ELFA project

Blogging about blogging about blogging

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One of the base assumptions of ELF (English as Lingua Franca) research is that the English spoken between non-native speakers should be studied and understood in its own right. Lately, interest has also grown in written ELF, when English is the lingua franca of written interaction. To complement the spoken academic ELF in the ELFA corpus, we’ve started work on a new database of written academic ELF – the WrELFA corpus.

There are four main criteria we look for in a written academic ELF text:

  1. it is an instance of second-language use (SLU), not taken from a language learning environment
  2. it is authentic and naturally occurring, not elicited for research purposes
  3. it is ‘high stakes’ in the sense of its academic importance
  4. it has been written without native-English intervention

These four points are a good description of the academic research blog. Graduate students and experienced professors alike represent their research online. Unlike in the US/UK-dominated world of peer-reviewed journals, research bloggers can represent themselves in their professional lingua franca directly to the public and their peers, without linguistic barriers set up by outsiders.

In search of ELF bloggers

Once I started poking around, it didn’t take long to find researchblogging.org. The site is a research blog aggregator, meaning it centrally compiles blogs discussing peer-reviewed research from any discipline. You might’ve noticed in my last post that a Research Blogging (RB) icon was present – the sign that the post has also been submitted to the RB website.

I started looking for RB blogs written by non-native English users not based in a native-English country. Unsurprisingly, bloggers in the US/UK are heavily represented. But I was doubly lucky to find a blog by Israeli graduate student Hadas Shema, entitled Science Blogging in Theory and Practice. An information science researcher, she blogged about blogging as well as bibliometrics and open access issues.

Some of Shema’s early research about the RB website was reported on her blog. In 2012, she and her colleagues published a study on all the RB-listed blogs by 1-2 authors with 20 or more posts in the year 2010 – 126 blogs altogether. Among these most active blogs, Life Sciences was the dominant domain, making up 39% of the sampled blogs. Research blogs dealing with the humanities or social sciences were among the lowest, at only 5% of the sample.

A similar study by Fausto et al (2012) confirms this general disparity between disciplines. Their research took into account all 27,000 posts by over 1,230 active blogs on the RB website at the end of 2011. Looking at number of posts per academic domain, Biology (one of the longest-served domains on the site) again was on top with 36% of posts. Social Science – which subsumes the humanities in the RB categorisation – was among the lowest with 4% of total posts. We humanists have some catching up to do.

The languages of research blogging

Love it like a spouse, hate it like an in-law, or tolerate it like an annoying brother, you can’t escape English in academia. The dominance of English in scientific blogging is stark. As reported by Fausto et al (2012), the languages of RB blogs are as follows, sorted by number of posts:

language # of blogs # of posts % of posts
English 1,008 22,660 84%
Spanish 52 1,456 5.4%
Portuguese 65 1,013 3.8%
German 36 742 2.7%
Polish 24 512 1.9%
Italian 32 449 1.7%
Chinese 19 137 0.5%

To their credit, the RB administrators have gradually introduced support for the additional six languages listed above, the most recent being Italian and Polish in 2010. As Fausto et al (2012: 6) further point out, “there is some correlation between when a language was added and the number of posts in that language”. So it seems that these numbers don’t actually reflect the killer English squashing the other six languages; English was the original language supported on the RB site. Instead, this appears to be other major languages beginning to steal some of English’s market share.

The distributions between these languages also hold up in Shema et al’s (2012) study on the 126 most active blogs (with 20+ RB posts) in 2011. English again dominates with 108 (86%) of these blogs, followed by 6 blogs (5%) in Spanish. The remaining 12 blogs are divided between Portuguese, German, Polish, and Chinese.

I don’t think these figures serve either extreme: the British Council can’t say “see, academia was multilingual all along”, nor can the exorcists of Demon English claim that other languages are taking their last breath. Instead, it seems that all the pieces of the game are still in play, and if RB continues adding support for more languages, I’d expect to see the market share of English continue to drop.

Blogging in a second language

For researchers who want to reach a global audience, the pressure is to blog in English. My own research has identified approximately 40 research blogs in English which are written by second-language users of ELF. Virtually all of these authors are highly proficient in academic English and would put the average U.S. college student to shame. So forget about “Bad English” – this is good English that may not resemble native-English in every respect. I’m not saying it’s easy or that these authors don’t have a disadvantage; I’m saying their efforts are both successful and commendable.

But are these ELF bloggers influential? To get some picture, I looked through the list of the 126 most active blogs included in the Shema et al (2012) study. I can’t say for certain if I’ve looked at all these blogs, but having worked backward through the RB site with blogs sorted by the largest number of posts, I’ve probably checked most of them out. In any case, out of my list of 40 ELF blogs, 10 of them are listed on Shema’s list of 2011’s most active blogs. This is mainly an illustrative finding, but a significant one, I think – one in four of the ELF bloggers I’ve identified are among the most active, “high impact” bloggers.

Again, I don’t think these observations are cause for celebration or despair; they simply reflect the realities of multilingual academics in the blogosphere. But if I may conclude on a wholly positive note, it’s worth mentioning that Hadas Shema, whose blog about blogging and RB research got me started on this journey, last year joined the blogging team at Scientific American. Her latest blog, Information Culture, has brought her research interests to a high-profile blogging platform. So congratulations to Hadas, and keep up the good work!

References

Fausto, S., Machado, F., Bento, L., Iamarino, A., Nahas, T., & Munger, D. (2012). Research Blogging: Indexing and Registering the Change in Science 2.0. PLoS ONE, 7 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0050109

Shema, H., Bar-Ilan, J., & Thelwall, M. (2012). Research Blogs and the Discussion of Scholarly Information. PLoS ONE, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035869

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