GLOBAL: Academic bloggers everywhere

Tens of thousands of opinionated academics around the world have become internet bloggers while universities are increasingly establishing blogging sites on their web pages. Blogging has moved from being a nerdish undergraduate pastime to an accepted communication medium within the academic community.

According to American market researcher Mark Penn, blogging could have a profound effect on our culture. Penn argues that if journalists were the Fourth Estate, bloggers are becoming the Fifth Estate. As he says, blogging started in the 1990s as a discussion forum for progressive politics and new technologies but now covers topics as diverse as motherhood, health care, the arts, fashion, dentistry - "and just about every other imaginable area of life".

Blogging sites for and about academics now abound on the web and they even include a 'research on research blog' site.

Another site, the Academic Blog Portal, was created as an 'academic blogs wiki. The portal describes the academic blogosphere as a kind of invisible college and says its aim is to help make the college "a little more visible to itself and its readers".

The site has 35 blogging sites in the arts, humanities, sciences and social sciences along with others in university administration, libraries and museums. It also has links to 53 universities "with whom the blogger is affiliated", as well as blogs in seven languages other than English: Chinese, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Spanish and Swedish.

Perhaps the most spectacular demonstration of the way blogging has invaded academe is shown by the work of a former Melbourne academic, James Farmer. Within a year of creating a page on the web for educators called Edublogs in 2005, Farmer had 10,000 bloggers signed up, 80% of whom he estimated were American academics.

This year, the Edublogs site has 1.3 million clients on almost every continent. They include 800,000 school teachers and their students around the globe, along with 500,000 academics and 200 universities that rely on Edublogs to host their own blogging pages on the web.

Some of the world's top universities, including Stanford, Cornell and Virginia in America, use the Edublogs.campus site as their provider to run blogs for tens of thousands of their staff and students.

Farmer says about a third of university campus users of the Edublogs.campus site are in the US and the rest are spread "pretty equally between Australia, the UK and Canada, with a couple in Mexico and Germany". His site has 100,000 registered users with an email address that contains .edu - an indicator of an affiliation with a university.

"Assuming that some will use a personal email address or a school address that doesn't have .edu, and considering we don't require an email address at all to register, we can safely say that around one-quarter of our users are affiliated with post-secondary education.

"We were just shy of one billion page views for the past 12 months - and with a significant growth rate will go way past that this year. We had visitors from 236 countries and territories, out of 250 in the world, over the past 12 months but our largest percent growth over the past year comes from the African continent with a 70% increase in visits."

Farmer says academics research and write and talk "and what better platform for reaching an audience and sharing your research than a blog?"

Universities obviously agree because increasing numbers are creating blogging home pages in their eagerness to have their staff blog, not only to inform other academics as well as outsiders of their research, but also to use blogging as a new pedagogical-teaching system.

Not that every academic is a practising or potential blogger, as New York historian Stephen T Casper noted in a blog in the Neuro Times last month. Titled "Why academics should blog", Casper wrote that every now and then he makes the mistake of confessing to a colleague that he blogs.

"They usually greet this confession with an uneasy smile and follow it with a look that says 'do you really have time for that?' I understand what they really mean: a serious tenure track assistant professor does not have time for blogging. With respect to my colleagues, they're wrong: graduate students, postdocs, young faculty and senior faculty too, should do more blogging not less. And, moreover, institutions of high education ought to start recognising such work as an important component of a scholar's profile."

Likewise, Anthony Ridge-Newman, a conservative British academic and politician, describes on the History Blogging Project website how he gave a presentation on blogging last month to Oxford's history faculty where he debated the role of blogging in academia.

"The use of blogs and social media is, generally, a fairly new phenomenon and is certainly viewed with some suspicion in academic circles," Ridge-Newman said. But he concluded that "blogging is a tool for interactive discourse. A discourse that need not adhere to the conventions and rules of any other medium - whether academic in focus or not".

A blogger at RMIT University in Melbourne, economics professor Sinclair Davidson, believes universities are ideal forums for blogging:

"They are important and broadly respected social institutions that exist to propagate and disseminate knowledge. Blogging allows people to get ideas out into the marketplace for ideas, to pre-test thoughts, to set down markers and generally converse with a wider audience of people than you'd otherwise encounter."

Davidson wrote a commentary earlier this year on why academics should blog and says he started blogging in the early 2000s and now sees it as an appropriate academic pastime:

"Over and above anything else that academics do, they are observers: why, what, when and how is our bread and butter. It is unsurprising then that many bloggers are academics: those people already active in the market for ideas are likely to explore different avenues for communicating with different parts of the market."

Academics wondering whether they should venture into cyberspace should consider its reach, says Adrian Miles, a senior lecturer in media and communications at RMIT. Miles has 1,000 readers a week for his VLOG 4.0 blog and although he describes it as "a very small blog", he contrasts it with being published in a major international journal where he says "maybe 100 people would read my article".

A rural Australian academic blogger is Dr Ben Habib, who lectures in politics and international relations at a regional campus of Melbourne's La Trobe University. Habib decided to start a blog last September to follow the federal election and post online comments; since then the site has received more than 5,400 hits.

"I'm very conscious of the need for academics like me to remove ourselves from our 'ivory tower' and provide something of value to the community in media that are easily accessible," he says.

"This is especially important for academics who work in regional universities so with that in mind, my blog serves three broad purposes: one, it provides me with a forum to write regularly on a broad range of topics within my research and teaching areas; two, it is a teaching tool, providing experiential learning opportunities for students; and three, it is a vehicle for community engagement."

Meantime, Farmer says anyone wanting a successful academic career could use blogging "to impress a large number of readers and have a great deal of credibility - and that only comes from peer-to-peer review which is people reading and recommending and subscribing back to you". He says tracking engines help bloggers map the number of readers and links to their blogs to confirm their level of blogging authority.

"On the technical front, it's now much, much easier to track feedback - especially given the increasing use of social bookmarking sites such as Twitter and of course Facebook, although I'm not sure that many people share academic treatises on Facebook!" he says.

* See our Science Scene section last week for a report on why people blog.