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More than a storm in a teacup: The debate on academic blogging

By MELONIE FULLICK | October 21, 2011

Last week an article I wrote about academic blogging was published in the print and online editions of University Affairs. I decided to provide a follow-up to the article, because there were so many interesting comments from bloggers that couldn’t be included in the scope of the original post.

I also want to take time to link their points to those from another discussion over at The Guardian, involving the critique of academic publishing and the call for its reform. Many of the issues mentioned by bloggers were clearly entwined with this recent thread of criticism that targets academic journals and their business model, one that is described by its current critics as restrictive, exploitative and out-dated.

A benefit of blogging cited by most of those who commented was the development of a public profile independent of the regular channels of academic validation. This visibility tended to lead to more (and diverse) opportunities because of exposure to different audiences. Having a public “face” meant being recognizable as an expert on a particular topic, and PhD student Chris Parsons (UVic) explained that “this is important for graduate students, in particular, given that most of us lack established publishing records.” Because of his active construction of a body of “alternative” online work, Parsons has been invited to contribute to more traditional peer-reviewed publications, the accepted signifiers of academic success.

The bloggers also described using social media for professional networking and collaboration. Blogging sparked dialogues and exchanges across disciplines, facilitated by what David Phipps (of York University) describes as “enhanced reach and two-way communication,” enabling new connections that were unexpected, serendipitous, and productive. Blogs were also viewed by students as more inviting and accessible than traditional publications; UVic professor Janni Aragon discussed how students have become engaged with her online work, many of them reading and responding to her posts.

A related theme was that of the benefit of gaining access to different audiences. Academic publications are associated with specialized audiences confined not only to the academic realm but also to disciplinary areas. Professor Marie-Claire Shanahan (U of Alberta) discussed how blogging has helped her to build a research community, allowing her to “meet people with similar interests who work in different areas” and also to reach out to audiences for whom the research is relevant but who don’t normally have access to it. All the bloggers who sent me comments made mention of this relationship between development of a public profile, and the ways in which “blogging extends our ability to communicate our research beyond academic circles in an accessible and timely manner” (Alfred Hermida, UBC).

Several bloggers expressed their frustration with traditional academic publishing, including complaints that the regular publication process takes too long and that the resulting publications are inaccessible to non-academic audiences. Sharing ideas through accessible online sources is more efficient because it isn’t hindered by the gatekeeping function of peer review (part of what validates academic knowledge). Chris Parsons described how his work has been cited in “government filings, academic papers, news sites, and so forth […] none of that would have happened if I was constrained to the slow process of peer-review or forced to utilize traditional media outlets.”

The publishing model that currently dominates renders research inaccessible to the public even though much of the research done in universities is publicly funded, and the journals technically acquire their content for free. Parsons argues that his work “is publicly funded, so it should be available to the public” and blogging is a part of this. The current model reflects the concept of knowledge as a “private good” rather than a “public good” (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004, p.28). A private-good model goes against an ethic and practice of sharing as discussed by PhD student Rebecca Hogue who explained, “I like to get my ideas out there, and by sharing them (and writing them down) they become more solid […] I hate to hold stuff back because someday it might be published.” In spite of the myth of the lone scholar, collaboration has been an essential feature of academe in the past. How does an increasingly proprietary, private model of knowledge affect collegial work?

Those academics involved in blogging are engaging with new modes of communication and new models of scholarly collaboration and research dissemination. The vehemency with which this practice is debated by bloggers and non-bloggers alike speaks to the deep roots of the issue; because academic publishing is key to professional advancement in academe, everyone has something at stake. This debate touches on the heart of the university’s mission, and what accompanies it — a continued struggle over the definition of authoritative knowledge.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Ernesto Priego / October 21, 2011 at 10:55 am

    Thanks for this great post, Melonie. Yesterday I gave a talk on academic blogging at UNAM that has strict parallels with what you say here. One question from a member of the audience reflected what I perceived as the conviction that no matter how hard you work at blogging well in academic terms, it remains very hard if not impossible to be noticed by established academics and funders unless one already counts with institutional back up. Chris Parsons’s experience is not unique, and I hope the student who commented yesterday finds your post and reads about these positive experiences. I myself have found blogging an extremely positive experience, but I also continue facing major obstacles and lack of recognition from those who still decide the fate of most academic livelihoods.

    If any readers are interested the slides from my presentation on blogging in academia are here (in Spanish).

  2. Pascal Lapointe / October 23, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    Many of those justifications as to “why they blog” could be synthesized in one, big, fundamental reason: they want to talk. They want to express themselves.

    Scientists are not different of the millions of citizens who created blogs (and podcasts, and twitter feeds, and facebook pages): they have, them too, a very fundamental need to participate to the global conversation. Until most recently they were limited to their specialized publications and conferences. Not anymore. And scholars, including in communications studies, are only beginning to realize what that means, because during those last few years, they have rather dismissed blogs as some sort of under-media.

  3. Alex Marsh / October 25, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    Thanks for an interesting post.

    It is also worth reflecting on the range of activities encompassed by ‘academic blogging’. The motivations will differ.

    There are some who use blogging as simply a shop window for their own work (a minority in my experience). There are others who use it as a vehicle for reaching beyond the academy to educate and engage new audiences. There are some academics who use their blogs as a means of drawing readers’ attention to material, publications, events, developments – sharing things that have attracted their eye and providing a few sentences of commentary. I find this can be extremely valuable.

    I work in the field of public policy. So blogging is a means, as the previous commenter notes, of seeking to participate in a conversation in real time. In a way that is not possible through conventional academic publishing.

    Politicians can seek to justify policy on a range of spurious grounds. In doing so they can seek to disregard or misrepresent our existing knowledge base. Critically engagement with these manoeuvres, drawing implicitly or explicitly on theory and evidence where possible, is something that members of the academic community are uniquely placed to contribute to that on-going conversation. It can offer readers resources they can draw on to challenge dominant understandings and representations of policy problems/the social world.

  4. Angela Wild / October 25, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Well written,and I am in total agreement. Blogging can provide the bridge that links all walks of life together that are interested in that particular matter, and not limiting it to peer reviewed journals.

  5. Estis Finisterre / January 17, 2012 at 9:05 am

    Surely I can’t be the only person to regard as facile the argument that ‘publically funded research should be accessible by the public’.

    Here are three considerations which may help to uncover the complexity beneath this lazy mantra:

    1. Which public should have access to which publically funded research? Put another way, why should the U.S. taxpayer fund access by researchers based in foreign countries to U.S. funded research? Surely other countries should pay for access to research funded by the U.S. taxpayer?

    2. The costs of digitising and hosting academic research, not to mention maintaining metadata and archiving, have traditionally been shouldered by academic publishers. It’s true that some large commercial academic publishers have made eye-popping profits (perhaps largely because of the poor negotiating skills deployed by academic librarians), but if we remove these publishers from the situation, the costs of these services, which in some cases have risen substantially, will have to be carried by someone else. While donations and sponsorship play a role in University funding, the state ultimately picks up the tab. Are we really suggesting that digitisation, plus web hosting and industry standardisation on a global scale, should be paid for directly by the taxpayer? If so, which tax payers? Is the U.S. taxpayer going to pay to host and maintain the world’s academic content? That seems increasingly unlikely.

    3. Higher Education is suffering massive budget cuts across the developed world. Instead of sucking ever more public money, perhaps Universities should become more self-supporting by selling access to their research to universities overseas? Maybe in an age of austerity we can no longer afford an Open Access ideology that advocates giving valuable research away for free?

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