blogging – don’t lose control of your content

In the last couple of weeks I’ve had cause to think about blogging – again.

The paper that Inger Mewburn and I have recently published on ‘Why academics blog’ hasn’t quite gone viral, but it has generated a lot more interest and coverage than I think either of us imagined it would. I’d say more about that, but we’re writing a post about it for someone else – and that says it all really!

I’ve also recently given two talks about using social media for research and listened to a presentation from someone else on the same topic, and each time there’s been a question by a doctoral researcher about the risks of putting your stuff out there. Those asking the questions were worried about going public with something that might get them in trouble, or that might be used wrongly, or that might be stolen.

And just this week Lucy Williams, a PhD researcher, published a post on the Guardian Higher Education blog about plagiarism. A piece that she’d written on her own blog had been stolen and republished by more than one person, under their own byline, in more than one other online publication. Shocking behaviour, entirely unprincipled and it is everyone’s worst nightmare come true. As a consequence she’d largely discontinued her blog.

These various events have made me think about the fact that you both can and can’t control what happens to the posts that you write. The bottom line is simply that your stuff can’t be ripped off, and you can’t get in trouble, if you don’t make it public. But you want to blog because you don’t want to keep all of your work all to yourself. The crucial question therefore for all bloggers to answer is what rules you set for yourself about what you make public and what you don’t. So –

What don’t you care about being stolen, and what do you?
What kind of material could get you in trouble and with whom?
What might you feel embarrassed about putting up when you look back on it later?

I have some boundaries around what I publish, some self-imposed rules that I generally use. The blogging paper with Inger is a good example of how these rules work. We both blogged about the process of writing the paper, and revealed some of our literature work and the analytic approach we took. Inger discussed the difficulties of developing a sample, and I talked a bit about how blogging appeared in my scoping of books and journals. But we didn’t post our research results. We DID present these at a conference and we DID make the conference slides available on slide share. However, the full paper wasn’t available until it was actually published in the journal.

So one principle is Don’t put anything up that you don’t want to be misused – and the other is Hold something back.

I apply these principles to all my posts about academic writing. I’m happy to put quite a lot of stuff out on the blog and make it free. I’m often asked “What’s in it for you?” in making stuff freely available, and my answer is that I’d rather the material was used by as many people as possible, than not used at all. However, I do always hold a few things close to my chest – these are things reserved for the new books. After a book is published, just as with our blogging paper, the stuff is OK to put out there in the wide world with my name on it.

I know that a lot of people use the things on this blog, and I know that a few probably end up using the ideas without attribution. I suspect that a few unprincipled people may well have claimed some bits as their own. However the books that go with this material – and they were published first – are fairly well known, and there are lots of people besides me who will see plagiarism and know where the stuff actually comes from. These people may well tell me if there’s outrageous abuse going on. But I’m not in the same situation as a PhD researcher whose work isn’t already out there. I’ve got the books and papers.

A lot of PhD researchers who blog do think hard about these things. I’m sure this is why there are a lot of individual blogs about the PhD as journey and about the literature and the methods. These are safer topics than the substantive content of the PhD research, the actual contribution to knowledge. But there are PhD researchers who write regular posts on work in progress on newspaper style blogs – and perhaps this is a more sensible option than a lone blog , as newspaper style publications may well carry more institutional and/or editorial clout, and be more prepared to ensure comeback on wrong doers.

My advice to PhD researchers who want to blog about their research is to think really long and hard about what you want to put out there before you have a chance to publish it in a journal or a book… think hard about what it’s less risky to write about… think hard about what you are happy to lose control of. Learn from Lucy’s unhappy experience, and perhaps also from my precautionary decisions too.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic blogging, academic book and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to blogging – don’t lose control of your content

  1. Some interesting issues here, Pat (writing as another keen blogger). I’m wondering what the difference is between blog posts and other forms of academic writing? Do you think that blog posts are more readily or more often plagiarised than material that is made open access online (eg. preprints, postprints or working papers) or than material that is behind paywalls? If so, I wonder why this is the case? Blog posts have our names on them, as well as the date of publication, so they are citable and identifiable as ‘ours’ just as other academic writing is. There’s nothing to stop others drawing on blog posts and citing them properly, just as they would do with other forms of academic writing.


    • cpezaro says:

      I also wonder about this. Certainly, the most recent APA Styleguides have given advice on how to cite blog material. There’s no reason why someone would choose not to appropriately cite a blog when they would appropriately cite a paper or a news article, is there? What makes blogging different?
      Thanks for sharing, Pat – your blog has certainly helped me with my PhD.


  2. Thanks Pat – you post raises questions about the wisdom of the “using my blog as thinking aloud space”. At the same time we all know (certainly *I* know) people who have given talks at other institutions/conferences and have seen their work stolen by an audience member. Tales of rejection at peer review, only for someone you suspect was a review to publish the same work a few months later, are also common.


  3. Robin says:

    I think part of the problem here is the academic system where the pressures to teach, supervise, do admin and publish are just becoming untenable. Had an interesting situation recently when I reviewed a conference paper and thought ‘hmm, the English expression changes throughout this paper'”. Dropped a few key sentences into google and an author came up with a very close match. Followed up by using Safe Assign/Turnitin for evidence of sources. Now this could be someone recycling their own work, or someone ripping off another persons. Anonymous reviews are just that, anonymous. Reported this to the conference organisers and have no idea what the result was because they did not let me know.
    In another instance, a colleague had large chunks of her PhD published word-for-word in a journal with another person attributed as author. She contacted the journal, provided her PhD to demonstrate prior scholarship and asked for a retraction/acknowledgement. She also contacted the university where the purported author worked ( an RHD student) and requested action against the student. No satisfactory response. Have not heard the latest update.
    We work in an environment where individual students are able to purchase assignments/ even PhDs, at a relatively reasonable cost per page from companies that sell work that purports to be ‘original’. People will always cheat, for a whole range of reasons. You cannot prevent others taking your work and presenting it as their own. It’s impossible. So, do as Pat suggests and save your best work and ideas for publications in academic journals, don’t blog them.


  4. This was a highly timely posting. I have been thinking for a while of using a blog space to share a piece of writing in progress with the hope of inviting interested readers to comment. I was also hoping to use it as a platform for a piece of research once the paper was published (he says confidently). But now I wonder. I am wondering if I should risk it still in light of Deborah Lupton’s comments above. Not sure what to do.


  5. I have just come across this really interesting post from Mark Carrigan on ‘continuous publishing:


  6. Pingback: More Good Advice about Academic Blogging from Pat Thomson

  7. Thanks Pat – a very useful reminder. I’ve been blogging since 2006 but treat each post as a first. I have a mix of original content mixed with journal, conference and global health matters.
    I’m working toward – I think!! – post grad studies so also keeping my powder dry. A key thing that if the studies follow then the blogging will diminish….


  8. Rebecca says:

    I’m strongly considering using my blog for the first level of dissemination for part of my research. The problem I have, is that my research is interdisciplinary and technology focused. Because I’m working in medical education, and I’m not an MD, it is exceedingly difficulty for me to publish as a first author in a medical education journal. Adding to the complexity, the slow journal timelines may make the research less relevant by the time it shows up in print. If I want my research to have meaningful impact, it needs to get published in a timely fashion. Ed Tech is better at publishing faster, but then the people who I need to read it won’t see it. So, my blog coupled with my research website, will serve as a way to get the knowledge out there, in an open forum.

    In the world of educational research, I’m also not finding the peer review process to be particularly insightful. Again, this is an area where my blog can actually do a better job. Occasionally, I get some really useful comments on my blog. These comments are often more thoughtful and thought provoking than feedback I’ve seen from the journal peer review process. At least the comments on the blog engage the ideas being presented rather than overly focusing on criticizing my stylistics writing choices.


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  10. Pat, great post, and I’m definitely going to read your article about why academics blog. It seems that although someone might steal a bit here and there from another person’s blog, they wouldn’t steal the entire blog. A blog is more than a single post, it’s a body of building ideas. Anyone who is truly interested in your ideas will likely find your blog, even if an article here or there is plagiarized.

    Still, in academia, I think you’re right to withhold all of the data and results, at least until we can figure out a better system for citing blogs and ensuring author status. I wouldn’t be surprised if Google has something up its sleeve.

    Also, in my experience, when I email the person who copies my content, they generally take it down, even if they never acknowledge their wrongdoing. Never hurts to ask.

    All-in-all, though, I agree with your point that if you want your research to influence the world, a blog is a pretty good way to get the word out.


  11. David Nelson says:

    “However, I do always hold a few things close to my chest – these are things reserved for the new books”

    I agree with you overall, but as an aside I do think this illustrates why the incentives for academics are completely skewed at present. The purpose of research, after all, is for it to reach a wide audience and inform practitioners/future research. There’s no other point to it.

    Yet at present we have a system in which there is an incentive *not* to make something public. Instead we hold it back until a book (a far more expensive, time consuming and less convenient way of learning than a blog) has been published, simply because if we don’t then there’s no benefit to be accrued from it on a personal level.

    That’s not the fault of academics – it makes perfect sense given the way research careers are structured – but if we consider the overall purpose of research, it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense for society. It’s time universities and funding authorities stopped propping up dead mediums (academic journals), invested a relatively paltry sum in academic blogging, and started hiring people on the basis of the actual impact of their research, not how many journals their name appears in. I think we’re already seeing the start of this – the London School of Economics, for one, is at least part of the way down this road – but there’s still a long way to go.


    • pat thomson says:

      I hold back things that are lengthy and complex that aren’t suitable for posts. However, I am trying to deal with a spectacular case of ripping off my work at present. It’s when the gift economy of blogging falls apart that it really hurts.


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