U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What’s the Purpose of Academic Publications?

My post last week on the case of Mark Goodacre, whose blog post on the Gospel of Peter elicited a response in the form a peer-reviewed journal article, led to a fascinating series of comments that really drove home to me how complicated the question of the status of academic blogging really is.

Lying behind the questions about how we – as bloggers, readers, commenters, and scholars—ought to think about academic blogging is a series of issues that we rarely think about directly concerning what we expect academic publications—and, more broadly, the various genres of academic creative work–to do.[1]  We don’t think about these issues much in part because the basic genres of academic work, at least in the field of history, have remained remarkably stable over the decades.  Since at least the late nineteenth century, when the modern academic field of history emerged in this country, most of the scholarly work of historians has appeared in the form of lectures (conference papers and invited talks), book reviews and essays (most often in peer-reviewed journal, but also in book-length collections), and books (monographs and edited collections).[2]

But as new media introduce new academic genres—such as the blog post—we might profitably think about what we expect from the various forms that scholarly work takes.  This blog post is an (almost certainly far from comprehensive) attempt to map out some of these expectations. 

First, of course, lectures, articles, reviews, books, and blog posts are media of dissemination.  And each have advantages and disadvantages.  Lectures and conference papers are directed to much smaller audiences and are more ephemeral.  As LFC noted in comments on my last post, the conference paper has begun to morph into a less ephemeral form, due in part to digital technologies that allow for wider dissemination of such papers (though this process of transformation is, I think, much less far along in the field of history than in, e.g., the sciences and “harder” social sciences).  Books and academic papers have, at least historically, been available to larger audiences. But in an age of digital media, the once great convenience of modern print technologies suddenly looks less convenient in certain ways. Academic books can be pricey. Journals that are not widely available in digital form are much less accessible than journals that are collected by services like JSTOR.  Most of us have access to journals (print and digital) and books through university libraries, which works well enough for academics but obviously puts independent scholars (and much of the interested general public) at a disadvantage. Blogs, on the other hand, tend to be free to anyone with an internet connection. This difference has prompted some academic bloggers to express frustration at the fact that they cannot direct their (non-academic) online readership to their academic articles.  Their most polished work is, almost automatically, less widely disseminated than their more informal blogging.

Secondly, these various scholarly forms are means of establishing credit for our research, in both purely intellectual and professional senses.  Publishing or, on occasion, delivering a conference paper, allow us to lay claim to formulating particular ideas.  When other scholars build on these ideas, they are expected to cite the work on which they are building.  The traditional forms of scholarship are also one of the bases on which our employers, granting agencies, and other institutions evaluate our research and creative work. Depending on the institution, where one publishes an article or book can make a difference in how one is evaluated.

Third, these scholarly forms are designed to encourage further research.  Conference papers and public lectures are, quite directly, occasions for scholarly interchange.  Journals, especially major ones, get our work in front of others scholars, including some working on quite different issues, who might not otherwise see our work, but who might benefit from it in various ways.  Books lead to more books.  We worry about how much our books cost, whether they will be available as paperbacks (or e-books), whether the press will keep them in print, and so forth, in part because we hope that they will feed the scholarly conversation for years to come.  While conference papers and lectures come and go, published papers and books have (potentially at least) longer shelf-lives in this regard.

A final factor that one might want to consider is the relationship between these genres and the process of scholarship.  Conventionally, published papers and books are treated as completed work; conference papers and lectures are more often seen as work in progress.  There’s something artificial about this distinction for a variety of reasons. Especially in a bibliocentric field like history, published papers are very often themselves stepping-stones to books, parts of larger projects that get reworked on their way to their final appearances as chapters.  And an author’s decision to treat a book or article as done sometimes has as much to do with a variety of publishing or professional deadlines as with his or her sense that there’s no more work to do on it.  But despite its artificiality, this distinction between work in progress and completed work is pretty central to the way we think about scholarship.  And one of the reasons that the status of blog posts is so vexing is that blog posts are unquestionably publications, but are also usually work very much in progress…and this is not a combination that we’re used to dealing with in the more established genres of scholarship.

When faced with the (superficially) narrow question of how to treat academic blog posts as scholarship, one might profitably think about how they fulfill these functions I’ve just described (and how they differ and resemble more traditional scholarly genres):  how do they function as a means of dissemination? how might they serve as vehicles for scholarly credit?  how do they encourage further work? how do they (and might they) fit into the larger process of developing and completing scholarship?

I do think we need to carefully consider academic blog in light of these questions, if only because academic blog posts are already a part of the scholarly landscape and we clearly have not entirely figured out how to treat them.

But I think it’s even more important for us to consider these questions in an entirely open-ended way.  New, digital media allow old scholarly genres to develop in new ways (e.g. the e-journal) and present the possibility of yet-undreamed-of forms of scholarship. The core quality-control mechanism of the traditional scholarly genres—peer review—is extraordinarily flexible and available for use by new genres of scholarship.[3] We have the opportunity to imagine new forms of scholarship that might better disseminate our work, allow historians to better credit each other, encourage more scholarship, and enliven the process of our scholarship.   I hope we seize this opportunity.

[1] As I say in my earlier post, I am convinced that academic blog posts are publications…though I also think that acknowledging this fact only gets us so far in determining how we ought to think about them.

[2] It is worth acknowledging that much scholarly work gets done in much more informal, less publicly visible ways—in seminar discussions, over drinks or meals, in personal letters, and so forth.  The new media that have prompted this blog post have had a profound impact on these aspects of scholarship, too.

[3] Indeed, digital technologies even allow for crowd-sourced peer-review, though I’m agnostic on whether or not this is a good idea for history.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Ben, thanks for this post. It’s interesting to me that you raise the question of “purpose,” but you answer it by listing something like “uses” or “effects” or “results.” I’m not sure if this bifurcation between the terms of the question and the terms of the answer reflects a teleological/pragmatic divide or an authorial intent/reader reception divide (though, now that I think about it, those might fracture along the same basic fault line: singularity/multiplicity).

    As you mention, a lot of academic work happens in conversation, in talking things through with colleagues. It is a collaborative hashing out of ideas, and it’s what makes the academy livable and wonderful for me. Indeed, I would say the “purpose” of scholarly writing (if I can be essentialist for a moment) is to sustain that vital conversation.

    But my great fear in participating in informal academic discourse is that I will inadvertently articulate an argument that I “owe” to someone else. Rodgers’s “contagion of metaphors” might as well serve to describe the “contagion of ideas.” I don’t ever want to even appear to “appropriate” someone else’s idea if that idea was not “freely offered.” It’s hard to know in conversation — or in a seminar discussion — what is “proprietary” and what is “up for grabs.” This is one reason that I never write about what someone else said in a seminar discussion. But my colleagues’ and profs’ ideas definitely inform my own.

    I guess that’s something that “goes without saying” in academe. Maybe one of the signs that you’ve crossed the Rubicon from having to think about things to just doing things naturally comes when you just know when you need to acknowledge others’ contributions to your discourse and when you don’t.

    Anxieties about attribution cut both ways — I want to give credit, and I want credit. But credit for what, and why? Not just for professional reasons, I think, but for the deeper satisfaction that comes of being included in the story: “this person added something to our store of wisdom.”

    At the end of the day I think that’s what’s important: to know that what you thought, what you felt, what you cared about, what you knew, what you were, will matter to somebody.

    Scholarship matters because the practice of it requires faith in an unseen future in which knowledge and wisdom will have their place.

    Believe, and you shall be saved.

  2. Ben: I’m glad to see this conversation continuing. I’m pleased with the useful categories you’ve laid out above.

    I’m having trouble, however, with calling blog posts “publications.” I guess my trouble derives from the ‘Credit’ category you outline above. As of today, I know of no tenure-granting institution employing historians that ‘counts’ blog posts a ‘Credit’. Now if we want to *encourage* that designation for the sake of getting posts to eventually count as credit, then I could get on board with calling posts publications. But, as a meaningful category in relation to scholarship as it exists today, calling posts publications in an academic sense feels hazardous—like we’re creating an opportunity for miscommunication.

    How? Some of what we post is most definitely ephemeral, and therefore non-academic by definition. So *some* posts are “publications” and some are, well, just tidbits. The “publication” designation depends on overlap between the author’s intentions and the reception of said post by readership. In the case of overlap then peer review often occurs via well-thought-out comments.

    Other than this caution about the term “publication,” I like—and agree with—the categories you’ve laid out above. I can’t think of any additions or subtractions. – TL

  3. On my CV, I list my blogging here as “academic writing for a public audience.” But I don’t list it under “publications.”

    I would be more comfortable calling my posts on this blog examples of “public or professional (dis)service” rather than “publication,” if by “publication” most people would understand something like “peer reviewed.” I get peer review here, but after the fact and not blind (though perhaps sometimes blinkered!)

    That said, this blog has published writing that, it seems to me, would be suitable for a peer-reviewed journal. Many of our guests’ essays and review essays would certainly rise to that standard. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I will guarantee you that my writing here will never rise to that standard, especially as long as I’m cranking out the verbiage once a week!

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