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?
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.
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.