PA Editorial

PA EDitorial
Blogs: is it acceptable to cite them as reference sources?

Blogs: is it acceptable to cite them as reference sources?

A fairly straightforward formula is associated with writing scientific and academic papers: the more authoritative the sources, the more credible the work.

We start to discover this during our A levels, and as we advance through our education and professions, it only becomes more important. We learn that supporting the most innovative arguments with reference to scholars and experts is essential. Apart from anything else, doing this guarantees being taken seriously in the peer review process.

Digital Disruption

The answer to what qualifies as a reliable source is no longer settled as it was during the analogue age because online publication has transformed the landscape.

Of course, there is nothing inherently inferior in research that has been published online, and most academic and scientific institutions make extensive use of websites to disseminate significant works. However, the quality of the work needs to be looked at carefully since anyone with a domain name can publish whatever they wish. The general consensus is that these pieces should be classified as blogs rather than academic papers, especially as there is no requirement for them to be subjected to peer review, which makes it very hard for those engaged in new research to know whether citing them will help or harm their case.

The Conventional View

There is a widespread view that citing blogs is unacceptable, and the main reasons are easily identified. First, as we’ve mentioned, they have not been peer reviewed, so they could be bogus or misguided. Even parodic pieces could be mistaken for serious scholarship, as we saw in the Sokal affair, in which an article purporting to argue serious questions of post-modernism but actually ‘liberally salted with nonsense’ apparently fooled the editors of the academic journal Social Text [1]. It could be argued that this was actually a failure of peer review and the journal’s editors, but it does expose the wider vulnerabilities of blogs.

Other concerns are that it is impossible to verify the authorship of a blog, the content itself can be changed without warning or notification – thus invalidating references that rely upon it, and that blogs can be deleted – making a nonsense of any use of its content as supporting evidence. There is also the possibility that the writer of the blog has a hidden agenda (as Alan Sokal certainly did) which prima facie makes any reliance upon it unsafe and possibly dangerous. For example, the website MartinLutherKing.Org is owned by a Neo-Nazi organisation which uses it to spread white supremacist misinformation [2].

The Influence of Grey Literature

Yet, this is not to argue that all blogs are unacceptable. Over the years, scholarly journals and peer reviewers have grown more accepting of so-called grey literature such as newspapers and magazines (including online publications), technical reports, industry research and white papers. These are all produced outside the commercial and academic publishing environments, which are the normal guarantor of authenticity and accuracy. Moreover, they have proven extremely useful in research projects, so it seems reasonable to apply a similarly open-minded, if cautious, receptiveness to blogs.

The Unique Value of Blogs

Blogs can be virtually instant and offer valuable insights into events which, if assessed on other platforms, would be history rather than news. For example, court rulings and government announcements can substantially affect scientific issues, and a well-composed blog gives an immediate perspective. It’s also entirely possible for blogs to contain valuable ideas and novel analysis as well as convincing original research that has not been published anywhere else. In many instances, the material from a blog, while not necessarily suitable as a primary source, provides unique perspectives that enrich the argument even if they are not conclusive, such as a CEO’s memorandum.

How to Use Blogs

As blogs clearly have a valid role to play in academic publishing, the question is not whether they should be used but rather the how and why they should be used. If the author of a paper feels it necessary to refer to a blog, they should be meticulous about placing it in its context and asking themselves questions such as why have they used it? What do they believe it shows? How far has it been possible to verify its accuracy? Is the blogger disinterested, or do they have a specific motive? Answering these questions will give the reader the tools to decide what weight to assign to the reference.

Using a blog to support a generalisation such as ‘most people believe—’ would, without doubt, seem wrong. Instead, its citation should be limited to the demonstration of particular points, and the author should apply the same standards of evaluation as they would to any other information found on the web. However, this is not always easy, as the amusing dispute between Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and the Daily Mail Group shows.

In 2017 Wikipedia announced that it would no longer accept The Daily Mail as a source of reference because, in the opinion of co-founder Jimmy Wales, the newspaper had ‘mastered the art of…running stories that simply aren’t true’ [3]. DMG Media, which publishes The Daily Mail, returned fire with counter-accusations that it was Wikipedia with the problems of accuracy. As a result, Wales launched WikiTribune to focus on ‘evidence-based journalism’, which some see as an admission that the people’s journalism model of Wikipedia is unreliable. The WikiTribune site relies upon professional journalists to provide its editorial services.

Any reference to a blog requires citation, of course, but that needn’t imply that the author is relying on it as a primary source or even a secondary authority. In some instances, its purpose may simply be to air opposing opinions and suggest the general level of dissent in relation to the subject matter. Although the author may not be able to prove beyond doubt that a blog is totally dependable, they may, by providing as much supporting evidence as they can find, show that it’s possible to establish its credibility, at least to the extent of that evidence.

How to Cite Blogs

Because of the potential for unreliability, the citing of blogs requires more detail than a reference, for example, to The Lancet or Nature. The author of a paper should give the name of the blogger, or the group name under which the blog is posted, the title of the individual blog and of the series to which it belongs. In addition, the URL of the post should be included along with the date on which it was accessed. Lastly, it should be explicitly stated that the source is a blog, not an article from a recognised publication.

Last Thoughts on Acceptability

There can be no definitive rule on the acceptability of citing blogs as sources. To entirely ignore the wealth of knowledge offered by the blogosphere would be narrow-minded and ultimately limiting. To treat it as equal to the carefully researched, composed, and usually peer-reviewed work of recognised academic journals would be reckless. Blogs are an intellectual resource that any author should feel comfortable using, provided they observe the basic principles we’ve discussed: taking nothing at face value, exercising judgement and always providing caveats and context. The sum of human knowledge and opinion has been expanded by the internet, and academics and scientists can and should use it – wisely.

At PA EDitorial, we provide a complete peer-review management service, working with publishers and editors to introduce new workflows or perfect existing ones. Our expertise lies in the ability to remove the managerial pressures of peer review and leave professional editors, writers, and academics to concentrate on the core work of developing, writing, and assessing innovative new ideas to enrich the world’s store of scientific and academic knowledge.




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