When I was asked to take the helm of this blog for two weeks, I was told that my name had come up because I “run my own blog and had experience with this type of writing.” And that is true: I do have a research blog that I’m happy to say is regularly updated with new posts about 2 times a week.
But the statement also made me realise that having an academic research blog is an unusual thing, something worthy of remark. I don’t know how complete it is, but the published list of blogs run by Umeå University researchers is indeed short — although the university’s own initiative in setting up Forskbloggen is commendable. In my own field of environmental history, even on a global scale, the number of regularly updated research blogs is not particularly impressive (a list of such blogs is here).
There has been plenty written about the value of research-based blogs, including for public knowledge dissemination and fund raising. There is even a long list of 25 reasons to blog about research, many of which I wholeheartedly agree with. We’ve all heard that research blogs are something good to have.
So why are there not more research blogs?
I thought about this question as I prepared and gave a presentation about my research blog for the students of a PhD course in Digital History this week. In the end, I settled on three reasons why I think more researchers don’t set up blogs and how I think those objections can be overcome.
First, researchers think they don’t have the time. Having a blog requires a time commitment to produce new content and many people are unwilling to do that. This is painfully obvious from the number of blogs that get started and then are updated only once a month or once a semester.
In my case, I write an average of 2 posts per week that are 500 to 1000 words each, which typically take me 2 hours to actually write and post. I’m not counting the research time in that because that’s something I need to do anyway. Because I run a research blog – not a general blog in which I comment on everything but rather a targeted blog about things related to my historical reintroductions project – the research would need to get done one way or another. I don’t think of my blog writing as something ‘extra’ because it both helps me think through things and it is often reusable as bits of conference papers and even articles.
Second, researchers are afraid of writing. Many researchers, even in the humanities where words are at the center of analysis, struggle with writing. They often lack confidence in their own abilities to put on their thoughts in words.
As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t have that problem. The most important trick, I think, is to write a blog the way you talk. That’s probably why my blog posts break all kinds of grammatical rules. But I don’t care. For me, the point of the blog is working through and sharing the ideas as they develop rather than having polished language. I think if more researchers thought about their writing in this way, they might get over the language confidence deficiency. The only way to get over writer’s block is to write. And in the end, it’s going to have to be written up anyway to published, so you might as well start early on the process of refining the written argument.
Third, researchers are not willing to share in-progress research. Some academics think blogging about findings would negate their ability to publish. I know many historians who keep their research ‘secret’ before publication. One colleague gave only one or two conference papers about her entire dissertation project before her book was out because she didn’t want to ‘spoil’ the argument. Scientists likewise want to hold their ‘good results’ secret until they can be printed in a top-notch journal. There has been a discussion within the American Historical Association about embargoing completed dissertations from the digital realm before they appear as printed books because of some publishers’ reservations about digital access. In my opinion, this kind of thinking does a disservice to academia because it keeps important insights hidden for extended periods of time. A new creative web project called Disembargo shows in artistic form how excruciating such withholding of knowledge can be.
I think properly blogging about research will not harm publication chances because I think the content of a blog and an article are different. I do not use my blog to publish history articles that are fully referenced (I never use footnotes or reference lists and only include parenthetical citations with links to digitally-available scholarship). My blog posts are much shorter than even my shortest articles. They certainly involve the same data, and might make the same arguments that I will make in a later journal article, but because of their nature – short and colloquial language – they will never take the place of published articles. My blog has the added benefit of being a space where I can share side-stories that while interesting and illuminating in their own right will never make it into a published article.
So should more researchers have blogs? I think so. With a little time commitment, a love of writing, and a desire to share insights, having a research blog can be an integrated part of the research process. I see the value of my own blog in the development of my ‘Return of Native Nordic Fauna’ project. It is helping me make sense of the data I collect as I collect it instead of it piling up for processing later. It lets me share interesting findings that would otherwise disappear into oblivion. It helps me make connections between my historical research and modern conservation policy issues. Blogging makes me a better researcher.