U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is Blogging Scholarship?

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.[1] 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.

[1] 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.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben, I could be wrong here, but it seems like the term “scholarship” in the question/panel title is almost a placeholder/stand-in for “valuable.” IOW, the reason to contend for blogging as scholarship is because scholarship is valued in the academy — indeed, the most valued thing (presumably) in the academy. But might it be better — because more capacious/comprehensive — to argue that blogging is valuable, without arguing that it necessarily is/must be “scholarship”? (Clearly, I’m not asking this as a disinterested observer.)

    • Hmmmm….much depends on what you mean by “valuable.”

      In a broad sense, I think we all feel that we do things, even strictly professional things, that are not scholarship but are professionally valuable: teach classes, attend other scholar’s talks, read new works of scholarship to broaden our understanding of our fields. We also of course do many things that while valuable are of no value professionally (e.g. feed our children, play musical instruments, vote in elections).

      The question “Is blogging valuable?” invites a certain slippage between these two meanings of “valuable.” I do think there are those who more or less think that blogging isn’t really valuable even in the second sense (and that the question “Is blogging scholarship?” might be a kind of proxy to denying blogging’s value entirely).

      The one member of our panel who said that blogging wasn’t scholarship — Ann Little — strongly argued that blogging was valuable to us as scholars and teachers. Though her argument that blogging wasn’t scholarship was based in part on the fact that blogging isn’t (usually) valuable in a third, even narrower sense: as a means of professional advancement.

      I strongly agree with Mike O’Malley and John Fea that we need to encourage a broader understanding of what constitutes scholarship and that blogging can both help us do that and benefit (in professional value) from that broadened understanding (this is also, in effect, one of Robert Farley’s points in the PS article that Corey links downthread).

      But even if we do this, the scope of what is professionally valuable will be larger, I think, than the scope of scholarship. And some of our blogging might fall outside the circle of scholarship, but inside the circle of professional value. And sometimes we might find ourselves blogging about our pets (though probably not on this blog), in which case our blogging, while still, I’d say, valuable in the broadest sense, probably isn’t of much professional value, unless we happen to be working on human-animal relationships (or some such topic) professionally.

  2. Ben, this is very useful. Thanks for sharing it!

    I think peer review should become more standard in blogs such as this; but I wonder if the peer review process might be separated from the approval/rejection process?

    For example, on a site such as this, a guest blogger who wanted a “peer reviewed blog entry” might be able to submit a piece through a site like Submittable, which allows for editors to be given permission to look at a specific piece, and give a paragraph or so of feedback. Once 3 editors have looked over a piece, commented, and clicked a box, it would be “ready to go.” I suppose the idea would be for the commenter to give a holistic, general sense of whether they think the piece works or doesn’t, what the strengths and weaknesses are, and to indicate if they see any glaring omissions or major errors. Often what beginning bloggers need is the kind of push I could see being very common in this sort of format: e.g., “what are you really trying to say?” “Is this text or author or trend really the target, or is is a way of getting at some other concern?” “Is the choice of tone well-matched to the intellectual concerns?”

    At that point, the blogger could choose what to do–leave the piece as is, make some minor changes, make major revisions, or scrap the piece.

    I think that sort of process would have helped me, for example, remember to include Jackson Lears in my review of Gramsci in America. In other cases, I can imagine being told, for example, by three separate scholars that a premise is faulty would be very helpful. Three complaints about a given style problem might help a writer get better.

    Maybe worth trying a pilot project, perhaps targeted at younger scholars (maybe pre-comps) who have not done much blogging before? My guess is that a ton of senior scholars would be happy to participate on the other end.

    • Those are very good suggestions, Kurt. I think I, too, was trying to suggest that pre-publication peer review should (or at least could) be separated from the question of acceptance or rejection. That’s why I conceptualize it as resulting in a kind of certification, rather than a permission to publish.

      (I should add something that I emphasized more in the panel: all of the posts on a site such as this receive post-publication peer review in the form of comments, a process which actually has some advantages over pre-publication peer review, which takes place almost entirely out of the public eye. And, of course, pre-publication peer reviewed posts would still receive this kind of post-publication review as well.)

  3. While I’m sympathetic — obviously — to the argument that blogging has scholarly value and ought to be recognized as such, there are some potential downsides that I think really have to be considered. A few years ago Robert Farley, one of the bloggers at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, wrote an excellent piece on the downsides of including blogging as an object of professional evaluation. Namely, it could end what we value most about blogging.


    • Thanks, Corey! That’s a very thoughtful piece by Farley. I suppose my quick answer would be: I agree entirely that blogging has the possibility of extending the definition of professional activity in usefully new directions and that trying to turn blogging into another version of a journal article is both a wasted opportunity and potentially harmful to blogging. Farley’s argument, if I read him correctly, is that blogging as is ought to be seen as professionally important. I agree with this, too.

      However, we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I (tentatively) propose peer review as an option rather than a universal practice for precisely this reason. Until blogging becomes more widely accepted as part of (some of) our professional profiles, meeting our fields half-way seems preferable to me to waiting for a utopian future where we can blog about politics in the morning, blog about history in the afternoon, and receive professional credit for it all at the end of the day. This is especially the case if we can do this not by changing the way we blog, but by supplementing it with new ways of blogging or even simply distinguishing between different sorts of blog posts that we already write.

  4. One of the features that has made traditional peer-review a standard for scholarship has been the presumably impartiality of the ” double-blind” process, which seeks to eliminate questions of personal identity and connections, institutional affiliation, and other extra-textual factors as part of the decision to publish. As we know, in practice this standard is hard to maintain–fields of study are often small and Identities of both reviewers and authors can often be guessed at, if not ascertained. But I think this process still provides an expression of values and aspirations of what scholarship should be. How might this be countered in a universe that is pushing more and more for the wikipedia model or the crowd sourcing model? One of the virtues of blind peer review is that the editor knows that the scholarship of a particular reviewer makes his or her criticisms and review particularly valuable. How do we protect the anonymity of reviewers and authors while also maintaining the authority of gatekeeping institutions to certify the significance of work on blogs? The current system of peer-reviewed journals and university presses is by no means perfect, but I, for one, would be reticent to replace it with anonymous crowd-sourced review. For one thing, I think it might increase the tendency to identify the institutional prestige and training of scholars as important factors in publication.

    There’s a lot to think about here. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Ben!

    • I agree entirely about the virtues of traditional peer review, Dan. Some of what I was contemplating above was adding traditional double-blind peer reviewing to newer, largely crowd-sourced genres like blogging and see whether what results is a useful innovation or something that’s just neither fish nor fowl.

  5. Ben, I guess by “valuable” I probably mean “in a way that doesn’t ‘count’ toward something else” — e.g., not (maybe “not only,” or “not merely”) subsumable under scholarship (or, following Jeremy Adelman, teaching or service) for purposes of professional advancement.

    There’s this thing that scholars are doing — blogging — for which they receive no professional recognition, which doesn’t usually “count” in terms of tenure and promotion. I don’t know if that makes it a labor of love, or a labor of folly — but in any case it means that there is this realm of robust intellectual activity, exchange, community, etc., that isn’t disciplined or delimited by the metrics and norms of measuring scholarly productivity. It is an arena not (yet) subjected to the market logic and bean-counting and fad for quantification that seem to have won the day in almost every other area of academic life.

    If there’s a move to make blogging count professionally, you can bet that Thompson-Reuters or some similar entity will be coming up with some algorithm for the quantitative reporting and ranking of blog “citations” — how many links to your post? how many comments? what’s the relative blogospheric cachet of the commenters? etc. etc. etc. — which will could have the effect of neatly distilling or (more likely) bleakly reducing the value of blogging, while at the same time adding one more area in which faculty are supposed to demonstrate impact or competency or meaningful contributions or whatever the term might be.

    Is there a way to make a claim for the qualitative contributions of blogging without quantifying the value of those contributions?

    And it seems to me that peer-reviewed scholarship published on a blog would be a little bit different than blogging as peer-reviewed scholarship, if that makes any sense. Such pieces of peer-reviewed scholarship would be something like traditional articles published on a different platform. I can’t imagine that they would be, or would read like, “blog posts.”

    • Lots of interesting thoughts here. Some scattershot replies:

      1) It is, in fact, not the case that none of us get credit for blogging. John Fea, for example, reports that he receives credit for his blogging and that his institution has even given him a research assistant to help him blog. I’d add that there’s no way to tell, from reading his blog, that his work is treated by his institution as a core part of his professional effort while, say, Ann Little’s work receives no such formal recognition. In short, the notion that seems to be floated frequently that blogginess is necessarily tied to our not receiving credit is a form of magical thinking (and pretty self-punishing magical thinking at that).

      2) For better or for worse (and I think it’s almost entirely for better) history departments in this country seems much less interested in judging their members’ output in terms of citations than most other disciplines are. I think you’re entirely correct that some sort of citation metric is likely to be invented to track the influence of blog posts. For the moment, at least, I doubt it would have much effect on the way historians’ work is evaluated professionally, even if more institutions start to give credit for blogging.

      3) I agree that peer reviewing blog posts will, in some sense, change them. I’m sure one would see a big difference in the care with which citations are indicated in peer-reviewed posts, for example. I don’t think, however, that this will turn them into journal articles, which are generally much longer and more formal than blog posts. My guess is that peer-reviewed blog posts would read like neither blog posts nor journal articles, but rather like peer-reviewed blog posts. It’s an interesting question what that would look like and whether creating and encouraging this new sub-genre of academic writing would be worth the effort.

  6. This point might have been made elsewhere or in the panel (though I didn’t see it above, or in Ann Little’s post), or maybe in the Farley piece (I’ll check that out after this comment), but I think the question is framed incorrectly. As framed, the answer is either no or maybe.

    Blogging is a medium or tool, like paper or a magazine. It’s an empty container that one fills up with whatever one wants. It can be trite, scholarly, ephemeral, world-changing, mundane, anodyne, and everything in-between. Hopefully an empty blog post is always something of a canvas that is filled with ‘value’. If the contents didn’t have some degree of value, the blog wouldn’t be visited.

    Beyond being a literal tool, I do understand that “blogging” now means something more, usually a range of writings between information, aphorism, and reproductions of formal scholarly writing. Any post can rise or sink, accordingly. I agree that it can extend the definition of positive professional activity and be professionally important (in very deep and meaningful ways).

    As for what historians put into blogs, there’s also the fact that sometimes history writing is narrative and sourced, but only in a “near scholarly” sense. The USIH blog seems to host lots of essays that are scholarly in the broadest sense of the word, but wouldn’t pass peer review because they are incomplete in relation to primary resources, theory, etc. Still, some posit very interesting theses or reveal obscure sources, so they are scholarly and important in some sense.

    That said, we could totally (if we wanted, I don’t) turn this blog into a peer-reviewed journal. Peer review is a process that can be instituted in any medium: books, magazines, blogs, television, etc.

    I’m game for what Ben and Kurt outline above: the occasional “post” that is actually a highly scholarly, peer-reviewed piece. And I substantially agree with Ben that both pre- and post-publication comments are valuable. Indeed, sometimes it is the case that “blind peer review” (double or otherwise) functions as a thin veil—one that hardly screens out biases. There are weaknesses in the “traditional” scholarship system that has inflected the tenure system with some intense distortions (creating glass ceilings for various kinds of edgy scholarship). – TL

  7. Ben, thanks for your reply above.

    I guess I’d say that I hope a case can be made for the value of blogging as it is right now. The possibilities of peer-reviewed publication as part of the array of content/conversation that blogging offers sound promising, but it distresses me (as perhaps it distresses you) to think that it might take something like that (a very worthwhile endeavor, no doubt) to “legitimate” in the eyes of some tenure/review boards what is already a very worthwhile endeavor–especially here at USIH, where the blog has opened enough discursive space to spin off a scholarly society, fostering conversations between senior scholars and junior scholars, between different subdisciplines of history, between academics and non-academics, and generally helping to make intellectual history and intellectual historians more accessible and approachable.

    In short, I don’t think you’d have to do one pickin’ thing differently with this blog in order to make the case that you already make invaluable scholarly contributions and perform outstanding service on behalf of the profession. And the fact that we’re having this conversation about what more blogging can be as scholarship demonstrates, I think, how much it already is.

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