The simple answer to that question is of course, yes. The reason I’m asking the question, though, is because I was once asked during an interview to define “scholarly communication.” When I made several attempts to do so, I was pressed to say what kinds of communication I would exclude. Are tweets scholarly communication? Are blogs scholarly communication? Are digital humanities websites scholarly communication? I gave a bad answer to these questions at the interview, but fortunately I have now had more time to think about it since then. So, I would like to rephrase the question I posed in the title. Are the outputs of university faculty a kind of professional communication similar to medical doctors or lawyers?
Sociologists like Andrew Abbott would answer yes to that question, and in this blog I have often referred to his work. Abbott creates a framework for professional communication, though, that I think could easily be applied to scholarly communication. “Professional” communication according to Abbott has four characteristics:
- Control of Work
These characteristics require a bit of explanation. Association refers to the ability of groups within the profession to meet, discuss what does and does not count as “good” work, and who should be allowed to be a part of the group. For example, the American Medical Association is an important professional organization which controls its own membership as well as professional norms. Control of work means that the association, such as the American Medical Association, is in charge over what it does, not some outside group, such as the government, even though the government may play some role in the association. Education means that the profession controls how new members learn its techniques and values. Finally, and most importantly, the profession controls what knowledge is and is not acceptable among its members. For instance, the American Medical Association would likely not consider the use of healing crystals to be considered a valid professional technique.
I would argue that scholarship is also professional. Often, multiple associations govern scholarship including groups such as the American Chemical Association, the American Historical Association, the Modern Language Association, and the list could go on. In some cases, there are also less formal professional groups that govern scholarship, such as editorial boards of certain journals in very specialized scholarly areas. Nonetheless, all of these national organizations and small informal groups govern “scholarship” in much the same way that a profession does, at least according to Abbott’s definition.
Therefore, to answer my previous question, I would say that scholarly communication is a form of professional communication. Blogs, tweets, op-eds, websites, and all other media could count as long as scholarly communication, so long as there the above characteristics (association, control of work, education, and knowledge) apply. The problem, however, is that currently those characteristics only apply to peer-reviewed journal articles, or, at least those are the only recognized form of communication by the profession within most scholarly disciplines. Therefore, one could also argue that none of the media such as tweets and websites are forms of scholarly communication.
Thus, I think it is long past time that the professions within the academy , begin to recognize alternative forms of communication. Some of them have made attempts to do so. Yet, if these groups are unwilling to change the norms of professional communication, Andrew Abbott also suggests that within the United States there is a “dual institutionalization” in which professions rely on universities for the educational component of their mission. In other words, professions require a bachelor’s (or master’s or doctoral) degree in order to get a job. Therefore, universities also have an incentive to force professional organizations to change their norms. The question is, will they? The other, perhaps more important, question is, how can the stakeholders in the scholarly communication system make them?