Academics, Blogging and The Real Meaning of Impact

Irony alert: this post will do exactly what it says not to do.

It’s even more fashionable than tweed jackets with natty leather patches, academics are jumping on the blogging train. Wherever you go, another university is jumping on the back carriage and hoping that they can say something interesting to the passing crowds.

In another delicious touch or irony, I co-edit one such blog, which I will not mention in this post so as to avoid accusations of favouritism or self-publicity. Still, it is worth realising that this trend is not accidental. Funding councils are now pushing for this thing called impact, which actually means research accessible outside of the academic bubble and public engagement, which means letting other people have a say. In a world of lower funding and higher demands, blogs make sense. They are cheap, simple to understand and just about anyone, senior professors included, can find 5 to 10 minutes to write a post. Simples.

Well, not quite. You see, there is a world of difference between writing a post and writing a post that makes an impact. Anyone can throw an abstract onto a blog and call it a post. And, with enough advertising, someone is likely to check in, even if they go out the same door in a few seconds. Posting is not impact and neither is it public engagement.

Actually, posting can be both of these things but it takes time and effort. If blogs are to actually mean something, they need to represent far more than a shift in where information is. They need to be a strong signal of a change of direction in academic thinking. They need to actually be signs that academics a) care about what the public thinks and b) know how to communicate with people outside the ivory tower.

Here I am not just talking about politicians, as important as the conversation between academic and the political set is. No, read the definitions of Impact and Public Engagement on the RCUK website and you will realise that they have a lot more to do with making a difference in people’s lives and doing so by maintaining a two-way conversation with them. Scary, huh?

If you take this definition seriously, academic blogging needs to be more about asking questions than giving answers. It’s success will have little to do with how many people visit or how many other academics like it. Instead, you will be able to measure the success of an academic blog by looking at how many people have taken the time to leave a comment. Compare, for example the LSEImpact blog with the non-academic (but much more commented) Limping Chicken blog. According to the RCUK definitions, which is making more impact?

I know, I know, it’s a bit of an unfair comparison. But still, the themes of the second blog are not a million miles away from typical themes in university research: people in society, identity, interpreting, psychology of meetings and so on. Why is the non-academic blog making much more impact, in academic terms, than the academic one?

Let’s have this discussion in public and let the public tell us the answers. This is not to say that the content of the first blog is necessarily wrong. I read it often myself. I find it incredibly interesting but I have only once felt like commenting and even then I felt like I was intruding. Why is that?

I have some ideas. But I could be wrong. I might be about to get a flurry of messages that tell me just how mistaken I am. But still, it’s surely worth thinking about the question behind all of this: how can academics help people to share our excitement over our work and get involved in it? Answer that, and you will make a lot of academics very happy, me included!

(These views are entirely my own.)

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4 thoughts on “Academics, Blogging and The Real Meaning of Impact

  1. It’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges, comparing the Limping Chicken website with the LSE Impact blog. They are doing entirely different things and reaching out to entirely different audiences. I’m sure blogs for One Direction or Lady Gaga fans have thousands of followers making zillions of comments, but here again they are written for a different audience and with a different purpose from blogs such as those produced by the LSE. The LSE Impact blog is specifically directed at academics interested in using various means of disseminating their research. As such, it is a facilitator of academic impact and public engagement, and a very valuable one at that.

    1. Deborah, admittedly the audiences are different but some of the subjects or at least the wider fields covered are not that far apart.
      Still, I think I disagree with your definitions of impact and public engagement. In RCUK terms, reaching other academics does not count as public engagement. It probably does count as academic impact and I probably should have been more careful with my terminology there.
      The point is that, while I enjoy the LSE blog and am a regular reader, I find it hard to make it fit into the funding councils’ definitions of public engagement. They seem to be very strong on the need for our research to be disseminated (and discussed!) by people who are not academics. With few exceptions, all of the comments on the LSE blog are trackbacks. I see very little discussion there, even amongst the academics who read it. On the other hand Limping Chicken is getting discussion going on subjects that academics are discussing, especially within Deaf Studies and sociology. I would also say that it is a million miles from the Lady Gaga blogs you mention.
      I guess what I am saying is that I have noticed that the non-academics seem to be doing a better job of getting discussion around subjects we academics are interested in. Why is that? What can we learn?

  2. The big question here is whether comment is the most useful indicator of impact or engagement. I contribute as writer and commentator to a discussion website which uses only academic writers (The Conversation). Pieces published there often provoke much commentary and readership from the general public. One piece I wrote attracted over 80 comments and 2 000 plus readers. But the comments were largely fatuous and descended into repetitive argument between one side and the other side.

    I have been provoked and informed by many academic blog posts to which I did not comment. I may well have saved them to my bookmarking site and read them again and shared them with others – surely another (albeit quieter) indicator of value and impact.

    1. Perhaps there is no one single indicator that needs to be taken into account. Comments, themselves, as you point are not all made equally. A simple “great post” takes considerably less effort than a screen-filling criticism. In this case, quality trumps quantity. Still, if engagement and conversation are linked (which the UK Research Councils seem to think is the case), then a handful of shorter comments with some real content might be seen to trump one rambling one and a superficial argument might score higher than one or two long comments that got ignored. Again, with no explicit guidelines (that I am aware of), defining “engagement” in a social media sense is still fraught with difficulties.

      I agree with you that bookmarking is a form of engagement. Actually, in the lee of web 2.0, perhaps the greatest comment would be if something academic was “memed” to the point where members of the public could take it, add to it and reform it. This would combine bookmarking, commenting and of course, visiting. Still, I have yet to see that happen.

      What would be useful would be some way of defining and evaluating engagement objectively. My initial guess would be to roughly equate each form of engagement with the degree of effort necessary to do it. So, visiting a site would be deemed to be a “lower” form of engagement than reading the entire post, which in turn would figure lower than linking to the post, which would score lower than leaving a comment and so forth. Admittedly, that would be a rather crude way of working but it would at least help us to remember that putting information out is not the end of the engagement story.

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