Why (and how) academics should blog their papers

Image: a typewriter with paper reading “blog” (courtesy of Pexels)

In the scheme of things, not a lot of people read academic articles. And even though a lot of what academics do may not be very interesting to the general public, there is often at least nugget of something, what you might tell someone at a cocktail party when they ask what kind of work you do. In my discipline, where we study the way that humans interact with technology or use technology to interact with each other, those nuggets can often be really interesting and relevant. So how will anyone beyond our research community (and beyond a cocktail party) ever hear about it?

We often rely on journalists to write about this relevant research, and some universities even have very good communications teams that put out press releases and newsworthy work. But this isn’t the only option. After all, if a journalist can write about your work in a more accessible way, so can you!

I’ve been blogging about my own papers for a number of years, and I’ve also seen others doing this very well, and encouraging their colleagues and students to also do so. Wanting to encourage this practice in my own research community, as communications chair last year for CSCW (a big social computing conference), I started a Medium publication where we published blog posts about published papers. It went very well (perhaps better than I expected!) and we received a lot of positive feedback on the practice, both from readers and from authors who were trying out this blogging thing for the first time.

Why blog? Writing blog versions of papers is something that I would like to see more researchers do. Here are some of the benefits that I personally see for writing short, accessible explanations of published research, both for myself and, as an advisor/teacher, for my graduate students:

  • Even if you aren’t writing about your research, someone else might be — especially if your work is newsworthy. Considering that sometimes important things are lost in translation in scientific communication, it can be great to tell your own story. And if your work is newsworthy, journalists are typically grateful for having the accessible version to consider as well.
  • Being able to communicate your work in an accessible way is an incredibly valuable skill. Scholars in a particular discipline need to not only be able to talk to each other but to those outside their discipline, and to other potential stakeholders like policymakers or the people who are impacted by your research.
  • We all like to imagine that we and our colleagues have all the time we need to read papers and keep up on the latest work in our field. Sadly, this is not the case. Others in your field might also be more likely to read a blog post and remember the basics of your work. And if particularly relevant, they’ll then read the entire paper — and maybe even cite it!
  • You can include information in a blog post that might not be in the paper itself. It can be nice to reflect on the research process and journey beyond the context of that formal write-up.
  • One of the reasons that we do research is so that it can have an impact on the world outside of academia. We also arguably have an obligation to try to share it — especially if our work is government-funded. Blogging about papers is also a way to share work more easily with the community you studied, when applicable.
  • The more people who see your work, the more likely it is to be impactful. Academic Twitter (though this can also apply to other social media) is huge these days, and it also interacts with lots of other communities — activist Twitter, journalist Twitter, etc. A blog post (that also links to the published paper, for those who want to read more!) is easier to share and to read.

Why not? I also hear a lot of reasons why not to blog, like:

  • My work isn’t interesting to anyone besides my academic community. Maybe this is true, and is definitely your judgment to make — but remember that even if no one reads it, it was still valuable practice in communicating your work to a broader audience. (According to my Medium stats, only 103 people have read my most recent blog post about a paper, but I still don’t consider writing it up to be a waste of time!)
  • I don’t want to draw attention to my work because it could result in harassment or negative attention. This is a completely legitimate concern, and in some cases, it may not be worth the risk, which is a really personal call to make. Here is a great resource focused on how to protect yourself in that kind of situation.
  • Blogging won’t get me tenure (or, the student version, won’t get me a job). This is almost certainly true. Or at least, blogging alone definitely won’t get you tenure. And the extent to which it might be helpful varies greatly by discipline or university. Your mentors may very well tell you that public scholarship is a waste of your time. But let’s say, worst case scenario, your tenure/hiring committee doesn’t care at all about public scholarship. Some of the benefits listed above (like other researchers being more familiar with your work) are things that help you. So though blogging can’t replace the research that will get you a job or get you tenure, it can help amplify and supplement it.
  • I don’t know how to write for a public audience. Just as at some point you learned how to write for an academic audience, this is something that you can learn as well! Practice makes perfect, and the best thing you can do is read examples of other people doing it. And again, even if no one reads it, getting better at communicating your ideas in an understandable way will be helpful for you in other contexts as well.
  • I don’t have time. As I sit here writing this post instead of working on a paper with a deadline three weeks from yesterday, I definitely understand this hesitation. Academics are pulled in a hundred different directions at once, and we all know that the 40% research/40% teaching/20% service thing can’t possibly be accurate, and instead it probably just all adds up to more than 100%. So we all have to make choices about how to spend our time, and what is rewarding both intrinsically and extrinsically. Depending on the type of blogging I’m doing, I consider it part of research (dissemination!) or part of service to my community. (For example, I didn’t write advice about imposter syndrome disguised as Mister Rogers fanfiction because I thought it would help my career.) Also remember that writing a blog post is nowhere near as time consuming as writing an academic article. I would say on average it takes me a couple of hours — and especially if you do this before, say, giving a conference presentation, a lot of that is work you’d have to do anyway when deciding how to organize and communicate your work!
  • I hate social media and I’m not comfortable doing it. This is 100% legitimate and a really important point: You don’t have to do this. I know when people like me talk about the benefits of public engagement, it can seem like you’re missing out or not doing enough if you’re not on board. But this is absolutely not the only way to have impact or to disseminate your work. I know that the amount of interaction I have on Twitter would give some people hives. Being outgoing, in person or online, is absolutely not a requirement to be an awesome academic. Though when it comes to blogging, many of the benefits I’ve talked about don’t require tweeting or otherwise engaging further.

But how? Of course, once you decide to blog your paper, you need some guidance on what to do! I found this great article with tips on academic blogging that covers more nuts-and-bolts, but here are some of my general pieces of advice:

  • Remember that you aren’t writing for the same audience as the paper; go in assuming that some readers will have very little background on the topic. No jargon! No acronyms! Explain things!
  • Skip the methods section. While acknowledging that dissemination of science via the media without explaining limitations is sometimes a legitimate problem, for the most part readers won’t care about the nuts and bolts. State specific limitations if they’re relevant to understanding the work, but focus on the what and why, not the how.
  • Think about what some of your non-academic friends would find interesting about this research. How does it relate to their lives or to society as a whole? Take the “why do we care” question that’s so important to research and extend it beyond just the narrow research community.
  • Don’t forget to include a citation and link to the original paper! It’s also great to reference be able to reference — e.g., for details on the methods, see the paper.
  • Don’t make it too long (like this one). I consider a sweet spot to be about 800 words.
  • Include a photo or illustration of some kind; it makes the piece seem friendlier and will also pop more on social media. Sometimes it’s hard to find just the right thing, but you can usually find something that is at least in the ballpark of the topic. (Though as someone who cares about copyright I’ll add that some great places to find photos are Creative Commons licensed photos on Flickr, or free stock photos from spots like Pexels.)

Beyond these tips, my best advice is to just read examples! Off the top of my head, some academics who have some really great blog posts for papers include Kate Starbird, Kate Ringland, and Philip Guo. You can also find some examples from me here on Medium. (I’ve also started putting together topic-based pages like this one on tech ethics that allows me to compile all my public writing in one place!)

There are also a lot of great examples on the CSCW publication that I started last year (and there will be more to come in the fall before our next conference!). Many of the authors there were blogging for the first time, and a lot of them expressed to me how happy they were to have tried it, and how it was easier than they thought. Some of the stories there that have the most views include ones about subreddit bans, social media endorsements, children and mental health, online safety for transgender people, how people react to fact-checking, grief policing on social media, how children think about online privacy, and Twitter blocklists.

But where? I’m sure that not all academic bloggers would agree on this subject; many have great blogs on their personal websites, which is also what I started out doing! This becomes particularly easy if your website is already set up through something like Wordpress. I personally joined Medium because (a) I like the way it looks; (b) you can potentially reach a broader audience; and (c) it’s easy to be part of group publications. And if you’re already on Twitter, you can simply log in through your Twitter account. A downside, of course, is that like any platform, Medium probably isn’t forever, and you do have somewhat less control. Though for what it’s worth, their copyright terms are okay, and they ask permission before doing things like creating an audio version of your post (which happened for me once, and was kind of neat!).

Another answer for “where” is being part of a group blog, like the CSCW Medium. This is also a great thing for departments or research groups to do; I’m in the process of setting this up for my department, and University of Washington’s DUB already has a great Medium publication. I would encourage any publication venue or organizational group to facilitate and promote authors/members writing blog posts of papers. Medium makes this much easier than it would be otherwise. Though it did require some organizational work on my part, particularly for the first time, it needn’t require any editorial work. Here is a document that I used for instructions (and encouragement!) for authors, but feel free to get in touch if you’re thinking of doing this for your conference or other publication venue and I’m happy to provide advice.

There is probably even more that I can say on this topic, but I’ve broken my own rule and made this post far too long! I will add a final note, which is that for me personally, I am confident that public scholarship has been helpful for my career. It has allowed my work to have reach that it might not have otherwise, to connect to broader audiences (e.g., writing for the popular press), to explain my research back to the communities I study, and helps me tie my research to current events. Though there was some disagreement among my mid-career review committee about whether blogging (and tweeting and writing for the popular press) are good uses of my time, I think that the downstream effects look a lot like the things academics already care about. Maybe you, reading this right now, only know who I am because you saw a tweet or a blog post I wrote! Maybe you’ll remember me, and cite one of my papers or invite me to give a talk! Who knows!

I hope that this was helpful, and that it encourages you to try this out! Happy blogging!

Faculty in Information Science at CU Boulder. Social computing, copyright, ethics, women in tech, fan communities, geekery. www.caseyfiesler.com