Thursday, April 11, 2013

What counts as 'research'? Should this?

As we have discussed a few times here, notably on our post 'Gutenberg II.  Broadreach University', times are changing for universities and the measures of academic achievement should change as well.  In this regard, academic life is supposed to contribute to the 'teaching, research, and service' (TRS) triumvirate, and that's how academics are evaluated.

If classical on-paper publishing with classical by mail peer review, and classical classroom teaching and in-person talk deliveries have been the measures of quality, and all that is changing, what should the criteria be now?  Should social media--like this blog--be considered legitimate venues for TRS?

Blogs, tweeting, online publication and commenting engage the public at all levels, not just academic 'peers'.  They thus provide service (and free, too!). They can teach the public, at all levels, not just in the classroom.   They report new data results (online journals) but also synthesis and explanation (blogs and social media as well as various online pubs).  Many legitimate 'research' activities in many academic fields, especially but not only the social sciences, arts, and humanities are just of this sort.

Blogs et al. are not bound and printed, and come out piecemeal rather than in big or occasional chunks.  They are not the same as formal research experimental results, but that is just one aspect of academic research.  But they can have the same kind of thoughtful synthesis, data presentation, and analysis.   They can probe new ideas, revive or present facts or even data.  Indeed, synthesis and making sense of data are perhaps as important, if not more important, than generating new data themselves--though of course science would quickly starve without new data.

It's real work and it's peer-reviewed
As we can attest, blogging in a serious way (as we, and many others, try to do), and even commenting and other social-network interactions, are a lot of work--we often spend hours on a single post, or work one up over several days or weeks.  Blogs are less systematic, often less thorough, than a major paper or book.  But the tendency in academics is already to parcel up one's research into 'least publishable units', as a way of gaming one's CV and so on.  Social media just speed that up, but make it more immediate and allow responses, and peer review is more broad and quicker.  Posts stay available and are searchable--we get comments every week on posts that are weeks or months or, occasionally, years old.

Blogs by academics or their equivalent are done seriously and, hopefully, very carefully because we know that if we goof we'll hear about it and, unlike typical peer review, the commentary will be globally public.  Good blogs, and we hope this is one of them, are viewed round the world.  Not, usually, by an army such as follow popular culture blogs, but by a mix of people with serious interests and qualifications.  We hope to stimulate thought and to be stimulated by responses.  So we write just as much with who may see what we write in mind as we do when we write a standard academic paper or book.

Evaluating which blogs and commentaries are valuable and which are just nasty riffs, superficial, or by trolls is a challenge, but the many commenatries on similar problems with peer review (including ones we have done here) show that the social media change the details but not the issues.

If the move is to free, worldwide, instantaneous communication of knowledge, knowledge of all sorts, not just hard-science experimental results, and of free online data bases of those results, then we need to embrace it, legitimize it, and revel in the freedom it provides.

As we've noted before, maybe the real shakers of innovation will be freed from the shackles of traditional, highly framed degree programs, and will scan for the knowledge they need to do what they want to do.  That, after all, was the traditional goal of giving people an 'education'.

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