This is a modified version of the contribution I’ve made to `Social media in social research: Blogs on blurring the boundaries.
I reckon it’s a good idea to blog your research. It’s a way to tell people what you’re doing and how things are going. You can drum up a bit of interest in your project. Maybe you’ll get some useful feedback, get pointers to literature and arguments you’re not yet onto. Perhaps you’ll find some new networks and potential new research and writing partners. You and your blog might even be found by some of the people who are likely to use your results. That’s sounds great, right?
Yes, it’s all good in theory, but I’ve found it doesn’t always work out quite like that in practice. No, I’m not a blogging sceptic. This is my primary blog but it’s not about any particular research project. In fact, it’s more about the things that interest me about supervision and teaching – so I write about academic writing, doing research and being a scholar. And I’m committed to blogging. I post twice a week without fail. I think of myself as a blogger. But I’ve tried several times to blog my research projects on specific purpose-developed sites, and I have to say that some of these efforts have been more successful than others.
The research project blog which I think was the most useful to me and to others was one developed for an AHRC funded cultural value project. It was a limited life project about a youth workshop in live art. My co-researcher Emily and I decided that we would put a range of materials online – some resources about the work we were inspired by, some details about the artists involved, the process of the two workshops and some emerging analysis. The posts on emergent ideas either grew out of conversations that we had or they were based on analytic work that one of us had been doing. We used these ‘emergent ideas’ posts as a way to play with potential theorisations. We were not committed to them, but were ‘trying things out’. This generation of possible perspectives on the research profoundly influenced the ways in which we arrived at our final ‘results’. The blog also generated a small readership interested in similar issues and it continues to attract them, even though the blog is now largely a project archive.
Another ‘good’ project blog was designed for a desk study rethinking the evaluation of community theatre. The three of us involved in the project carved the reading up between us. We developed a schedule of posts about key ideas, and these ranged across a wide range of disciplines. We duly wrote and posted 800 – 1000 words every couple of weeks. We were working with a group of local community theatre companies and our project concluded with a two-day workshop to discuss the various literatures and develop a heuristic for formative evaluation. We hoped that the blog posts would be a less time-consuming ask of the busy theatre workers – rather than read a hefty literature review they could just pick and choose the posts that were of interest to them. And indeed, most of them did read at least some of the posts before coming to the workshop. So the blog did what we hoped it would do. Like the live art blog this blog’s purpose was to generate ideas, rather than to communicate a set of settled ‘results’. We wrote with boundaried content and a core of target readers.
A more frustrating – and just completed – research blog began with a literature review. I was able to break a completed 20K (and very comprehensive if I do say so myself) literature review on alternate education into smallish self-contained chunks. However once these posts were up, I couldn’t do much more. No more blogging. I couldn’t write about any of the actual field-work or ongoing emergent ideas, even though that would have been helpful to the actual research analysis. That’s because the funders didn’t want to pre-empt the final research results. They planned a big launch – tada – of the final report. So I had to be very careful that I didn’t put anything up on the blog that could hint at what we ‘found’. It seems likely that this blog will be more useful as a static archive now the project has finished, when we’ve added the final report (it’s up) and some more of the worked data – the 17 case studies and thenacademic papers. So it’s really more of a website marking the research territory than a blog.
I’ve also tried the literature review based model with one other research project. This was a pretty disastrous effort as far as I am concerned – and I’ve not provided a link to it for that reason. You’ll just have to take my word for it. It’s not good. I posted literature work in progress. The posts were the actual workings of the content analysis we were doing. And it’s – well, quite frankly – it’s really, really boring. I can’t imagine anyone but the most dedicated researcher reading the set of analytic posts. I’m now convinced that blogging a show-and-tell data analysis is probably not the way to go. The posts are however great evidence to back up the final research report; it’s an audit trail to convince any sceptics about the rigour of the process we used to conduct a meta-analysis. But it’s a crap read. And I won’t be doing that kind of research blog again.
I have also posted on this patter blog about my ongoing ethnographic research at Tate and this seems to be tolerable to the usual patter blog readers as long as it doesn’t go on for too long. A week at a time is about enough away from the usual content. But these diary posts have proved to be a very helpful reminder to Tate participants and our research partnership, it’s a process for remembering what happened sometime ago. It also is an audit trail, but a much more readable one.
So what can I conclude from these variously successful attempts to blog research? What will I do in future and what will I abandon? Well, I still reckon that, in principle, blogging research projects is a good idea. I know that the process can be helpful in developing and testing out ideas, and can work as an aide memoire. A project blog can also be a useful way to connect with partners and to provide resources for face-to-face activities. It can, under some circumstances, be a good way to let interested people access an otherwise over-large literature review. However, there can be problems with what funders want to do and what might happen on a blog, and there are clearly issues to do with readability and the premature revelation of results which I need to not forget (that’s one big indelible ink note to self).
I will still go on blogging my research wherever possible, bearing these potential problems in mind. And I’m sure there’ll be more issues I haven’t yet come across. However, I am now wondering about project blogs when the research is finished and the blog becomes a static archive. What happens to them. Should they stay or should they go? And of course how many project archive blogs might a busy researcher end up with? These finished blogs perhaps need a big home where they can be housed and contextualised. They need an overall URL as well as their own little signatures. Solving that problem is now well and truly on my ’to do’ list.