Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Continuation: Themes emerging from the discussion of blogs as scholarship

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research This is part 5 of a multi-part post on the subject of blogs as scholarship. It is the second part of the discussion of the themes that emerged in the journal and law review literature. The last post recounted the first part of this section. The next section will discuss possible research suggested by the state of the literature.

Blogs have disadvantages. Not all commentators thought blogs had or ever would have value as legal scholarship. Orin Kerr (2006) began his essay by suggesting that those who were enthusiastic might simply be trying to legitimize their activity: "At the very least, it’s tempting to use these essays to legitimate the importance of blogging for law professors. We law professor bloggers often spend several hours a day on our posts, and it would be nice if we could celebrate that time as essential to our scholarly mission as academics." Leiter warned that because even mediocre blog posts can generate “buzz,” that is, a cascade of positive attention based on a few laudatory comments from non-expert, but influential, bloggers (2006, pars. 3-4), blogs lower academic standards and contribute to the degradation of legal scholarship generally. Berman is generally positive, but closes his essay by listing a number of disadvantages of blogs: they can waste time and be addictive; they can become a popularity contest; and they can become a burden if they seem to demand constant updating (cite).

A question sometimes raised in the wake of a well-publicized failure to get tenure, be promoted or hired, is the extent to which blogging of controversial opinions may have contributed to such possibly devastating career decisions. After Yale declined to hire faculty applicant Juan Cole, a prominent expert and blogger on the Middle East, and a tenured professor at the University of Michigan, The Chronicle of Higher Education commissioned short pieces by eight bloggers, including Cole himself, addressing the question whether blogging can derail a career (Althouse, 2006; Berube, 2006; Cole, 2006; DeLong, 2006; Drezner, 2006; O'Connor, 2006; Reynolds, 2006; Vaidhyanathan, 2006). While the consensus was that it very well could, the reaction to that fact was not what one might expect. Most bloggers were unsurprised by the possibility and accepted it as part of being an academic. As Leiter observed (Leiter, 2007), and most of these authors agree, speaking out on matters of public concern comes with the academic territory (Althouse, 2006; Berube, 2006; Cole, 2006; O'Connor, 2006; Reynolds, 2006; Vaidhyanathan, 2006).

Finally, as noted above, Litvak all but entirely dismisses the value of blogs as scholarship.

Blogs are part of an emerging system of computer-mediated authority and validation. The recognition that bloggers cannot define what, as a practical matter, scholarship is, underlies much of the discussion. The tenure and review committees still determine that definition, and there seems to be little suggestion by these scholars that their committees will count blogs for tenure any time soon. But Michael Jensen (2007), director of strategic Web communications for the National Academies, believes that is changing. He explores how the measures and meanings of authority are evolving out of an environment of scarce information in to one of abundance. Some new forms of authority have already taken root in the non-scholarly community: Google's page rank, group participation news and trend-spotting sites like Slashdot, del.icio.us' collection of favorite sites where authority results from community tagging, and voting on posts and comments at sites like Daily Kos. These and many others engage participants to filter super-abundant content.

Jensen claims that what he calls Authority 3.0, built on algorithmic filtration, is just around the corner. National Academies Press already utilizes several examples. Jensen summarizes the elements from which Authority 3.0 draws, and details the implications of the inevitable shift for authors, universities, and scholarly publishers (par. 31-32).

[C]onsider the preconditions for scholarly success in Authority 3.0. They include the digital availability of a text for indexing (but not necessarily individual access — see Google for examples of journals that are indexed, but not otherwise available); the digital availability of the full text for referencing, quoting, linking, tagging; and the existence of metadata of some kind that identifies the document, categorizes it, contextualizes it, summarizes it, and perhaps provides key phrases from it, while also allowing others to enrich it with their own comments, tags, and contextualizing elements.

In the very near future, if we're talking about a universe of hundreds of billions of documents, there will routinely be thousands, if not tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of documents that are very similar to any new document published on the Web. If you are writing a scholarly article about the trope of smallpox in Shakespearean drama, how do you ensure you'll be read? By competing in computability.

Discussion of new ways to validate scholarship occurs in the blogosphere as well, with librarians among those discussing the alternatives (Cohen, 2007; McKiernan, 2007; Siemens, 2007). Laura Cohen, in particular, recommends that libraries take an active part in accelerating establishment of new models of authority for what she terms, “social scholarship” (2007, slides 18-20).

Ultimately, however, it’s not just the blog. One Bloggership participant felt that asking whether blogs were legal scholarship framed the wrong question. "The relationship between blogging and the future of legal scholarship is a product of other forces—the emergence of the short form, the obsolescence of exclusive rights, and the trend towards the disintermediation of legal scholarship" (Solum, 2006, p. 2). Lawrence Solum refutes Litvak's assertion that blogs have nothing to do with and will have no effect upon scholarship with examples illustrating their value (citations by courts, in law review articles, qualitatively exceptional posts, etc.) (pp. 2-3), but also argues that blogs are simply one of many exponents of larger trends that are changing legal scholarship.

While pre-existing forms of scholarship will continue (mediated, long form journal articles requiring assignment of exclusive rights to publishers), new forms are becoming popular, even preferred (p. 12).

That’s the world as it existed before the Internet, before Google, before blogging. Law review articles and treatises. Exclusive publication rights. Card catalogs. The Index of Legal Periodicals. Even things that were new, not so long ago, are now like familiar pieces of furniture. Academic press books and peer-reviewed journals. Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis. J-stor and Hein Online. But that world is giving way, Radical change is already upon us.

Solum suggests that short forms such as idea papers, blog posts and even wikis may replace some types of law review articles, or serve as first drafts for later publication (pp. 13-14). He notes that the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) serves admirably as an open access venue for idea papers and even the full text of articles, but because SSRN is a closed system in that it does not allow full-text searching of its contents, it still plays the role of mediator in a way that inhibits full access (p. 15). Solum identifies the growth in popularity of Google as the driving force behind complete disintermediation (p. 16):

And the new role of Google has an enormously important consequence. There will come a day when the saying, “If it isn’t on the net, it doesn’t exist,” is true. Open access legal scholarship will be the only legal scholarship that is actually read. Closed-access legal scholarship will be the tree that falls with no one in the forest. The correct metaphysics will confirm its existence, but the best epistemology will question the significance (but not the truth) of that judgment.

Solum examines the concept of readership, the driver for the changes he has described and the economics of legal scholarship. Readership is the key to both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Short forms, open access, disintermediation, reduced costs, and reduced time to publication drive up readership. Blogs are a paradigmatic example of a cheap, quick, disintermediated, open access, short form. "Their importance, if any, is as the medium (or technology) through which the incentives and institutional forces that are pushing legal scholarship towards the short form, open access, and disintermediation are doing their work. If it hadn’t been blogs, it would have been something else" (p. 23).

Opinion outside the legal academy

Scholars in other fields express similar opinions on their blogs and in the scholarly literature. Kathleen Fitzpatrick writes passionately about a future for scholarship that embraces blogs. And why not? "[T]he very purpose of scholarly reading is the discursive exchange and development of ideas amongst peers" (2007, anti-hypertext, par. 3). Fitzpatrick, associate professor of English and media studies at Pomona College, explains her experience with CommentPress, a type of blog implemented as a "theme" (a modification of the look of standard blog features) for the basic open source WordPress blog. CommentPress changes several blog components to emphasize the importance of commenting. She believes this is a positive modification, especially for younger scholars. “[T]he generation celebrated by Time magazine as the 'person of the year' in late 2006 -- 'you' -- expects that the reader will likewise be allowed to write" (scholarly discourse networks, par. 2).

Comments in CommentPress appear alongside the segment of text to which they refer, not at the bottom of the page in typical blog form, suggesting an elevated role for the commenter. Indeed, Fitzpatrick observes, "[a]s Richard Lanham noted in an early review essay on work in electronic textuality, 'Digital electronic writing is a volatile, interactive, nonauthoritative medium which, of itself, alters the whole idea of scholarly originality, research, and production and publication' (Lanham 2003)" (scholarly discourse networks, par. 2).

Not surprisingly, Fitzpatrick’s article cites blogs – lots of blogs – in addition to more traditional forms of scholarship. Perhaps surprisingly, the article is a blog. It appears, section by section, as a series of linked posts in CommentPress, inviting comments to sections, paragraphs and the entire article. The author indicates that she blogged an earlier draft to solicit comments. So she authored the article in conversation with others, and she stays in conversation with others in this CommentPress version, while a simultaneously published version appears in the peer-reviewed Journal of Electronic Publishing. Her overall message is clear: blogs facilitate interaction around a text and are expanding scholarship, just as scholarship is expanding the blog.


Althouse, A. (2006, July 28, 2006). Can blogging derail your career? Exposed in the blogosphere. The Chronicle of Higher Education, from http://chronicle.com/free/v52/i47/47b00702.htm

Berube, M. (2006, July 28, 2006). Can blogging derail your career? The attention blogs bring. The Chronicle of Higher Education, from http://chronicle.com/free/v52/i47/47b00802.htm

Cohen, L. (2007). The promise of authority in social scholarhsip. From The Charlston Conference [Powerpoint presentation]. Retrieved November 28, 2007, from http://www.slideshare.net/lcohen/the-promise-of-authority-in-social-scholarship/

Cole, J. R. I. (2006, July 28, 2006). Can blogging derail your career? Juan R.I. Cole responds. The Chronicle of Higher Education, from http://chronicle.com/free/v52/i47/47b00902.htm

DeLong, J. B. (2006, July 28, 2006). Can blogging derail your career? The invisible college. The Chronicle of Higher Education, from http://chronicle.com/free/v52/i47/47b00801.htm

Drezner, D. W. (2006, July 28, 2006). Can blogging derail your career? The trouble with blogs. The Chronicle of Higher Education, from http://chronicle.com/free/v52/i47/47b00701.htm

Fitzpatrick, K. (2007). CommentPress: New (social) structures for new (networked) texts. Journal of Electronic Publishing, 10(3).

Jensen, M. (2007, June 15, 2007). The new metrics of scholarly authority. The Chronicle of Higher Education, from http://chronicle.com/free/v53/i41/41b00601.htm

Kerr, O. S. (2006). Blogs and the legal academy. Paper presented at Bloggership: How blogs are transforming legal scholarship. Retrieved October 12, 2007, from http://ssrn.com/paper=896994

Leiter, B. (2006). Why blogs are bad for legal scholarship. Yale L.J. Pocket Part, 116 (53).

Leiter, B. (2007). Do blogs help or hinder professional prospects? [Blog post]. Brian Leiter's Law School Reports, November 12, 2007. Retrieved November 18, 2007, from http://leiterlawschool.typepad.com/leiter/2007/11/nothing-like-a-.html

McKiernan, G. (2007). Report of the MLA taskforce on evaluating scholarship for tenure and promotion [Blog post]. Scholarship 2.0: An Idea Whose Time Has Come. Retrieved November 29, 2007, from http://scholarship20.blogspot.com/2007/11/report-of-mla-task-force-on-evaluating.html

O'Connor, E. (2006, July 28, 2006). Can blogging derail your career? The controversy that wasn't. The Chronicle of Higher Education, from http://chronicle.com/free/v52/i47/47b00901.htm

Reynolds, G. (2006, July 28, 2006). Can blogging derail your career? The politics of academic appointments. The Chronicle of Higher Education, from http://chronicle.com/free/v52/i47/47b00603.htm

Siemens, G. (2007). Scholarship in an age of participation. elearnspace: everything elearning Retrieved November 29, 2007, from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/journal.htm

Solum, L. B. (2006). Blogging and the transformation of legal scholarship. Paper presented at Bloggership: How Blogs are Transforming Legal Scholarship. Retrieved October 12, 2007, from http://ssrn.com/paper=898168

Vaidhyanathan, S. (2006, July 28, 2006). Can blogging derail your career? The lessons of Juan Cole. The Chronicle of Higher Education, from http://chronicle.com/free/v52/i47/47b00602.htm

No comments: