Digital scholarship: from the soft problem of citation to the hard problem of authoriality

I’ve been convinced that podcasts have enormous pedagogical value for a long time. I’ve produced podcasts with students on a number of occasions, as well as using them in my teaching as a resource. However a concern I have relates to audio more widely and the scholarly habits required to work with it in a rigorous and careful way. There has been at least one occasion I confirmed and others I suspected where I’ve identified problems with a student’s citation which stem from their reliance on audio rather than text. There’s a tendency to pick out evocative phrases alongside a relatively superficial reading of the text itself, reflecting an experience I recognise in myself as a listener: saturating my day with audio in a way that means I’m often barely listening until something grabs my attention which I feel inclined to record.

This might be fine as a form of intellectualised entertainment in which you’re relating to audio as an informative background to daily life but it raises obvious questions about learning and scholarship. I’ve tried to develop habits around this by recording time stamps which I listen back to in order to write up long form notes in my Roam database but even with careful work it seems clear that at least for me listening is a more superficial form of engagement than reading. Furthermore, it leaves me wondering about citational practices by academics as ever more of us are listening to academically relevant conversations in audio form.

Establishing the legitimacy of citing non-conventional sources is one challenge here akin to that which was faced by blog posts until a few years ago. The technical obstacle compounds this in the sense that it’s slightly more work to obtain an accurate time stamp than it is a page reference. However the bigger problem I see with listening patterns is that it makes it far too easy to slip into a kind of osmotic absorption of ideas. Given the obvious fact of information overload and the cultural abundance which defines our digital environment, it is far too easy to absorb ideas without realising they come from a definite source.

Perhaps you have a vague sense that you heard a conversation about it at some point but can’t place the source and soon forget about this inkling. Or perhaps it simply occurs to you in a way that feels like your own, as a point you quasi-absorbed is suddenly sparked to life by a connection at a later moment in a way that feels like it has emerged from your own thought. Even more problematically, you might just remember it as your own in the sense that a good idea residing in your own mind is assumed to ‘belong’ to you. Though one wonders about the extent to which this disposition might be gendered within the academia.

At the level of phenomenology it feels like ideas are just ‘in the air’ in an ownerless fashion whereas in fact these are the intellectual labour of particular person(s) circulating through Twitter streams and podcasts. I’ve seen at least one example where I’m certain this happened in which the innovative work of a (then) PhD student received a lot of social media attention but their innovativeness then diffused in a way which meant the more formal credit and attribution for this wasn’t received. Their authoriality diffused through social platforms in a way that led to the accumulation of platform capital (i.e. visibility, repute, shininess) but extremely similar ideas then ended up in the published work of senior colleagues who, unlike this scholar, happened to be male. In a parallel situation I’ve seen the contributions of collaborators with less social media capital than I once had (as well as foreign names) be erased in how joint projects were recognised and circulated.

There’s a lot going on in these case studies which I don’t feel comfortable writing about in a more direct manner but it left me with a sense that digital scholarship has tended to be concerned with a soft problem of citation which is a matter of technical standards and professional legitimacy, to the exclusion of a hard problem of authoriality driven by the incongruence between established scholarly practices and the affordances/constraints of digital media. This suggests to me there are significant issues of equity, attribution and rigour which we shouldn’t skip over in our rush to embrace the disruptive potential of digital media in teaching and scholarship.

What makes this problem so hard is that by definition you cannot know if you have engaged in this misattribution. You can be careful about your current practice but I’m not sure it’s cognitively possible to trawl back through your past thought in a way which could recover these mistakes and seek to rectify them. That’s a thought which occurred to me with a nervous jolt as I suddenly wondered if I might have done it in this post, leading me to add this paragraph. There are issues of individual scholarly responsibility here as well as the collective imperative to establish and disseminate practices in these areas through professional socialisation and research training. But there are also institutional steps which can be taken e.g. blog editors submitting their archives to institutional repositories in order to make it more likely that posts will be indexed by Google Scholar.

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