Research : the only time I don’t advocate contempt for authority

I had a look at Technorati today. Technorati is a search engine designed to search and rank blog posts, and it works by analysing ‘outgoing’ and ‘incoming’ links, or the links that bloggers make to other blogs, videos and webpages. I found the ‘authority’ ranking system very interesting. It measures how often a single blogger (Person A) has been linked to by other bloggers (Persons B through Z), and since it only records one hit for Person A for each referring blog, rather than multiple hits from the same blog (eg Person B’s blog), it seems to be very accurate.

Given that I work in an area of librarianship that concentrates solely on the culture of scholarly publishing, the notion of ‘authority’ resonates strongly with me. When we help students find the right kinds of resources for their assignments, rather than relying on tenuous Google searches and Wikipedia, we are teaching them about authority.

To researchers, publishing in an authoritative journal or book could make or break their careers. Being able to say that they have published in the most prestigious journals in their discipline (eg The Lancet for medical researchers, and Nature for scientists) could mean the difference between consideration for a fellowship or research project, or spending five more years in the laboratory working as someone else’s dogsbody. Yet it’s not only the name of the journal in which a researcher publishes that indicates the quality of the research output. A crucial factor in a work being considered authoritative is the notion of academic peer review.

There has been much interesting discussion across a variety of disciplines on the idea of blogs as scholarly literature. Walt Crawford opened the discussion in the library sphere by asking not whether library blogs are scholarly, but whether in fact it matters, since they represent ‘the most compelling and worthwhile literature in the library field today’. He acknowledges that we’ve ‘grown to rely on liblogs [sic] as … [our] primary sources for contemporary library issues over the last two or three years.’

Sure, blogs are not a form of scholarly publication. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can start a blog (I did), which is of course why academics sneer at them as a method of dissemination. They generally frown upon user-generated content, because it attacks the very heart of their existence. In the past, only academics published their thoughts, opinions and discoveries. Now everyone can do it, surely the notion of publication is devalued, even defiled?

Yet the mere existence of a service like Technorati indicates the fact that bloggers can, and do, rate their peers according to the quality of their work. The only question is, what sort of content is being rated?

Library blogs may not be a traditional method of scholarly publication, but if the most useful, interesting and important discussions between library professionals around the world are happening on blogs, then library blogs are undeniably a significant form of scholarly communication in our profession. The problem here is not with content, but with definition. Scholarly publication refers to any traditional method of research dissemination, such as journal articles, conference papers and books. The definition of scholarly communication, on the other hand, stretches beyond the limitations of traditional print publication to take into account new forms of Web-based publication, such as open access repositories.

Lorcan Dempsey (ironically) suggests that we may need to redefine our notion of ‘grey literature’ (traditionally newspapers, magazines and ephemeral, non-scholarly material) to take into account the overwhelming presence of ‘brightly colo[u]red and shining’ library blogs, and the comparatively low standard of ‘dull’, ‘dreary’, published library research.

Some of this debate might have gone a little too far. For example, a draft list of new metrics for scholarly authority to help us assess the scholarly status of blog posts includes comparing the:

‘[t]ypes of tags assigned to it, the terms used, the authority of the taggers, [and] the authority of the tagging system.’

The whole value of ‘tagging’ as a concept is that it’s not governed by a controlled vocabulary–indeed, it shouldn’t be governed at all. And even if we take on board some of the other arguments proposed for measuring the quality of a blog post, such as the affiliation of the author or the percentage of the document that has been quoted elsewhere, individual bloggers will be disadvantaged by the inherent biases of the Web.

Technorati rankings are certainly not immune to these problems. Technorati currently indexes over 100 million blogs, but bloggers need to sign up for an account if they want their data harvested. I ran a quick vanity search on ‘libodyssey‘, not expecting to find anything (since I’m not signed up), but in fact I did, and it led me to this:

Libodyssey: A new blog written by one of my fellow 23 things travellers.  This blog has few posts, but is one of the most engagingly written blogs (of any genre) that I read.

When a fellow blogger, whose work really is authoritative, gives me such a charming review, it really encourages me to get a wriggle on and write some more posts. Thanks, Dana!

Update: Those following this discussion may be interested in this Chronicle of Higher Education article.
Further update: I just discovered an international conference devoted to research into changes in grey literature. The mind boggles.

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One Response to Research : the only time I don’t advocate contempt for authority

  1. […] I would be caught very much offguard if it were my content being recycled. As an example, following my post on Technorati, I ran a quick Google search on ‘libodyssey’ to see if I’d become an overnight […]

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