Thursday, 26 June 2014

Academic Blogging - Getting started

Looking to share your research project online via a blog or social media but not sure where to start?

I often get asked how you blog. So here's a post with some hints, tips and how to get started with a blog.

I think blogging can be an extremely useful tool but it isn't for everyone, it is hard work and can be extremely difficult to do well. There are also risks involved and it usually isn't the best way of engaging with the public.

Researchers can blog for a number of reasons. It could be to share work with a wider audience or to share it with peers and there's plenty of folk (myself included) that blog about working as a researcher in a general sense. These posts are mostly read by other researchers. I found blogging through my PhD quite therapeutic and it helped me make a few new friends along the way.



I've included lots of links in this post to resources elsewhere on the web. I'm definitely not the first person to post about blogging so I have included lots of links to other tools and resources. I will continually update this post with links so please post things you have found useful in the comments!

Things to consider


Before getting started familiarise yourself with other blogs and work out what you like, don't like and how you want your blog to look (use google to search for blogs that cover your area of interest). There's usually a reason why popular blogs are popular.. look at the tools they use and the way they are structured (but don't steal!)

Think about the audience you want to reach with your blog and tailor your design accordingly.

Don't create anything too fancy. You want a platform that can be accessed via a computer, laptop and via mobile and tablet devices. Most people read things via social networks via phones and tablets. According to twitter 76% of people access twitter via their mobiles. 

Blogging is an investment of time and effort and it can be worthwhile but you need to make sure it's the right move for you. Will you have regular content, an audience and be able to sustain writing quality posts over a period of time?

Check out any guidelines on blogging from your institution. There may be someone that can help support you and your blog and always remember to let people know you are going to be blogging if the blog is going to contain details about your research. So...

Getting started - choosing a blog platform

I use blogger because it is super easy. I wanted something where I could start posting content immediately and without too many options but with some custom features. I didn't want to spend time learning to write new code or how to build a website from scratch (although I have now started to learn that!). It isn't as professional as other platforms but it works for me as I wanted to focus on the content.

If you want more ownership and control over how your website looks then you might want to use Wordpress. You can use a template of Wordpress (wordpress.com) or construct your own website from scratch (wordpress.org). My guess is if you are reading this post then you are probably looking for a simple platform.

There's also Tumblr where you have less control over the design and look. If you want to compare all three options then this website has already done that for you.

The platforms are all constantly changing and evolving so what works now might change in a months time.

The most important thing to consider with design is to make the text in your blog readable so a simple design and layout works best. There are some more thoughts on blog design here.

You can swap blogs between platforms at a later date.

You might also want to register your own URL (e.g. www.heatherisawesome.com - which is an actual website). It's easy to do and costs a minimal amount. It looks more professional but I never bothered making a custom URL for this blog.

Alternatively you could pitch a blog idea to a blog network. These bring different blogs linked by a theme together. There are lots of them (some by subject area) and can be a great way of reaching an audience by building on an existing platform. They all work differently and may have different rules regarding posts. I would recommend seeing if there are any in your area and looking at what they do. The other advantage to blogging on a network is that they may have a blog editor that can help you improve your posts rather than just working on your own. I blogged on a network for a while it was fun but I decided I wanted more freedom.

My advice would be. Start with a simple layout. Concentrate on the content and you can always build more custom options in at a later date and that leads me swiftly on to...

Content

I find it's easiest to post content about the things that I am working on. Seeking and creating fresh new content in addition to a full time job can be difficult so my blog links with my job which I really enjoy. Content needs to be.. relevant and of interest to others, something you have credibility to discuss and are passionate about and it really needs to serve a purpose...

You need to know why you are investing time in sharing things via a blog otherwise you can lose motivation, lose momentum and the blog can stop.

Be realistic about how often you can post. In an ideal world I think one to two posts a week is a good rule to keep people coming to your blog. However, that can be really difficult to achieve and very time consuming.

Be wary of sharing details of your research work if you are planning on publishing it at a later date. That said I think you can generate real interest from readers on the web by talking about how you work and what research it is you are doing. Of course if you do publish a paper then BLOG IT (but again, be careful of image rights as these can be held by the publisher even if you produced the image. If you are unsure- check).

If you are a PhD student or post-doc make sure you let your supervisor know that you are blogging if you are using information from your work. I know many people blog anon BUT they avoid using anything that could link them to their place of work (and sometimes even avoid their research area).

Link content to other sources and make sure you credit others on the web if their work inspires you .. also seek permission to reuse photographs, images and you find on the web. Don't just stick them on your website. There are some that are free to use here's an overview of using photos and images here.

USE PHOTOGRAPHS/IMAGES/DIAGRAMS if you can. It just makes things look nicer. Even better.. create your own images and diagrams Errant Science has some awesome creations! If you are unsure where an image on the web has come from this is a handy tool that tracks it back to the original source.

Develop your writing by getting others to proof read your blog. If they are your friends you will probably get a limited about of feedback but they might spot some typo's for you!

When I you post something always think about who you are writing for because every blog has a...

Audience

This can be tricky but it is important. Think about who you want to contact about your work. If that is other academics - great! Or the public... more difficult but still great. Tailor your content and posts accordingly and make sure you are publicising your blog (you do need to do this) in the right places to reach the audience you want to. Have your audience in mind when you write your blog. Even better get someone from your target audience to read your posts before publishing them.

To reach your audience you need to find where they are on the web, that could be via twitter (I've written a getting started guide), facebook, LinkedIN, reddit, pinterest.. or any number of social networks. You might not need to use all of the networks. Top tip. I think twitter is the most useful BUT make sure you learn how to use it properly.

Do some research, set up appropriate accounts linked to your blog and make sure you let people know about your blog. If you can reach people with wide networks (e.g. a society you work with) then let them know and they can help you share your content. Without sharing your writing then it will be difficult for people to find the content.

You could also ask an established blogger if they would be happy with you writing a guest post on their site. It's best to do this after you have written a few posts so they can refer back to that in order to see if your content and style fits with their blog. Interact with other blogs through the comment sections too. Don't just continually post 'HI I WROTE A BLOG'. Participate in the online community by being helpful to others.

Use the 'labels', 'keywords' sections on your blog to help search engines find your posts. You can use adwords to help you determine which keywords are the best to use.

In order to decide on an audience you might want to think about WHY you are blogging.  I know my audience is mostly people who are early career researchers HOWEVER I also know my blog does reach a public audience and more senior academics and I know this because of...

Tracking and metrics 

There are LOADS of different tools you can use to track who is visiting your site and for how long. The jury is still out on the best way to track the impact of blogs and the reach of posts.

They can be useful to see how many people are accessing your content and where they are finding your website. Here's some explanations of the terms used on tracking and metrics websites.

Tracking keywords too as to how people find your blog can also be interesting but you can spend lots of time getting bogged down in checking stats and metrics. Different websites will report slightly different numbers visitors and stats for various reasons. It's a confusing landscape so the best advice would be to use a couple of different tracking sites just to make sure.

Your outcomes might not be to reach 10000000 people with your blog but they might be to involve others in your research project which leads me on neatly to....

Being available

Make sure you have an easy way on your blog for people to get in touch or connect with other networks.e.g. a CONTACT ME HERE tab or 'gadget' in blogger (these are found under the layout options).

If this all sounds like too much (I used to spend at least 3 hours or so a week on my blog) then you might want to check out some...

Alternatives to blogging regularly 

You could always write a guest post for another blogger.. (they should have details of how to get in touch with them via their blog page).

Or pitch an article for The Conversation (online platform written by academics)

Check out these blogs for inspiration: 

Ed Yong's 'It's Not Exactly Rocket Science' - note he is a professional science writer but he posts his picks of the best science blogs each week .. a great place to find more blog inspiration.

Robert Hooke's London - beautiful research blog

The Thesis Whisperer - excellent PhD focused blog

Scicurious - moved from anonymous blogger to non anon blogger

Biochembelle - blogging about life as a post-doc


Handy tools for bloggers...

I use evernote for everything..to collate ideas, remember useful websites and to create blog posts but here are some other tools that might be useful - Blogging tools 

Blogging books 

There are books about blogging. I've never read one but perhaps I should have. I would be interested to know if anyone has found a book useful or if anyone has any further hints, tips and ideas to share.



Please note - I'm not responsible for any content on pages I am linking to. No-one asked me to link to their page or paid me to include their blog on this post. There is advice all over the web (business blogs, beauty blogs) and I wanted to provide a resource to further information for those that are starting a blog.

Please let me know if any of the links aren't useful or if you have any other useful ones to suggest please do! Don't spend money on producing a blog at first and be wary of any blog posts that try to sell you services! 

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