History Blogging Project and ‘impact factor’

At the launch of the History Blogging Project, I was invited to give a brief talk on how blogging could potentially have ‘impact factor’ – the preferred term for the importance and influence your research and writing could have in the ‘real world’ (or as someone at the talk last night put it, to ‘ordinary people’).

Yolana will be posting my actual talk here, and I’m going to repost it under the cut.

Just leading on from what I spoke about then, though, I’ve been thinking about the reaction my talk got, specifically when I talked about the ESRC and AHRC’s admittedly amusing ideas of the impact our research should have, as quantifiable economic benefit and contributing to the life of the nation.  People were very willing to approach blogging as a selfish, individual exercise, indulging yourself by writing about your own interests in a way that helps formulate your ideas and hone your writing skills (and ability to quickly churn out 500 words).

The audience yesterday, though, were less keen – or at least laughed more nervously – about the idea of thinking of your research as having a positive social impact in real terms.  Other than the element of self-depreciation in this, I found this a bit strange, not only because I had the same reaction.  But I do think of my research interests as not just interesting to me and maybe a few other people, but also important – I do think it’s important that we know more about what we see as ‘marginalised’ communities’ own organisation, not necessarily because I’m chasing an emancipatory kind of history but because I think it’s helpful to all to know about the people they are making decisions for.

So, regardless of the AHRC and ESRC’s overblown – and as someone suggested, written by a consultancy anyway – jargon about national intellectual capital and social wellbeing, don’t most researchers harbour some fantasies that their work is socially and politically important?

 

Blogging, research councils and public engagement

Academia is increasingly scored and rated – by citations, by the new Research Excellence Framework, by funding bodies.  Every assessment talks about impact factor, and increasingly about economic impact.  As money gets tighter, it’s not just about impact factor based on citations and mutual respect within the academic community anymore.

As many of us are funded, or are hoping to be funded, by the two main research councils giving cash to history, I checked what impact the councils believed our work should have, and I quote:

The AHRC says:  The research we fund can lead to improvements in social and intellectual capital, community identity, learning skills, technological evolution and the quality of life of the nation.[1]

The ESRC says that it funds research that plays a part in shaping and understanding the society we live in… [providing] quantifiable economic benefits; impacts on government policy, the third sector and professional practice; and the wider social impacts such as effects on the environment, public health, the quality of our lives and our general wellbeing.[2]

This is a problematic job description.  We can all believe that our research helps to understand society, and sometimes impacts on government policy and social welfare, but how do we show this?  Is blogging a way of usefully sharing our ideas and showing their importance?

It’s often really hard to get academic research circulated more widely, and to access research if you’re outside of a university – as someone who’s just had two years with no access to JSTOR, I know.  But people are interested in your work, despite what you think.  Blogging is a good way of opening up your audience, particularly when academics have to justify their importance to the public.

We have to rethink our assumptions about who uses the internet – 50-64 year olds are the fastest growing community of people on the net,[3] and they are the most likely group to use archives.[4] People are increasingly looking for facts online, and they are also becoming more aware of referencing and sourcing – Wikipedia has made the idea of citations a general one.  Academic bloggers can provide a source of credible and analytical information.

Blogs make academic work less intimidating.  People who would not think of reading an article might follow my blog – and start talking to me about what I post on there, and understand slightly more about what I’m trying to do.  The more posts you write and the more feedback you get, the higher up the search engines you will go, and people googling your topic are more likely to find credible, referenced and analytical comment from you.  Your blog can link you to contacts in the country you study, to journalists and filmmakers.  Blogs are increasingly being used in the popular media, in print as well as online; individual posts get picked up and run as articles, academics such as Professor Mary Beard have their own blogs on websites.[5]

Some academics might see blogging as a waste of valuable archive time, but everything academic is going online – archives, articles, papers, university courses and raw data.  A 2010 survey of faculty members in the US by Faculty Focus showed a third of lecturers were tweeting, blogging, ‘branding’ themselves, sharing journal articles, and asking for information.[6] This isn’t only about selfish promotion of yourself on google searches – although Drew Conway, a researcher at New York University, had his CV downloaded from his blog over 800 times in one year.[7] If more people understand and are interested in academic research, and if our work can reach people who otherwise don’t have access to university tuition, we’re helping to promote further study and critical thinking.

Whether you think of your blog as self-promoting or for public interest, a blog can demonstrate that your research engages a wider intellectual community through its comments and discussions, as well as making academia and university-level research more accessible and comprehensible to a wider audience.  There is already a lot of measuring of what is good research – and we’re going to be more and more assessed.  As academics, we’ll still mostly be quantified by our journal output, but blogging may be a way to show funding bodies and the wider public the relevance and interest not only of your own work but of university research in general, and show that academics aren’t living in little ivory towers but in a wider intellectual community.

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