The risks of professional blogging

Colleen at Middle Savagery has been facilitating a discussion about archaeology and blogging for the past few weeks and this week the question she poses is:

What risks do archaeologists take when they make themselves available to the public via blogging? What (if any) are the unexpected consequences of blogging? How do you choose what to share?

I thought I would participate in the discussion this week by considering blogging in relation to University students and recent graduates. In my experience, a large proportion of those who actively use blogs to write about research are students or recent graduates and I think there are specific risks associated with this (there are also many benefits, but I’ll come to that!).

I fall into a category that is sometimes termed the ‘early career researcher’. I’ve worked as a professional archaeologist for about a decade or so, have recently completed a PhD and I now teach at an Australian University. I have blogged since about 2005 however I have never been a prolific blogger because I’m often very busy with other things.

There is one standard that I have tried to maintain in my blog writing for the past couple of years: is the post professional? By that, I mean is it ethical, accurate, logical, well written and appropriately sourced? Writing unprofessional posts is a very risky business, regardless of how established you are in your chosen career. We simply do not know who will be reading our work: academic colleagues, members of committees (ethics, jobs, funding), community members, developers, school students? If your work does not meet basic professional and ethical standards of the discipline in which you work, then what is the message that you are sending to them?

People who are well established in their chosen career usually have a clear sense of just what is unprofessional and the kinds of impacts that unprofessional work can have when released into the public domain. I think this is less so for recent graduates with limited experience of professional life. However, as we might all  agree, the media landscape today is not the same as it was even ten years ago and there are umpteen opportunities for professionals to get their message into the public sphere and to interact with each other via various kinds of new media. This is a new problem – and opportunity – for archaeology.

There are several key risks associated with students or recent graduates who maintain blogs. First, there is the risk that they unwittingly post material that is unprofessional and that this will negatively impact on their career. We all know that an unprofessional post in your archives that was not very widely read at the time may come up in a web search two or five years later when you are applying for a grant or job. Most bloggers whose work I have time to read are very cautious about what and how they write; however, this may not be the case for those who are new to writing professionally and whose sense of professional standards may not be very well developed. If you seek a career as a professional and you run a blog you will be judged (in part) according to the professionalism of your blog, whether you want to be or not.

Second, there is the risk that an unprofessional post can be influential and attract a great deal of attention. A blog post about a research result or heritage management project that is controversial, for example, may attract the interest of mainstream media outlets or simply be promoted widely through social media: we all see examples of poorly researched and inaccurate popular archaeology stories that are uncritically promoted by dozens of people using social media. Also of concern though is the potential for inappropriate information to be released into the public sphere. For example, a blog post containing information that is culturally sensitive (e.g. about Indigenous heritage), commercially restricted or that includes results that have not been through a peer-review process could potentially have very significant ramifications. I’m not aware of any examples of this occurring in Australia, but very few archaeologists bother with blogs here so that is not entirely surprising.

Some may argue that the beauty of blogging lies in the way that peer review occurs in the comments and that the flaws of unprofessional posts are quickly pointed out by readers. I agree that this can be the case, but it is not consistently so. For most archaeo/anthro-bloggers, our audiences are very small and a problematic post may not be subject to very much criticism at all. Further, it may not be the correct kind of criticism, since readers of blogs may themselves not have the appropriate skills  to identify flaws and may not necessarily even be aware of relevant professional standards. One way around this may be to create a ‘research blogging’ style blog where  posts are to some extent peer reviewed in relation to an editorial policy (see my suggestion about Four Stone Hearth here). But I digress.

I am certainly not suggesting that students and recent graduates should not blog. Learning how to write good research blog posts is almost as important as learning to give a  conference presentation or prepare an academic poster. Blogs are clearly not recognised as a form of academic publishing, but the benefits of writing them are diverse and significant, particularly for students. However, students and recent graduates face unique risks when they decide to start blogging and as such, they should be learning about blogging at University level and encouraged to write and critique blog posts in a sheltered and supportive learning environment. That doesn’t mean telling students to simply “go write a blog”, but rather, incorporating it into the assessment process, providing feedback and helping them to develop and improve their skills. That way, when they do go out into their various professional careers they will better positioned to use blogs professionally rather than as professionals who use blogs poorly.

Edit (16 March):

You can read Colleen’s wrap of contributions on this question here. Some great work, including some contributions from a few CRM/heritage management archaeologists that I wasn’t aware of, as well as a post from Terry Brock on maintaining integrity in archaeological blogging. However, I don’t tend to agree with Colleen’s implication that maintaining a professional stance means writing boring, dry blog posts – I think the best kinds of blogs are those that are engaging and of wide appeal, provided they don’t send the wrong messages. Colleen’s own blog is a good example of an engaging style that sends the right kinds of messages to readers. Let’s face it, blogging doesn’t count for anything in relation to measurable academic outputs, and so there’s not much point writing posts that 10 people might read. Better to write openly and accessibly so that others might enjoy reading your work and to learn about archaeological ethics and professional standards.

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