Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Virtues of Blogging as Scholarly Activity

April 29, 2012 / Martin Weller

I have been an active blogger since 2006, and I often say that becoming one was the best decision I have ever made in my academic life.

In terms of intellectual fulfillment, creativity, networking, impact, productivity, and overall benefit to my scholarly life, blogging wins hands down. ... [B]logging tops the list because of its room for experimentation and potential to connect to timely intelligent debate. [snip].

My academic identity—I'm a professor of educational technology at the Open University in the United Kingdom—is strongly allied with my blog. [snip].


This trend is evident in academic practice. Previously if I wanted to convey an idea or a research finding, my choices were limited to a conference paper or journal article or, if I could work it up, a book. These choices still remain, but in addition I can create a video, podcast, blog post, slidecast, and more. It may be that a combination of these is ideal—a blog post gets immediate reaction and can then be worked into a conference presentation, shared through SlideShare, or turned into a paper that is submitted to a journal. In each case the blog or social network becomes a key route for sharing and disseminating the findings. One recent study suggests that use of Twitter, for instance, can both boost and predict citations of journal articles.


In my book The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice (Bloomsbury USA, 2011; free online), I argue that if you look across all scholarly activities, the use of new technology has the potential to change practice. [snip]

Scholars no longer need a television series to engage the public. The academic publishing system is being thrown into question as we look at open-access approaches and different means of conducting peer review. And so on. There is hardly an area of scholarly practice that remains unaffected.

An example I like to cite is that of my colleague Tony Hirst, who blogs at OUseful.Info. He likes to play with open data, visualization tools, and mashups. On any one day an idea may occur to him, such as, '"I wonder how the people who tweet a particular link are connected? And who are they connected to?" In a short space of time, he will have experimented with data and tools to provide an answer, and blogged his results. None of this requires research funds or a peer-review filter, and it takes place over a much shorter time period than traditional research. Yet it would be difficult to argue that the blog does not constitute widely accepted definitions of scholarly research.

So I would argue that the answer to the first question above, as to whether new approaches such as blogging constitute scholarly activity, is an emphatic yes. Which leads us to a more problematic question: How should we recognize it?

This is where the issue of increased complexity really begins to cause friction. When it comes to tenure and promotion, the three factors generally considered are teaching, service, and research. The first two are easily understood by tenure committees. The last, and often most heavily weighted one for scholars expected to do research, is that of scholarship. Here tenure committees have increasingly come to rely upon journal-impact factors to act as a proxy for research quality. In short, we know what a good publication record looks like. But these criteria begin to creak and groan when we apply them to blogs and other online media. Simple metrics are subject to gaming, and because of the removal of the peer-review filter, may be meaningless anyway. [snip].

It's a difficult problem, but one that many institutions are beginning to come to terms with. Combining the rich data available online that can reveal a scholar's impact with forms of peer assessment gives an indication of reputation. Universities know this is a game they need to play—that having a good online reputation is more important in recruiting students than a glossy prospectus. And groups that sponsor research are after good online impact as well as presentations at conferences and journal papers.

Institutional reputation is largely created through the faculty's online identity, and many institutions are now making it a priority to develop, recognize, and encourage practices such as blogging.


For instance, I've found that since becoming a blogger, I publish fewer journal articles, so it has had a "negative" impact on that aspect of my academic life. However, it has led to so many other unpredictable benefits—such as the establishment of a global peer network that helps me stay up to date with my topic, increased research collaboration, and more invitations to give talks—that it's been worth the trade-off. [snip]

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