases as academics become more accustomed to blogs as a new form of communication. We are therefore very more concerned about the moves that have been made in some places, like in Australia for example, to restrict academic blogging or put boundaries around it. It is to this phenomenon that we would like to turn our attention to next.
Inger Mewburn is the director of Research Training at The Australian National University, Melbourne, Australia
Pat Thomson is the director of the Centre for Advanced Studies and the director of the Centre for Research in Schools and Communities, School of Education at the University of Nottingham, UK
Featured image credit: Surian Soosay via Flickr
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