Why researchers should blog

As a forum for sharing research ideas among fellow researchers, blogging is not that popular among college and university professors. On the campus where I work, only a handful of faculty blog about their scholarly pursuits. I suspect that’s probably the case on your campus, too.

But maybe more faculty should take to the blogosphere. Especially research faculty who want to get their ideas out and aren’t having much success with the traditional route of publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Being a PR guy who loves to blog, I know you probably expect me to support the idea of researchers blogging. So let’s hear from a researcher instead.

In Why all scientists should blog: a case study, Peter Janiszewski, a health sciences researcher at Queen’s University, makes a good case for blogging as a vehicle for getting research ideas out to the online world and beyond. (Hat tip to @josh_greenberg for tweeting the link to this post.)

Janszewski began blogging a couple of years ago. A young Ph.D. candidate at the time, he had “a respectable number” of papers published in peer-reviewed journals. But that traditional means of getting knowledge out of the academy just wasn’t working for him. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “despite the publications, I longed to feel that any of my work was making an impact beyond the traditional boundaries of academia: peer-review publications and scientific conferences.”

When his study on the effects of weight loss among metabolically healthy men and women was published last June in the journal Diabetes Care, Janszewski expected his research to finally gain a bit of traction. After all, the study was in a prestigious journal, and it contained a “message that I thought was rather important to the field”: that some overweight people don’t experience the same health problems as others, but, contradicting previous research, it also doesn’t hurt the healthy obese if they drop a few pounds.

But the study was largely ignored.

To the blogosphere

So Janszewski took to the blogosphere, posting a five-part series about his research on the PLoS Blogs Network. The series drew more interest from readers of that network, which addresses an array of science and medical topics. The series also caught the attention of BoingBoing, which led to even more attention for Janszewski and his research.

As a result, “[T]he same research which I published in a prestigious medical journal and made basically no impact, was then viewed by over 12,000 sets of eyes because I decided to discuss it online.”

MSNBC also contacted him for a story. The MSNBC story does cite the journal article, but it was primarily through Janszewski’s own blogging efforts that his research drew the attention he did.

No doubt many faculty would frown upon this approach. Tenured professors and others might argue that sharing their research findings with the masses online amounts to little more than self-promotion, and that sort of activity is not appropriate for researchers. The traditional route — publication in peer-reviewed journals, presentations at conferences, all the avenues Janszewski also pursued — is the only appropriate way to get the research beyond the walls of the academy. Or, perhaps, if you must, allow the campus PR or media relations department to publicize your research, but heaven forbid you do your own “PR.”

To this I would counter that Janszewski’s approach was nothing outrageous. By posting his five-part series, he did not usurp the traditional approach to scholarship. He merely augmented it — providing in essence a public service by sharing the new knowledge to a broader audience.

I don’t see Janszewski’s efforts as self-serving but as a service to the public.

Ideally, university media relations offices should work together with scholar-bloggers like Janszewski to help get important research out to the public. Not as personal publicists — we all know faculty who see that as the role of a media relations office — but as partners in disseminating scholarship. We can do so not only by publicizing their research but by talking about the researchers’ own public-service blogging, and by pointing media and others to the researchers’ own efforts.

* * *

On our campus, we have one such partnership with a now-retired professor who is active on two blogs, and his visibility as a blogger has been a benefit to our university’s media relations efforts.

David A. Summers, Curators’ Professor emeritus of mining engineering, is an expert in energy and blogs extensively on his own site, Bit Tooth Energy, and on the popular energy site The Oil Drum, where he goes by the nom de blog Heading Out. Last spring, when BP was attempting its “top kill” approach to plugging the leak in the Gulf of Mexico, several news outlets contacted our office in search of Summers. Other reporters contacted Summers directly, thanks to his accessibility via both blogs. Reporters knew about Summers not only from his research in the field of high-pressure fluids, but also from his blogging. As a result, our campus and Summers both got a good deal of media coverage. It was a win-win.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

18 thoughts on “Why researchers should blog”

  1. Good topic. As a non-academic inside academe, I always found the blog-based commentary by researchers and scientists to be accessible to someone with my lack of science background. One example is Caltech professor Mike “Pluto Killer” Brown’s blog on astronomy and the search for planetoids (planettes?) outside Pluto’s orbit. Mike keeps it breezy, accessible, and sometimes funny:

    http://www.mikebrownsplanets.com/

    But importantly, it’s interesting and educational. He tweets from @plutokiller btw.

    The question of publishing platforms for scholarly research brings up the Open Access movement and its potential effect on traditional journals. More higher ed administrators should be aware of that. See

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access_(publishing)

    Related, but a bit far off your track here, is the question of how researchers keep up with each others’ reading and writing, and the question of how to find out what researchers are thinking about during those long periods between their published journal articles. One answer to that comes via http://journalfire.com/ , the brainchild of Caltech PhD student John Dela Cruz.

  2. Great post Andrew – I’m still reading it, but this link came to mind: http://www.jimestill.com/2005/11/8-tricks-to-write-article-in-20.html

    Tips from a CEO blogger on how to quickly knock articles out – a big factor for our faculty is time – especially as they are used to much more lengthy & formal expectations – it can be difficult to transition decreased importance of length and formality vs the increased importance of frequent updates.

  3. Andy – Thanks for the comments. While composing this post, I almost veered into the discussion about open-access publishing, but that in itself is a topic worth its own separate entry, or several. But you’re correct: more higher ed administrators (and communicators) ought to be aware of the movement and its ramifications. Thanks, too, for sharing the link to Mike Brown’s blog. Good stuff!

    Melissa – You touch on two very important points: time and tone. The CEO Blog link you share offers great tips for anyone interested in blogging. Thanks!

  4. Two thumbs up. I am sure many more people read my blog than the articles I publish in academic journals. For one thing, my blog is available to anyone with an Internet connection while many journals have access restricted to those affiliated with a university or a member of a professional organization.

    Second, the time it takes to go through the review process, make revisions and finally get in to publication can easily be one or two years for the “good” journals. In areas such as Internet usage, the results are obsolete when they are published.

  5. i like the idea of blogging about research in language that the lay person can understand. i think all researchers should do this.

    i just want to address some of the points that are being accepted at face value in the post above and some of the comments. first, that research in scholarly journals “probably” gets less readership than this blog or that one. as a professor who oversees a lot of theses each year, i can assure you that even journals that have low readership probably get used far more than you think when libraries make them available (e.g., online databases). my students each cite 25 or more scholarly articles in their theses — often well more than 25. they are reading (let’s hope) these articles and using the peer-reviewed research to build a case for their own research. they have to synthesize research study findings and see how this study and that one build the knowledge in the field of study. much research published builds on former studies and levels of understanding in terrific ways. my point is that the research in scholarly journals serves a valuable purpose even if much of it happens without the author’s knowledge.

    i also want to note that i have blogged about some of my own research in the past and received very, very little traffic so Janszewski was lucky that BoingBoing picked up on his blog entry or his audience could have shrunk considerably. let’s face it, the typical researcher is not going to have a decent sized audience for his/her blog.

    i still believe that scholarly journals serve a value purpose to the growth of a field of research. a blind peer review process is imperative as i could not and would not provide the level of scrutiny to a person’s face (who i may meet at a conference or who may then turn around and judge me) that i can provide through the blind peer-review process. i would temper my feedback on a blog comment considerably so as not to embarrass the author, etc. — but blogging about research that is ongoing or that is being prepped for submission is something we should all do. blog away . . . just don’t expect it to replace the scholarly process any time soon. but, if you’re lucky, you may increase your audience if Digg or BoingBoing finds your research interesting.

  6. Very valid points, Sean. I did not mean to imply that blogging or self-publishing should replace the process of publication in peer-reviewed journals or other means of publicizing scholarly work. Your point about the broader readership and use of academic journals — for theses, other research, etc. — is also an important one. The secondary and tertiary readership of journals may be much higher than the subscription numbers indicate. And regarding the popularity of research blogs, I should have pointed out that Peter’s example is not typical but illustrative of what could happen if a post or series of posts does catch the attention of one of the major blogs like BoingBoing.

  7. Good topic, Andrew. I see a common theme in much of my reading lately: Don’t hesitate or wait – publish (or launch)!

    An idea can benefit and gain power from being shared sooner than later, and blogging is a perfect example of that. This can be seen in writings by Seth Godin, Scott Belsky (http://the99percent.com/) and others.

    Additionally, having the ability to write in a lucid and accessible manner – while not necessarily the goal of a published academic paper – may bring all manner of forces to bear in advancing an idea or a research project. Writing regularly with the mindset of a blogger should pay dividends in both clarity and potential collaborations.

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