Inverting the hierarchy? Blogging and social media in academia

Academic blogging has snowballed over the past few years and huge numbers of researchers from across all disciplines are now writing about their experiences online. The reasons for doing it are many, and the potential benefits overwhelming. Blogging obviously provides a great opportunity to engage in two-way communications about your work with new groups, from your community of peers to the wider public.  On a more personal level, writing online allows you to grow your professional network, hone your communication skills and raise your profile.

Not everyone takes such a positive view about blogging, however. Last summer, a paper was published in the American Chemical Society journal, Nano Letters, which contained allegedly manipulated data consisting of a series of images apparently altered using graphics editing software.  The issue was brought to light on the Chemistry-Blog, and pursued by a number of other bloggers including Paul Bracher at ChemBark. The paper has since been retracted and a second paper in ACS Nano is under investigation.

What was intriguing about the controversy was the response of the academic editorial board of ACS Nano. In an article entitled “Be Critical but Fair”, the editors warned of accusations being made anonymously through blogs or social media. Instead, they argued, the reputation of the accused needed to be protected and criticisms or allegations made through the traditional channels of contacting journals directly. The editors went further, taking a sceptical attitude towards how the bloggers had highlighted the published errors:

“Researchers make their reputations by publishing excellent data, not by being whistleblowers with mixed records of accuracy. It is easy to criticize the work of others, but it is substantially harder to achieve something by oneself.”

Paul Weiss et al., ACS Nano, 20137(10), pp 8313–8316

It’s not only in science where the professional merit of blogging has been questioned. The International Studies Association threatened to ban editors of its journals from writing blogs because it challenged the ‘professional environment’ expected from its members. Bloggers can face accusations they are simply attention-seeking by prioritising blogging over research; and there is always the issue of trust, especially if crucial data is made public online before it should.  Assumptions that bloggers won’t have enough time to do research also exist, as happened to Jonathan Eisen, when his blog was used as a reason to deny him research funding.

These arguments are not new ones- in the past they’ve been levelled at those involved in public engagement and outreach, “traditional” media work or commercially-sponsored research.  Some (older?) academics may think blogging and social media are fads that will pass. They are not- and they will only grow over the next few years. We are currently in a transition and there is something of a divide between those who do and those who don’t.

The internet poses an interesting challenge to the traditional hierarchies of academia. Young researchers can, through blogging, develop higher and broader profiles than established professors. The ACS Nano editorial suggests that the editors are certainly worried about this scenario and how it subverts how academic reputation is built through (the publication of) excellent research alone. (Also read the comments from “bloggersaretimewaster” on Paul Bracher’s ChemBark article linked above for a far more unpleasant version of this particular line of argument.)

Twitter and blogs are bringing together people in different disciplines who would never have previously spoken to each other. As a chemist, I’ve developed links with social scientists that I wouldn’t have done had it not been for social media, despite us working in the same University. Beyond the academy, journalists and policy makers are increasingly sourcing their information online, making them far more accessible than in times gone by.

It will be interesting to see how social media and blogging is adopted more formally in research. Already they are being written into the impact and dissemination sections of funding proposals and I know of at least one blog being used as an impact case study in a Research Excellence Framework submission.  Undoubtedly, there will be growth of official “institutional” blogs, which while being informative, could be seen as sanitised if they stay clear of more controversial topics or are simply used as promotional sound-pieces.  The very nature of social media means its use in academia is constantly changing and whatever platform bloggers use, its influence will surely spread.

This post was written after attending a Guardian Masterclass course on Science Blogging. The course involved presentations and a panel discussion involving James Randerson (assistant national news editor at the Guardian) and three Guardian Science bloggers- Jon Butterworth, Suzi Gage and Dean Burnett.  

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3 Responses to Inverting the hierarchy? Blogging and social media in academia

  1. Pingback: The peril of the press release | attheinterface

  2. Pingback: Science and the perils of the press release: who is to blame? | The Power To Persuade

  3. Pingback: Consistently poor coverage of mental health issues in The Guardian – Mind the Brain

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