Is the future of scholarship social? Should it be?

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in January 2010

600 words / 3 min.
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Reflecting on the release of Apple’s iPad, David Weinberger suggests that it is a device focused on consuming content and not producing it, and argues that the true future of reading is to become more social. Jim Milles questions scholars’ desire for this vision of the future.

Please note that this post is from 2010. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

Reflecting on the release of Apple‘s iPad, David Weinberger suggests that it is a device focused on consuming content and not producing it, and argues that the true future of reading is to become more social:

The future of reading blurs reading and writing. The future of reading is the networking of readers, writers, content, comments, and metadata, all in one continuous-on mash.

via The iPad is the future of the past of books.

Extending this thought into the realm of the university, Jim Milles questions scholars’ desire for Weinberger’s vision of the future:

Apart from a small subset of blogger/scholars, that doesn’t seem to be happening at all.  Perhaps it’s due to the training that most law faculty receive now–not just the J.D., but the long, perfection-oriented dissertation process–but in my experience, law professors and other sociolegal scholars are extremely reluctant (if not phobic) about releasing to the public anything other than a fully fleshed-out article.

via The Future of Reading, or Do Scholars Really Want “Social Scholarship”? « Buffalo Wings and Toasted Ravioli.

As a budding scholar of law and history, I second Milles’ observations. There are, as he points out, some bloggers who discuss their scholarship and work online, in an open fashion, but by far the vast majority of scholars I know and work with do not do this. Some in-progress scholarship makes it into SSRN in a draft form. Even more makes it online once it is actually published, although most of it remains behind subscription walls and is inaccessible except to other scholars (or dedicated readers who seek it out). But neither SSRN nor online journals encourage or facilitate the back-and-forth sharing of Weinberger’s vision of the future of reading as social.

The relatively few scholars who post to blogs or other online systems that might facilitate “social scholarship” tend to post material of a more informal sort, including initial reactions to current events or hot topics of current discussion. Very few blog posts develop research or concepts in detail, and even fewer do so in a fashion that does not react to something current.

In a sense, the social scholarship that does exist tends to be more like a cocktail party than a colloquium or even a conference presentation.

Personally, this tends to be how I blog as well. The material I put online via my blog sometimes informs my larger research projects, but mostly I am focused on snippets of thoughts, initial reactions, and concepts I wish to capture for later.

Partly this may be due to the form of blogging, or of reading online: shorter tends to work better, and hot and trending topics tend to attract more broad interest. (The down side of “crowd sourcing“?)

I like to more fully develop, research, and think about my scholarship before I share it, and when I do share it, I tend to have a different, more specialized audience in mind. My online writing tends to consist of more assertions and fewer citations; my scholarship is the opposite.

Is this just a “natural” consequence of different mediums? Would scholars be better off publishing in a more “social” (technologically social, that is) fashion? Is one way better than the other? And if social reading is the future — or should be the future — is the iPad a step in the wrong direction?