In the last couple of weeks I’ve had cause to think about blogging – again.
The paper that Inger Mewburn and I have recently published on ‘Why academics blog’ hasn’t quite gone viral, but it has generated a lot more interest and coverage than I think either of us imagined it would. I’d say more about that, but we’re writing a post about it for someone else – and that says it all really!
I’ve also recently given two talks about using social media for research and listened to a presentation from someone else on the same topic, and each time there’s been a question by a doctoral researcher about the risks of putting your stuff out there. Those asking the questions were worried about going public with something that might get them in trouble, or that might be used wrongly, or that might be stolen.
And just this week Lucy Williams, a PhD researcher, published a post on the Guardian Higher Education blog about plagiarism. A piece that she’d written on her own blog had been stolen and republished by more than one person, under their own byline, in more than one other online publication. Shocking behaviour, entirely unprincipled and it is everyone’s worst nightmare come true. As a consequence she’d largely discontinued her blog.
These various events have made me think about the fact that you both can and can’t control what happens to the posts that you write. The bottom line is simply that your stuff can’t be ripped off, and you can’t get in trouble, if you don’t make it public. But you want to blog because you don’t want to keep all of your work all to yourself. The crucial question therefore for all bloggers to answer is what rules you set for yourself about what you make public and what you don’t. So –
What don’t you care about being stolen, and what do you?
What kind of material could get you in trouble and with whom?
What might you feel embarrassed about putting up when you look back on it later?
I have some boundaries around what I publish, some self-imposed rules that I generally use. The blogging paper with Inger is a good example of how these rules work. We both blogged about the process of writing the paper, and revealed some of our literature work and the analytic approach we took. Inger discussed the difficulties of developing a sample, and I talked a bit about how blogging appeared in my scoping of books and journals. But we didn’t post our research results. We DID present these at a conference and we DID make the conference slides available on slide share. However, the full paper wasn’t available until it was actually published in the journal.
So one principle is Don’t put anything up that you don’t want to be misused – and the other is Hold something back.
I apply these principles to all my posts about academic writing. I’m happy to put quite a lot of stuff out on the blog and make it free. I’m often asked “What’s in it for you?” in making stuff freely available, and my answer is that I’d rather the material was used by as many people as possible, than not used at all. However, I do always hold a few things close to my chest – these are things reserved for the new books. After a book is published, just as with our blogging paper, the stuff is OK to put out there in the wide world with my name on it.
I know that a lot of people use the things on this blog, and I know that a few probably end up using the ideas without attribution. I suspect that a few unprincipled people may well have claimed some bits as their own. However the books that go with this material – and they were published first – are fairly well known, and there are lots of people besides me who will see plagiarism and know where the stuff actually comes from. These people may well tell me if there’s outrageous abuse going on. But I’m not in the same situation as a PhD researcher whose work isn’t already out there. I’ve got the books and papers.
A lot of PhD researchers who blog do think hard about these things. I’m sure this is why there are a lot of individual blogs about the PhD as journey and about the literature and the methods. These are safer topics than the substantive content of the PhD research, the actual contribution to knowledge. But there are PhD researchers who write regular posts on work in progress on newspaper style blogs – and perhaps this is a more sensible option than a lone blog , as newspaper style publications may well carry more institutional and/or editorial clout, and be more prepared to ensure comeback on wrong doers.
My advice to PhD researchers who want to blog about their research is to think really long and hard about what you want to put out there before you have a chance to publish it in a journal or a book… think hard about what it’s less risky to write about… think hard about what you are happy to lose control of. Learn from Lucy’s unhappy experience, and perhaps also from my precautionary decisions too.