For Davidson College psychology professor Greta Munger, PhD, it's easy to see how bloggers start sharing more personal information and opinions than they probably should.
"Because we can [blog] in our offices with the door shut, we fool ourselves into thinking it's not as public as it is," says Munger, co-author of a blog called "Cognitive Daily" that reports on peer-reviewed research on cognition. "I'm sure all of us think the Web is more anonymous than it really is."
Administrators at Davidson and many other institutions applaud their professors' efforts to share their expertise and engage students and the public via blogs like Cognitive Daily, says Munger, who keeps personal information on the blog to a minimum.
"I'm encouraged as a professor to have a community presence," she says. "But a lot of blogs are very personal diary sorts of things." And it's easy to find stories of professors allegedly turned down for jobs, denied tenure or even fired for sharing too much, whether controversial opinions or overly personal information.
In a 2005 article called "Bloggers Need Not Apply" in The Chronicle of Higher Education, for instance, an anonymous professor serving on a search committee found job candidates' blogs not only more easily accessible than their scholarly work but also "every bit as eye-opening as a train wreck." One blogger came across as a "tormented soul"; another revealed that his passion was computers rather than his field. In yet another case, the blog of a candidate's friend contained information that revealed the candidate had misrepresented his academic expertise. While the committee didn't nix any of the candidates based solely on their blogging, their blogs were negatives that helped tip the balance against them.
To avoid such real-life repercussions, follow these tips:
Make it your own. To clarify that the opinions she's expressing are only her own, psychology professor Laura Freberg, PhD, of Cal Poly uses her own server for her blog, "One Professor's Observations of the World of Psychology," rather than the university's. Before you start a blog, find out if your institution or department has a policy or guidelines about blogging, suggest other experts.
Watch what you say. Faculty—especially those with tenure—have a lot of leeway when it comes to expressing their opinions, whether in a blog, letter to the editor or some other format, says Jonathan Knight, PhD, who directs the program on academic freedom and tenure at the American Association of University Professors in Washington, D.C. "There's a strong presumption of giving faculty a lot of room to express their opinions, which is as it should be," says Knight. But that doesn't mean your colleagues won't raise their eyebrows if you post something they don't agree with or something that makes you look bad, he says. "A blog is no different than if I wrote a letter to the editor or published an op-ed in the local paper that is quite crazy," he explains. "The mere fact that you say something on your blog does not immunize you from folks on the campus saying, 'Gee, did you see what Jack Sprat wrote? Does he really mean to say the moon is made of cheese? If he does, we've got a real problem because he's teaching astronomy.'"
Consider anonymity. In some cases, it may be best to blog anonymously. Those seeking tenure-track positions, for example, should "exercise a fair degree of sensible caution in terms of what they say and how they express themselves," says Knight. Even if you don't give your name, be sure not to include identifying information if you want to remain truly anonymous. "Be careful, because someone might trace it back to you," says Knight. "You might find yourself embarrassed by what you said." And remember that anonymity's no excuse for bad behavior. "Anonymity doesn't make something that's not OK OK," notes APA's Ethics Director Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD.
Protect your patients—and yourself. Faculty who also see patients have special responsibilities when it comes to blogging, warns Behnke. "The Ethics Code is very clear that it covers all of your activities as a psychologist," he says. That includes blogging. Bloggers posting about a specific case must be extremely careful not to let slip any information that could identify a patient, he says. Even the most innocuous revelations on a psychologist's personal blog can have an impact on patients and their treatment, he adds. He points to one case where a client with romantic feelings about his psychologist discovered details about her personal life online—as well as revealing photos—and realized he couldn't continue treatment with her (see "Posting on the Internet").
Don't neglect the publications that count. A growing number of faculty post information about their research on their blogs. But remember that posting on your blog isn't a substitute for publishing scholarly work. While it's fine to think out loud and seek comments on ongoing research or manuscripts, says Knight, a blog post just doesn't carry the same weight as a peer-reviewed article when it comes to earning a promotion or tenure.
"There's so much associated with peer review when it's done well that can't be found in the blog system," he says. "I imagine that a faculty member who submitted what she has written on her blog as evidence of scholarship might find it difficult to persuade others that this is really serious."
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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