Blogging as a Micro-Study of Issues in Digital Scholarship

INF537 Assessment Item 2

bloggingThe concept of digital scholarship represents a drop in the ocean that is the long tradition of scholarly practice (Harvard University, 2011), so the field is still ascertaining what this relatively new relationship between digital technologies and scholarship means.  Ayers (2013, para 19) suggests that:

“To be recognized and rewarded as scholarship in the tradi­tional sense, digital scholarship must do the work we have long expected scholar­ship to do: contribute, in a meaningful and enduring way, to an identifiable col­lective and cumulative enterprise.”

The affordances of digital technologies are enabling scholars to access and contribute to the field of scholarship in meaningful and enduring ways; but they are also disruptively redefining and re-imagining it.   Zhang (2009, in Greenhow, Robelia & Hughes, 2009), and Katz (2010) recognise the tension between the opportunities and threats that the networked, interactive, collaborative, dynamic, open features of digital technologies bring to scholarship.

 

Williams (2006, in Kirkup, 2010) argues that identities created through traditional styles of scholarship no longer embody the values and worldviews possessed by a more diverse workforce of scholars, researchers and teachers.    This paper will present blogging as a micro-study of issues in digital scholarship and argue that blogging can support the ongoing and new needs and values of digital scholars, by helping to make scholarship more open, inclusive and active; by providing the means to present dynamic content through multiple mediums, including hyperlinks; by adding a new and legitimate voice to the field of scholarship by giving it a wider reach beyond the walls of academia; and by re-imagining the process of peer review as participatory and dialogical.  It will conclude with consideration of some of the challenges that blogging faces as a form of scholarly communication.

 

Blogging, a term that started appearing in the literature in 1994 (Google Books Ngram Viewer, 2013), is a process of recording observations, opinions and experiences online, often having a variety of mediums (eg. text, images, video, audio) and hyperlinks to other websites (Dictionary.com, 2016).  Increasingly, blogs are being used as a means of communication or curation by academics (eg. Heyjude by Judy O’Connell, Stephen Downes’ OLDaily), scholars (eg. CSU Thinkspace) and scholarly institutions.  Blogs such as these are referred to as either scholarly or academic blogs.

 

Boyer (1990, in Pearce, Weller, Scanlon & Ashleigh, 2010) outlines four elements of scholarship – discovery of new knowledge in a discipline, integrating this new knowledge across disciplines, applying this knowledge outside academia, and teaching.  Building on Boyer’s concept, a variety of terms have been used to describe how digital technologies are re-interpreting scholarship.  While the label may differ – Weller (2011) and Pearce et.al.’s (2010) “digital scholarship”, Burton’s “open scholar” (2009, in Weller 2011),  Veletsianos & Kimmons’ “networked participatory scholarship” (2012a), Cohen’s “social scholarship” (2007, in Veletsianos & Kimmons , 2012a), or Ayers’ “generative scholarship” (2013) – the common thread that ties all these together is an ideology of openness, facilitated by the use of networked digital technologies to benefit “both the academy and society” (Pearce et.al., 2010, p.41).

 

Scholars are increasingly being held accountable for what their scholarship provides to the community.  Thomas Friedman (in Couros, 2016, intro para.) suggests that “(t)he world only cares about – and pays off on – what you can do with what you know…”, while Mewburn and Thomson (2013a) write that grant applications for research projects in the UK are now required to address their potential impact on audiences other than academics.  Blogging, described as a combination of professional and personal conversation in a “virtual staffroom” (Mewburn and Thomson, 2013a, p.1106), or as a “rest stop… offering online readers direction, intellectual nourishment, and byte-sized souvenirs” (Santos & Lucas, 2009, p.136) has the potential to provide accountability to and reach beyond academia, making scholarship more inclusive, transparent and active.  Blogging provides a means to capture, organise and value the “messy realities” (Selwyn, 2010, p. 70) of the process of scholarship as a work in progress, in addition to disseminating the product of it.   Burton (2009) argues that there is great value in others being allowed into this process, to build a greater understanding of the whole context of research and inquiry.

 

Ayers (2013) laments that digital networks’ replication of print counterparts will not encourage a new vision of what scholarship could be – a new way of writing, seeing and explaining.  The mobile, malleable and multimedia nature of blogging adds a new voice to scholarly conversation, by offering an alternative to the static stability of peer reviewed publications (Maitzen, 2013).   Traditionally, publication of scholarship has been restricted to conference papers, journal articles and books (Weller, 2012), however digital technologies now allow scholars to create a video, podcast, blog, website or slideshare to disseminate their work.  Weller (2012) suggests that a combination of these mediums may be the ideal, such as reworking a blog post into a conference presentation, or a paper to be submitted to a journal.  Digital publications such as blogs can be dynamic, making use of hyperlinks to make it easier for readers to follow the trail that has informed the scholarship (Borgman, 2007).  Hyperlinks can help the reader quickly connect to prior works the scholar refers to in his/her work, but also to works that come about after the scholar’s original publication, because of the ability to return to and edit digital content.  In this way, digital work is a “living document”, and offers a dynamic and evolving record of a body of work that print or online journals cannot.   However, this feature can affect the reliability of scholarship, such as when hyperlinks no longer connect, or referencing a body of work at a particular point in time which might look quite different when returned to at a later point.

 

Scholarly blogging has the potential to contribute to the depth, diversity and rigor of the field of academic scholarship as a whole.  Burton (2009) asserts that consequential intellectual work takes place in many ways outside traditional scholarly genres, and Borgman (2007) calls for the information infrastructures of scholarship to support a more diverse range of publication styles and outlets, in order to serve the multiple goals and interests of scholarship.   Maitzen (2013, para. 1) specifically mentions the contribution that blogging can make to the “…ecology of scholarship – not as a substitute of, but a supplement to…” traditional publications.   Research papers generally aim to provide information in a formal, objective style, following a structured format, using the language and concepts of a discipline.  On the other hand, blogs present a snapshot of knowledge and/or information, combining personal and professional voice to connect with a wider audience, using language that people outside of a particular discipline can comprehend, often from a subjective point of view.   Many universities now host a collection of blogs to showcase the work of their academics (Mewburn & Thomson, 2013), however this appears to be concerned with marketing purposes, rather than recognition of blogging as an authentic means of scholarship.

 

Studies by Gregg (2006) and King, Harley, Earl-Novell, Arter, Lawrence & Percali (2006) illustrate that many academics see current forms of publications as adequate (Scanlon, 2014), and a record of publications in well regarded journals continues to be seen as the most important criterion for evaluating scholarly worth (Accord & Harley, 2012).  A participant in Heapa and Minochab’s study (2012, p.184) describes how a lack of formal recognition from professional bodies and institutions poses a barrier to digital scholarship:

“I am afraid that [academic blogging] will remain something of an oddity…as long as there is little academic credit to be gained from it.”

Gregg (2009) identified a generation gap in scholarly blogging, finding differences in audience and ambition between established academics, with job security, and academics just starting their career.   Maitzen (2013, para. 1) suggests that senior faculty have an obligation to advocate for “…recognition of the diverse contributions made via the academic blogosphere…”, broadening the vision of what successful scholarship looks like.   However, this is challenging for academic leadership who have developed an understanding of traditional publication routes, and generally have confidence in the peer review process’ assurance of the quality and credibility of published material (Wales DTC, 2015).  Digital scholarship artefacts are a recent arrival in the history of academic tradition, and senior faculty in institutions are still establishing what a good publication record in digital spaces looks like.

 

It is challenging to mentor in unknown territory (Veletsianos & Kimmons , 2012b) because networked, participatory digital technologies such as blogs demand a willingness to work in an open way (Scanlon, 2011) and a new set of literacies and skills.  For example, blogging requires a critical re-imagining of the concept of peer review, as a dialogue that has the potential to strengthen scholarly work that is being produced (Graue and Grant, in Kumashiro, 2005).   In regards to scholarly blogging, the peer review process can take place prior to, during and post publication, from collaboration on a shared document prior to posting, through to submitting comments on a published post in a blog.  This can make the peer review process more transparent and collegial, and peers more accountable for the feedback they contribute.  However, it does raise questions about how our capacity to learn from and with a more diverse group of people, and the diminishing reliance on “anointed experts and authority figures” (Price, 2013, p.4) could impact on the credibility and quality of scholarly work presented in blogs.

 

Scholarly blogging can have a wider reach than traditional forms of publication, because it is created and shared in networked, participatory spaces.   Blogging enables scholars to remain current in their research field, expose their work to a wider audience, and interact with that audience to further explore their work (Veletsianos & Kimmons, 2012b).   Gregg’s (2006) story of cultural studies professors finding and engaging at length with ideas in her blog, giving her feedback that she would never have received otherwise, illustrates how blogging helped to add depth her work.  Similarly, the story of a group of gamers cracking the genetic code of the HIV virus – something that had “…stumped scientists in the field for years….” (Young, 2011, in Sanborn, 2016, p.13), illustrates the potential for innovation that an inclusive, conversational digital technology like blogging can bring to scholarship, if scholars are willing to disseminate knowledge beyond the confines of their discipline.  However, Mewburn and Thomson (2013b) raise valid concerns about the fate of academics who do not take the time to blog or tweet and whether in “…this new world awash with academic papers” it will be quality scholarly work that is read most, “… or only those backed by the loudest voices” (para. 1).

 

Additional concerns regarding blogging as a form of scholarly communication include issues relating to ease of access and curation.  In 2013, there were over 152,000,000 blogs on the internet (WPVirtuoso, 2013), and Worldometers (2016) suggests that over two million blog posts will be written today.  This abundance of content puts pressure on readers’ attention span and critical literacy skills (Weller, 2011), and their ability to find reliable and credible content in a timely manner.   Digital technologies have made it relatively easy for scholars to find literature about particular topics through searches of libraries, databases and open-access repositories, and filter those searches to return peer-reviewed content, thus giving them some confidence about the quality and credibility of what they are reading.  This ease of access has yet to be replicated in the blogosphere.  Mewburn and Thomson (2013a) note that there is no general listing of academic blogs.  Traditional search engines are not ideal for reading social media, so familiarity with specialised tools that people may not be acquainted with is required (eg. Technorati, blogsearchengine.org).   It is the individual blogger’s responsibility to populate their blog with metadata (eg. through tags) to help make it searchable, and to regularly review their blog to check for broken hyperlinks.   It is the reader’s responsibility to use critical literacy skills to navigate their way through the “…’digital soup’… of online scholarly communication and its mix of comments…publications, tweets, data sets and all manner of scholarly material” (Ponchada, 2012 in Accord & Harley, 2012, p.11) to determine the reliability and credibility of what they are reading and viewing.  This is a significantly more timely process than checking a “peer-reviewed” box in a filter on a database, or library catalogue.

 

Scholarly works published in print, if properly cared for, can potentially last for hundreds of years.  There are genuine concerns about the longevity of digital scholarship artefacts.  Borgman (2007, pp.95-97) raises some valid concerns regarding preservation of scholarly record in spaces such as blogs when she asks, Is a blog intended for short term access or long term preservation?  What will be saved?  Who will take responsibility?  Who will maintain access to blogs when they are no longer active; will they disappear from scholarly record?  Currently, it appears the content that institutions are responsible for are most likely to be preserved, while scholarly blogs not affiliated with an institution will need to be maintained and preserved by the blogger him/herself (eg. migrating the blog to a newer platform if existing technology ceases to operate).  But who will do this in the future when the blogger her/himself ceases to exist remains in doubt, as few incentives and mechanisms currently exist to support this.

 

It is inevitable that scholars will adopt new tools and technologies to aid their scholarly work, however it does not necessarily follow that this will transform work practices or affect the established norms of academic work (Pearce, et.al., 2010, p.40).  To fully leverage the potential that digital technologies such as blogging bring to the new needs, values and worldviews of scholars in the 21st century and beyond, scholars and institutions alike must embrace open values and ideology; recognise and give credit to new forms of multimedia, participatory, networked scholarly practice shared within and beyond the walls of academia in digital spaces; and share responsibility for the curation and preservation of scholarly record so that both academia and larger society can reap the benefits.

 

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