The Intersection of Digital Technology and Scholarship Part 1

In order to begin a meaningful discussion on digital scholarship, it must be defined.  I prefer this definition: “Digital scholarship is the use of computer or electronic technology for intellectual work that is created, synthesized, applied, and communicated AND is validated by one’s peers.”  The last part of that sentence is key for those of us in academia.  Peer-review is the building block upon which our careers are constructed.  Of course it is a flawed system as it currently exists, especially where Extension is concerned.

Speaking from a faculty perspective, the acceptance and recognition of what constitutes satisfactory scholarship has yet to reach consensus among our colleagues.  Nowhere is this more evident than with digital scholarship.  Just a few years ago, the internet was “new” and anything that showed up there was liable to be removed without warning. Flash forward to the present and this fear is (and really always was) unfounded.  In fact, there is a scary permanence to what is presented in the online world, so the argument of that information being ephemeral is moot.  So, what are the hang-ups?  I have some theories and suggestions that will be addressed in a 5-part series.

Problem: The recognition of what constitutes scholarship is coming from persons who neither use nor create digital technologies.

Solution: Those who reside on promotion and tenure committees are there because they have done the work and paid their dues.  There is no arguing that; however, the issue lies in exposure and practice. If those persons have never created or been exposed to digital works how can they know the value? Does creating an infographic mean a synthesis of information and an effective communication of that material?  How does it stack up against a traditional publication?  What we need is something that persons sitting on those committees will understand to back up the work – peer-validated data.  If studies can be cited that show digital work has the same level of scholarship and impact as traditional work, then minds can be changed (this is an assumption, perhaps a naïve one, but one that I believe in).

Next time, universities are thought to be bastions of liberal thinking.  Right?  Right?!? Well, thinking and practice are two different things.

Eric T. Stafne
Associate Extension/Research Professor
Mississippi State University

10 Replies to “The Intersection of Digital Technology and Scholarship Part 1”

  1. I find it interesting and dismaying that our very own Journal of Extension is not prepared for, tooled up for, nor does it accept digital formats outside of the standard PDF.

    1. Jeff:
      I don’t know the inner working of JOE. At one time it was ahead of the curve (an online-only journal? how novel!), but has not evolved. Perhaps discussions have taken place to address this — maybe funding is a problem? I don’t want to be too down on JOE, but I agree that it needs to be more progressive.

  2. The JOE needs to be open-access like PLoS (and our own JAC). It’s on the wrong side of the open/closed divide.

    1. Kevin:
      I agree that JOE is behind the times. Extension is the perfect institution for open-access. I don’t know if this has been considered by the board or not. It definitely should be.

  3. Eric and all, I’ve also had two JOE submissions denied by reviewers that included digital content or digital media concepts. It was clear from the reviewers’ comments that they simply didn’t understand the information that was presented in the manuscripts. One submission included data from our very first social media campaign at OSUE.

    To be fair, this isn’t only a JOE issue… how we define quality, scholarly work that involves digital media starts with each institution. In a perfect world, all land grants would be collaborating with one another to tackle this hurdle.

    1. Jamie:
      Yes, as I talk about later on, the peer review process is flawed (although I can’t say about your specific papers — I didn’t see them). We have reviewers that only understand what they are used to dealing with. That is one reason I believe empirical evidence is needed to start a baseline for discussion. LGs should work better together to address this growing problem (but I won’t hold my breath).

  4. I should also add that I spoke with our P&T committee at Ohio State recently about digital scholarship. When one committee member said “how can we gauge impact of an infographic?” another chimed in with “how can we gauge the impact of a fact sheet? That’s right, we can’t.” We do we hold digital media to a higher standard than our traditional publications?

    These are the conversations that need to happen. Thanks Eric for such a great series this week!

    1. Jamie:
      I think the rub for some comes in for some with creation and synthesis of information. Is an infographic as intellectually demanding on the creator? I don’t know the answer to that and am not necessarily suggesting they are equal in all cases. How do we really gauge impact of anything? We can look at reach and engagement metrics to infer impact. Not sure how that is any different with an infographic than a fact sheet.

      1. Eric: I might argue that an infographic is more intellectually demanding on the creator. If only in the sense that one has to be extremely choosy as to what content will be most relevant, interesting, and have the most ‘impact’ on its audience. Extension program professionals have always taken pride in knowing how to best communicate / teach / educate the public. Digital content is that next step. And I agree that reach and engagement metrics would not be different… but we actually have the capability to garner more data on reach and engagement of digital content than we can a fact sheet that sits on a table in our office. The ‘impact’ may turn out to be about the same (next to nil) but we will never know unless we begin to actually study it.

        1. Jamie:
          That very well be true. I think, however, impact is not as valued when it comes to getting credit for work. Obviously most research articles, even in “prestigious” journals are not read by many people, but are held up as prime examples of scholarship. I would argue that Extension is as much art as science and should be evaluated that way. I found an example of an interesting humanities journal — totally electronic, but has various different peer-reviewed content (traditional, photos, videos, presentations, etc.). Southern Spaces http://www.southernspaces.org/. In my mind this is something that JOE could work toward. I may have gotten away from your main point, but I think documentation (via study) is a great place to start too.

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