As more scholars venture beyond the boundaries of traditional print-only scholarship, academia as an institution is beginning to grapple with the implications of scholarship and tenure in the digial era.  For example, Christine L. Borgman professor of information studies at UCLA, argues that tenure requirements need to be changed in a digital age.  Borgman was recently interviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Ed about her new book, Scholarship in the Digital Age.   Here’s a snippet of that interview:

Q. In your recent book, “Scholarship in the Digital Age,” you contend that the tenure system needs to reward people for contributions to collaborative digital projects instead of recognizing only those who publish books and articles. Why?

A. Data is becoming a first-class object. In the days of completely paper publication, the article or book was the end of the line. And once the book was in libraries, the data were often thrown away or allowed to deteriorate.

Now we’re in a massive shift. Data become resources. They are no longer just a byproduct of research. And that changes the nature of publishing, how we think about what we do, and how we educate our graduate students. The accumulation of that data should be considered a scholarly act as well as the publication that comes out of it.

The kind of re-thinking data that Brogman calls for is already going on in the humanities.      And, in many ways, I think the humanities are light years ahead of the social sciences in the move toward understanding digital scholarship.    (Why this is remains a mystery to me, but I digress.)   For example, Lisa Spiro, Director of the Digital Media Center at Rice University, maintains a blog called Digital Scholarship in the Humanities.  Back in August of this year, Spiro posted  has an elaborate and well articulated schema of what “digital scholarship” involves. Drawing on John Unsworth’s notion of scholarly primitives, a description of core research practices including: discovering, annotating, comparing, referring, sampling, illustrating, and representing, Spiro adds what she calls another crucial scholarly primitive, perhaps the fundamental one: collaboration.  She calls this collaborative model of scholarship, such as blogging about scholarship, “social scholarship.

Yet, even as scholars like Brogman and Spiro challenge us to reconceptualize what counts as scholarship, there seems to be few tenure and promotion committees that sorted out how to award credit to authors for digital work.   One of the traditional measures of scholarship for tenure and promotion committees is publication in peer-reviewed journals, and specifically looking at the “impact factor” of the journal.  The impact factor is just a way of measuring the visibility that a particular journal has in the field.   But, if you take a look at some of the academic blogs that scholars in a number of fields maintain, there’s certainly an impact from those that can be measured and is quantifiable.   Take a hypothetical example of a scholar who maintains an academic blog that gets 50,000 readers per month, or creates a video that goes viral and generates upwards of 7 million hits.   That hypothetical scholar has also published some in peer-reviewed journals that have less than 1,000 subscribers.    Our hypothetical scholar may be much more “visible” as an expert in their field from their blog, their viral video, or other digital projects than from their peer-reviewed publications.     Indeed, if what tenure and promotion committees are tasked with evaluating is how well a particular scholar has established a national reputation in their chosen field (and thus, how well they represent the college or university), these committees need to start taking into consideration a scholar’s public presence on the web first and then consider their peer-reviewed publishing as an ancillary or secondary form of evaluation.

At the very least, the digital era is transforming scholarship, that much is true.  What the lag time will be between that transformation and the way tenure and promotion decisions are made will depend on how forward thinking the people sitting on those committees choose to be.