What is “scholarly” in the age of the internet?
My sophomore history students are writing their French Revolution research paper this month. As we’re in the thick of things, it’s gotten me wondering again about how the internet changes what it means to do research. In particular, we require students on this and other research papers to use a “scholarly article.” But, as academic publishing changes, should our definition of “scholarly” change as well?
Back in February, this article came across my Twitter feed: Some Thoughts on Authoritarian Durability in the Middle East. It was a brief but thoughtful piece by a political scientist at the University of Toronto, on why some authoritarian regimes collapsed while others survived. It is the sort of thoughtful webpage that would make an excellent contribution to a website: it provides a reasonably sophisticated idea framework, as well as links to further sources. It’s probably just as good, in its way–and certainly more accessible–than the many of the scholarly journal articles students find on J-Stor.
And yet, it would not fulfill the “scholarly article” requirement.
Or another example: a student asked for help finding statistics on the population of France around the time of the French Revolution. I gave him some Google search tips, but also suggested he try searching in Wolfram Alpha. Curious, I also tried a search myself, for the population of France in 1789. And of course I got my answer–28.7 million people–as well as a list the two dozen or so sources, generally of high quality, that Wolfram Alpha used to calculate that number. (I also got, with a click on a link, other fun facts, including what area today has roughly that population–Texas–as well as, and I love this, how much heat that many people would generate, and how much they would weigh–approximately 2 million metric tons, if you’re curious. You gotta love Wolfram Alpha.)
So, is that scholarly? And how it as a source? Can my student cite it, or should they find a “traditional” source?
Of course, neither of those two sources benefits from traditional peer review, and the Wolfram Alpha source is really the search engine’s interpolation of many different sources. But what if the calculation of many different estimates provides a better answer, as James Surowicki suggested some years ago? And as for peer review, it is increasingly being suggested in the academy that modern publishing methods have rendered it obsolete. As Dan Cohen, the head of GMU’s Center for History and New Media, has been writing about for a while, many alternative models to the traditional journal article are emerging. If we structure our research program around old media, students will lose the research skills they need to fund the emerging new forms of scholarly work.
At the same time, we can’t throw out all standards. The web is full of shoddy, substandard work, and we need to give our students standards and rules and tips for finding the separating the jewels from the muck, and for finding those jewels in the first place.
So how can they know? How can we, the teachers know? What counts as “scholarly” in the age of the internet?