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August 16, 2012

As academic blogging continues to muscle in on traditional avenues for disseminating knowledge, so it becomes a more accepted form of reference for the next generation of academics - current PhD candidates.

Writing for the London School of Economics' Impact of Social Sciences blog, Sarah-Louise Quinnell, e-learning project lead at the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, expresses her support for the growing acceptance of blogs as legitimate academic sources, even to the extent that they can be referenced in PhD theses. She also suggests ways that doctoral candidates can reference blogs without appearing to place more emphasis on them than on traditional academic journals.

Dr Quinnell refers to "How not to write a PhD thesis", a 2010 Times Higher Education article by Tara Brabazon, now professor of creative media at the University of Bolton. Professor Brabazon recommends that students don't "fill the bibliography with references to blogs, online journalism and textbooks", and expresses concern that "students do not differentiate between...primary and secondary sources".

Dr Quinnell disagrees. "Including blogs or any form of online writing in a PhD, in my opinion, should be encouraged...I believe that blogs, be they multi- or single-authored, offer another source of information which should be explored by researchers."

She says that Professor Brabazon's article raises three questions about the use of blogging in PhDs: how should one attribute impact and academic value to blogs and digital sources? How should blogs be referenced in theses? And are candidates unable to critically evaluate the authenticity of sources?

"This got me thinking: is the writing I have published in journals any different to the blog posts I have written and if it is, why? Obviously there are differences in writing styles and audiences, but what about quality?" she asks.

"After much thought I feel that the difference in quality is a perceived one. I say perceived because blogs are not yet seen as authoritative, but is my writing less authoritative online than in a journal? I do not believe it is. Therefore if someone wishes to reference something I've written (that would be nice) either electronically or traditionally then there should be no difference."

A key priority for funded research is to engage beyond the academy, she says, and a blog is a better medium for achieving this than an academic journal. "The journal article will probably always be top of the tree in terms of academic quality but the blog has a different affordance," Dr Quinnell writes.

"Engagement beyond the academy should be a key concern of any young researcher. So the fact that they are taking an interest in blogs and referring to them should be commended. It means they are looking beyond the walls of their institution at how research engages with real-world concerns."

If students cannot critically evaluate their sources, there has been a failing in research training and PhD supervision, she adds. All sources should be considered critically, regardless of origin.

"To ignore the blog is to ignore a growing area of participatory output, but you have to evaluate its relevance and credibility as a source and be able to defend your decisions," she says.

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