Year for Productivity Session 21: Blogs – Their Care and Feeding

year_productivity_graphic_21Blogs are an enormous topic, in part because there are an enormous number of them – including this one, which makes this topic very meta.  The focus here is, of course, blogs as personal knowledge management tools and on their role in education, primarily higher education.  If you are a researcher, this discussion is meant to clarify why you might blog or follow blogs given any one person’s limited available attention.  For librarians, the focus is that as well but also how to help researchers find useful blogs, and help them in deciding whether to blog themselves or how to select tools for blogging.

Why Blogs?

Since blogging first appeared, the value of blogging for academic researchers (including librarians) has been a contentious and continuous debate.  A large part of discussion concerns the kinds of activities that not-yet-tenured faculty should focus their attention upon.  The critics point out  that those seeking tenure need to put their limited amount of available attention to publishing peer-reviewed articles and books.

Blog enthusiasts argue along a couple of tracks.  One, they think that tenure committees will over time begin to value blogs as an important part of the growing altmetrics field.  They point to such venues as Researchblogging.org, arguing it provides a valuable post-publication peer review, and that the peer-review process itself is not without flaws.

Secondly, they point to other benefits of writing blogs.  Blogs in part grew out of people keeping diaries online.  A blog can provide a record of one’s research life, pulling together sources and ideas, adding one’s own ideas, that can be later used to structure a peer-reviewed/edited publication.   Another benefit is that simply writing something down clarifies thoughts.  Knowing that others will read your blog forces one to work through clarification and revision, and improves one’s writing abilities.

Starting a blog has a variety of professional development benefits.  It can attract readers who are interested in the topic, and may result in collaborations on research that will produce peer-reviewed publications.  The networking opportunities are excellent, and produce not only the feeling of belonging to a community (even more pronounced in Twitter), but some report opportunities such as invitations to present at conferences – another product tenure committees look for during tenure review.

An academic, like other professionals, must pay attention to his or her personal brand, and how they manage their online personal identity.  A professional portfolio these days often will include a CV or resume, a LinkedIn profile, and one’s participation in blogs or Twitter or other social media relating to one’s profession.  These can be put together on a site like Impact Story.  The blog University of Venus (GenX Women in Higher Ed, Writing from Across the Globe) is particularly sensitive to the issues of minority students and faculty and is an excellent example of how blogging can give a voice to those too often marginalized.  It also,has the potential to create a backlash that may endanger a career.

Reasons for using a blog are nicely summarized in this quote:

There seem to be many different motives behind science blogging: to share content and express opinions, to improve writing skills, to organize thoughts and ideas and to interact and create relationships inside and outside of the author’s home discipline. Science blogging can give the blogger room for creativity and the feeling of being connected to a larger community. It is a means of establishing an online reputation.
(Shema, 2012)
Blogs can also be used in instruction.  Many professors are creating class blogs so that everyone in the class can participate in discussions.  It should be noted that such uses of blogs are happening in K-12 education as well – the Edublogger site is a primary site for information on K-12 education blogging.

Blogging Networks

Once one appreciates the value of blogs, then one is faced with how to find blogs that are (1) on one’s topic(s) of interest and (2) high quality.  This is a necessity given that there are hundreds of millions of blogs in existence and they are much more dynamic than writing that goes through a publication process.  This dynamism is both a strength and a weakness of blogs.  They are not formally peer-reviewed and edited, which is the main reason tenure committees won’t use them for awarding tenure.  They can also be ephemeral, here today and gone tomorrow.  However, the dynamism is a strength in that they offer news in a field that is much more current than journal articles or books.   Blogs also provide a communication process that most published works lack, through comments or through the active conversations that occur in mircroblogging.

The huge number of available blogs makes it difficult to find the best blogs in a discipline.  A simple way is just to search Google for “best blog” and the topic.  Such articles abound, and looking for the most recent can yield excellent results.  The authors of these articles perform some degree of vetting – they choose only a few blogs and try to choose those that are of the highest quality.

Good blogs get attention.  Really good blogs get lots of attention, and some of them get asked to join blog networks.  Such networks are often organized by a major publisher in the field.  Nature, Scientific American, Wired, and Discover, for example, now provide networks of blogs that, since they have the imprint of those publishers, are judged to be excellent.  Now there are also aggregators of such blog networks.

Bora Zivkovik, blog editor for Scientific American, explains some recent science blogging networks:

This aggregator [Scienceblogging.org] is not trying to be comprehensive, searchable and organized by topic (like ScienceSeeker), nor is it trying to act as a filter for only the posts that cover science with some quality and detail (like ResearchBlogging.org).

ScienceBlogging.org is supposed to give one an easy and quick glimpse of what science blogosphere is talking about at any given moment. Obviously, each of the three aggregators has its uses, its goals, and its intended audience.

(Zifkovic, 2011)

Blog networks do not seem as common in the social sciences and humanities.  The largest network in those fields is not of blogs, but of mailing lists, H-Net:

An international consortium of scholars and teachers, H-Net creates and coordinates Internet networks with the common objective of advancing teaching and research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. H-Net is committed to pioneering the use of new communication technology to facilitate the free exchange of academic ideas and scholarly resources.

Among H-Net’s most important activities is its sponsorship of over 100 free electronic, interactive newsletters (“lists”) edited by scholars in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and the Pacific.

(H-Net introduction, http://www.h-net.org/)

Whether or not blogs are in formal blogging networks, most of us have specific blogs in our personal learning network    We might first stumble on a useful blog, then next explore the blogroll to find other useful blogs.

As with anything information related, it is far too easy to let enthusiasm lead to TMI – Too Much Information.  The number of blogs, RSS feeds, and tweets we follow need continual refinement in order not to be overwhelming.  Ceasing to follow one source doesn’t mean the source isn’t valuable, but you may have gotten the majority of useful comment from it, or your information needs or interests may have changed, or you find another source that is more on target.

Librarians – the original search engine – have always had a content curation role.  This is even more important when our users are drowning in information.  How many librarians, when talking to faculty and students about sources they use, ask about the blogs they follow?  How many librarians add a page of important blogs in the field when creating our research guides?

What tools do we recommend for users who want to start a blog?  For simplicity and price (free), it is hard to beat Blogger.  For more sophisticated work that still doesn’t require one to know programming (usually), content management systems like WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal all have their followings.  This blog uses WordPress, and my co-author Crystal Renfro teaches a WordPress class and has a guide associated with the class.  Bluehost has a brief table comparing WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal for ease of use, availability of add-ons, how nice it looks, whether it is good for simple or complex sites, and links to sites created with each.

For Further Exploration and Insight:

(1)  What blogs are in your personal learning network?

(2)  Write a comment about how your personal blog network has changed over the last 2 years.

References:

Shema H, Bar-Ilan J, Thelwall M (2012) Research Blogs and the Discussion of Scholarly Information. PLoS ONE 7(5): e35869. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0035869
Zivkovic, B.  (2011).  What is ScienceBlogging.org.  The Network Central.  Accessed 10/13/2013.

Selected Readings:

Kharbach, M (2013).  Top 50+ Academic Blogs for Teachers and Educators.  Educational Technology and Mobile Learning.  Accessed 10/13/2013.  Despite the name, this is a post that lists, by blog, posts about the value of academic blogging.  Reading the selected posts give a good flavor of the debate about the value of blogs for academics.

Koh, A. (2013).  Crowdsourcing the Best Digital Humanities Content: Introducing #DHThis, The Digital Humanities Slashdot.  Article from ProfHacker about a site where up or down votes determine the contents of the site.

Shema, H.  (2013).  Do Blog Posts Correlate with a Higher Number of Future Citations?. Accessed 10/13/2013.  The article concentrates on ResearchBlogging.org.

 

 

 

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