How to blog, get tenure and prosper: A very useful engine

This is part 2 of my four-part series on blogging and tenure. In the last installment, I mentioned the kinds of motivations that might drive a tenure-track scientist to blog, and naturally your personal motivation will help drive your writing style. What I aim to do in this installment is to discuss some of the issues you should consider to maximize your blog’s impact. How should you position your content to reach a broader public? Should you worry about rankings? How do you explain to your colleagues that a blog is not a distraction from your research? Can you actually make it work for you? And should you worry about your unruly commenters?

Read some blogs. You’ll find they all have different styles, different scopes, and different voices. Some scientists write blogs mostly about politics or religion. Others write mainly for educators, or for the public, or for their students. Some write mainly for other professionals, others include lots of pictures of their cats.

There are probably a hundred different approaches to blogging that might add to your scientific career, and you just have to find the voice that will work for you. In this series, I’m not advocating for any particular blogging style. Instead, I’m outlining strategies to help turn your own particular style into an asset for your research and your tenure dossier.

I didn’t start blogging with a theory of how it would turn out. Still, after four years I’ve ended up with one, salted with information from several sources. As a scientist, you want to show that you have thought this thing through. If you end up with hundreds or thousands of visits a day, it probably doesn’t matter. But if the results don’t speak for themselves, you may need to justify the time you’ve spent, if not to your committee, then at least to yourself.

A theory of blogging

A few hundred people read the high-ranked journals in your field, only a small handful of whom will actually look at one of your scientific articles. If one of your papers gets lucky, its results will be aired in the media. But you didn’t write that paper for public understanding, you wrote it for the exacting standards of a small community of specialists in your field. Your scientific impact and reputation ultimately depend on your standing within this small community of specialists. You can advance within the community, becoming a leader of your field, a member of the National Academy, collector of multi-million dollar grants and winner of scientific accolades, without ever developing a reputation with the broader public. If you do good science, your work may need no further justification.

You might make a broader impact than this, by working in other ways that increase the public accessibility of your work. You might give media interviews, public lectures, or write more accessible treatments of your research or your field. You might even blog. By serving the public and your own colleagues, you raise the game. Science depends on criticism, on many eyes examining hypotheses and finding observations that test them. Science bootstraps itself, it can only advance when people near the top of the mountain send a hand down to lift others up. That means teaching your methods to others, and helping a broader public understand why the mountain is worth climbing.

Your community helps to establish your standing with the broader public. Your work with the broader public helps to establish the standing of your community.

Blogging also involves a small community and a broader public. In this case, your community may not include your scientific colleagues, but other writers with interests like yours. Limit your blogging to your scientific field and your community will be tiny. Blog about a broader range of things, and your community may be large, but you will have a harder time establishing your standing. You may be the world’s expert in your field, but you probably don’t add much value to a discussion of religion in science. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t contribute to such conversations, only that your participation will do little to build your standing.

Many bloggers thrive on the community aspect of blogging. Following the latest news, commenting on others’ blogs, linking and blogrolling—all these help to increase your standing. You can become a leader in this community, linking widely to other blogs, commenting and driving conversations. You can take on topics that engage more readers and provoke commentary from other bloggers and commenters. Heck, you might even find work by being an alpha blogger.

But as in science, you can leverage your standing within the blogging community to make a broader impact. The broad public who may want information about your field does not principally consist of blog-readers. They will find you by word of mouth, by reading articles that cite your work, and above all by way of search engines. Your links from other blogs—your standing in the blogosphere—place your site higher in search results, making it more likely that the public will find you.

Science is ultimately a social activity that progresses toward greater understanding. Blogging is also a social activity, which can serve the ends of science, if you apply your expertise. What is more, by incorporating the content management paradigm into your workflow, you can maintain a blog with very minimal work.

A record of failure

My blog was not my first attempt to create a website about paleoanthropology. I began as a graduate student, as I mentioned last week. I knew that there was a potential readership for information about paleoanthropology, with several well-established newsgroups, a few informative websites, and journals just beginning to put their tables of contents online. I consulted for a new exhibit at a science museum, got to see their planning and budget process, and figured I could do just as well building a website myself, with a little bit of effort. I designed websites as a summer job, and had the skills to put organization and style to content.

What I mainly learned is how hard it is to write a useful science website that is not a blog. This was in the mid-90’s, before there were more than a handful of “weblogs.” So it didn’t occur to me that a long series of daily entries might actually build themselves up into something useful. Instead, I looked at the opportunity as if it were the beginning of a dissertation. And as you probably know, nothing says “Lack of Value” like the phrase “Unfinished Dissertation.”

The project just wasn’t integrated into my other priorities: finishing my degree and moving on in my career. My undergraduate students found my site, and a few other people. I added content here and there. As a student myself, I figured that the only market for my ideas was among students, trying to learn the same material. But in the end, there were more important things to do.

When I moved on to a postdoc, I started again. I took some of the old material, updated the look, designed a cool navigation system for the catalog of information that was to come, and started adding text. Again, it wasn’t tightly connected to my research. Making it useful for the courses I taught required work adding content. It looked nice (a lot nicer than my current site), it had a lot of potential and a memorable address. But it was too unwieldy to add new content.

When I started as an assistant professor, I began a website for one of my seminar classes. Students could download each others’ papers, make comments on them, and keep a collaborative record of their notes. I added material to supplement the readings and deepen the conversation outside of class sessions. It was a very special purpose site, and it worked within the context of the class. But when the class was over, the site was no longer useful. Its value was mainly to the students, not to any broader public.

I had a lot of experience failing at public communication. Each failure taught me something important. Extra work may seem worth doing, but it can’t be a chore. It has to be fun. People are not generally interested in your classes, and your students are not generally interested in your work. Just following and writing about the literature can be a valuable service. Other people have already written general introductions to your field; don’t re-invent the wheel.

Blog in your workflow

Most important: You have to blog for yourself, not your readers. Organization is for your readers. It helps them find things. But despite their flaws, blogs have something much more useful for the writer: content management. With a blog, it is very easy to add and present new content. There is little coding (often none, but I like coding), and features like “categories” and “tags” make it simple to cluster related content.

What that means is that you can build an index of content over several years. Consider my Neandertal DNA files. I’ve done nothing but answer questions and react to new articles for four years. Or search my content for FoxP2. These files keep growing and growing, becoming a deep source of information about some paleoanthropological topics. Certainly not all—nobody is the expert on everything—but as I note below, the important thing is not to do every topic, but to do your topics well.

Integrating your blog into your workflow can go much deeper than simply recording your reactions and notes. Right now I write my blog with LaTeX, the same system I use for my research papers and bibliography management. My blog includes references, which are plugged into my reference database. This reference database and my blog posts show up alongside PDFs of papers and my other written notes when I search for information on my own computer. I use several tools for archiving and searching, including the valuable DevonTHINK, which allows contextual search and content matching. I even maintain a “shadow blog,” filled with notes that will never be published on my public site. The content management paradigm is incredibly efficient once you begin indexing and writing.

Your scientific research is already a mashup. You no doubt use online tools, like del.icio.us or Connotea, desktop tools like Google Desktop Search or Spotlight, bibliographic tools, statistical tools, and word processing systems. A content management system can help tie these things together, and a blog can be a natural way to blend the material in new ways.

Over time, these capabilities have gotten better and better. When I started blogging, I approached it as a separate writing task, using distinct tools from my research writing. The value was still there—the most important software is the content itself. But now my system is truly integrated with the other work that I do.

Most of all, remember the sculptor’s advice: Begin with a block of marble, and then remove everything that is not your subject. Until you write, you have nothing. You must write many more words than you need, because only by editing and cutting can you produce something that will be worthwhile to anyone else. Blogging may seem to your colleagues like a lot of words you don’t strictly need. But writing those words provides a way to organize and use your work, as you prepare to cut down to the essence you will use in your research. That future work can include the long-term projects that you will turn to after tenure, and will provide the cornerstone for a long, successful career.

Go beyond the daily reader

As a scientist, you probably hope your research articles will be useful over several years. Yet as a blogger, your content disappears off your front page after a few measly weeks. This seems like a contradiction. Many people will be skeptical about your blogging, thinking that your work will have no lasting impact.

You can increase that impact by raising the profile of your archived work. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen discusses similar ideas in his online article, “Write Articles, Not Blog Postings.” Nielsen has a reputation of sucking the fun out of web authoring, since he advocates common usability standards at the expense of style and flash. But in this article, he addresses himself to writers trying to demonstrate expertise in a specific content niche—exactly the problem faced by many science bloggers.

Blog postings will always be commodity content: there’s a limit to the value you can provide with a short comment on somebody else’s work. Such postings are good for generating controversy and short-term traffic, and they’re definitely easy to write. But they don’t build sustainable value. Think of how disappointing it feels when you’re searching for something and get directed to short postings in the middle of a debate that occurred years before, and is thus irrelevant.

In the article, Nielsen makes and illustrates a simple argument. Anybody can write a short blog post with little depth, but such a small increment of information provides almost no value. Writing many such posts cannot set your work apart, and you will be very low ranked in search engines for such content. In effect, by writing such posts, you limit yourself to readers that you already have.

[I]n-depth content that takes much longer to create is beyond the abilities of the lesser experts. A thousand monkeys writing for 1,000 hours doesn’t add up to Shakespeare. They’ll actually create a thousand low-to-medium-quality postings that aren’t integrated and that don’t give readers a comprehensive understanding of the topic—even if those readers suffer through all 1,000 blogs.

(I have two reasons for pointing you to Nielsen. One, this is good advice for a specialized writer. Two, in your tenure dossier, you will include a description of your blog and your rationale for blogging. You could do worse than cite prominent usability experts. )

Last month (July, 2008), my second most-visited post was an archived entry from the beginning of June. The third was from April, and the fourth was my “acceleration” entry from December, 2007. These old posts were off the front page, and were getting most of their visits from search engines, along with the odd link from other sites. Each day, I receive several hundred visits looking for such older content. I appreciate my regular readers, but I have reached many times more people by writing quality articles that get a slow but continuous flow of visits over years.

How do you keep such content useful?

  • Organize. This is where organization is useful, drawing readers further into your site to find your valuable content. Tags, categories, front page links, “related posts” links, all of these are helpful, and using them will also keep your older links alive in search engines.
  • Revisit. The subjects that you follow closely, you probably update with new posts every month or two. After some time, your older posts will be obsolete, because they don’t include more up-to-date information. But nobody told Google they are out of date, and nobody will. So new readers are finding and using this content on your site every day. What should you do? The simple thing is to put a link to newer content on the top of the older posts.
  • Consolidate. If you cover a topic a lot, you may want to consider a centralized page as a guide to your information on that topic. In the long run, this will make your site more usable and will save you time, since you don’t want every post to have to introduce the topic. So write the introduction once, put a link on the front page, and feed from the introduction to more specialized posts, using categories or tags.
  • Advertise. Do you have the best internet resource on Topic X? When you consolidate, providing a front door to the content, you should advertise. When you write it up, post it and invite links—hopefully, you’ll push its search ranking higher than your other posts on the topic, so new readers will be directed to the introduction. E-mail the authors of the major textbooks in your field—they may want to include the address in their next edition. Edit Wikipedia and add a citation to your own site.
  • Don’t drown out the good stuff. You may be tempted to believe that your readers are depending on you to find out what’s happening. They aren’t. If they care that much, they have a Google News feed, too. Let your articles linger on your front page. If you like the short post and write a lot of them, you might try my method: two distinct content styles. My long posts stay around longer and have more archive-friendly permalinks, my short posts fall away.

I’m still implementing these ideas myself. Until the recent server switch, my blog actually had much less organization than either of the earlier sites I had built. It was much harder to find content within my blog older than a month (more on that topic later), whereas my earlier sites had clear sitemaps and menus to bring all content to the readers within two clicks.

Most blogs in the world are still not well organized. Those lists of monthly archives going down the side of the screen are atrocious—they’re not even like graveyards for old ideas, because they don’t have any headstones telling you where the bodies are!

The rankings treadmill

As you start a blog, and start linking and getting links, you’ll become aware of various ranking systems. Most of these, including the biggest, Technorati, are citation indexes. They keep track of who linked to whom.

Some people become more or less obsessed with increasing their ranking, thinking that a higher ranking will bring more readers, or more prestige. You may want to improve your rank—get more links—because they will bring you more readers. You may notice that blogs that talk about politics, or follow current events closely, get a lot of links and rise in the rankings. You may notice that blogs in a consortium—like the ScienceBlogs—all have high ranks, because they all interlink.

Your Technorati rank does not matter to your tenure committee. If, like me, you’re an “Adorable Little Rodent” in N. Z. Bear’s ecosystem, you should probably keep that under your hat. The people evaluating your record may care how many people cited your research papers, but your inbound links are meaningless to them.

This raises a question: What are ranking systems for?

Let’s take Technorati, as the most prominent example. Last month (July, 2008), my blog received a bit over 120,000 visits. Seven (7) of those were referred by Technorati. That doesn’t mean that Technorati has no impact—it still is the most effective citation index for blogs. Several of my inbound links in the last month were Technorati-inspired trackbacks (someone saw on Technorati that I had linked them, and linked back to me). In a couple of cases, those links led to valuable e-mail exchanges, and I often find new blogs when Technorati registers a link to mine.

In contrast, roughly one in six visits to my site were referred by Google. People found my content and read (or didn’t read) what they wanted. Some of them stay and become regular readers—maybe 10 or so per day. The rest use the information and learn a bit more about paleoanthropology, genetics, or evolution. A very wide variety of searches bring them to my content, with the largest fraction being direct searches for my name. These folks heard about me in a class, or read about my work in some other source, and are looking for more information. For other searches, my site is one of the top search results because of links from other sites.

These are potential sources of readers for your blog, and links help draw them to you. It took over a year of writing for my blog to become the number 1 search hit for “John Hawks”. For you, it may take less: I had to compete with the “John Hawks Pub,” which wouldn’t even give me a free beer when I went in. (See if they get a link from me!) It won’t matter whether your blog is ranked in the top 100 or the top 100,000 on Technorati, but it does matter whether you are on the first page of search results from Google.

Fortunately, that’s a lot easier. There are thousands of people trying to game the ranking systems to leapfrog to higher ranks (widespread interlinking schemes, spam blogs, and the like). There probably aren’t any other people writing about your academic specialty trying to Googlebomb themselves to fame. You need some links to establish your place in search results on Google, Yahoo, and other search engines, and getting a few will be enough to start moving you up the search results.

Comments about comments

For some people, the most rewarding part about a blog is the immediate feedback from comments. Others dislike the comment section, whether it’s the constant battle against spam, or the trolls, or the pressure to respond to comments.

Personally, I can let a question sit in my inbox for a long time (as some of you know!), but I wouldn’t tolerate it sitting unanswered on my site. That’s my most important reason for not having a comments section: I think about posts, and I think about replies, and comments don’t generally give much time for thinking. The sites I like the best take a hybrid approach: They include questions or comments from readers, but do not have a “comments section” for each post. That kind of full-moderation, indirect feedback still can provide the sense of interaction and community, but without the repetition, trolling, and off-topic digressions that often emerge in comments sections. That’s only my preference, though—you may feel differently.

Will your commenters hurt your tenure case? I don’t think it really matters whether you have comments or not, assuming that you keep out the spam and discourage bad behavior. Probably the most important thing, as I’ll describe in the next installment, is that you mind your university’s use guidelines. As long as you follow the rules, your readers and evaluators are almost certainly smart enough to understand that your commenters are not you.

A healthy, lively comment ecosystem will add to the value of your blog. Your regular commenters help to give your site an identity by giving it a sense of community. Pointing to the community element can help to sell your site to your committee. University mission statements often include ideas like “building learning communities,” or “providing to underserved communities” (more on this in part 4 of the series). A healthy comments section is evidence that you are indeed serving a community.

An anemic comment ecosystem, mostly a monoculture invaded by the occasional weed, will subtract value from your blog. Imagine that someone visited one of your classes. Would you want to show a class where the students just wouldn’t participate? Or where one student always stood up after the lecture and announced that your ideas were garbage? You don’t want to say you’re serving an active community, while your blog comments appear to give concrete evidence that you’re not.

As you approach your tenure review, you have to think carefully about how to sell your blog to a committee. Then take action: Shut down your comments for a while, or put them on full moderation, encourage your e-mailers to submit comments, or make a concerted effort to draw comments from students or people in your field. As you plan ahead, you can think of the best way to accentuate the positives, and a small force applied early may save a lot of explaining later.

Final words

Needless to say, some of my story will not apply to you. If you haven’t ever blogged, but have seen lots of difficulty starting up course websites or other internet resources, you can see that I followed much the same path. The right software and a focused approach can go a long way to turn those bad experiences into a website that steadily builds content and traffic.

If you are already a blogger, think about and write down the synergies between your blog and your work. Do you follow the literature? Use common bibliographic information? Find new sources through your comments or trackbacks? Do you get e-mails from other specialists in your field about your blog posts? Do you get inquiries from the press? If you find yourself doing a lot of contacts with other people, you should keep a log (more on that next time). At the least, you should be keeping a list of reasons why your blog makes a research impact.

The point is not to sell your blog as something it’s not; the point is to show the synergies between your research and outreach activities. You should do the same thing for participation in academic conferences, television or radio appearances, and public lectures, but these kinds of outreach are widely acknowledged and understood. As you blog, you are pursuing an outreach activity that is only beginning to make an impact in academic circles, and so you need to document in a bit more detail.

You should also start thinking about your blogging statement. You have a statement of teaching philosophy, and unless your blog is exclusively a teaching resource, you should have a separate statement about it. If my ideas above are helpful, feel free to crib them (or cite them).

Next time, I’ll discuss a number of technical measures that you should consider. For example, what should you do with your blog if you have to move? How much should you worry about your university’s IT use guidelines? And is there any way to get credit from your department for blogging?