Monday, March 23, 2009

It’s Time to Embrace Newer Forms of Scholarly Communication

I decided to write a letter to the promotion and tenure committee after being tenured back in 1997. I had completely forgotten about the letter until I recently uncovered it.  In re-reading it, I do not know if I'm more surprised about my insightful comments 12-years ago, or more disappointed that all of the issues I presented are STILL issues. From my letter:
" The fact that my web publications are not in the traditional peer-review mold may mean they hold little weight in the tenure process. This perception comes from the fact that no reference them appeared in my tenure review letter...

"I certainly understand the importance and significance of peer-reviewed, paper-based publications. The growing number of traditional publications in my dossier should demonstrate this understanding. However, electronic communication is becoming a significant part of the library profession. Just as technology is changing the manner in which we perform our jobs it is also changing how we communicate our theories, ideas, and concepts. As a profession, librarianship needs to adapt to these changes for our scholarly communications to advance...

"Finally, I have had discussions with tenured and nontenured library faculty that real a need for an open dialog regarding electronic publications and resources during the tenure and promotion process. I encourage the Appointment, Promotion, and Tenure Committee to begin considering how such a dialog can begin so future candidates will understand how electronic publications will be recognized."
Yes, these issues are not only still on the table but are discussed in an article by Sarah Kubik entitled Getting Serious About Research Online appearing in the March 20, 2009 edition of Inside Higher Ed. Kubik is an associate faculty member in visual communications and design at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Kubik makes the argument that while it once made sense to equate print with quality, it’s time to embrace newer forms of scholarly communication as being valid. She points out that even the new Modern Language Association Handbook for Writers of Research Papers no longer recognizes print as the default medium. 

Issue: academics still care about the output delivery method when it should be all about the content. 

Important scholarly communications are now being delivered using any number of personal communications conduits including blogs, online journals, e-mail, forum posts, podcasts, Twitter tweets, text messages, or instant messages. Still, academics dismiss this type of content as being less valuable.  From Kubik:
"If the Tribune Company decides to lessen its production of printed papers because they are too costly, does this mean that they are implying that printed content is less intellectual than Web content? Of course not. But academic circles are not all following suit. Online-only journals often have no impact factor scores, yet the students who use Google will find these journals pop up more frequently than the traditional publications. Perhaps this move toward paper-free publications will speed up the process of submitting an article, waiting for the first review, re-submitting the article with changes, waiting for the next review, (hopefully) getting the article accepted, and then waiting to have the article printed in the journal."
For promotion and tenure purposes it is still all about about print. Nothing more needs to be said.

Issue: Even when academics do recognize the value of electronic content, there is a tendency to use the lack of a traditional peer-review process to devalue it.  

Yes, we now have to be able to judge the quality of online content. Yes, a quality filtering process is needed. Yet, I do not think such a process has to be in place before there can be a wider acceptance of scholarly communication in all its form. The mindset that processes for identifying content quality and peer-review have to be in place before the content can be accepted may be the single reason we are no closer to a solution then when I addressed the issue up 12 years ago. 

At least some institutions, such as Oregon State University, have begun to address both these issues in their criteria
While the kinds of scholarship for faculty across the range of positions at the University will vary, the requirement that the significance of the scholarship be validated and be communicated to publics beyond the University will sustain a uniformly high standard. In some fields, refereed journals and monographs are the traditional media for communication and peer validation; in others, exhibitions and performances. In still other fields, emerging technologies are creating, and will continue to create, entirely new media and methods. In consideration for promotion and tenure, scholarship and creative activity are not merely to be enumerated but are to be carefully, objectively, and rigorously evaluated by professional peers, including ones external to the University.
While open to interpretation, one can say that not only does (the other, other) OSU support scholarship in all of its possible forms, but that scholarship should be evaluated in the context of the communication method. More importantly, scholarship must be "communicated in appropriate ways so as to have impact on or significance for publics beyond the University, or for the discipline itself." 

I am now the Chair of the P&T Committee I sent my letter to 12-years ago. I have found, however, that getting a dialog going is much easier said then done. I now realize the foundation of the culture of scholarship lies at the full professor level. Still, I was able to get a dialog moving by arranging the first ever meeting between P&T and the full professors. Hopefully, changes will not take another 12 years.      

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