Accreditation and online scholarship

(Originally posted at The Growlery, 2008/06/08)

There’s an interesting essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education online by Gary Olson, dean of the college of arts and sciences at Illinois State University, addressing the question of certifying online research. Olson argues persuasively that online research is not taken seriously enough, and that while peer-reviewed online journals have found acceptance as ‘real’ academic work for the purposes of hiring, tenure, and promotion, other forms of work such as databases, online bibliographies, and other Internet sites remain essentially unaccredited, and thus easily ignorable within the academic mainstream. His solution is for each discipline to create its own canonization process to accredit and review this material in a manner best suited to its disciplinary conventions.

I’m about as big an advocate for online research as you will find anywhere. In particular, I find it extremely valuable to use my senior seminars (and eventually, graduate courses) as launching pads for high-quality student work that would otherwise not see the light of day, as I have done in the Pseudoarchaeology Research Archive and the Dollarware Project. An extremely important part of academic professionalization derives from taking “finished” term work, editing/revising it, and then putting it out for the world to see. If you aren’t interested in doing that (to some degree), then no matter how bright you are, you’re not really interested in being a scholar, and it’s better you should figure that out as a senior, or as a master’s student. I’m also firmly convinced that ‘even’ undergraduates (at least, the very best senior undergraduates) are capable of producing work that is of quality equal to much peer-reviewed research, and that there is an unfair prejudice against this work when it is known in advance to have been written by very junior scholars.

One potential benefit of disciplinary accreditation is that both I and my students might benefit if these projects were ‘officially’ accredited. And believe me, if such a system existed, I would be at the head of the line, submitting online projects for consideration. One concern would be, however, that if accreditation is merely seen as something that Ph.D. holders should receive for their work, then we would end up in a situation where good work ends up just as marginalized as before. Obviously, the material is still out there; Olson’s proposal is far closer to a ‘publish-then-peer-review’ model than the current ‘peer-review-then-publish’ model. But if what exists is perceived as being illegitimate, or controlled very narrowly by a small group of insiders within disciplinary societies, then what is created is a monstrosity in which these elite individuals hold power far greater than any journal editor or academic press.

In fact, the greatest challenge with the current model is that the people in charge of hiring/tenure/promotion are not part of a culture that considers these online publications to be legitimate. I’m not sure that an online peer-review/accreditation system will change that – tenure committees are free to denigrate or ignore all sorts of publications they consider to be second-rate, for instance. I understand the argument Olson is raising – that this gives deans, provosts, etc., information about the importance of a work to a discipline that they otherwise couldn’t really have. But without a general cultural change within a discipline – for instance, physics has already shifted to a model where online publications are given considerable weight – I’m not sure that this does anything but shift the error from tenure committees to the disciplinary associations themselves.

I am very strongly in favour of Olson’s proposed changes, in theory. In anthropology, this would pave the way for online site reports, field notes, photo journals, and other scholarship to receive critical attention, and to promote the publication of scholarship that otherwise might not be published because it’s not perceived as beneficial to one’s career. But the devil is in the details, as always, and what is needed is to continue to discuss these issues constructively to build a model.


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