Research, open access and academic blogging

Martin Webber, social work academic at the University of York, is inviting discussion on why researchers should blog. Martin will be drawing on what people say at a seminar he’s giving early next month as part of a York Social Research in the Digital Age series.

So, why indeed? Here are some personal reflections, on blogging and also more generally on the process of writing in an internet-connected world. These I’m basing on my (very) preliminary experiences on this site, some thinking done over the last couple of days, and an awareness of how academic practice is changing.

Word cloud 28.01.13First, researchers might want to blog because this is a very direct, free-to-access, way of communicating. This is especially important in disciplines in which most research papers are published in journals which sit behind paywalls. In applied areas like my own (mental health nursing, systems and services), a blog can be one way of connecting with important audiences (practitioners, policymakers, managers, service users) likely to lack the necessary subscriptions

This does not mean that academic blogging is therefore redundant in disciplines where all or most research outputs are publicly available, and for free. To say why this is so, I probably need to say something about open access. Here in the UK a big shift is taking place in favour of publishing in journals which are both peer reviewed and free to the reader. Check out, for example, the 246 titles currently offered online by BioMed Central. Plenty of longer-established publishers are now also offering open access options to authors submitting to their titles. Increasingly this means that, within single issues of journals, open access content sits side-by-side with subscription or one-off payment content.

A major driver behind these developments is the Finch Report, which appeared last year. This recommended open access as the preferred publishing model for the future, particularly in the case of papers reporting research supported by public funds. Making further progress along the open access route, however, means finding new ways of covering the costs. In the traditional model authors pay nothing to see their papers in print, the costs of publishing being recouped via institutional (or individual) subscriptions or from payments made by readers of single articles. Publishers like BioMed Central do things differently, requiring authors (unless they secure waivers) to pay an ‘article processing [or publishing] charge’ (APC) for each peer reviewed and accepted paper. APCs can be hefty. For example, the current submission checklist for the journal BMC Health Services Research indicates that it usually levies an APC of £1,290 on each accepted paper. The Times Higher Education reports that in the majority of open access papers published in the new social sciences and humanities journal Sage Open, the APC has been paid by individual authors. I’m not sure that’s either fair or sustainable. In the future, financial support for what Finch and others have called ‘gold [APC] open access’ will surely have to be provided by funders and universities (presumably using money currently being used elsewhere). Government and charitable funding bodies will require applicants to include in their bids the costs of open access publication, and universities will sign up as members of organisations such as BioMed Central with the aim of waiving or reducing the costs associated with individual article processing.

There are other ways of making available, freely and publicly, the full text of published research outputs. Publishers’ policies in this area differ, but under the terms of their copyright agreements many allow versions of accepted papers to be uploaded to institutional repositories for access, at no cost, by interested readers. The best deals allow authors to deposit post-peer review versions of papers as soon as they have been accepted for publication. Other deals allow the same, but after an elapsing of time to make sure that readers wanting immediate access have to obtain paid-for versions. The text in these author-own manuscripts is the same as that appearing in journals’ versions, but the papers lack the ‘added value’ of volume and issue details, layout and formatting as per journal house style, and so forth. This ‘green open access’ model is one I have been making use of in this blog, via links to post-peer review versions of papers saved in the Cardiff University ORCA repository. Check out my Enduring posts page, which has examples of posts and linked papers on wicked problems, work and roles in mental health systems, and research ethics and governance.

So if the gathering pace of the open access movement means that research papers will be more likely to be publicly and freely available via ‘gold’ and ‘green’ routes in the future, does this reduce the need for research blogs? Not at all, in my view. Blogs can be vehicles for making clear the connections between multiple papers and projects, giving researchers opportunities to write in-the-round overviews of cumulative bodies of work. They can also help contextualize research, and unpack the detail of full-text papers irrespective of whether these are open access or paid-for. In this way blogs can perhaps help translate ideas, promote uptake and increase the use of findings. This, I think, is part of the task researchers now face to maximise what the Research Excellence Framework (REF) refers to as ‘impact’. As an aside, I am reminded in this context of the excellent material on using social media to promote research available at the LSE’s Impact and the Social Sciences blog. If anyone working in the health and social care fields has examples of blogs, tweets and the like being successfully used to promote impact outside of academia, I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like to hear more.

Blogs are also interactive, allowing fast-moving, two-way, communication between writers and readers via the use of the ‘comments’ function. This is very different from traditional academic publishing, which can be distinctly one-way. This said, there are some journals (like the BMJ) which directly encourage readers’ online responses to published papers, and which host journal content and supplementary material (blogs included) at single sites. Further, whilst publishers will often accept study protocols in their journals they are less keen on progress reports. The immediacy of blogging offers an option here. For instance, Martin Webber on his site has some excellent examples of using his blog to keep interested parties aware of his ongoing projects.

To sum up what has turned into a lengthier-than-expected post. Martin Webber asks why researchers should blog. Based on my (admittedly brief) excursion into the genre, my response is that a more appropriate question might actually be, ‘Why are researchers not blogging as a matter of course?’ I have also taken this opportunity to think, in a more general way, about blogging in the context of changing academic practice. Blogs are a way of sharing research ideas, progress and findings, and can be used to wrap around and support full-text open access content. They have the potential to promote engagement between research producers, and research consumers. They allow connections to be made, and they encourage interaction. What’s not to like?


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