Monday, 8 September 2014

The Dangers of Blogging

Last month, I gave a talk to a group of research administrators at my university. My focus was the use of social media, and the potential for it to raise our research profile, increase citations and engage the public. The talk was well received, but the discussion afterwards highlighted a clear nervousness in the room.

The administrators said that some academics were nervous about engaging with this form of dissemination, and that they themselves were nervous about letting the academics do so. Some had even set up a departmental review committee, to vet tweets and blogs.

I tried to choke back my horror. If you try to vet every tweet you’ll have time for nothing else, and you’ll end up stifling the very energy and enthusiasm that you should be encouraging. However, I can understand their concern, because I have had my fingers burnt by social media.

In 2009 I set up a blog, Research Fundermentals, to build a community for people struggling with research funding, be they academics, administrators or policymakers. Over the past 5 years this has broadly worked, and I’ve had very positive feedback from a huge range of readers. However, there have been problems.

Recently, a speaker whose talk I had reported asked for her name and institutional affiliation to be removed from my blog. I was surprised: it wasn’t as if she’d revealed any nuclear launch codes. Similarly, staff from a large corporation that I had mentioned in passing asked for a link to the firm to be taken out. I’m sure they thought I was lowering the tone and attracting the wrong class of customer.

The worst case was 6 months ago, as a result of one of my comic posts. As well as providing help and information, Research Fundermentals leavens the heavy mix with some humour. In this vein I’d written a light piece questioning the selection of awards for a particular strategic programme. The director of the programme just happened to be the head of an institution that was involved in one of the successful bids. The tone was flippant, implying that this was, perhaps, a little too cosy.

As it turned out, the principal investigator of the bid was a reader of the blog. He sent a coruscating email likening Fundermentals to The Daily Mail, suggesting that I was intent on seeing the very worst in academia. He suggested that my blog was little more than a platform for self-promotion, peddling cynical innuendo with a demoralising effect on those I targeted. The investigators in this case had worked for 4 months to put together the application, and to suggest that they had been given the grant purely through nepotism was a puerile insult to them, the funder and the whole framework of peer review. Was I seriously implying that the process was corrupt and biased, he asked, or that anyone connected with the running of the programme should be excluded from applying?

Well, no and yes. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to go that far, but I believed that the issue was worth discussing. It's not enough for a funder to be fair; it has to be seen to be fair as well. By dealing with this in a humorous way I had hoped to stimulate debate while demonstrating, through the tone of the piece, that there was no real substance to the link.

I took down the post, but I corresponded with the investigator twice more. He was placated, but still perhaps unhappy. The words had been written, and the words had been read, and they could not be unwritten or unread.

The whole experience made me understand why those administrators wanted the reassurance of a vetting committee. Recent debate about the right to be forgotten has highlighted that the law and the right of redress are as applicable in this virtual world as they are in the real world. However, I wouldn’t want to completely shackle the wild creativity, serendipity and crackling spontaneity of the web. It offers us a novel way of working, of collaborating, of communicating, and we shouldn’t let fear close this down.

We should not have a vetting committee questioning our every tweet, but we do need to pause before we publish. Our freedom needs to be safeguarded by our own sense of responsibility; we are as culpable as those in the old media for what we write, and we need to think hard about the effector the perceived effectof our words before we send them staggering out into this brave new world.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 8 July 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com

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