Thing 09: Blogging
Blogs allow researchers to engage with a broad audience, including other researchers, in a less formal and more open way than traditional academic publishing. They provide an avenue to publish both research stories and expert commentary. In this post, Jonathan O’Donnell shares some insights gained from his popular blog Research Whisperer, which he co-writes with Tseen Khoo.
Blogging in the academy is generally a labour of love. Most universities find it difficult to recognise blogging within a formal workload or promotions framework, unless the blog has a huge readership or sits within a recognised research communications role. But there is value in this endeavour, and to make sure your efforts are worthwhile, let’s look at some main considerations before you get started.
That Thing you do: integration into practice
Why are you writing?
It’s important to know your purpose when starting a blog. Are you seeking to engage with a non-academic audience? That’s the approach that Jen Martin takes with Espresso Science – strong shots of interesting information for the general public. Maybe you’re providing a public service to colleagues in your field. My own blog, Research Whisperer, co-authored with Tseen Khoo, offers advice for academics on gaining research funding. Pat Thomson’s blog, Patter, provides excellent advice on how to improve your academic writing. During the pandemic, she shifted her focus to helping research students make it through the disruption and disquiet.
Maybe you are looking to address misconceptions in your area of research. Or you are chronicling your frustrations with your own work. Each of these approaches has a different energy, and will give your writing a different flavour.
Who are you writing for?
It seems counter-intuitive, but in the first instance you are writing for yourself. If you aren’t getting satisfaction from it, it will be hard to keep blogging. Beyond that, your initial audience will be people who know you personally or through social media – friends, family, colleagues, and students.
Having a sense of your intended audience will help focus your writing. Inger Mewburn’s Thesis Whisperer provides advice for people writing a thesis. That’s a pretty specific audience, but one that’s suited to the purpose of the blog. Your own blog’s audience might be very targeted, or it might be a bit broader; either way, it’s important to define who you are trying to reach.
What are you writing?
Once you’ve defined your motivation and audience, it’s just as important to be clear on the content. Some research blogs, like Manu Saunders’ Ecology is not a Dirty Word, provide information about a particular field of research, discussing new discoveries or important news. Others tell the story of a specific project or research group. Eva Alisic’s Trauma Recovery Lab reflects on her work studying trauma exposure and recovery, while on The Tiger’s Mouth, Kate Bagnall writes about her research into Chinese-Australian history and heritage. Some blogs offer advice on research techniques or tools. Stephanie Evergreen’s blog is full of advice for presenting data effectively. Helen Kara writes about social science research methods, and Anuja Cabraal about social science research analysis. Some, like Kate Bowles’ wonderful Music for Deckchairs and Tamson Pietsch’s Cap and Gown, critique universities and research culture.
You can take whatever approach you are comfortable with, just make sure you choose a topic that you are passionate about and want to share with others. Having said that, it is quite possible, and very common, that your blog’s focus will change over time. Paige Brown Jarreau’s From the Lab Bench began as a blog about science and public engagement. As the blog progressed, however, its focus shifted more towards the perception that people have of scientists, and how researchers present themselves to the public. Change can be a good thing, especially if you feel you’re stuck in a blog rut!
To my mind, the one golden rule is ‘protect yourself’. Academia can be a hostile place, and many bloggers have had to juggle the conflict between their personal blogging space and the institution they represent. Be careful to try to understand what will be acceptable in your situation. Keep in mind that you don’t have to say who you are. The anonymous Xykademiqz provides a picture of their life and their work without every giving away their identity.
You don’t have to do it alone, either. Blogging with a friend or colleague can help to reduce the workload and anxiety around publishing your work to the world. Joining a large community of bloggers who are interested in the same topic can provide a useful support network.
In terms of infrastructure, you can publish your blog wherever is most convenient for you. While most people build their blogs on WordPress, Medium, or their own website, others have used Facebook, Instagram, Flicker, or any other site that gives you space to write. Invisible Farmer built their blog on Facebook – which most people don’t think of as a blogging platform – and their posts about women farmers have attracted thousands of views. If you work at the University of Melbourne, you also have access to an institutional blog space.
- Mewburn, Inger, and Pat Thomson. “Why Do Academics Blog? An Analysis of Audiences, Purposes and Challenges.” Studies in Higher Education 38, no. 8 (October 1, 2013): 1105–19.
- Jarreau, Paige. “All the Science That Is Fit to Blog: An Analysis of Science Blogging Practices.” PhD, Louisiana State University, 2015.
- What viral means for us, by Jonathan O’Donnell on the Research Whisperer, 4 October 2016.
- How to run a blog for 8 years and not go insane, by Inger Mewburn on the Thesis Whisperer, 11 March 2018.
- Things it has taken me 8 years to learn, by Tseen Khoo on the Research Whisperer, 19 June 2019.
About the author
Jonathan O’Donnell manages the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream with Tseen Khoo (La Trobe Univeristy). He also helps people in the Faculty of Science find research funding. He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research.
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