Pitfalls for new professional archaeology bloggers

This is the last of three posts for students in my Introduction to Professional Archaeology topic, as well as other people who are new to blogging about archaeology. You can read previous posts here and here.

So you are considering starting a blog yourself—or have started one already. Great! In this post, I look at some of the potential professional pitfalls that can come from sharing your thoughts with the world, some of which can  undo all of the benefits of blogging I have outlined up until this point. The broad problem is quite simple: anyone can read your material, and a bad piece of work can be in front of hundreds or even thousands of readers just as quickly as a very good piece. That is something to be concerned about, but not terrified of, because it should be seen for what it is: a subtle form of pressure to produce high quality work on the web. So, that said, here are some tips for novice archaeological bloggers from the perspective of a professional archaeologist who has been reading and writing about archaeology on the web for about a decade.

Be mindful of ethics

Adhering to the ethical norms of the particular sub-disciplinary environment that you work in is very important. In Australia for example, disclosing site locations or certain types of information shared with you by community members is widely seen as being unethical. This will vary depending on what codes of ethics you are  signed up to, so make sure you take the time to read those fine details when you join a new organisation. Don’t publicise things that you shouldn’t!

In a research environment one mistake that new bloggers can easily make is to disclose data or ideas generated within your research team, that are not ready for public release. If you are working as part of a team on a project, make sure to contact directors or project leaders with a draft of your work and seek feedback (or consent). Don’t just hit publish! The same applies to field schools where there is serious research being done.

Be mindful of employment policies

Sometimes there are very clear guidelines that influence what you can write about. For example, if you work in cultural heritage management then confidentiality is a major concern. Webster (2014:223)  writes about being fired twice for using social media in this context. In one case, he says:

I was fired because I broke confidentiality by mentioning that we were on a survey for a client. The fact that the client was talking about the project to the local media was beside the point. The company had a zero tolerance policy about breaking client confidentiality, which I was not aware of. I’m sure I signed something in the confusing mountain of paperwork when I was hired, but that had been nearly a year prior to this incident

Finding good work as an archaeologist is not easy, so make sure you understand how your blogging relates to your employment situation. If there is no policy, then seek advice.

Bad writing is unprofessional

It might seem obvious, but it needs to be said: the most unprofessional thing an archaeological blogger could possibly do is to write unprofessionally. The same rules that apply to writing well in more formal contexts (assignments, scholarly papers, etc.) apply with blogging. To quote the longstanding Editor of Archaeology in Oceania, Dr Peter J. White (2006:416),  written work containing poor grammar and spelling:

“suggests that you are illiterate—and thus probably also incompetent…you should never let any of your work escape into the hands of others until you have checked it for spelling and grammatical errors. If you know that you are weak in this area, get help from someone who is better trained”.

It is far too easy to publish poorly written work to the web and you should avoid doing so at all costs.  I am not suggesting that blog posts should be written in the same style as academic papers, because the style of writing can vary depending on your intended audience. However, your work should always be free of all the normal errors that would see your work marked down in an assignment. Don’t let this put you off though. Instead, use it as a motivation to improve your writing skills and if you need advice on your writing, seek it out. You will find that your writing improves through time (and you can always go back and lightly edit errors in earlier work!).

My word that’s wordy

I personally enjoy brief, snappy blog posts that share a sharp opinion or piece of information in a few hundred words or less. It is the kind of material that is easily shared because people quite easily get the point and then click those all-important ’share’ buttons on your post. There are, of course, very good reasons to write more extended, essay-like posts (such as when you are trying to teach students!). My advice is that if you are new to writing blog posts, start at the shorter end of the spectrum—200 words or so is great. The reason is that it is much more useful to frequently write shorter pieces than it is to generate two or three 2500 word posts a year. By doing this, you build a perception of being prolific and you create more opportunities for engagement. Also, it is much easier to carefully proof short posts than it is to proof longer, more unwieldy pieces of work.

Write in a style appropriate to your audience

Everyone writes differently and it is important that you decide the most appropriate style for your blog. However, it can also be good to experiment with different approaches depending on the subject at hand. Most blogs that I read are written in first person, inject some light humour and adopt a relatively relaxed conversational style. However, some authors publish more serious academic writing on their blog and adopt a style that is more reminiscent of a scientific paper. What you do will depend on your audience, and that may vary from post to post. My only point here is to think about it before you start writing: who are you targeting and what is the best ‘voice’ to reach them? Is it  fellow archaeologists, the broader scientific community or the community at large?

My own approach is generally to write as plainly as possible, and I think that this is the best approach for most archaeological research blogs because your work will be read by more people. If you want to write an academic paper, then do so, and publish it in an academic outlet. That’s only my opinion, and I know many bloggers who are a lot more active (and successful!) than I am write very technical pieces at times.

Don’t blog in a silo

Blogging is about interacting with and acknowledging the ideas and work of others (just like archaeology really). So, make sure you read other people’s blogs and, where appropriate, and try to comment on their work. Just writing words and publishing without looking at what others are doing is probably not going to encourage them to engage with your work. If you don’t want to engage with others, then why bother with blogging at all?

Watch out for content theft!

I suspect that most long-term bloggers have experienced content theft of some form or another. Writing on the web does not mean that anyone can use your material or that you have no rights. If it has your name on it, the copyright is yours at a general level. By applying a Creative Common’s license  you make it more obvious that the content is yours and you are supported by clear terms and conditions for using your work. So, once you get started, look into this and apply an appropriate licence to your work. It’s quite easy to do and there are licenses that have been specifically developed for Australia.

Of course, the reverse rule applies to you as well. Plagiarism is plagiarism, whether the ideas or words are pilfered from a published scholarly source or a blog. I am sometimes astounded to see academics and students who pinch images off the net for lectures, with no credits or acknowledgement of the source. This is a form of plagiarism, and it is very easy to fall into this trap with a blog. Make liberal use of citations, either by linking to the source or by using more traditional citation methods. When it comes to images or other media, try to use only those that have a license of some form that allows reuse.

Get your priorities right

Undertaking high quality research is usually a key part of your job if you are a research student, postdoc, or academic. The universally recognised way of demonstrating high quality research is through producing book chapters, journal articles, books, monographs or—in the case of students—thesis drafts. These things are measurable and, often, are what you are paid to do. Ignore this basic fact at your own peril! Do not let the immediate, short-term satisfaction that comes with blogging override what should be an innate need to publish or perish. These things are  often counted when you apply for jobs, grants, or promotions and should form a central element of your communications strategy. These research outputs are also weighted much more heavily than other things, that is, they are taken much more seriously, than blog posts and other forms of media attention.

That’s not to say that blogs (or media attention) are unimportant, and I have outlined the benefits of blogging in my previous post. Generally, blogs are recognised for what they are: a form of community outreach, and a supplement to the more serious work of good research. Blogging and research supplement each other very well and novice archaeologists should seriously consider starting a blog. Just be careful, and keep your career priorities in mind. It might be harmful to your career in the medium term if blog posts—as good as they might be—are the only thing that you produce. Instead, integrate your research with your blogging and aim to use blogging as a tool publicise your research as you do it. Try not to let blogging define you as a professional. Your research outputs should do that.

References

Webster, Chris. 2014. “Fired Twice for Blogging and Social Media.” In Blogging Archaeology, edited by Doug Rocks-Macqueen and Chris Webster, 222–231. Landward Research Ltd in Association with Succinct Research and DIGITECH LLC.

White, Peter. 2006. “Producing the Record.” In Archaeology in Practice: A Student Guide to Archaeological Analyses, edited by J. Balme and A. Paterson, 410–25. Carlton, Victoria: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (Link)

 

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