50 Shades of Academia: Blogs and Social Media

By: Evan Meehan

Question: Are blogs scholarly?

Answer: No.*

Question: Why not?

Answer: Because they are not peer reviewed.

Question: Why are peer reviewed writings regarded as scholarly?

Answer: Because the peer reviewers themselves are credible, and they have deemed the work being reviewed as credible.

Question: Why are peer reviewers credible?

Answer: Because they have had their work peer reviewed and it was deemed to be credible.

*by certain definitions of scholarly.

Perhaps this question and answer dialogue represents an oversimplification of the process of peer review – but in a nutshell this is why blogs are typically regarded as not being scholarly.

So, why then don’t bloggers simply get together and establish their own peer review system?

The reason scholarly bloggers don’t go through the trouble of establishing a peer-review system is simple: blogs are capable of doing something different than journals because they lack the peer review process.  In “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy,” Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarret note that “[self]-publication enables blogs’ great virtues of speed and freshness.”  The addition of peer review eliminates these benefits in exchange for credibility.

While blogs eschew peer-review, this does not mean that they are necessarily not part of a broader scholarly literary tradition.  Cummings and Jarret write that “for many online writers permanence is not the point.  Instead, generating text online has become a means of social interaction.”  Rather than use blogs as a medium to present finished ideas, scholars can develop their ideas – reaching wide audiences and ideally receiving feedback.

The use of blogs as means by which to receive feedback is perhaps better in theory than it is in practice. In the two years that Gillian Frank’s “Christmas Abortion” post has been online it has received one comment which offered criticism of Frank’s presentation of the material.  If blogs truly functioned as means by which publications are iteratively improved then one would have hoped to see Frank update his work or at least acknowledge the comment.  As far as readers are able to see, Frank did neither of these things.  Frank’s failure to acknowledge ‘Amy R’ may explain why no one else has offered their opinion.  If he is not interested in feedback then any that is given would fall on deaf ears.

The  blog posts “Christmas Abortion” and “She looks the Abortionist” are revealing in how they differ from peer-reviewed works.  Neither article is what historians would describe as “traditional” history, and both use history as parable, illustrating why modern policies need to change because they resemble old, outdated modes of thought.  Both essays contain far less by way of citation than one would expect from a peer-reviewed work.  In “Christmas Abortion” when books are cited they are frequently done so simply by linking to an Amazon page leaving readers wondering if the quotation comes from the book, or if the book merely relates to the ideas contained therein.

While both articles are interesting and present ideas I had not previously considered, neither left me academically satiated.  Both made claims that I would have liked to have seen more rigorously backed up, and their readily visible, but unadmitted, biases left me wondering what may have been left out.  Whether a work is scholarly or not is far from being a binary with journals on one side and everything else on the other, however even with shades of gray both of these works feel pallid.

Blogs are capable of being used in a scholarly fashion, but the process is far from easy.  Bloggers need an audience sufficiently large and engaged enough – and in turn must respond to commenters who have made an effort to contribute.  Failure in this means that the authors could have saved some of their bandwidth and merely typed up their article on Word, smiled at the completed work, and then closed the program without saving.


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