What does scholarship sound like?

Creative work is scholarly work

The Specialist Committee recognises the importance of both formal academic research and creative outputs for the research cultures in many departments, as well as for individual researchers; it thus aims to give equal value to theoretical/empirical research (i.e. historical, theoretical, analytic, sociological, economic, etc. studies from an arts perspective) and creative work (i.e. in cases where the output is the result of a demonstrable process of investigation through the processes of making art.); the latter category of outputs is treated as fully equivalent to other types of research output, but in all cases credit is only given to those outputs which demonstrate quality and have a potential for impact and longevity.

The South African National Research Foundation has recently shared guidelines for the recognition of creative scholarly outputs, which serves to broaden the concept of what kind of work can be regarded – and importantly, recognised – as “scholarly”. The guidelines suggest that the creative work could include (among others):

  • Non-conventional academic activities related to creative work and performance: Catalogues, programmes, and other supporting documentation describing the results of arts research in combination with the works themselves;
  • In Drama and theatre: scripts or other texts for performances and the direction of and design (lighting, sound, sets, costumes, properties, etc.) for live presentations as well as for films, videos and other types of media presentation; this also applies to any other non-textual public output (e.g. puppetry, animated films, etc.), provided they can be shown to have entered the public domain;

I’m going to talk about podcasts as scholarly outputs because I’m currently involved in three podcast projects; In Beta (conversations about physiotherapy education), SAAHE health professions educators (conversations about educational research in the health professions), and a new project to document the history of the physiotherapy department at the University of the Western Cape.

These podcasts take up a lot of time; time that I’m not spending writing the articles that are the primary form of intellectual capital in academia and I wondered, in the light of the new guidelines from the NRF, if a podcast could be considered to be a scholarly output. There are other reasons for why we may want to consider recognising podcasts as scholarly outputs:

  1. They increase access for academics who are doing interesting work but who, for legitimate reasons, may not be willing to write an academic paper.
  2. They increase diversity in the academic domain because they can be (should be?) published in the language of preference of the hosts.
  3. They reduce the dominance of the PDF for knowledge distribution, which could only be a good thing.
  4. Conversations among academics is a legitimate form of knowledge creation, as new ideas emerge from the interactions between people (like, for example, in a focus group discussion).
  5. Podcasts – if they are well-produced – are likely to have a wider audience than academic papers.
  6. Audio gives an audience another layer of interesting-ness when compared to reading a PDF.
  7. Academic podcasts may make scholarship less boring (although, to be honest, we’re talking about academics, so I’m not convinced with this one).

What do we mean by “scholarship”?

Most people think of scholarly work as the research article (and probably the conference presentation) but there’s no reason that the article/PDF should remain the primary form of recognised scholarly output. It also requires that anyone wanting to contribute to a scholarly conversation must learn the following:

  • “Academic writing” – the specific grammar and syntax we expect from our writers.
  • Article structure – usually, the IMRAD format (Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion).
  • Journals – where to submit, who is most likely to publish, what journals cater for which audiences.
  • Research process – I’m a big fan of the scientific method but sometimes it’s enough for a new idea to be shared without it first having to be shown to be “true”.

Instead of expecting people to first learn the traditions and formal structures that we’ve accepted as the baseline reality for sharing scholarly work, what if we just asked what scholarship is? Instead of defining “scholarship” as “research paper/conference presentation”, what if we started with what scholarship is considered to be and then see what maps onto that? From Wikipedia:

The scholarly method or scholarship is the body of principles and practices used by scholars to make their claims about the subject as valid and trustworthy as possible and to make them known to the scholarly public… Scholarship…is creative, can be documented, can be replicated or elaborated, and is peer-reviewed.

So there’s nothing about publishing PDFs in journals as part of this definition of scholarship. What about the practice of doing scholarly work? I’m going to use Boyer’s model of scholarship, not because it’s the best but because it is relatively common and not very controversial. Boyer includes four categories of scholarly work (note that this is not a series of progressions that one has to move through in order to reach the last category…each category is a form of scholarship on its own):

  • Scholarship of discovery: what is usually considered to be basic research or the search for new knowledge.
  • Scholarship of integration: where we aim to give meaning to isolated facts that consider them in context; it aims to ask what the findings of discovery mean.
  • Scholarship of application: the use of new knowledge to solve problems that we care about.
  • Scholarship of teaching: the examination of how teaching new knowledge can both educate motivate those in the discipline; it is bout sharing what is learned.

Here are each of Boyer’s categories with reference to podcasts:

  • Discovery (advancing knowledge): Can we argue that knowledge can be advanced through conversation? Is there something Gestalt in a conversation where a new whole can be an emergent property of the constituent parts? How is a podcast conversation any different to a focus group discussion where the cohort is a sample with specific characteristics of interest?
  • Integration (synthesis of knowledge): Can the editing and production of a podcast, using the conversation as the raw data, be integrated with other knowledge in order to add new levels of explanation and critique? This could either be in the audio file or as show notes. Could podcast guests be from different disciplines, exploring a topic from different perspectives?
  • Application/engagement (applied knowledge): Can we use emergent knowledge from the podcast to do something new in the world? Can we take what is learned from the initial conversation, which may have been modified and integrated with other forms of knowledge (in multiple formats e.g. text, images, video), and apply it to a problem that we care about?
  • Teaching (openly shared knowledge): Can we, after listening to a podcast and applied what we learned, share what was done, as well as the result, with others in order that the process (methods) and outcomes (results) can be evaluated by our peers?

This may not be a definitive conclusion to the question of whether podcasts could be regarded as scholarly work but at the very least, it suggests that it’s something we could consider. If you accept that a podcast might be regarded as scholarly we can then ask how we might go about formally recognising it as such.

Workflow to distribute scholarly work

I’m going to use an academic, peer-reviewed, traditional journal (or at least, the principle of one) to explore a workflow that we can use to get a sense of how a podcast could be formally recognised as scholarly work. We first need to note that a journal has two primary functions:

  1. Accreditation, which is usually a result of the journals peer review process, and their brand/history/legacy. The New England Journal of Medicine is a recognised “accreditor” of scholarly work, not because there is anything special about the journal but simply because it is the New England Journal of Medicine. Their reputation is enough for us to trust them when they say that the ideas presented in a piece of work have been tested through peer review and has not been found wanting.
  2. Distribution, which in the past meant printing those ideas on paper and literally shipping them around the world. Today, this distribution function has changed to Discoverability; the journal does what it can to make sure your article can be found by search engines, and if you’re the New England Journal of Medicine you don’t need to do much because Google will do your quality signalling for you by surfacing your articles above others. Theefore, ournals host content and try to increase the chances that we can find it, and the distribution function has largely been taken over by us (because we share articles on behalf of the journals).

By separating out the functions of a journal we can see that it’s possible for a journal to accredit work that it does not necessarily have to host itself. We could have a journal that is asked to accredit a piece of work i.e. signal to readers (or in our case, listeners) that the work has passed some set of criteria that we use to describe it as “scholarly”.

What might this workflow look like? Since I’m trying to show how podcasts could be accredited within the constraints of the existing system of journal publications, I’m going to stick to a traditional process as closely as possible, even though I think that this makes the process unnecessarily complicated, especially when you think about what needs to happen following the peer review. Here is what I think the accreditation process could look like:

  1. Create a podcast episode (this is basically a FGD) on a topic of interest where guests discuss a question or a problem that their community of peers recognises as valid. This could be done by a call to the community for topics of interest.
  2. Edit the podcast, including additional resources and comments as show notes. The podcast creators could even include further comments and analysis, either before, during or after the initial recorded conversation. The audio includes the raw data (the recorded conversation), real-time analysis and critique by participants, discussion of potential applications of the emergent knowledge, and conclusion (maybe via post-recording reflection and analysis).
  3. Publish the episode on any podcast-hosting platform. The episode is now in the public domain.
  4. Submit a link to the episode to a journal, which embeds the podcast episode as a post (“article”) along with a short description of what it includes (like an abstract), a description of the process of creation (like the methods), the outcome of the conversation (like a conclusion), and a list of additional reading (like a reference list).
  5. The journal begins the process of accrediting the podcast by allocating peer reviewers, whose reviews are published alongside the embedded podcast in the journal.
  6. Reviewers review the “methods”, “conclusions”, “references” and knowledge claims of the podcast guests, add comments to the post, and highlight the limitations of the episode. The show notes include a description of the process, participants, additional readings, DOI, etc. This could be where the process ends; the journal has used peer review to assign a measure of “quality” to the episode and does not attempt to make a judgement on “value” (which is what journals do when they reject submissions). It is left to the listener to decide if the podcast has value for them.
  7. The following points are included for completeness as they follow a traditional iterative process following peer review. I don’t think these steps are necessary but are only included to map the workflow onto a process that most authors will be familiar with:
    1. The podcast creators make some changes to the audio file, perhaps by including new analysis and comments in the episode, or maybe by adding new information to the textual component of the episode (i.e. the show notes).
    2. The new episode is released. This re-publication of the episode would need to be classified as an entirely different version since the original episode would have been downloaded and shared to networks. An updated version would, therefore, need a new URL, a new page on the podcast hosting service, etc.

In the example workflow above, the journal never hosts the audio file and does not “publish” the podcast. It includes an embedded version of the episode, the show notes (which include the problem under discussion, the participants and their bios, an analysis of the conversation, and a list of references), as well as the full peer reviews. Readers/listeners then decide on the “importance” of the episode and whether or not to assign value to it. In other words, the readers/listeners decide what work is valuable, rather than the peer reviewers or the journal.

In summary, I’ve tried to describe why podcasts are potentially a useful format for creating and sharing the production of new knowledge, presented a framework for determining if a podcast could be considered to be scholarly, and described the workflow and some practical implications of an accreditation process using a traditional journal.