Does The “Blogging Bug” Affect Academic Publishing?

Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University, recently wrote a blog post on Blogging impacts on formal academic output in which he describes how the numbers of his published articles had declined since being “bitten by the blog bug“. He didn’t regard this as necessarily a bad thing, though, as Martin feels that “Blogging meets these needs [to share ideas and fulfill a creative urge to write] better than formal publications” and the benefits of networking, which was an important factor in submitting papers to conferences can now be achieved using online communications technologies such as blogs and micro-blogs.

My Publishing History

Histogram of papers published 2003-2008Martin asked if anyone else noticed a similar trend. So I checked my publication record – the figures are illustrated in the accompanying diagram.

I  started to write papers for peer-reviewed journals and conferences seriously in 2004 with four papers being published: two based on a JISC-founded QA Focus which I was the project manager of, one on standards and the fourth a short paper I co-authored with Andy Powell and Pete Johnston, then colleagues at UKOLN. Interestingly, although one of the QA Focus papers was co-authored by fellow team members the second was written jointly with staff from the University of Strathclyde, following a discussion in the pub after I gave a seminar in Glasgow.

The following year another four papers were published which cover three of my main areas of interest: Web accessibility, social networks and interoperability.  Again three of the papers were written with contacts I had made professionally but another one arose from discussions in a pub in Bath, at a Semantic Web Southwest meeting.

My most productive year for publications was 2005 with nine papers published, covering accessibility, social networking and standards. In retrospect this was the year in which I had gained the confidence that I had something worthy of publishing, the necessary writing skills, a good appreciation of the effort needed and contacts who I knew could contribute to a joint papers.

By 2006 I was able to further develop ideas on Web accessibility and standards and contribute to a short paper in a new area which I suspected would be of increasing relevance to myself and UKOLN, preservation of Web resources. A total of six paper were published that year.

The UK Web Focus blog was launch in November 2006, so during 2007 I was developing my skills in writing blog posts and responding to comments. But I still managed to publish four papers in the year, on accessibility, open standards and the first on Web 2.0 – the lead author of this latter paper, incidentally, was Mike Ellis whom I first got talking to in a pub in Leicester after the UK Museums on the Web conference.  “Let’s write a paper” was my parting shot to Mike as he left the pub – which we went on to do (and subsequently much more).

Six further papers were published in 2008, together with two contributions to books.  The papers included one on Web site preservation with fellow members of the JISC PoWR project (I was correct in 2007 when I felt this would be an important area). The final paper of the year was an invited paper which was presented at the Bridging Worlds Conference in Singapore. The co-authors for that paper included people I had met once at a workshop in Wales, had met at a conference several year’s ago but re-established informal contact through Twitter  and one person who I have met primarily via blog posts, blog comments and on Twitter.

Discussion

Preamble

The first comment I should make is that I’m not attempting to suggest that there is any equivalence in quality between my papers and Martin Weller’s. My papers, for example, include those which have been accepted by a formal peer-reviewing processes, but also include short papers, papers for which only the abstract has been reviewed and, in the final example, an invited paper for presentation at an international conference. But at least I am aware of a level of consistency across my publications.

Finding Co-Authors

Writing this post has given my an insight into the ways I have gone about the  task of discovering people to collaborate with in writing such papers (I’ve realised that, apart from the two books, there have been only two papers which I have written on my own). The approaches I have taken can be summarised as:

Initially the papers were a dissemination activity of a funded project (initially the QA Focus project) and this has continued with, for example the recent JISC PoWR project).

I had also supported the staff development of colleagues in my team at UKOLN and regarded joint authorship of papers as a way of developing writing skills and adding valuable content to their CVs.

Several of the papers were written with staff from our strategic partners – other JISC services with whom we have good links with and a desire to work with (and be seen to work with) including JISC TechDis, CETIS and OSS Watch.

But I was surprised when I did this analysis and found that significant numbers of my papers had been written with people with whom I had developed good social links. And this is even more important than I’d realised as the papers with strategic partners and project partners also reflected good social contacts with individuals within those organisations.

For me it seems that the social contacts can be important in the writing process. On a number of occasions a paper has arisen from discussions and a shared understanding which have taken place over several pints which has led to papers been written and accepted for publication.  More recently it seems that discussions based abound blog posts and on Twitter have served to support the social lubrication when a pint (or two) of real ale was not available.

Quality Issues

Discussions based on the content of blog posts supported by getting to know people on Twitter may have helped to build links with authors and potential authors, but has blogging affected the quality of the papers themselves? I feel my papers have improved in quality, although clearly this would be expected as one gains experience and gets a better understanding of the topics of the papers.

But I also feel that blogging has been beneficial to the process of writing papers. I’ve used my blog as an open notebook, recording ideas which previously I may have forgotten when it came around to writing a paper. And as the ideas have been exposed to a wide audience I have benefitted from comments I have received (and perhaps even a lack of comments which may possibly that the idea isn’t too outrageous).

And as a number of my papers have been about observing how the world is approaching particular uses of technologies (such as Web accessibility) I’ve made use of blogs and microblogs (both as an author and reader) in order to gain a better understanding of patterns of usage.

Dissemination

The dissemination aspect of the blog for my papers is self-evident. For papers presented at conferences I normally publish something on this blog. Over the past six months of so I have also recorded my talk on video, providing an additional dimension for those who prefer the more chatty explanation of the ideas to the more formal prose of the scholarly publication.

Conclusions

Returning to the question posed by Marin Weller “Does the ‘Blogging Bug’ Affect Academic Publishing?” I would say it does. But for me, unlike Martin, I feel it has enhanced the quality of my publications, enhanced awareness of the papers and the ideas they have explored and widened my circle of peers with whom I collaborate with.

And although I recognise that thing may be different in other disciplines and for people with different working styles and organisational priorities (e.g. the RAE) for me blogging and engaging with blogs (reading other blogs and commenting on them) is now an essential part of my paper-writing process.