Sunday, January 31, 2010

Do You Want the Bad News First? Or the Really Bad News?

A massive, multi-year, Mellon Foundation-funded study of e-scholarship has just been released by Virtualpolitik friend Diane Harley. I consider it a must read among promoters of the digital humanities who want to promulgate Web 2.0 technologies. Seeing parts of the project in draft form has informed a lot of my thinking in the new Early Adopters book.

Assessing the Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication contains some grim assessments about the institutional barriers to the production and evaluation of digital scholarship, online outreach, or networked knowledge in the academy.

Age and Institutional Factors

We found no evidence to suggest that “tech-savvy” young graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, or assistant professors are bypassing traditional publishing practices. In fact, as arguably the most vulnerable populations in the scholarly community, one would expect them to hew to the norms of their chosen discipline, and they do. Established scholars seem to exercise significantly more freedom in the choice of publication outlet than their untenured colleagues, although, in the sciences, high-impact publications remain important for garnering research grants throughout a career. There is some indication that faculty in newer and less established departments in the humanities and social sciences may be more amenable to risk-taking in publication practices since their particular institutions support such efforts to carve out the identity of niche departments.

New Publication Genres

As noted above, institutions already have experience in judging non-text productivity in the arts and some professional schools. Some individuals and departments in humanistic disciplines are discussing or implementing amendments to tenure and promotion criteria in order to draw analogies between existing forms of scholarly publication (e.g., books and articles) and new, multimedia, dynamic forms of publication. A number of interviewees identified the need to have a more nuanced tenure and promotion system that could judge “intermediate” forms of scholarship, such as archival websites, perhaps as something in between “service to the field” and a more formal peer-reviewed publication that advances a well-developed scholarly argument.

The fact remains, however, that: (1) new forms of scholarship must be perceived as having undergone rigorous peer review, (2) few untenured scholars are presenting such publications as part of their tenure packages, and (3) the mechanisms for evaluating new genres (e.g., nonlinear narratives and multimedia publications) may be prohibitive for reviewers in terms of time and inclination. Associate professors may well be the class that will exercise more freedom in the type of publication submitted for promotion to full professor (e.g., an encyclopedia or electronic resource instead of the second book).

Advice to Young Scholars

The advice given to pre-tenure scholars was quite consistent across all fields: focus on publishing in the right venues and avoid spending too much time on public engagement, committee work, writing op-ed pieces, developing websites, blogging, and other nontraditional forms of electronic dissemination (including courseware)


Among most of our interviewees, blogs were simply off the radar as a source of scholarship and are generally viewed as a waste of time because they are not peer reviewed. “You have to have some standards! How in the hell are you going to judge the quality of what’s on a blog?” “...who has the time! There have to be some filters!” There was, however, limited
mention of “good” blogs in economics, astrophysics, political science, archaeology, and history (that often serve simply as more sophisticated versions of the subject listserv and are used in much the same way: for finding out about new developments or events in a field and for making general announcements). But again, the particular scholars we interviewed generally said they do not spend time following them (even those who maintain their own blogs). A number of faculty mentioned reading blogs related to a topic of their research (e.g., a historian consulting a blog about a particular branch of science or a political scientist consulting a well-known economics blog in preparation for an interview with a media outlet).

Conservatism of Young Scholars

There may be a trend among young scholars in all fields, and particularly graduate students, to be especially leery of putting ideas and data out too soon for fear of theft and/or misinterpretation. Given these findings, we caution against assumptions that “millennials” will change the landscape of scholarship by virtue of their facility with technology. There is ample evidence that, once initiated into the profession, newer scholars, be they graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, or assistant professors, adopt the behaviors and norms of their mentors to advance their careers. Of course, teenagers eventually develop into adults. Moreover, given the complex motivations around sharing scholarly work and the importance of peer review as a quality and noise filter, we think it premature to assume that Web 2.0 platforms geared toward early public exposure of ideas or data, or open peer review, are going to spread among scholars at the most competitive institutions. These platforms may, however, become populated with materials—such as protocols or primary data—that established scholars simply want to disseminate in some formal way without undergoing unnecessary and lengthy peer review. It is also possible, based on our scan of a variety of “open peer-review” websites, that scholars in less competitive institutions (including internationally), who may experience more difficulty finding a high stature publisher for their work, will embrace these publication outlets. Time will tell.

Social networking/Web 2.0

Although graduate students and younger scholars are much more “net savvy” than their established counterparts, and engage with YouTube, have personal websites, and social networking tools, this tends to be largely (if not exclusively) for personal and leisure use, not scholarly practice. Publishers experimenting with social networking reader tools (commenting, etc.) are not seeing them taken up in large part by the readership. Some attribute this lack of uptake to conservatism, time, interest, and fear of having ideas stolen. Young scholars tend to adopt the conventional practices of their subfields and mentors, despite the perception that they will change the world.

I would consider my own path to scholarly publication with a peer-reviewed book that started as a blog as a narrative that is likely to continue to be highly anomalous. MIT Press has obviously published a number of works by well-known academic bloggers and is invested in new media disciplines that test boundaries, but I also benefited from testing out ideas at conferences, as the report recommends on page eight, and cultivating face-to-face networks of like-minded academics. And I still write far more material for established journals and edited collections from other prestige publishing houses like Routledge or Continuum than I do for peer-reviewed electronic journals or online presses.

The particularly dispiriting section on "Public Engagement" that starts on page twenty-three is also worth reading. Harley's subjects bring out important aspects of the multiple publics that constitute the frameworks for public exchanges, and it is true that members of the media or gatherings of life-long learners often don't want to hear complex arguments or nuanced interpretations.

Harley will be presenting her findings at the Digital Media and Learning conference in San Diego in February, so I would encourage all Southern Californians interested in the digital humanities to attend her session.

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Blogger Jardinero1 said...

At 733 pages, I didn't feel I had time to read the whole report. I will have to rely on your summary, Prof Losh.

My dad told me a story about his first graduate history seminar at UT Austin in 1965. On the first day, the prof asked his grads why they study history. The students went round with all the reasons they studied history. Then the prof replied "that's all just fine but the real reason 'WE study history' is because those ignorant little men at the end of Speedway Ave(he was referring to the Texas legislature) believe that history is important. Don't ever forget that!"

One thing that galls people in the redneck/anti-intellectual part of America where I reside; is the notion that scholars especially in the humanities and social sciences are insular and self-serving and living off the public dime. It's only a thin majority of ignorant little men in the legislature that keep the funds flowing.

Was there anything in her study which indicates that tenure granting institutions appreciate that fact and the importance that alternative publication venues might have for countering public antipathy? Or the impact that alternative publishing venues might have on maintaining grant and research funding. It would seem to me that institutions would encourage such venues for the public relations value alone.

One things that scholar's blogs do is communicate to the general public what it is that scholars do and are doing right now. A well composed blog, like this one, really demonstrates to the public what value can be found in scholarship. When people see value they are less likely to be opposed to it.

12:07 PM  

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