The anatomy of a good blog

ICHE recently published an unusual article (which other article has ‘the world wide web’ as their setting) on blogging in ID and clinical micro. The article reviewed around 100 blogs and rated them using a multifaceted tool. The article has some useful qualitative feedback from bloggers and readers, and identifies some gaps in the blogosphere (especially around antimicrobial stewardship). Rachael Troughton, one of the study authors, recently published a post on the article – and here’s my take on it.

The team identified around 300 blogs and ended up reviewing 88 that were aimed at healthcare professionals, focussed on ID / clin micro, and updated regularly. The authors developed a new quality criteria tool to analyse each blog in detail, and came up with a ‘ranking’ for each site. The criteria included aesthetics, frequency of posting, clarity, and some other variables. I’m delighted to see that the two blogs focussed on IPC (our very own Reflections and our transatlantic colleagues’ Controversies) both ranked in the 10 ten!

The study also included a survey of 29 bloggers and 106 readers. Bloggers were mainly motivated by teaching, disseminating information, sharing their experience, encouraging discussion, keeping up to date, building profile, and providing rapid access to information to assist colleagues. I relate to all of these, but perhaps the most powerful motivation for me is learning: blogging gives me impetus to sit down and read at least one paper per week, and digest it in enough detail to share a post about it. I would also add the sense of community that blogging brings, especially with Andreas, Martin, and Marc here at Reflections, but also with colleagues further afield (especially Dan, Mike, Eli and their newer fellow bloggers over at Controversies). And also the surprising reach that a blog has. For example, this year, we have had readers from 141 countries!

The paper didn’t touch on the potential downsides and pitfalls of blogging. I have got into a bit of hot water over a couple of posts that I have written – both with colleagues at home, and strangers abroad – and Eli has recently posted with some similar experience. These are very much isolated incidents though: most of the feedback that I receive is very positive. Also, I do think that my academic output is marginally less than it would otherwise have been. The ‘comment and correspondence’ type articles that I would probably have written (e.g. letters to the editor / commentary) become a blog post. Once that has been written and is out there, the drive isn’t really there to go through a fiddly submission process, wait a few weeks (if you’re lucky) for your letter to be accepted (if you’re lucky), and a month or so (if you’re lucky) for it to appear in the public domain, often only to be stuck behind a pay wall! I don’t really mind ‘sacrificing’ a few academic letters as blog posts: at the end of my scientific career, I will judge myself on how many practice-changing papers I have authored, not how many letters to the editor.

From the blog readers survey, I was struck that only 75% of readers surveyed regularly read the latest research publications, suggesting that blogs were the academic update for around a quarter of readers! From my viewpoint, a good blog needs to be topical and provide an angle on the subject piece, rather than a comprehensive overview. If a reader is interested in the detail, they can go ahead and read the subject piece. My advice to guest authors, for what it’s worth, is: 300-1000 words is ideal, think like a journalist and find an angle, and write like you are explaining it to a colleague. As you can see, I rarely follow my own advice.

There are a few key limitations of the study to discuss. Firstly, the inclusion criteria excluded blogs focussed on patients, blogs written in languages other than English, and blogs on veterinary medicine. As we move towards a One Health approach, perhaps we need to embrace veterinary medicine blogs? I’d also like to see a similar piece of work done on blogs focussed on patients / the public. Secondly, the data extraction and analysis tools have been developed to analyse text written for academic purposes, but seemed to work ok in analysing (very) non-academic blog posts. Thirdly, and perhaps most fundamentally, the quality criteria were subjective and prone to bias. For example, I don’t know where I’d start in deciding whether a blog’s primary purpose was for research or practice purposes, and how can you rate overall appearance when beauty is in the eye of the beholder? The team did a good job of trying to apply objective principles and used an academic approach to reduce subjectivity and bias – but impossible to eliminate completely.

The article identified a few gaps in the blogosphere. I fit the cliché profile of an ID / micro blogger: male, in my mid-30s (well, late, but clinging to mid), with a PhD. Also, the article identified antimicrobial stewardship as a gap in terms of key topics covered. My own view is that IPC very much encompasses antimicrobial stewardship – that’s certainly how our clinical services are oriented at Imperial – and we post regularly on antimicrobial stewardship here at Reflections. Still, if there are any would-be bloggers out there who happen to be female and would like to start posting on antimicrobial stewardship, do please get it touch!

This article would have been very easy to reject based on scope, so I’m pleased that ICHE have published it, and I enjoyed reading the article – thanks to the authors.

Non-disclosure: despite this article being written by colleagues in the same research group as me at Imperial, I was not involved in it!

Image credit.

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