Updated 4/21: I’ve added the link to the video of the “Is Blogging Scholarship?” roundtable
Yesterday, I participated in the “Is Blogging Scholarship?” roundtable at the Annual Conference of the Organization of American Historians (OAH). It was a lively and productive conversation. Despite my concerns about holding a roundtable in the late Sunday morning session of a conference, attendance was wonderful. I’m terrible at estimating crowd sizes, but my guess is that we had about forty people in the audience. I’m very grateful to OAH Organizing Committee Co-Chair Rosemarie Zagarri for putting together the panel and for asking me to take part, as well as to my fellow panelists – Ann Little of Colorado State and Historiann, John Fea of Messiah College and The Way of Improvement Leads Home, Mike O’Malley of George Mason and The Aporetic, and Kenneth Owen of the University of Illinois at Springfield and The Junto – and the many audience members who took part in the conversation (including Mike O’Connor, former USIH Blogger and co-founder of S-USIH and Cara Burnidge, one of the co-chairs of the 2014 S-USIH Conference). Thanks, too, to Jeff Pasley for chairing the panel.
The OAH videotaped the session, so the whole thing should soon be available for your viewing pleasure (update: the video is now available here). In the meantime, however, there are a number of ways in which you can read what went on. Michael Hattern of Yale has Storifyed the session (h/t John Fea). Ann Little blogged her comments prior to the session. Alone among the panelists, she answered the question “no,” largely because blog posts are not subject to peer review and because historians, especially grad students on the market and junior faculty, can expect to get little professional credit for them. (I should stress that, though Ann said “no” and the rest of us said various versions of “yes,” the entire panel was substantially in agreement about the relationship between blogging and scholarship, though we approached the issue in usefully different ways.) After the session, Mike O’Malley blogged what I thought was the most fascinating and trenchant aspect of his comments: the ways in which the very narrow set of accepted scholarly genres in history – the conference paper, the article, and the book – not only artificially (and unfortunately) limits the scope of historical scholarship, but also sets us against ourselves as scholars.
Below the fold, I briefly outline what I said yesterday and add a little more about an idea that I had about peer review and blogging.
My basic answer to the question “Is Blogging Scholarship?” was “of course…sometimes.” In my comments I elaborated this answer by asking (and tentatively answering) three questions the answers to which seemed less obvious to me:
1) When is blogging scholarship?
What makes blogging scholarship is what makes a conference paper, an essay, or a book scholarship: accuracy, significance, and some combination of original research and original thought. Like the more traditional genres of scholarship, scholarly blogging ought to be in conversation with other scholarship. And it ought to stand up to the scrutiny of other scholars. In this regard, blogging is no different from any other (potentially) scholarly genre.
2) What are the advantages and disadvantages of blogging as a scholarly genre?
The potential advantages include: speed from conception to publication; broad and fast dissemination; interactivity; flexibility of length and form; and hypertextuality. Blogging is a great way to share and test ideas in their early stages of development. And it’s a wonderful spur to writing, including writing in more traditional scholarly genres.
The potential disadvantages of blogging include: speed from conception to publication (not always a great thing in scholarship); the somewhat ephemeral quality of blogging (this is an issue both insofar as old blog posts can be difficult to find and because the constant need for more content tends to lead to writing at a pace set by the needs of the medium, rather than the rhythm of one’s scholarship); blogging’s tendency toward informality (which can make scholarly blog posts either not sound like scholarship or not sound like blogging); blogging’s tendency toward brevity (while the medium is, in principle, flexible, in practice one can quickly make readers exclaim “tl;dr”); the status of blog posts as both works-in-progress and publications; the seemingly greater potential for scholarly theft from a blog post; and the problem of the lack of professional recognition for blog posts.
3) How can we encourage more and better scholarly blogging?
First, we need to establish generally accepted professional standards for the evaluation of scholarly blogging. This can be done both formally, through our professional organizations, and informally, through practice. At the roundtable, there was some concern that such standards would rein in some of the wonderful flexibility of historical blogging. I don’t think this is a concern, so long as we acknowledge that not all blogging by historians is scholarship and that we shouldn’t expect all of it to be evaluated as such. I also think that, as Mike O’Malley and John Fea each pointed out on the panel, the standards by which we might measure scholarship are – and ought to be – broader than the more narrow standards that we apply to the three traditional scholarly genres.
Second, though pre-publication peer review does not and should not define what is and what is not scholarship – for example, conference papers are universally seen as scholarship, but don’t go through pre-presentation peer review – peer review remains a valuable technology for establishing the worth of scholarship. There’s no reason that we cannot incorporate peer review in our blogging (I’ll have more to say about this below).
Finally, it’s vital that we receive professional recognition for scholarly blogging. Ann Little is entirely correct that most of us do not. But we should. And until and unless we do, many people who might otherwise produce valuable scholarly work through blogging will not choose to do so.
That’s more or less what I had to say in my presentation.
But I wanted to elaborate a bit on my ideas about incorporating peer-review in blogging. Let me start by saying that these thoughts are very preliminary and tentative (as a measure of their tentativeness, those who were at the panel might see that what I say below is just a little different from what I said yesterday). I’m reasonably sure they’re feasible; I’m less convinced that they’re desirable.
First, an observation: not all blog posts are (or should be) scholarship; and not all would benefit from peer review. But some potentially could. The posts most ripe for peer review would be those that are, in a traditional sense, most scholarly, i.e. posts that make an historical argument about a series of sources. Such arguments, when submitted in the form of journal articles or books, are sent to peer reviewers who are asked a pretty standard series of questions about them: are they accurate? are they new? are they significant? are they well-argued? and so forth. These same questions can easily be asked of some of the posts that appear on this blog, for example.
One could imagine the following procedure: if a regular or guest blogger wanted to, s/he could ask to have his or her post submitted for peer review prior to publication. We would have a stable of peer reviewers who’d expressed a willingness to perform this function, though of course we could also ask other scholars to review the post if needed or appropriate. The post could be sent out to, say, three other people, who would be asked to answer questions like those above and recommend publication, rejection, or revisions prior to publication. Given the speed of the blogging medium, turnaround time would be much quicker (a day or two) than it is for articles or book manuscripts; the length and scope of most blog posts would make this possible (very long posts would need to have a longer lead time). If the reviewers approved a post, we could attach some sort of “peer reviewed” badge to it, indicating that this post had received pre-publication peer review. (Of course, given the nature of blogging, the submitter would then be free to publish a post that had been rejected by this process as a non-peer reviewed post, should he or she choose to do so.)
Obviously this system would have its challenges. We’d need to have lots of volunteer peer reviewers willing to turn around posts quickly. We’d need to have a procedure for dealing with divided votes (e.g. two reviewers say post; one says revise and resubmit). And we’d need to establish a set of standards for what we expect from a blog post (we all have such standards for journal articles and books largely because, by the time any of us has a PhD, we have a good sense what a publishable book or article looks like). But I’m reasonably certain that such a system could be set up and that it could provide (some) posts with the stamp of peer review.
What I’m less sure about is how necessary or desirable such a system would be.
 Please note that I am not arguing that we ought to be tenured or promoted on the basis of blogging. For better or for worse, in the field of history, tenure and promotion is overwhelmingly determined by a single scholarly genre: the book. Yet we nonetheless get credit for our activities in the two other traditional scholarly genres: the conference paper and the scholarly article. When I say we ought to get credit for scholarly blogging, I see that credit being like the credit we get for papers and articles, not books.