It’s the Content, Stupid

Posted Tuesday, December 1, 2009 - 16:15
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Libraries and librarians have an important stake in the development of online scholarship. Many benefits will come from the growth of digital monographs and journals as well as the development of scholarly websites, online archives, blogs, wikis, and other outlets for research even farther afield from the traditional models. Chief among these advantages are lower prices and improved access for consumers, smaller capital investments and more efficient workflows for publishers, and faster feedback and a wider readership for scholars. There are, however, many impediments to the digital transition, and as key stakeholders in this arena, librarians must understand the obstacles as well as the advantages. 

Scholars who produce research online often complain that their efforts are not sufficiently rewarded or encouraged by tenure and promotion committees, especially when they work in media other than the digital equivalent of the scholarly journal or monograph. We recently heard a researcher say he had no concerns about the evaluation of his electronic journal articles. However, most of the cutting-edge work in his field is taking place on blogs. Scholars in his field are also beginning to develop significant online archives of subject-based materials. So, he asked, what are the vetting and reward processes for a blog posting or a scholarly website?

Many reasons for this resistance to online scholarship have been suggested over the years—everything from doubts about long-term preservation, to fetishism for print, to a lack of leadership, to a dearth of technical expertise, and more. These are all legitimate obstacles. But one serious factor that has not been sufficiently considered has to do with longstanding biases about the value of certain kinds of work in relation to others. This is a problem because much of the content that has so far proven most amenable to the web has long been regarded as second tier scholarship at best, academic scutwork at worst—the online equivalents of author or subject guides, critical editions, bibliographies, encyclopedias, indexes, concordances, or collections of letters or manuscripts.

Online work also tends to be collaborative and documentary by nature, characteristics not typically associated with the ideal of the lone scholar laboring to produce the extended work of critical explication or interpretive commentary. Simply put, often the biggest stumbling block for digital scholarship in the tenure and reward process has nothing to do with the form, the fact that the work is made available in a digital container, or that it is the product of networked technology. Instead, to adapt a popular political expression from nearly two decades ago, it’s the content, stupid.

There is no disputing that the web as a research tool and venue is growing in impact and influence—blogs, wikis, podcasts, discussion boards, listservs, personal, discipline, and institutional websites are ubiquitous, and new e-forums, groups, and devices are being developed every day. A 2008 report from the Association of Research Libraries, Current Models of Digital Scholarly Communication, calls these and other emerging means of exchange and development “new model” or “new media” publications. And as the report underscores, their existence and influence are “no longer hypothetical but increasingly part of the everyday reality of research and scholarship.

Yet the Modern Language Association’s Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion found in 2007 that fewer than half the department chairs surveyed had any experience in evaluating digital work of any kind. Even more discouraging, the survey found that the larger and better established the department, the greater the likelihood that work online is disregarded completely: “Carnegie Doctorate–granting institutions consistently reported the highest percentages of inexperience."

A different culture prevails in the sciences, and this is at least part of the reason the scientific community has been quicker to adapt to online research and publication. For example, scientists have traditionally been open to a wider range of publication formats and venues—depending on the discipline, everything from the traditional journal article to abstracts to technical reports to poster sessions and beyond. These formats are not of equal value and the range of legitimate publication venues varies from discipline to discipline; but many more types of publications or expressions of research are viewed as meritorious by the scientific establishment than the humanities. Also, in the sciences collaboration is a necessity, so there are long and well-established traditions for dealing with and sorting out issues of recognition and reward. There is additionally a greater appreciation for the work involved in gathering and developing data—what a humanist might think of as primary records, the raw materials of research. 

Clifford Lynch noted in the August 2007 CTWatch Quarterly the emergence of the “stub article,” a form of publication that “in effect announces the deposit of an important new dataset in a disciplinary repository and perhaps provides some background on its creation, but offers little analysis of the data, leaving that to subsequent publications. This allows the compilers of the dataset to have their work widely recognized, acknowledged, and cited within the traditional system familiar to tenure and promotion committees.” The very existence of disciplinary repositories to preserve something like datasets, let alone the idea of giving anyone significant credit for either the creation of the repositories or the compilation of the data in them, are at the very least unfamiliar concepts in many humanistic disciplines. Primary materials, after all, are typically gathered and preserved by archivists and librarians who are seen as working in the service rather than in the production of scholarship. 

Efforts to rethink how and why the academy has often valued various kinds of academic work over others have been raised before for reasons wholly apart from the web. In 1990, Ernest L. Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered (Jossey-Bass) focused attention on teaching as a form of scholarship and led many departments to implement revisions in their review processes to better reward teaching and learning. This effort and others like it have often drawn on the notion that a wider conception of scholarship will reap greater societal benefits. 

Similarly, arguments promoting the virtues of networked technology often refer to the benefits of a greater integration of new scholarly developments and discoveries into society at large. The aforementioned recommendations of the MLA task force involve such assumptions. This in large measure is why the report argues that “scholarship should not be equated with publication, which is, at bottom, a means to make scholarship public . . . . Publication is not the raison d’être of scholarship; scholarship should be the raison d’être of publication.” And even more pointedly: “The profession as a whole should develop a more capacious conception of scholarship by . . . establishing multiple pathways to tenure.” 

Librarians’ role

 As key stakeholders in the digital arena, librarians must understand the impediments to digital scholarship. With a better understanding of this particular challenge, what can we do to help? 

In general terms, there is still great value in doing what we have always done: selecting resources based on their current and future value to scholars, describing those resources so they can be located and studied, and managing collections so they are available for the long term. More specifically, we must continue to work to improve our ability to preserve the scholarly record in digital form. Preservation, after all, is a crucial part of validation: We save what is valuable, and if new forms of scholarship (be they wikis, blogs, websites, or whatever) cannot be preserved with at least the same degree of confidence as the print record, they will not be regarded as fully legitimate forms of scholarship. 

The digital medium presents many preservation challenges. Books are a relatively stable container for information. The shelf life for digital media is much shorter, and technological advances quickly render hardware, software, and file formats obsolete. As Clifford Lynch observed in the February 2003 issue of ARL: A Bimonthly Report, “Most individual faculty lack the time, resources, or expertise to ensure preservation of their own scholarly work even in the short term and clearly can’t do it in the long term that extends beyond their careers; the long term can only be addressed by an organizationally based strategy.” Yet as Abby Smith noted in her 2003 report for the Council on Library and Information Resources, New-Model Scholarship: How Will It Survive? “many scholars experimenting with the most innovative digital technology for research and teaching are not affiliated with major universities” that are pursuing digital preservation strategies. 

Libraries are a central part of the scholarly communication system and have taken responsibility for preserving scholarship in analog formats for centuries. Such efforts are underway, but much more work remains before libraries can preserve digital content with the same degree of confidence as print, most especially content that is not expressed in the digital equivalent of print books and journals. Institutional or digital repositories are one method libraries can use to collect and preserve digital scholarship, thereby assuming stewardship responsibility for works that will be of future scholarly importance. Institutional repositories fulfill a portion of the preservation need, but these “new media” forms of digital scholarship are often beyond such a repository’s capability. Institutional repositories are best suited for work in a fixed form, while digital works are often dynamic. 

New scholarly forms may be database-driven or otherwise conceptually or structurally complex. Digital scholarship may be nonlinear, unstructured, or open-ended. It is often software-intensive and multimedia. While some digital scholarship is a complement to a traditional publication, it is often not destined for formal publication. A blog allows readers to comment on postings. Postings often link to other websites or blogs. An “article” in the nontraditional online journal Vectors does not necessarily have a traditional beginning, middle, or a single conclusion. 

How do libraries preserve this new model scholarship, which is complex, unstructured, and bears little resemblance to traditional publications? Libraries should pursue a preservation strategy that includes multiple approaches to the challenge. Consortia such as the Texas Digital Library provide the infrastructure for scholars to communicate using scholarly wikis and blogs. Library support for these services may provide a level of trust in the sustainability of the scholarly communication infrastructure. However, inevitably, librarians also must decipher how to preserve new forms of scholarship not in their purview. 

Abby Smith recommends short-term actions scholars can take to ensure their digital scholarship is sustainable, including working with librarians when beginning a project, using standards and nonproprietary formats, declaring the intended use and audience for the work, and declaring the work’s intended longevity. These steps make it easier for librarians to act as responsible stewards by providing additional context for digital works. For repositories—libraries—she recommends working with data creators during all phases of creation and declaring policies and capabilities for archiving differing formats. She further recommends libraries take custody of new media publications for preservation experiments. 

Partnerships and collaboration are critical for long-term availability of new modes of scholarship. Groups such as Project Bamboo, HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory), and NINES (Nineteenth-century Scholarship Online) are working to legitimize digital scholarship by developing a framework for peer review and by providing a common technology infrastructure to produce and disseminate it. Libraries have curatorial experience needed for digital preservation. In North America, collaborative programs such as LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) from Stanford, DAITSS (Dark Archive in the Sunshine State) from the Florida Center for Library Automation, and work led by the Center for Research Libraries to develop, analyze, and certify digital repositories are examples of the cooperative approaches libraries should take to share responsibility for sustaining digital scholarship. 

Research libraries are not the only organizations with responsibility for preserving new forms of scholarship. But libraries as traditional and trusted stewards should assert their roles in the preservation continuum. By establishing confidence that digital works will remain accessible and usable, librarians can remove one of the challenges to legitimizing digital scholarship. 

To take full advantage of networked technology as a means of scholarly communication, a broader range of work must be recognized and rewarded accordingly. Such a change does not require a lowering of standards. But change does require a rethinking of the review and reward processes to accommodate a wider array of activities. Such a revaluation is essential to removing one of the most serious impediments to online scholarship: longstanding cultural and disciplinary biases about the value of certain kinds of content over others. 

In pushing for a broader understanding, we must insist on rigor in the review process, and peer review is a vital tool for insuring rigor. Idaho State University Provost Gary Olsen recently proposed a model for adapting peer review to scholarly websites. The model, published in the June 6, 2008, Chronicle of Higher Education, provides a framework for evaluating online work of all kinds and demonstrates that the fundamentals of peer review and its emphasis on rigor and impact are not at odds with digital scholarship. 

Librarians should encourage a wider conception of scholarship so that we are not inadvertently hampering progress by a slavish adherence to outdated or nonsensical hierarchies and pecking orders. We understand better than many the value of the very work that in so many fields has not been well-rewarded—again, products such as author and subject guides, critical editions, bibliographies, encyclopedias, indexes, concordances, and archival collections. Such resources are crucial to sustaining the infrastructure of scholarship and deserve more credit in the traditional reward processes than they have typically received. Librarians should consider new media formats alongside traditional when developing disciplinary collections, and employ several complementary measures to ensure they are available for future study and analysis. 

Libraries and librarians must implement digital preservation strategies so scholars can confidently pursue new modes of scholarship, knowing the record of their contributions will be available for future research and critique. 

Steven Escar Smith is associate dean for collections and services at Texas A&M University Libraries. Holly Mercer is head of digital services and scholarly communication at Texas A&M University Libraries.