I often get asked about the pros and cons of doctoral researchers blogging, and I know other colleagues do too. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to the question of course, it’s always an “It depends”. But here’s a few beginning thoughts.
For a start, whether to blog or not depends what you are hoping to achieve. Maybe you are thinking about an individual blog, something you create yourself on one of the standard platforms like blogger, wordpress or medium… and if you are, here’s some possible reasons and some things to consider….
(1) Your personal blog is a place to reflect and record what is happening in your research.
A blog can do this. It can be like a journal. You might blog about the things you are reading and thinking about. Formulating ideas into a thousand words or so and linking to relevant texts and other online resources can be helpful to your writing and thinking. It can be an archive and an aide-memoire (see Heather Davis post).
However, there are some potential pitfalls in using a blog as a journal. Take writing about field work for example – you do need to be careful about what you say… “I’ve just seen the most disgraceful behaviour imaginable… “ is not going to endear you to your research participants. You have to anticipate that they might go searching for you and what you do. And why are you journalling in public? What do you want everyone to know, and not know? How will you feel about your first doctoral year reflections some years later – will you want your early researcher self obliterated from public view?
But maybe there is another reason for blogging:
(2) Your personal blog is a way to develop your writing.
Blogging is a great way to develop academic writing. All of the writing advice out there, whether it’s for academic or creative writing, suggests that it’s good to develop a writing habit. Write regularly, everyday. It’s good if writing is as routine as cleaning your teeth. Blogging can be a useful part of a regular writing routine. As well, writing texts that are going to be public can help you develop a ‘voice’, help you to write with some authority, and allow you to practice writing in an accessible style. Writing in public and for a public is also, as Thesis Whisperer says, a key part of developing your academic identity.
But who are you writing for and why would/should they read what you’ve written? How will anyone know how to find what you’ve produced? Maybe you also need to consider:
(3) Your personal blog is a way to create a network.
Well no, it won’t do that. A blog doesn’t create a network, not by itself. Having a network means that you’ve found people who have the same interests as you. This is unlikely to happen just because you have created a blog. It’s not as simple as making a page, writing a few posts and hoping people will find it. Some might, but many more won’t. People have to know your blog exists. So you need to communicate it and yourself in some way – through face-to-face conversations, linked in, twitter, facebook … It’s the totality of your social media activity that creates the network, not just a blog (see Deborah Lupton’s research on this for example).
But as all the social media advice says, you need to do more than just promote your blog – you need to join in conversations. There’s nothing more tiresome that someone who only tweets about their latest blog post and never engages in any other way. You have to be a participant not just a marketer.
Maybe networking isn’t your prime purpose. Maybe you want to:
(4) Use your personal blog to communicate your research.
Communicating means that you have to find readers – see all of the above on networking. You need to get out there and join in conversations in order to get people to become interested in your work.
Many people suggest that the blog is a very helpful place to try out ideas that can be developed into full research publications later. You can use your blog to test run and experiment. You can build your agenda and your profile. But it’s the goal of communication where doctoral researchers have lots of worries. The two things I get asked most are:
• Does a blog count as a publication? The answer is yes, it does. A blog is published – on the web – and it can be cited. And if you simply cut and paste your posts into your thesis or a paper then you are technically self-plagiarizing if you don’t note the original.
Now, because publications are high stakes in the academic game, you do need to consider what you need/want to do in relation to publishing. How does it connect to getting a job? Some people think that publishing your research on a blog is wasteful and the ‘good stuff’ should be saved for the publications that matter more – books and refereed journal articles. But it’s worth remembering that a blog post is generally short, it’s not the same as a journal article or a chapter, and you are likely to always do more in a paper or chapter than a post. And some people swear that their blogging was more than a bit useful in the process of getting a job, as it demonstrated to selection committees that they were keen, and able, to communicate with wider publics.
• Another common worry is that someone will steal your ideas. The truth is that this may happen, but it can happen anyway, not simply from blogging. Someone can be in your conference presentation, read an online conference paper, take away your slides handout, read your digital thesis – and they can just as easily plagiarise them too as a blog post. Plagiarism is a hazard of contemporary academic life and each one of us makes our own actuarial calculations about what is too risky.
But I’d also note that the reverse works too – blogging can be a hedge against accusations of plagiarism. I often use my blog to put down markers in the field – so if I’m thinking about something and I blog about it in a dated post, then I can demonstrate that I didn’t steal the idea from someone else who writes about it later!
And of course, stealing ideas is harder if your blog is not anonymous.
But is an individual blog what you want and/or need? The reality is that many doctoral researcher blogs do have quite limited readerships. Those that don’t, those that are well read and known, tend to have focused missions and a clear readership in mind. And even then, only some garner masses of readers. So, before you spend a few hours setting up your blog, it’d be good to spend time getting clear about exactly what you want to do, and why.
It’s worth considering options other than starting off your own individual blog and committing yourself to regular dollops of time writing posts. You could for example write guest posts for established blogs. You could suss out how to become a regular or semi-regular blogger for an online publication. You could form a collective with other doctoral researchers, or with others in your field, and start a newspaper-style blog. Write for Research has a helpful explanation of three different types of blogs. All or any of these blogging options could achieve what you want. It is really, really worth thinking about which type of blog suits you best.
A bit of a summary
So some key questions for aspiring doctoral bloggers are:
• Why blog? What do you hope your blog will do?
• Who is it for? What are they interested in? What else is out there and how is your blog different?
• How will you engage with your ideal readers?
The usual advice is, once you know the answer to these questions, you should try to write your blog’s mission statement and use it to generate the title, and the short description of the blog that appears on its front page. But don’t forget the other question:
• Should you start your own blog, blog with others or blog around?