Recognizing scholarship

As a lot of this blog will be focused on scholarship of one sort or another, perhaps the best way to begin would be a sort of guide to mapping out scholarship itself. In other words, what counts as scholarship and why? What holds across fields and what differs? Where do researchers go to find out what work has been done on some research question? And so on. So let’s start with the most basic question:

What is scholarship?

Most people are familiar with the term “peer-review” and, for the sciences especially, this is often equated with the be-all-end-all marker of what constitutes scholarship. It isn’t. For one thing, peer-review is just the beginning. The real peer-review takes place after a paper is published. It’s at this time that others can really take it apart, test it, etc. Also, peer-review isn’t the only standard review process. A lot of scholarship, particularly in fields like linguistics, biblical studies, history, and philosophy, can’t fit into the space provided by a journal article. Often enough, the same academic groups that put out peer-reviewed journals also put out other kinds of scholarship like monograph series. One of “the big” journals in New Testament studies, STNS, has a sister publication: the STNS monograph series. The Journal for the Study of Judaism has a supplement volume series Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism. Other monograph series are more like journals in and of themselves. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, Computational Neurosciece, Human Cognitive Processing, and countless other monograph/volume series are put out for researchers by researchers as something akin to book-length journal articles. They typically have volume numbers like journals, they have editorial boards, they have a review process, and they are typically highly technical. The point of such publications is to serve where journals cannot by providing a level of detail on a specific topic that cannot fit into a journal article. Then there are volumes put together by one or more editors and contain, like journals, multiple papers each by one or more specialists. Basically, sticking only with journals ensures you’ll miss a great deal of relevant work in any given field.

That said, not all academic books, volumes, or monographs are created equally. If you don’t really know a field, it can be hard to sort out what is intended to be scholarship and what isn’t. There are a few ways to get a good idea, though. First, there is the publisher. Academic publishing companies at least tend to ensure that whatever they publish is at least useful to a student if not a specialist. In particular, those publishing companies like John Benjamins, Mouton de Gruyter, Brill, Springer, and other non-university presses that publish scholarship tend not to publish books for the general interested reader. University presses do have high standards and a review process that outstrips popular publishing companies by far, but they publish many books intended for undergraduate students or their equivalent among the general public. While these are often great books to learn about a field, they aren’t really scholarship (their point is not to advance a field but to talk about it). Conference proceedings are always good. Academics in any field, from physics to philology, usually belong to associations that hold conferences where scholars across the country or world can get together to attend talks, share their work, network, and get drunk. The last of these may be the most important in the moment, but it doesn’t really advance a field. It’s the talks that are usually the most important part of conferences. These are typically given by “big names” in a field and many conferences ask speakers to produce a written version of their talk in the form of a paper that can be reviewed and published as part of the conference proceedings. Not only are these papers reviewed, but they represent cutting edge work in the field in the year they were written. Then there’s the name. Books that have titles like A New Biology for the 21st Century or New Theories of Everything aren’t scholarship. They’re for the public or for students. Books like From Case to Adposition: The Development of Configurational Sytax in Indo-European Languages or Mastication Robots: Biological Inspiration to Implementation (Studies in Computational Intelligence) are for other specialists. The more specific to one issue rather than a field a title is, the more likely it is to be scholarship. Finally we have the price and where work can be obtained. With few exceptions, if you can find it in your average bookstore it’s not scholarship. Monographs frequently cost as much or more as textbooks. When buying a book with a title like From Indo-European to Latin: The Evolution of a Morphosyntactic Type and only a few hundred pages costs a couple hundred dollars, it’s because you aren’t supposed to buy it. Your department is. If it’s not published by an academic press as part of some series (with or without a volume number) and doesn’t tell you the names of those on the editorial board then, even if it is published by Oxford University Press, chances are it’s not scholarship. Unless you are good at telling the difference between what represents work in a field vs. work about a field, then assume it’s about a field.

Where do I find scholarship?

A better question to start with than the above is where scholars find scholarship. Going to conferences, lab meetings, seminars, etc., is all well and good but one can’t keep abreast of any field this way. Reading all the major journals is great when your department pays for subscriptions but gets difficult and/or expensive quite quickly if you aren’t affiliated with a university or some other group paying for these. Monographs and volumes can be picked up on Amazon, but they cost around $100 a pop or more. Increasingly, scholars use academic databases like ScienceDirect, JSTOR, Academic Search Complete, Wiley Online, and many others. These all have electronic versions of hundreds or thousands of journals. Subscriptions are typically extremely expensive. Luckily, however, there is one search engine which is great for finding free scholarship: Google Scholar. Not only is Google Scholar more complete than any database search engine singly, it also tries to find free versions of journal articles and even monographs for you. Most university websites have pages where research is published. For example, a lab might include the .pdf versions of the latest papers it’s published on their website. Also, certain sites are designed for scholarship and scholars. Google Scholar searches through all of these for material. While you can’t always get a free version of a paper you want, you can always find free scholarship in a particular area. That said, not everything included in Google Scholar is trustworthy. Because it tends to search through .edu sites and preprint sites like Cornell’s ArXiv, a lot gets included in searches that probably shouldn’t. Look for where it was published. Also, Google Scholar allows you to see what other works cited the work you’re looking at. Only a few (or even no) citations doesn’t tell you much, but papers generally only get cited a few hundred times if a lot of scholars in the field think it is important. The exception to this is if it is very controversial. I’ll be including places to go for resources in specific fields as this blog develops. I’ll also be posting guides for specific fields.

How do I know if the scholarship is any good?

You don’t. Ask me. Peer-review, as I said above, isn’t the be-all-end-all of scholarship. Journals like NeuroQuantology, parapsychology journals, and alternative medicine journals tend to have lower standards. They publish fringe research. This doesn’t make it bad a priori, but it does mean you need to be able to evaluate it. Generally this means knowing the field. Even worse are creationist “peer-reviews”. Because “peer-review” really only means papers are sent out to others the editorial board of the journal thinks are qualified, you have to trust the journal. Journals published by AAAS, Nature, APS, and other big-name associations have reputations to maintain. They don’t publish just anything. There various indexes that rate the impact level of journals, but these should be taken with a grain of salt. Generally, if ISI or some other index tells you a journal has a high impact factor, it does. However, if the impact rating is lower, this doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Neuroscience is a big field. People with backgrounds ranging from psychology & medicine to physics & engineering publish on neuroscience. They don’t all publish about the same kinds of things equally, however. Neurologists, cognitive neuroscientists, neurobiologists, social psychologists, psychiatrists, etc., all publish work on functional brain mapping. They don’t all publish work on evolutionary neurobiology. Naturally, a study published in a generic neuroimaging journal like NeuroImage will tend to get traction that a study published in, say, Pragmatics & Cognition. Nor are “big name” journals immune to problems. Check out retractionwatch.org and guys like Diedrick Stapel and Marc Hauser to see that some of the biggest names in a field can publish not just bad research but fraudulent research. Really the only way to evaluate the quality of a journal article, monograph, volume, or any other work is to be able to evaluate it. Unfortunately, in order to be able to evaluate you frequently need particular skills. You can read a lot about Roman religion but scholarship in this field will assume you can read Latin, you’re up to date on the relevant secondary sources (many of which are published in German, French, and Italian), and you’ve read the primary sources. Papers in the sciences assume a level of mathematical expertise that many do not have (including those who published the paper, but more on that to come). So you can do what I do, and sacrifice any semblance of a normal life to read thousands of papers and books on innumerable fields to satisfy an unhealthy obsession with figuring out the answers to life, the universe, and everything, you can just hope you get lucky and the material you’re reading is good, or you can come here and ask.

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