The digital scholar
The digital scholar

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The digital scholar

4 The nature of digital scholarship

One way to consider the nature of change that digital scholarship represents is to take an existing framework for categorising scholarly activity and examine how these practices are impacted. Weller takes this approach in the book The Digital Scholar, using Ernest Boyer’s 1990 classification. Using data gathered from more than 5,000 faculty members, Boyer (1990) classified the types of activities in which scholars regularly engage. His report sought to place all scholarly activity on an equal footing, stating: ‘What we urgently need today is a more inclusive view of what it means to be a scholar – a recognition that knowledge is acquired through research, through synthesis, through practice, and through teaching’ (Boyer, 1990, p. 24).

In Boyer's definition of scholarship, there are four components, each of which, he suggests, should be considered as of equal value by universities and government policy. These are:

  • Discovery – This is the creation of new knowledge in a specific area or discipline. This is often taken to be synonymous with research. This is probably closest to the public conception of scholarship, as universities are often the site of significant breakthroughs.
  • Integration – This is focused on interpretation and interdisciplinary work. It is moving away from the pure, ‘genesis’ research of discovery. Boyer states that it is ‘making connections across the disciplines, placing the specialties in larger context, illuminating data in a revealing way, often educating non-specialists’.
  • Application – This is related to the concept of service, and can be seen as engagement with the wider world outside academia, which might include public engagement activities as well as input into policy and general media discussions. This can also include the time spent peer-reviewing journal articles and grant applications and sitting on various committees.
  • Teaching – Much of the interpretation of Boyer can be seen as an attempt to raise the profile of teaching. He argues that ‘the work of the professor becomes consequential only as it is understood by others. Yet, today, teaching is often viewed as a routine function, tacked on’.

In the next four weeks we will take each of these components in turn and consider the digital scholarship perspective on them. As an overview, watch this short video with Micah Altman, the director of research for MIT Libraries.

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Transcript: Micah Altman on digital scholarship

What is your definition of 'digital scholarship'? And how do you feel about people defining terms like that?
Micah Altman
Well, Jerry, I think the preferred term is now 'iCyber' - [LAUGH] (QUESTIONINGLY) 'digital e-scholarship'. So I think we should be clear on these things.
But, humour aside, I think all of these prefixes are vestigial or will soon be. Digital scholarship is about scholarship - systematic work to develop generalizable knowledge for teaching, for engagement, for better understanding or explanation of the world or of us. And the forms have changed, but I think that the goals and the ultimate forms of measuring that are the same, even though the technical details vary and are causing some kerfuffles.
One of the things that going digital has done is disentangle a lot of things that were bound up. Like when you have a book and it's on the shelf, it's persistent in a way, because that shelf is in a library, that library's around, people can read it, so it's accessible. It's vetted, because it went through a particular publisher.
And so, now that it's digital, you can start to separate all of these affordances, all these properties, out. And so you can rebundle these properties. And so that's part of ...
It's not that the goal of a digital scholarship is essentially different from that scholarship. But, because of the possibility of unbundling, I think it makes people think a lot more about what were the underlying properties and reasons that made things scholarship to begin with? And some people have a sort of comfort in the sort of known bundle. But I think it's a transitional phrase.
For most digital works, there are versions. You can point to a particular version or manifestation of a work and say, this is the one I mean. But the ability to unbundle all of these things means you have to be more precise about talking about what properties you're promising in this bundle of quick digital scholarship.
Because you can't now assume that this bundle, which came together in not necessarily an intentional way, the fact that libraries preserve things was in some ways a side effect. Right? As we can see with electronic journal subscriptions, and people and institutions are now taking different approaches to it to preserve that content or not doing it.
So this is not just a problem for digital scholarship but for scholarship in traditional form that's being now disseminated in digital, which everything is. And that unbundling is affecting all sorts of institutions, not just scholarship or research.
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Activity 3  Four aspects of digital scholarship

Allow about 20 minutes

Before you consider each of these aspects of scholarship and how they can be influenced by digital technologies, take some time to consider what will be the biggest change for each component. Make notes or use your blog to jot down your thoughts and add the hashtag #dscholar if you wish to make them available to others.

You can type text here, but this facility requires a free OU account. Sign in or register.
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