Tag Archives: tenure and promotion

“We Don’t Read That Way”

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Laura Braunstein, English Language and Literature Librarian at Dartmouth College.

I was chatting recently with a professor in my liaison department who was beginning research for a new book. Did she have everything she needed? Was there anything I should look into ordering? Yes, she said, the library was pretty well stocked with books and journals for the topic. However, many of the books she needed we only had as ebooks – for those, she would order print copies through interlibrary loan.

One of my colleagues had a similar experience. He was talking to several of his liaison faculty about a new ebook collection in the Humanities. The collection would be great, they told him, when they needed to look something up quickly, or search for a mention of a particular topic. But they would still want print books for serious study – ebooks weren’t the same, they told him, “we just don’t read that way.”

Many of these professors own Kindles or other ereaders, and love them – for reading the latest Ruth Rendell mystery on a six-hour flight to France to visit an archive. It’s one thing, they tell us, to read for pleasure on a screen – but it’s quite another to read for understanding, for critique, for engaging in the scholarly conversation. And this isn’t a generational matter – some of the faculty I know who seem most committed to print are younger than forty.

Does reading in the Humanities necessitate the long-form, linear, analog experience of the codex? Even when I tell these professors about the features available in some of the new ebook platforms – highlighting, annotation, sharing notes, etc – they still assert that they “just don’t read that way.” (And what applies to reading is even more crucial in writing – when it comes to tenure or promotion, they tell me, no monograph “born digital” would ever “count” in the way a print book would.)

Ebooks seem like sweet low-hanging fruit – they have enhanced searchability, accessibility at any time or place, and reduced storage and preservation costs. What’s not to love? Ebooks seem to make our students very happy. Often they don’t want to read a book cover to cover (although their professors might wish they would), and searching for relevant passages seems to satisfy their needs for many assignments. And journal literature seems exempt from the preference for print – I haven’t heard many complaints about deaccessioning back runs of print journals represented in JSTOR’s collections, for instance.

Is a user who routinely requests a print copy when the ebook is in the library’s holdings just multiplying the costs we thought we were saving? Should we deny these requests? Should we tell our Humanities faculty that even if they “just don’t read that way,” they should, because that’s the way the world of scholarly communication is moving in most other fields? Do we need to change their habits of reading, and habits of mind? Do we lead them to new formats or follow their preferences?

Peer (to Peer) Review?

Gary Olsen raises an interesting issue in the Chron – as more scholars put their efforts into online scholarship, how can it factor into promotion and tenure decisions? His answer – devise a system whereby scholarly societies certify sites that are submitted for peer review, maintain a registry of certified sites, and check back often to make sure they haven’t fallen off in quality or been overtaken by pre-teen hackers.

He says the peer review system for vetting books and articles works pretty well, but P&T committees (and everyone else, apparently) are at a loss when confronting a website –

. . . since no vetting mechanism for scholarly sites exists, even those that are designed by reputable scholars typically undergo no formal review. Such uncertainty disrupts the orderly intercourse of scholarly activity and plays havoc with the tenure-and-promotion system.

Clearly, the scholarly community needs to devise a way to introduce dependability into the world of electronic scholarship. We need a process to certify sites so that we all can distinguish between one that contains reliable material and one that may have been slapped together by a dilettante. We need to be able to ascertain if we can rely on a site for our own scholarship and whether we should give credit toward a colleague’s tenure and promotion for a given site.

Gee, given that we’ve been evaluating and comparing websites and deciding which to highlight as useful ones for research for a couple of decades now . . . are we really incapable of making those choices without a disciplinary stamp of approval? And is peer review really so flawless that we need to replicate it for a new genre of scholarship? And what about all those sites that aren’t scholarly projects per se but are incredibly valuable – the Avalon Project, the Oyez site, or the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, for example? Should we doubt their value because they aren’t vetted by scholars in the manner of journal articles or university press titles?

The fact is, we work hard to develop in our students the capability of judging quality, not just relying on a peer review stamp of approval. I mean, honestly – if we told students any peer reviewed source is guaranteed to be of high quality we’d be doing them a disservice. So why do P&T committees want to have their critical work so oversimplified for them? Can’t they learn to rely on their own capacity for critical thinking, or is that just for students?

The fact is, these are two entirely separate issues. The quality of websites can be evaluated – and peers already do that. Whether academics are willing to broaden their notions of what counts as scholarship and to consider electronic projects as serious work is another matter altogether. Replicating a cumbersome print-based peer review mechanism, flaws and all, is not the solution. Doing the real work of evaluating a colleague’s scholarship – without relying on university presses and journals to do the vetting for them – is what’s called for. Oh, and a more imaginative and open-minded definition of what scholarship is.

I thought this playful version of Rodin’s The Thinker that I saw on the Washington University of St. Louis campus last week seemed somehow appropriate.

rabbit thinker

ADDITION: I just bumped into This is Scholarship – an interesting response to the MLA task force report that questioned the dependence on the monograph as proof of scholarship over at the InfoFetishist (where there’s a terrific list of things to read and think about).

So maybe, as an addendum to our efforts to encourage more responsible use of open access research opportunitiies, libraries could also help scholars at their institutions think more creatively about what counts as scholarship? Hey, we could at least buy them lunch and let them talk through the issues.