Digital Scholarship and Academically Discoverable Blogs

What does it take for a digital scholar’s blog to become academically credible?

At a time when we know that folk go to Google for a lot of their search needs, the academic library argues it’s case, in part, as a place where you can go to get access to “good quality” (academically credible) and comprehensive information through what we might term academic search engines.

The library’s search offerings are presumably subscription based (?) and their results often link through to subscription content; but the academic life is a privileged one, and our institutions cover the access costs on our behalf. (I guess this could almost be considered one of the “+ benefits” you might imagine an enthusiastic copywriter assuming for an academic job ad!)

The library and information access privilege extends to students too, so we might imagine a well-intentioned, but perhaps naive, student thinking that if they run a search using the Library’s “academically certified” search engine, they will get the sort of result they can happily cite in an essay, without fear of criticism about the academic credibility of the source publication.

We might imagine, too, that academics and researchers also place an element of trust in the credibility of sources returned as results to search queries raised using library discovery services.

So here’s a claim (which is untested and may or may not be true): if you want your work to stand a chance of being referenced in a piece of scholarly work, you need it to be discoverable in the places that the scholar goes to discover supporting claims or related material for the work they’re doing. The assumption is that the scholar will use a library provided discovery service because it is less noisy than a general web search engine and is likely to return to resources from credible sources. The curation of sources – and what is not included in the index – is in part what the subscription discovery service offers.

What this means is that if digital scholars want their blogging activity to be discoverable in the academic context, they need to find some way of getting some of their blogposts at least into academic discovery service indices.

But this is not likely to happen, right? Wrong… Here’s what I noticed when I ran a search using the OU Library’s “one-stop” search earlier today:

Acaemically verified???

A top two reference to a Mashable article (albeit identified as a news item) via the Newsbank database and a top ranked periodical article from Fast Company (via the UK/EIRE Reference Centre database). (Hmmm, I wonder how quickly this content is indexed? That is, how soon after posting on Mashable does an article become discoverable here?)

So maybe I need to start writing for Mashable?!

Or maybe not…?

One of the attractive features of WordPress as a publishing platform is that it provides feeds for everything, including category and tag level feeds. A handful of my category feeds are syndicated, for example to R-Bloggers, the Guardian Datablog blogroll and (I’m not sure if this still works?) the Online Journalism blog. Only posts tagged in a particular way are sent to the syndicated feeds.

So I’m wondering this: how much mileage would there be in setting up aggregation blogs around particular academic areas that not only syndicate content from publisher members, but also act as a focus for indexing by a service such as Newsbank? The content would be publisher-moderated (I don’t post content on non-R related matters to my R-bloggers syndication feed) and hopefully responsive to the norms of the aggregation community itself.

Precendents already exist of course; for example, Nature.com blogs aggregates blogs from a variety of working scientists. Is this content discoverable via the OU Library’s one stop/Ebsco search?

For an academic’s work to count in RAE terms, it needs to be cited. In order to be cited, it needs to be discoverable. Even if it isn’t citeable as a formal article, it can still make a contribution if it’s discoverable. To be academically discoverable, content needs to be discoverable via academic search engines. So why should Mashable count, but not personal academic blogs that are respected within their own communities?

PS I’m a bit out of touch with referencing converntions; I remember that pers. comm. used to be an acceptable way of crediting someone’s ideas they had personally communicated to you; is there a pub. comm. (that’s pub. comm. not just pub comm. ;-) equivalent that might be used to refer to online or offline public communications that might not otherwise be citeable?

3 comments

  1. ostephens

    ” The assumption is that the scholar will use a library provided discovery service because it is less noisy than a general web search engine and is likely to return to resources from credible sources.”

    That’s a pretty big assumption! Certainly the evidence suggests that students use Google more than library sponsored starting points (e.g. http://www.oclc.org/reports/2005perceptions.htm). Anecdotally I’d say most researchers stick to ‘tried and trusted’ mechanisms for research – specific databases or other sources that they tend not to stray far from.

    In terms of citing ‘public communications’ these aren’t all covered in the same way – but there are conventions for citing blogs, newspapers, speeches, etc. I’m not sure what you would class as ‘not otherwise citeable’ – anything might be cited, sometimes even appropriately ;)

    • Tony Hirst

      @owen “That’s a pretty big assumption! ” Agreed… but we have to start the argument somewhere… the argument being: where you discover something might influence the extent to which you are willing to treat it as some sort of “acceptable” scholarly resource (one that you are likely to cite) or the extent to which you are influenced by it when researching the literature around a topic.

      At the moment, if you’re locked in to just searching the formal literature, you may well miss out on the ideas being raised in the informal literature that are still relevant, ideas you might happily consider if they were mentioned to you over coffee at a conference (the fact that the idea was raised in the conference space in a sense legitimising it as at least worth listening to…)