Blogging Hurts—Why Academic Researchers Are Reluctant to Blog and How to Get Them Interested in Contributing Content

October 22, 2015

In early October, BIDS fellows, senior fellows, and staff joined our counterparts at the University of Washington and New York University for the second annual Data Science Environment (DSE) Summit held at Suncadia Resort in Cle Elum, Washington. When we weren’t off biking, swimming, or hiking in the beautiful terrain surrounding Suncadia, we were digging deeply into the data science issues we all face at our respective universities and beyond, talking about everything from data science education and data scientist career paths to incubator development and an astrophysics software framework. The topics were as diverse as the roughly 120 people we had working together.

DSEs Communicate a Lot

While I personally was unable to contribute to many of the sessions due to my lack of data science subject-matter expertise, I was ready to go for the “Communications Strategery” (no typo there!) session. This is my jam.  

We talked about website development/maintenance, social media, events, listservs, newsletters, etc.—pretty much everything that consumes my work life—and then we reached a topic that has been particularly troublesome for me lately: the blog (this blog in fact!). I lamented to my colleagues that aside from posting news stories and cross-posting relevant articles from outside sources, I am having a difficult time getting content from BIDS fellows, senior fellows, and members. Several others stated similar issues; the problem seems to be pervasive.

Blogging Hurts!

At that point, an interested non-communications-oriented DSE participant (a data scientist, in fact—the type of person I am trying to get content from) chimed in: “Contributing blog content actually hurts our [academic data scientists’] careers,” he said.

WHAT?! A flood of confused thoughts flooded my brain, primed—most likely—by the many articles and blog posts I have read about the reasons scientists should write content outside formal publications and the myriad benefits for them of doing so. I asked him to explain.

Essentially, he told me that blog posts and similar endeavors “don’t count” when it comes to academic researchers’ formal evaluations (e.g., for hiring decisions, tenure, etc.) and take away valuable time that could be spent on more lucrative career investments, such as actual research, journal article development, conference attendance, and the like.

Another person in the room confirmed this problem, stating that she once had similar problems getting content from scientific subject-matter experts and had to end the blog she was working on. “Why don’t you just kill it [your blog]?” she asked me cooly. NO! I REFUSE TO ACCEPT DEFEAT! (Well, for now anyway…) I politely dismissed that suggestion.

Convincing Subject-Matter Experts to Blog

Leaving the stratergy session slightly deflated but not without hope, I brought this issue up with some other people later on that day. Clearly, I need to be more persuasive in getting scientists to contribute content:

  • “Don’t they just want to tell normal people about the work they are doing?”—Nope
  • “Really, this won’t count at all to their getting-hired endeavours; it’s good for that, right? It shows they know how to get their research noticed.”—Nope
  • “Isn’t writing a blog good practice for them to distill their results so laypeople can understand them?”—Nope

I was running out of arguments to convince these researchers to help me. “Well,” I finally said, “How can I get them to help me then, or is it completely hopeless? Should I just kill the blog?”

Take a Different Approach—Make It Exciting or Really Easy

“Not yet,” chimed in a colleague from one of the DSE funding foundations. He continued on, telling me how he got content: I tell them to write a few paragraphs about the most interesting part of their work, the thing that they are most excited to tell people about. And, he continued, it worked for him because it didn’t take much effort of the scientists’ part to write up a quick blog about something that energized and excited them; they wanted to do it. Then, the hope is to have the “right” person see it and get it shared a lot on the internet. Perhaps something more will come of it (e.g., an interested funder); perhaps not. But at least it didn’t take much time, may have been fun, and will help the organization.

Not long after the summit, I had a conversation about this issue with someone else, and he told me to tell researchers to simply recycle content they have already created for something else. The example he gave was great: if a researcher has spent more than 15 minutes writing an email to answer a question about his or her work/research, he or she should turn that into a blog post. Chances are, other people will have the same question or be interested in the topic, so the time and energy the researcher put into that email can be reinvested into a blog post that reaches a wider audience.

These approaches makes complete sense to me really, and I am at a loss for why I didn’t think of them myself. Most of the researchers at BIDS are working on several projects at once in addition to participating in numerous working groups and other activities. It probably seems like a daunting and time-consuming task to distil all their work into a 1,000-word blog post with a strong focus. It’s much easier, however, to talk about something exciting in their work—the thing that “gets them up in the morning”—or to recycle content from something they have already done.

Next Steps

So, after all this, I may have a convincing argument to get people to agree to give me content, but I don’t think this is quite enough. My game plan is to create an easy-to-read blog-writing guide to get researchers’ creative juices flowing (which I’ll share on here eventually) as well as some processes to make the whole experience as painless (and hopefully even enjoyable!) as possible. If that doesn’t work, I am not above bribing people with chocolate or, gasp!, hiding the beans to the coffee machine to get what I need (muahahahaha!). Only time will tell if this will work.