Digital Scholarship Reconsidered

In 1990 Ernest Boyer made an important contribution to the literature of higher education by authoring the book Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. Boyer’s material was based on the results of a 1989 survey of faculty across the nation sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Boyer said we must “…break out of the tired old teaching versus research debate and define, in more creative ways, what it means to be a scholar”. He described four types of scholarship in order to expand higher education’s thinking about what it meant to produce scholarly work; it needn’t be defined only by scholarly monographs or publications in high-impact peer review journals. Boyer suggested that teaching, application, and integration (of existing knowledge) could be as important to the advancement of knowledge and higher eduction as the scholarship of discovery. While Boyer’s work is considered a classic of higher education literature and is essential reading for academic librarians, the ideas in the book never really had much of an impact – at least not in the ways for which Boyer had hoped. Instead the academic community, has for the most part, stayed true to its one narrow vision of scholarship – the scholary journal article or book.

Fast foward to 2008. A new report by the Ithaka Group explores how faculty make use of digital scholarly resources for their research, and some of these resources expand the notion of the phrase “scholarly resource.” In the report Current Models of Digital Scholarly Communication authors Nancy Maron and Kirby Smith explore the range of digital resources being used by scholars for their research. These resources include e-only journals, data, blogs, and discussion forums. About blogs, the report says they are “being put to interesting use by scholars.” Blogs can contribute to scholarship by providing a forum for discussion. They let scholars share new research findings, and commentary can help shape or refine these new ideas. But their informality is also a weakness for true scholarly communication, as complete quality control is neither completely possible nor desirable. Still, blogs offer perhaps the lowest cost model for allowing (fast) scholarly communication. The tension between control/review and openess/informality will continue to challenge the ability of digital resources like blogs or scholarly social networks to obtain credibility as scholarly publications.

That many of the digitial publications covered in the report are not yet accepted as scholary resources is perhaps a benefit to academic libraries. That’s not to say this content isn’t valuable, but just imagine libraries having to take ownership of these digital scholarly resources. We have barely begun to figure out how to preserve e-journals or store and make accessible e-science data sets. Just try to envision our profession coming up with efficient mechanisms for the tracking, storage and preservation of the contents of blogs or scholarly social networks? Would we be up to the challenge? But before we need to cross that bridge the report suggests another role for academic librarians. The report says “By sharing knowledge about independent digital scholarly resources with faculty…librarians can help promote high-quality projects and build the audience for these resources.” While preservation is a challenge, for now the focus needs to be engaging our faculty in the possibility that scholarship could be broadened to allow for new definitions of scholarly resources in the rapidly expanding digital landscape. Who’s going to go first?