The benefits of blogging for professional archaeologists

In a post earlier this week I provided a brief account of why blogging is of interest to archaeologists and also touched on aspects of the history of ‘archaeo. blogging’. I’ve taken the time to do this to provide students in my Introduction to Professional Archaeology class with a background to blogging and social media in archaeology, which I argue is an important part of professional communication in the discipline today. Here, I focus on the benefits of blogging and also collate some ideas as to how archaeology students should start out with blogging and social media. For those on twitter, see also #profarch.

Publish or perish? Research blogging helps to develop a wide range of important academic skills that will help you to advance your career (more…)

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The value of a track record in blogging

At the moment I am writing a rather large grant application for a postdoctoral position to step into next year when my current teaching contract at Flinders University runs out. I’ve written a few successful funding applications but this is by far the most challenging application I’ve yet attempted, which is no surprise given this scheme is the major funding program for Australian researchers. For years I have moaned about blogs not being seriously ‘counted’ when it comes to getting jobs or promoted, however at about 2:14pm  on Tuesday in a chocolate inspired burst of writing, it struck me that blogs do serve two important purposes that are critical in the competitive world of academia. Let me elaborate.

This particular grant application is difficult not only because of its scale, but because it requires me to do two things that are each quite difficult in themselves. The proposal must be innovative on a national and international level and firmly locate the idea in relation to a gap that needs attention now. That means it should be academically rigorous, demonstrate a degree of mastery of the relevant literature and meet all the requirements of any major grant proposal, i.e. clear aims, sound methodology and sensible budgets. It also should be carefully crafted for a general academic audience, not of archaeologists but of readers whose specialisations are different to your own. So writing 10 pages of archaeology jibber-jabber won’t necessarily help you get money. You need to convince people outside of your narrow field what your project involves and why it must be funded now.

Meeting both requirements in one document is by no means easy, at least  not for me. But for those who lay awake at night wondering what the point of blogging is, particularly when everyone around you is saying ‘publish or perish’ (and I have made that very point myself), heed my words: having a track record with blogging has been very useful in developing this application, despite my modest and patchy approach to posting.  There are two reasons.

Blogging potentially demonstrates a track record in community engagement and can be utilised as part of a communication strategy to maximise the social benefits of academic research.  If you’re a student or an early career person looking to demonstrate that they have a track record of community engagement, then blogging helps. It shows you’ve been trying to bust open the academic silo, in your own small way, and it also shows that if given the chance (i.e. via a job or large grant), you could easily apply these skills as part of a communication strategy for an organisation or on a large project. That’s important, particularly when it comes to people giving you money. They want to see their investment promoted, plain English blogging helps that and sits nicely alongside formal communication in journals and at conferences and the like.

Blogs also help you to develop your ‘plain English’ writing skills. They allow a great deal more freedom and unlike the real world you can write plain English posts that are accessible to a wider, non-academic audience. I’m an academic and even I find high brow, specialised posts very dull and I’m rarely interested in reading them unless they’re near to my specific field.  A good blog is a readable one and developing that skill is very useful when it comes to convincing others outside of your field about why they should employ you or give you money. So write for people outside of your field.

Publications are of course critical, and without those you are dead in the water so I still maintain that blogs are secondary to this. But they serve a purpose, and if now or in the future you need to demonstrate plain English writing skills or  a track record in community engagement, start  now. If you write about one thing, write about your specific field and the work that you are doing (if I want to read about some new research, I’ll usually read the publications themselves not your blog post ‘covering’ it). Don’t cover the big stories in archaeology if they’re outside your field, for that is the way of two paragraph quotes and blog spam and we don’t need more of that rubbish if we want to make a genuine case about the value of blogging in archaeology.

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Archaeology, publishing and profit

There’s been a bit of talk on the Australian Anthropology Society email list (AASNet) about open and commercial publishing, and the future of academic publishing in anthropology in Australia. This was prompted by a post about the obscene profits of commercial publishers, the content of which irked many, and I think the issues raised in both contexts have a lot of relevance to the future of publishing in Australian archaeology. The latter post makes the very strong point that commercial publishers make a lot of money as the data below on Elsevier’s profits suggests:

  • 2002: £429m profit on £1295m revenue – 33.18%
  • 2003: £467m profit on £1381m revenue – 33.82%
  • 2004: £460m profit on £1363m revenue – 33.75%
  • 2005: £449m profit on £1436m revenue – 31.25%
  • 2006: £465m profit on £1521m revenue – 30.57%
  • 2007: £477m profit on £1507m revenue – 31.65%
  • 2008: £568m profit on £1700m revenue – 33.41%
  • 2009: £693m profit on £1985m revenue – 34.91%
  • 2010: £724m profit on £2026m revenue – 35.74%

Those of us connected to the research sector know well enough that the ‘system’ rewards those who publish and that publishing means career advancement. Academics don’t typically receive any financial gain from publishing, and few would seek such gains; as Gillian Cowlishaw noted on AASNet (17 Jan 2012), the kudos for publishing doesn’t lie in formal rewards, but in the eyes of  peers. We want to influence opinion on particular issues or questions. It’s not necessarily about money.

Authoritative sources?

Coincidentally, I’ve just been writing up a guide for my students on how to evaluate the quality of sources to help them decide what is and is not an appropriate source to include in formal writing (evidently some students struggle with the idea that a blog post or National Geographic article does not necessarily have the same scholarly status as a peer reviewed book or journal). This has meant pointing out to them what constitutes a good source and just why published, peer reviewed items are preferable. I’m sure I’ve oversimplified it and no doubt readers will point out flaws in my logic: but the only thing that makes a scholarly source more authoritative than, say, a blog post or PDF manuscript posted online is:

  1. the fact that they are peer reviewed by people with appropriate expertise and track record in the field, typically by an editor and two anonymous reviewers,
  2. authors use some system of acknowledging their own sources of ideas and information.

Somehow though, the status of the publisher has come to be interpreted as a third indicator of scholarly merit.  There is a deeply held perception in archaeology at least that manuscripts or books published by high profile publishers are inherently better than those published in localised journals with low readership, or monographs with low print runs. Why? I expect because they have larger print runs, higher rejection rates and on the whole are potentially more influential. Ostensibly, higher rejection rates means that the quality of materials published are on the whole better quality – according to the (potentially personal) criteria of the editor and reviewers. This is often true, but equally we’ve all read fantastic books or papers published by relatively small or obscure publishers. Good work is good work, regardless of where it is published.

Furthermore, not all academic publishers make huge profits, and as Mike Taylor at Sauropod Vertebrae notes, publishers do have a right to make a living and as a few posts on AASNet also note, large scale publishing is expensive. Regardless, the larger publishing houses are evidently profit driven and this must influence (or determine) what is published. So, in a sense, the market economy exerts a considerable influence on what constitutes scholarly material.  It also potentially places brakes on the intellectual output of particular disciplines, and I expect that it is possible to quantify the number of  papers able to be published within a field in any year.  That  makes me feel a tad uneasy.

More OA is good

I won’t go on beating this drum, I’m sure many others within the science blogging and open source publishing scene have made these and many other points previously. To my mind there is clearly a significant opportunity (and need) for an online, peer reviewed and open access journal publishing a broader array of material, particularly original data and monographs (grey literature!), rapid (near to real-time) discussion and debate, items not suited (or acceptable) to print journals (due to length, topic, or that are too ‘data rich’ for example) and incorporating non-printable media. PLoS One is a good model, but its science focus constrains those of use who work across the social sciences and humanities and the scale and volume of papers is much larger than what I’m thinking. Queensland Archaeological Research is another good model – it’s very small scale and the costs of managing this would be negligible. There are plenty of open access journals in archaeology already, just not necessarily in Australia, so it’s not a fundamentally new concept.

We need to open publishing in Australian archaeology to the wider opportunities afforded by the web in order to encourage more rapid dissemination of ideas and information, and to help make the outcomes of archaeological research more widely accessible while maintaining a focus on accuracy and rigour. Organisations such as the Australian Archaeological Association should at least explore the opportunities and implications of such a strategy and consider the public benefit that may stem from some form of online only, open access publishing platform.

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