By the blog: academics tread carefully

UK scholars are slowly but surely heading into the blogosphere. Zoe Corbyn reports

October 9, 2008

Using his department's blog, "Metaphysical Values", a lecturer at the University of Leeds posts an early draft of a paper he is preparing.

Another academic, at the University of Newcastle, polls readers about the United States election on "The Brooks Blog", while "Digital Urban", run by a researcher at University College London, has a recent post advertising merchandise - mugs and messenger bags - bearing the blog's logo.

Although they are still lagging behind their colleagues in the US, British academics are slowly but surely moving into the blogosphere. The appeal of academic feedback, as well as the opportunity for public engagement and the potential for enhancing reputations, has those who blog hooked.

Mary Beard, professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, has been blogging since late last year, despite some initial scepticism. Her blog, "A Don's Life", is one of UK academia's most widely read.

"When I started blogging it was very experimental and I thought it was all rather 'cheap', but I have changed my mind completely," she says. "One of the things that attracts me is the possibility of letting a wider community know what it is like being a university academic."

"I do it to pin my ideas down," explains Ruth Page, a reader at Birmingham City University, whose blog "Digital Narratives" charts her current academic projects and attempts at using e-learning in her teaching. "It is also a useful way of getting feedback from people working in my field," she adds.

Jennifer Rohn, a scientist at UCL, whose blog "Mind the Gap" paints a picture of what it is like to work in a laboratory, adds: "I was angry that my profession was so completely invisible to normal people."

The experience of being in the blogosphere is summed up by Peter Smith, a senior lecturer in philosophy at Cambridge and author of the blog "Logic Matters", as being a "lopsided conversation over virtual coffee".

He says: "I find out informally what other people are working on and thinking about and they find out about my projects."

Paul Ayres, a research officer at the Institute for Learning and Research Technology at the University of Bristol, says: "Some academics are dipping their toes in the water but many aren't entirely comfortable with using the medium to voice their opinions."

Those who have taken the plunge often use their blogs either to make their subjects more accessible to a wider public or as soapboxes to push particular viewpoints or to campaign on issues they care passionately about. Some use blogs to talk about life and work in general.

Cameron Neylon, a lecturer in chemistry at the University of Southampton, says he is the only academic in the UK keeping a full online laboratory notebook. In his blog, "Sortase Cloning", he records everything he would put in a physical notebook, from the weight of his chemicals to the results of his experiments.

For David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at UCL, his blog "Improbable Science" is a way of campaigning against anti-science and what he calls the "rise of the endarkenment", sometimes pipping journalists in his quest to reveal information.

Lindsay Marshall, a senior lecturer in computing at the University of Newcastle, uses "Bifurcated Rivets" to "micro-blog" about everyday life. "I'm feeling all shaken today - pranged the car a bit this morning," reads one entry.

Exactly how many academics are blogging is undocumented, but anecdotal evidence suggests that only a scattering of UK scholars blog. As an indication of scale, Birmingham City, one of the only institutions to list its academic bloggers, has links to 18 blogs.

Most academics seem to blog on platforms outside their universities, using only oblique references to their day jobs. Some even blog anonymously. Younger academics, unsurprisingly, appear more actively involved in blogging.

"There are enthusiasts but I think the enthusiasm is fairly thinly distributed," says Michael Jubb, director of the Research Information Network, who has been closely monitoring blogging trends in universities. "It has not reached the kind of critical mass that it has among US academics ... you are very much at the cutting edge if you are doing it at the moment."

Yet any sense that there is a united UK community among the academics who blog seems strangely non-existent. "I can see that I am (part of a group of UK scholars who blog) but I don't self-identify," says Beard.

Instead, most are more likely to identify with bloggers on similar topics, whether they are academics or not, and regardless of where they are based.

In August, the first UK science bloggers' conference was held by Nature Network, a networking website for scientists run by the journal.

"That is the group I feel part of," explains Peter Murray-Rust, a professor of molecular informatics at Cambridge and a blogger.

While the concept of a cohesive group to represent their interests seems very far away, UK academic bloggers face many of the same problems.

The first is undoubtedly tensions with universities around academic freedom: the age-old question of what it is acceptable to say in the public space when your employer is a university; but in a new medium where it is easier than ever to speak your mind.

While many academic bloggers appear either not to be blogging about anything that would rile their universities, or to be exercising a kind of "self-censorship", there have been well-publicised cases in the UK and the US of academics falling foul of their employers in the blogosphere.

Erik Ringmar, a former lecturer in government at the London School of Economics, resigned in 2006 after his blog - which dared to discuss the institution - sparked a row with the university over free speech. He details this experience in his book A Blogger's Manifesto: Free Speech and Censorship in a Digital World (2007).

In June 2007, David Colquhoun was asked to remove his blog from the UCL server after alternative therapists complained to the university. A public campaign forced the university to backtrack, but Colquhoun made a decision, which he describes as a "moral victory", not to return. His blog is now hosted on a non-university site.

One social sciences academic, speaking anonymously for fear of losing her job, explains how she had been blogging in her own name to a wide audience when she received word that her department did not believe her blog was appropriate.

"The take was that it was not academic, that it was quite populist and that was a problem ... that if I had time to do extra work then I should be writing grant applications," she explains.

As a result she agreed to remove any mention of her university affiliation from the blog, and she now keeps quiet about her secret hobby. "I think many academics just don't understand what a blog is," she says.

Derek Morrison, associate head of e-learning at the Higher Education Academy, is co-ordinating a large project to help academics interested in using web technology, including blogging. While he acknowledges that some universities can appear overly sensitive to blog posts, he says academics can't expect to be given free rein. "The simple rule for everyone should be 'don't affect the share price', no matter what technology you are using," he comments.

This issue feeds into one that Brian Kelly, web adviser at UKOLN, a centre for digital information management at the University of Bath, sees developing around ownership and management of blogs and for which, he explains, best practice is yet to be determined.

At issue is whether universities should be setting up their own blogging platforms to give their academics the option of using a university space if they want to. Thus far, the University of Warwick is one of the few universities to provide a blogging platform for its academics and students (and has since 2004). Bath intends to follow suit by the end of this year. But how might moves in this direction by universities affect academic freedom?

Jubb says academic bloggers seem to feel more comfortable revealing themselves on private domains than on university ones.

For one blogger the issue is clear cut: "There are people in power who really don't like blogging."

There is also a debate about whether blogging can be career-limiting, with many feeling that their blogging activities cause them to be frowned upon by colleagues.

"I've certainly heard other senior academics express contempt for it - that bloggers are like adolescent girls scrawling in their diaries - but I suspect they are merely ignorant of the level of content on serious academic blogs," Smith says.

One theme to emerge from the science blogging conference was that more senior scientists need to be blogging if the medium is ever going to achieve the recognition its enthusiasts seek. Conference organisers have now launched a competition, challenging science bloggers to get the most senior academic they can to set up a blog.

Another of the concerns raised by delegates about blogging centred on how much those blogging about their research should reveal, for fear of it being stolen by competitors, although this seems more acute among scientists. Many philosophers, for example, seem quite happy to post early drafts of their research papers online.

Maybe, argue some, radical changes are needed to the publishing system - being first to blog a result, for example, could mean you are at least partially credited with an idea or discovery. For others it is a daft notion and papers must remain key.

In any case, as one young blogger aptly puts it, the medium "breaks down traditional hierarchies that stifle academia". What will happen as the young bloggers of today become tomorrow's professors is anyone's guess.

FROM POMPEII AND POETRY TO QUACKBUSTING AND CELEBRITY GEEKS: BRITISH ACADEMICS HOLD FORTH ONLINE

This selection of UK academics' blogs is by no means a definitive guide, but more of a snapshot. The website technorati.com independently ranks the popularity of all blogs, with the most popular ranked number one. All technorati rankings are accurate as of 17-18 September 2008.

Title: A don's life

Address: http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life/

Topic: Higher Education and Classics

Author: Mary Beard, professor in Classics, University of Cambridge

First post: December 2007

Technorati rank: 30,176

Recent posts: Campaign for real bookshops?; 10 things you need to know about Pompeii

Content: I blog about anything I fancy with a university, higher education or Classics link. I think the university appreciates it more for being sometimes off the wall. There are confidences that you can't betray but if I disagree with something the university has done I will say so.

Title: Neurophilosophy

Address: http://scienceblogs.com/neurophilosophy/

Topic: Neuroscience

Author: Mo Costandi, neuroscience researcher, University College London

First post: July 2007

Technorati rank: 9,840

Recent posts: Beauty and the brain; Neurobiology of a hallucination

Content: I write mainly about new neuroscience research that I find interesting. I want people to read my blog and learn something. I blog because I enjoy writing and the blog is just the medium with which I can publish it. The most difficult issue facing bloggers is the medium being taken seriously as a form of science communication. I don't believe it can hinder your career as a lot of other people seem to.

Title: Zoe Brigley

Address: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley

Topic: Feminism, poetry, women writers

Author: Zoe Brigley, lecturer in English and creative writing, University of Northampton

First post: October 2004

Technorati rank: 4,978,471

Recent posts: Charlotte Bronte's letters; Medbh McGuckian on her poetry

Content: My blog is a database of books and articles that I have read. Blogging has become very important for my research, particularly for keeping a record of what I have read and gathering resources. I began as a PhD student at University of Warwick. For me, it was a political act; I was feeling isolated and wanted to share my research with others beyond the usual conferences and research seminars.

Title: New.Journalism.Review

Address: http://srh.typepad.com

Topic: Multimedia journalism and teaching

Author: Steve Hill, senior lecturer in electronic publishing, Southampton Solent University

First post: April 2006

Technorati rank: 778,417

Recent posts: The Guardian and its anti-BBC views; Should journalism degrees still prepare students for a news industry that doesn't want them

Content: I use my blog as a test bed for ideas and theories that one day I will include in my lectures or academic writing. I am most proud of the posts that get discussed by other academics on their blogs. By blogging you find yourself in the loop with an international community in your field. There is real competition online to become a noteworthy blogger and it becomes quite addictive. Blogging isn't widely understood in academia. More academics should blog, but it shouldn't be forced on anyone.

Title: Dave's landslide blog

Address: http://daveslandslideblog.blogspot.com

Topic: Landslides

Author: David Petley, Wilson professor, department of geography, Durham University

First post: December 2007

Technorati rank: 214,940

Recent posts: Cairo landslide - the fallout continues; fatal landslide map

Content: The blog started as a way to disseminate a database of fatal landslides worldwide I had been maintaining since 2002, but it has become much more than that, raising awareness of landslide issues. I did a series of real-time posts about the Chinese attempts to manage the Sichuan earthquake landslides and the blog became a major source of information for journalists covering this story. Writing it has helped me in my research more than anything else since I completed my PhD.

Title: Petermr's blog

Address: http://wwmm.ch.cam.ac.uk/blogs/murrayrust/

Topic: Open science

Author: Peter Murray-Rust, professor of molecular informatics, University of Cambridge

First post: September 2006

Technorati rank: 95,039

Recent posts: Open access data repositories; John Sulston calls for reform of IPR policy

Content: I blog on a number of things related to information. There are times when I get obsessive about blogging but in general one should not care too much. What is more important is to reach the people who matter. Most of my colleagues probably don't know that I blog.

Title: Mind the Gap

Address: http://network.nature.com/people/UE19877E8/blog

Topic: Life of a scientist

Author: Jennifer Rohn, postdoctoral research fellow, University College London, and editor of "Open Laboratory 2008", an annual of science blogging due out in December.

First post: March 2007

Technorati rank: 135,310

Recent posts: In which a physics experiment goes horribly wrong; In which geeks become celebrities

Content: I try to engage people with colour and humour. I think there is a worry with blogs like mine that we're going to blow the lid on the ivory tower, but I am just showing science as a human endeavour. I try never to mention people by name - I don't want to upset anyone.

Title: Improbable Science

Address: http://dcscience.net/

Topic: Quackbusting

Author: David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology, University College London

First post: November 2003

Technorati rank: 55,578

Recent posts: University announces review of woo; Creationism in schools

Content: I blog about the age of enlightenment. The investigative and political side of being a blogger as well as reaching the public is what appeals to me. You can actually influence things. It is much easier for me to do at my age; most people in universities feel that their career will be harmed if they say anything that might upset the management.

Title: Digital narratives

Address: www.digitalnarratives.blogspot.com/

Topic: digital media, narratives, teaching in English studies

Author: Ruth Page, reader in the School of English, Birmingham City University

First post: October 2006

Technorati rank (17 September 2008): 969,571

Recent posts: Multimodality and Pride and Prejudice; Facebook and students – who should speak?

Content: I started blogging because I was doing research about gender and blogging. I wanted to be part of the blogosphere to see what it was like. I am always conscious about putting information about myself in the public domain, so I restrict my blogging purely to work-based issues. I also always think very carefully about what I disclose about my research.

Title: Science in the open

Address: http://blog.openwetware.org/scienceintheopen/

Topic: open science

Author: Cameron Neylon, lecturer in combinatorial chemistry, University of Southampton

First post: August 2007

Technorati rank (17 September 2008): 65,363

Recent posts: Can post-publication peer review work?

Content: Blogging helps me to get things down that I am thinking about and to improve my ideas by putting them in front of other people. It also helps me to publicise the agenda I am trying to advance. I do care whether other people read it. You want to know that you are not just talking to yourself and you also want to make sure you are saying something valuable.

Title: Infinite thought

Address: www.cinestatic.com/infinitethought/

Topic: culture

Author: anonymous philosophy lecturer

First post: 2004

Technorati rank (17 September 2008): 61,818

Recent posts: U is for utensil; v is for valise

Content: I started as a PhD student and never had it in mind as an academic blog. I do it for relaxation and as a sort of strange complement to my work. I keep it anonymous because I sometimes say things one shouldn’t say, although a lot of people know it is me.

Title: What are Americans thinking?

Address: www.lulu.com/gypsyteacher

Topic: The November 2008 US election

Author: Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, senior lecturer, public relations, Birmingham City University

First post: summer 2002

Technorati rank (17 September 2008): 4,978,471

Recent topics: What are Americans’ answers to Europeans’ questions?; What are American academics abroad thinking?

Content: My current monthly blog is about the American election. I survey my friends and then post about their opinions. I hardly ever read anyone else’s blogs – they are so boring. I imagine there are lots of people out there who feel that way about me too, so I try to keep my posts interesting.

Title: John Wells’s phonetic blog

Address: www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/blog.htm

Topic: language, pronunciation

Author: John Wells, emeritus professor of phonetics, University College London

First post: March 2006

Technorati rank (17 September 2008): 1,052,395

Recent topics: Welsh II; Lucida and the history of typography

Content: The blog replaces the daily contact I used to have with colleagues and students – I still need someone to bounce ideas off. I like the many responses I get from all over the world, and the intellectual stimulus that blogging gives me.

Title: Professor Geoffrey Alderman – news

Address: http://geoffreyalderman.blogspot.com/

Author: Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics and contemporary history, University of Buckinghamshire

Topic: research interests, UK politics, the Middle East, standards in higher education

First post: March 2005

Technorati rank (17 September 2008): 4,978,471

Recent topics: Jonathan Sacks and the masorti movement; Documents on the history of the Jews in modern Britain

Content: I blog to reach a wider audience and am most proud of making public hitherto secret documents.

Title: Logic matters

Address: http://logicmatters.blogspot.com

Topic: logic and the philosophy of mathematics

Author: Peter Smith, senior lecturer, faculty of philosophy, University of Cambridge

First post: March 2006

Technorati rank (17 September 2008): 185,981

Recent topics: Parsons’s Mathematical Thought; Mediocrity and bullshit

Content: My blog relates very closely to what I’m currently working on and/or teaching. Making my notes in public certainly forces me to think more carefully. I try to avoid matters of university politics.

Title: Bifurcated rivets

Address: http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/bifurcated/rivets/

Topic: short musings

Author: Lindsay Marshall, senior lecturer in computing, University of Newcastle

First post: 1999

Technorati rank (17 September 2008): 167,208

Content: My weblog is not really academic at all. It is just weird stuff that I find interesting or stuff that I might find useful. All the software is homegrown so part of it is to do with experimentation with web systems.

Other academic blogs of note

Title: normblog – the weblog of Norman Geras

Address: http://normblog.typepad.com/

Topic: politics

Author: Norman Geras, professor emeritus of government, University of Manchester

Title: Tales from the reading room

Address: http://litlove.wordpress.com/

Topic: book reviews

Author: Victoria Best, lecturer in French, University of Cambridge

Title: Digital urban

Address: www.digitalurban.blogspot.com/

Topic: latest techniques to visualise the cityscape

Author: Andrew Hudson-Smith, senior research fellow at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London

Title: Light blue touchpaper

Address: www.lightbluetouchpaper.org/

Topic: security research

Author: researchers in the security group at the University of Cambridge computer laboratory

Title: O’Really?

Address: http://duncan.hull.name/

Topic: musings on science

Author: Duncan Hull, postdoctoral research associate, University of Manchester

Title: The ed techie

Address: http://nogoodreason.typepad.co.uk/"

Topic: educational technology

Author: Martin Weller, professor of educational technology, The Open University in the UK

Title: MicrobiologyBytes and science of the invisible

Address: http://microbiologybytes.wordpress.com/ and http://scienceoftheinvisible.blogspot.com/

Topic: microbiology and education/personal reflection

Author: Alan Cann, senior lecturer, University of Leicester

Title: TechnoLlama

Address: http://technollama.blogspot.com/

Topic: technology

Author: Andres Guadamuz, lecturer, University of Edinburgh

Title: Soft machines

Address: www.softmachines.org/wordpress/

Topic: nanotechnology

Author: Richard Jones, professor of physics, University of Sheffield

Title: metaphysical values

Address: http://metaphysicalvalues.blogspot.com/

Topic: philosophy

Author: researchers at the Centre for Metaphysics and Mind, University of Leeds

Title: Epistemic value

Address: http://epistemicvaluestirling.blogspot.com/

Topic: philosophy

Author: Duncan Pritchard, professor of philosophy, University of Edinburgh

Title: Plant diseases in the news

Address: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/plantpath

Topic: plant diseases

Author: John Clarkson, researcher, University of Warwick

Title: Prof Zeki's musings

Address: http://profzeki.blogspot.com/2008/08/forgotten-but-perhaps-important.html

Topic: neurobiology

Author: Semir Zeki, professor of neurobiology, University College London

Title: iPhylo

Address: http://iphylo.blogspot.com

Topic: taxonomy

Author: Rodric Page, professor of taxonomy, University of Glasgow

Title: Gowers’ Weblog

Address: http://gowers.wordpress.com

Topic: mathematics

Author: Timothy Gowers, professor of mathematics, University of Cambridge

Title: Title to be announced

Address: http://network.nature.com/people/U24D269FC/blog/

Topic: musings on science

Author: Brian Derby, professor of materials science, University of Manchester

Title: Reciprocal space

Address: http://network.nature.com/people/scurry/blog

Topic: musings on science

Author: Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology, Imperial College London

Title: Scientific misconduct blog

Address: http://scientific-misconduct.blogspot.com/

Topic: corporate pharmaceutical scientific misconduct

Author: Aubrey Blumsohn, former lecturer at the University of Sheffield

Title: Too many mangoes?

Address: http://ringmar.net/toomanymangoes/

Topic: Life in South East Asia

Author: Erik Ringmar, former senior lecturer in government at the London School of Economics and now professor of social and cultural studies at the National Chiao Tung University, Hsinchu. Includes a link to Ringmar’s LSE blog.

Title: Research blogging

Address: www.researchblogging.org

Topic: Aggregates academic peer-reviewed research across a range of subjects, including the social sciences.

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