Some people still tell their doctoral researchers that they can’t cite blogs. Really? Yes really.
Just to start with … of course you CAN cite blogs. The fact that all of the big citation styles – APA for instance – now have citation formats which not only cover newspapers and reports and webpages but also blogs clearly suggests that you CAN. And that people are.
But why would you? The most helpful analogy for referring to blogs is to think about what are called grey literatures, those documents that are public and important and sometimes highly influential – but have not been through a scholarly process of peer review. The Grey Literature Report offers this definition:
The Fourth International Conference on Grey Literature (GL ’99) in Washington, DC, in October 1999 defined grey literature as follows: “That which is produced on all levels of government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats, but which is not controlled by commercial publishers.”
In general, grey literature publications are non-conventional, fugitive, and sometimes ephemeral publications. They may include, but are not limited to the following types of materials: reports (pre-prints, preliminary progress and advanced reports, technical reports, statistical reports, memoranda, state-of-the art reports, market research reports, etc.), theses, conference proceedings, technical specifications and standards, non-commercial translations, bibliographies, technical and commercial documentation, and official documents not published commercially (primarily government reports and documents)
The New York Academy of Medicine ( proper researchers eh, they can’t be wrong, she says wryly) keeps a data base of grey literature, explaining that
Grey literature offers a unique perspective to the research community because government agencies and think tanks produce these reports on topics that effect policy and the people who implement that policy. Grey literature is also timely because it is not subject to a long or peer-reviewed publishing process. For instance, the morning the U.S. Supreme Court made the deciding vote on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) their report was available online at 10:15 am. This report lays out the reasons for the decision as well as the options states have for implementing the changes.
Grey literatures are useful to researchers and are cited in the knowledge of what they are. A policy text is cited but also critically interrogated. A government statistical report is cited but may also be critiqued. A memoranda from a CEO might be cited for what it reveals about corporate practice. A state of the art report is cited and its discourses analysed. A series of news media reports are cited to indicate key aspects of context and debate.
We scholars know how to work with grey literatures.
So do blogs count as grey literature? You bet they do. And they need to be treated in much the same way.
The question is not about whether you can cite blogs, but how and why. You have to decide with any publication, blog or not, their credibility and authenticity. And you have to decide with any published source what you want to use it for.
But blogs are not peer reviewed, I hear you say. Well no, most blogs aren’t. Thats why they are grey literature. But some do have strong editorial management just like edited books. And the comments made on posts are often far more rigorous than those that might be offered by a couple of peer reviewers. But yes, the vast majority of blogs aren’t peer reviewed, but we scholars already use all kinds of literatures that aren’t peer reviewed. Why exclude blogs?
We need to draw on what we already know about how to work with non peer reviewed material. As with any grey literatures, it’s important to ask questions of a blog post that you want to cite. First of all, what is it? Not all blogs are the same. They range from being personal diaries to journalistic reports of events to research method to research results reporting. And then you need to ascertain what kind of information is offered, who it’s written by and for and how it’s positioned … So you ask – is this an opinion piece, a report of an activity, a review of literatures? And you need to ask – Who has written this post? Academic bloggers range from anon to early career researchers on top of all of the literatures and debates to star researchers with years of experience and credibility. You can usually find out who the bloggers are and decide how much you will trust what they say. You also look for the basis on which the bloggers are writing and making claims. What references do they offer in hyperlinks?
The point is that you need to apply to blogs the same kind of crap detection practices that you apply to any web material or government report or political press release so that you can ascertain where it comes from, and its status.
Asking critical questions of a text is hardly a new and innovative academic activity. Social media might be relatively new to (some of) us, but working with a range of texts isn’t.
And the ways in which we use blog posts in our academic work aren’t particularly new and unusual either. If we wouldn’t cite a university press release about research results but would go to the actual report and read it for ourselves, then we do the same with a blog post, we go to the source. If we wouldn’t cite a personal anecdote without additional evidence that this was a ‘typical’ view or experience, then we do the same with a blog post – we get beyond the one-off case. If we wouldn’t cite one letter to the editor as evidence of common public opinions, then we don’t do that with a blog post either. If we wouldn’t cite a mere two or three newspaper articles as evidence of widespread debate than we don’t do that with blogs either. Etc. Etc.
But there’s plenty of ways that we can use blog posts – an essay post for example may be very well reasoned and offer particularly interesting angle; a post that responds to a corpus of scholarly literature or a particular theory might have a new perspective; a political commentary might raise critical issues, a personal story might cast doubts about a new policy or common practice … Etc. Etc.
Not so hard. When we think about citing blog posts, we simply have to be clear about what we are citing, why, the basis on which they are ‘information’ or ‘knowledge’ and the claims we make about them. Simple. Just like we do with any other publication.
And really – to those supervisors who are telling their doctoral researchers never to cite blogs – that really doesn’t help them or you. Blogs are out there, they’re not going away, and they are part of the information ecology that we study and work in. Time to get with the programme. Now.
Image credit: Kennedy Library