Research blogging as an academic genre

Mauranen, A. (2013) Hybridism, edutainment, and doubt: Science blogging finding its feet. Nordic Journal of English Studies, 12(1). Click abstract for full text.

Mauranen, A. (2013) Hybridism, edutainment, and doubt: Science blogging finding its feet. Nordic Journal of English Studies, 12(1). Click abstract for full text.

Research blogging has become an object of research in its own right, and one area of interest for linguists is research blogging as an academic genre and means for communicating scientific knowledge. ELFA project director Anna Mauranen recently published an article on this linguistic aspect of research blogging in the Nordic Journal of English Studies. As a pilot study for the WrELFA corpus (Written English as a Lingua Franca in Academic Settings), her research focused on two well-established blogs and especially their comment threads, where ongoing scientific controversies (the Higgs boson and arsenic-consuming bacteria) were being discussed.

As I described in an earlier post (Blogging about blogging about blogging), I’ve been collecting samples from research blogs for the WrELFA corpus. This has familiarised me with the blogging conventions of 35 researchers who use English as a second/foreign language. In the process of compiling over 250,000 words of research blogs and comments (so far), I’ve gotten a bird’s-eye view of blogging as a scientific genre. For this post, I hope to add a few thoughts to Anna’s more in-depth study on two blogs over a longer period of time.

Individuals & communities

In her review of earlier research on blogging, Anna cites the broad distinction between thematic and personal blogs, stating “Clearly, it is the ‘thematic’ – or non-personal – type that bears the most relevance to science blogging” (Mauranen 2013: 11). This raises an interesting question, though, about how much research blogging actually bridges these two broad blog types. In other words, where does the science end and the scientist begin?

Dr. Shock blogs on published research in a variety of areas, including the latest findings on chocolate.

Dr. Shock blogs on published research in a variety of areas, including the latest findings on chocolate. What kind of chocolate eater are you?
Image: André Karwath via Wikimedia Commons

Some bloggers mix in their personal interests – psychiatrist Dr. Shock likes to blog about chocolate, and string theory physicist Lubos Motl is an ardent global warming skeptic – and I’ve found more than a few holiday photos on several different blogs. Moreover, it’s not unusual to find posts dealing with challenges of professional/academic life, reporting from conferences attended, or promotion of one’s own lab or proprietary tool. These personal elements all seem to fit within the research blog genre, especially insofar as they come together as forms of professional self-representation.

The question of community is also important for blogging as a scientific genre. I appreciated Anna’s argument that blogs defy the traditional conception of genre as emerging from an established community. In a sense, research blogging can be seen as emerging from an “academic community” broadly speaking, but Anna observes that especially in relation to followers and commenters of a blog, it is the community that arises out of the genre, and this community is likely more diverse than would be found in the non-virtual world.

She also points out that active researchers mix with interested non-experts in the blogosphere. This too impacts the community-forming function of blogs, which in turn can influence the nature of the genre. For me, starting a blog has demonstrated this through experience. My conception of a “target audience” quickly shifted when I realised that more than academics might be interested in the blog, and my approach to the genre was adjusted. It may be that in a medium as fluid as the Net, a unidirectional conception of genre and community should be liquified as well.

A digital facelift for an ageing genre

Another section of the article discusses the parallels between research blogging and the conference presentation. After a concise monologue, the floor is opened to comments from the audience, each of which the blogger/presenter typically responds to. Both genres display a stylistic shift from prepared text/speech to a more dialogic style with evaluative language closer to casual speech than academic writing – What planet are you from? is cited from one discussion thread.

Right-sorted concordance lines showing the phrase "Thanks for your" in the WrELFA corpus research blogs.

Right-sorted concordance lines showing the phrase “Thanks for your” in the WrELFA corpus research blogs.

Like at a conference, blog comments are optional but desired. No one wants to talk for 20 minutes and stand in front of a silent crowd. Comments in both genres tend to be appreciated, and you can see some concordance lines to the right that I took from the research blog component of WrELFA-so-far. These lines show how the phrase “thanks for your” is completed in the blog data. A “comment”, “feedback”, “question” or “reply” seems to be appreciated.

Nothing leaves a bad taste in your mouth like toiling over the fine details of a conference talk, only to have four people show up to listen. Why bother with all that effort? Good question. Like a conference presenter, a blogger wants to have an audience, but instead of section attendees, the blogger is looking at pageviews. Unlike the conference presenter, the blogger’s contribution lasts longer than 20 minutes. I see the major difference between a blog and a conference as that of a resource vs. an event. A blog post becomes a point of reference. You’ve seen conference presentations cited in academic papers, which is useless for the reader. Too bad it wasn’t a blog.

Questioning facts, opening discussion

Anna performs a close analysis of the comment sections of two blogs, focusing especially on commenters’ views on the legitimacy of blogs in scientific discourse. Some argue for traditional means of quality control such as blind peer review, while others point out peer review’s shortcomings, as highlighted on the blog Retraction Watch, which collects journal retractions from across various disciplines. I see a blog as an ideal forum for questioning the findings of published research and submitting these critiques for public discussion. There are several examples in WrELFA data where journal authors respond to a blogger’s critique by commenting on the critical blog itself.

I would also like to use this blog for more critical appraisals of research, especially when I’m able to present original findings of my own. I think the real value of research blogging will be found when it becomes an outlet for original findings as well. There’s already a couple of studies I want to address in this manner, but these posts naturally take more time and energy. Unfortunately, my time and energy are in high demand these days, because – ironically enough – I’m buried in work with organising Anna’s upcoming conference. 🙂

Mauranen, A. (2013). Hybridism, edutainment, and doubt: Science blogging finding its feet. Nordic Journal of English Studies, 12 (1), 7-36.


11 thoughts on “Research blogging as an academic genre

  1. […] “Research blogging has become an object of research in its own right, and one area of interest for linguists is research blogging as an academic genre and means for communicating scientific knowledge …” (more) […]

  2. “community that arises out of the genre”: well put! … hopefully 🙂

    • Ray Carey says:

      Right, there’s always the chance our contribution to the blogging genre just sits there collecting digital dust! But that’s another nice thing about blogs — there might still be only four people in the audience, but no one needs to know but the blogger. I might display the pageviews on the blog someday, but for now I’m happy to keep my Dashboard private. 🙂

      • I support 100% your choice not to show pageviews: I totally think it’s the way to go.

        I’m mainly hopeful about the composition of communities: four people are a lot of people if they are the right people… for sure, the best comment I’ve ever read is a little girl that commented on a researcher’s post about research on face mites: “Hi, I like bugs, so my mum told me to go and look up blogs that talk about bugs” 🙂

  3. cormac says:

    I enjoy writing a science blog, and I notice that I also tend to read only thematic blogs. I’m very interested in the daily life of a fireman/nurse/ice hockey player, but I have no interest in random opinions .
    The problem is that there is a third type of blog – thematic blogs by people who appear to know what they are talking about, but don’t. For example, climate scientists are extremely worried at the vast number of climate skeptic blogs, written by individuals who know little of the subject, but are greatly influential…this is the downside of blogging that rarely gets mentioned

    • Ray Carey says:

      Interesting point — we in the humanities don’t deal with anything so controversial or far-reaching as climate change, so this third type of blog is something I haven’t thought about. I suppose it connects to broader questions of quality control online and how to discriminate between sources of information in a medium where anyone can start a blog and claim to be whoever they want.

      Is there a way to “certify” quality science blogging, like through a reputable aggregator? Or should the battles for legitimacy be fought in the blogs themselves?

  4. cormac says:

    I think a Humanities equivalent might be a few well-known blogs by a small number of Holocaust deniers that attract a huge following amongst the public, while professional historians look on in dismay. In physics, the battle for legitmacy has indeed been fought in the blogs themselves, and this has worked overall (the few unpleasant physics blogs I know have been removed by majority vote from the blogrolls most physicists read, reducing their influence in the physics community substantially).

    However, for the much wider subject of climate science, this hasn’t worked at all. Many well-known skeptic websites routinely cherry-pick results and distort reports, yet win all sorts of awards and accolades, and become ever larger. In fact they now dwarf the climate science blogs written by practising climate scientists. So the supposed ‘democratisation ‘ of science in the blogosphere has in fact resulted in the evolution of a parallel, influential blog community of right-wing climate skepticism, with its own heros, awards and audience. The main feature of this community seems to be a willingness to dismiss basic tenets of climate science and the scientific method because of a fear of the possibility of legislation on carbon emissions,

  5. Gavin says:

    Hi Ray, enjoyed reading this. You asked, “Is there a way to “certify” quality science blogging, like through a reputable aggregator? Or should the battles for legitimacy be fought in the blogs themselves?”

    Not sure if you saw this but John Hawks, but another research blogger/scientist had some interesting things to say about this on his blog.

    I’ve had my blog going for a couple years now, and the audience/purpose of it has seemed to slide around a bit as I’ve gone through phases trying to figure out what I want to write on and who’s listening when I do write, but as my academic career is headed towards a fairly research intensive phase in the near future, It will be interesting to see how it changes. The surprise (and difficulty) is finding that your “target audience” becomes a moving target, and adapting to that change in your audience leads you to write in ways that you hadn’t anticipated, something which you pinpointed fairly well in this post. To what degree should you be influenced by your initial readers? For me at least, it has had a fairly influential role in how my blog has developed.

  6. Ray Carey says:

    Thanks Gavin — I like the image of a target audience being a “moving target”. It makes sense really, since an academic career itself goes through phases, so why shouldn’t a blog and its audience shift as well? I’ve also been thinking about the challenge of making a broad range of topics interesting to a broad audience — more research-oriented posts for other linguists, more “applied” posts for ELT/EFL practitioners, and posts that could be of interest to ELF users themselves. Then, how to write these in a way that won’t “put off” any one group in particular? It’s a fun challenge, and more stimulating than the “how can I make this as conventional and unobjectionable as possible” approach to formal academic writing.

    A few weeks ago I gave a talk about ELF research at a conference here in Finland for internationalisation planners in higher education institutions. For those who wanted to learn more, I referred them to this blog. I realised that in addition to being a site for debate among researchers, a research blog can also be a relatively accessible entry point for interested people who might sit and read a few thousand words of text, but not from a soulless academic paper.

    Then last week I gave another talk (it’s that time of the year) at an English linguistics conference, and I presented a paper that’s been accepted for publication in the fall. There were a couple good questions from the audience, but the paper has gone to print. Then it occurred to me too that the blog could be a great place to address criticisms and questions raised at conferences, when I get around to blogging on the paper. So, it seems the blog, blogger, and audience can all develop at the same time.

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