As the hour of my academic reckoning approaches, I’ve become more engaged with the debates around the shifting question of ‘what is quality scholarship?’
‘Quality’ evokes a value judgement, which means that someone has values that they judge against. For academics and scholarly writers, this might be some lofty idea of “excellent research,” “innovative thinking” or “novelty and insight.” But for academics existing in the real world (with real middle management!), this boils down into some sort of institutional review process, the most famous of which is the US tenure system.
The existing modes of institutional peer review revolve around the publication of “scholarly” works (articles, monographs, etc) in “appropriate” places: peer-reviewed printed journals and academic presses, in the main.
This has been challenged by the rise of Open Source Journals (of which First Monday is a good example). It took me a while (in my innocence!) to grasp this, but there seems to be an entrenched belief that OS (online) journals are unscholarly.
I was confused by this because, in my experience with both print and online journals, I could not see the difference. Both solicited submissions on themes and accepted unsolicited articles on a defined range of topics. Both required scholarly articles to conform to discipline codes such as a referencing style. Both (in my experience, any way) used the same back-end tools to facilitate information management. Both tendered submissions to double-blind peer-review (with multiple reviewers), who wrote reports and recommendations which were considered by an editor and an editorial committee. Both then took accepted articles, galley-proofed them, and published. As a reader, I looked up and read both online (I cannot remember the last time I handled a dead-tree version of a journal).
So why, I wondered, was one acceptable to my institutional peer-review process, and the other was a curious novelty with no real value? My confusion deepened as my “print” articles sank without a trace, whereas my OS articles lead to invitations to contribute to edited collections and requests for interviews with the media. Wasn’t this part of the original lofty purpose of publishing, after all? To stimulate informed debate and discussion? And weren’t academics meant to explore the new edges in society and report back? Isn’t that why were had the Ivy Towers in the first place (nice places to rappel off! And look at that view!)
Yet to look at promotion, tenure and confirmation criteria is to see a set of rules that seem determined to stymie such innovation. This is not an unrecognized phenomena — many fields (not just Net Studies) have recognized that existing models of institutional peer-review do not fully account for the actual experience of advancing knowledge and peer esteem, important aspects of the critical mission of scholarship.
Acknowledging the validity of peer-review in OS and online journals is one thing. But what about peer esteem and the development of ideas outside formal articles? Great ideas don’t just appear in journals (print or otherwise) and monographs. Great ideas appear everywhere, and with new technologies of distribution and interaction, these ideas are circulating widely in all stages of their development. Blogs are a great example of this - I am not alone in “thinking out loud” in this blog, pondering things that seem interesting, but which may or may not make it to an article for whatever reason (time, resources, sustained interest, etc).
But not every idea in a blog is a good one. Not every great blog has a big enough readership for it to qualify for such formal recognition. Not every online article is good - but neither is every print article or every book.
Perhaps the question we should be asking in our institutional contexts is not “where has this person published?” but rather “what have they contributed to the conversation?” By recognizing that the conversation isn’t just pontificating from a journal article, but rather a constant give and take of article, book, blogpost, conference paper, volunteer labour (reviewing, or organizing, or even networking), we might develop a more nuanced picture of what it is that we have achieved.
And I might actually survive my hour of reckoning :)