As I think about the direction I want Parrots Ate Them All to take, two things seem clear.
That academic blogging is important, both professionally and intellectually. More than a box-ticking exercise for research impact, writing for the lay reader helps you develop a clear style and a constant awareness of purpose. I think of it in the same way I think about my teaching. I’ve always enjoyed tutoring a range of students, from pre-literate five-year-olds to university learners. Each pupil requires me to select and frame my ideas differently. And, invariably, this variety of approaches strengthens my teaching, writing and theorising on all levels.
That posting research on academic blogs also puts the author at risk of plagiarism. Lucy Williams wrote a shocking piece for the Guardian last year, about a tabloid newspaper’s theft of her work. While I doubt the Daily Mail will be interested in much I have to say about Stevie Smith’s aphorisms, Lucy’s story is a warning. Anyone starting a blog needs to be clear about the risks involved, and to consider in what ways they want to protect their writing.
Of course you can stick copyright warnings on your posts. You can choose to lock certain posts (though that compromises the outreach value of the blog). But perhaps another option is to rethink the ‘shape’ of an academic blog post. It’d be easy for me to download my formally-structured essays or talk transcripts about modernism on to my blog – and it would be just as easy for an opportunistic reader to lift and transplant those pieces on to their own platforms.
I asked my sister, who blogs about issues surrounding biochemistry in the news, how she manages the possibility of plagiarism. She answered in terms of shape; she said that she aims for a long, slow buildup, quickly followed by a conclusion. So there’s not much ‘flat space’ in the middle – not much pure content – which can be easily copy-pasted without much editing. The image that came into my mind was of a pyramid vs. a table. We should aim for a structure where the build-up and wind-down are the main components of a piece, rather than a brief flurry at either end of the text, as they are in more traditional essays.
How would this work in practice? What would it mean to make our posts more pyramidal? On one level, it means blog posts would need to be kept short – there’s only so far you can spin out introductions and conclusions. This is probably a good thing for me to keep in mind anyway, especially if I am writing about aphorisms.
A pyramidal blog post might also blur the lines between introduction, content, and conclusion, using more diffuse or informal signposting. This makes it harder for a lazy (theft-inclined) reader to zoom straight in on any modernist essay-gold they want to snaffle.
Pyramidal writing might also involve integrating our specific context throughout the blog post. For instance, in a traditional introduction/conclusion to an article, I might briefly mention the journal context I am writing for, details about my audience, or information about how this piece links to my work on aphorism more widely. A pyramidal blog post might make those ‘build-up’/’wind-down’ details more prominent throughout the piece, reducing its usefulness for any copy-paster outside your individual situation.
Of course this wouldn’t always be possible, nor would it be foolproof. But I’m going to keep a pyramidal model in my mind as I blog. Let me know if you have any other ideas…
(You can follow Lucy Williams on Twitter here! And, of course, this post – and all others on this blog – is © Noreen Masud, 2014)