“Peer reviewed” might not be code for awesome but hey! it’s not code for useless either

So I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year talking about how we need to understand what peer review really is. Most of that time it leads to posts about the limitations of the system. Today, not so much.

I keep going back and forth about whether to write this this morning because while I’ve been thinking about it since reading this post at Information Wants to be Free yesterday, it really isn’t just about that post.

And it really isn’t even about the one snippet of the post that got me worked up. Seriously, the snippet isn’t even about the main point of the post, and it isn’t expressing any sentiment I haven’t heard a million times before, starting in library school and again, and again and again since.

And it feels like piling on to just pull out one throwaway line and write a whole post about it, especially by someone who has been dealing with kidney stones, who I have never met in person, on whose blog I do not regularly comment, and who may have not even meant this just as it sounds. It’s like “nice to meet you, way to totally miss the point.” I did get the point of the post, and I realize this snippet isn’t it. But it’s a snippet from an academic library blog and it is expressing a sentiment that I have heard a million times, and I think it’s a problematic sentiment, especially from academic librarians. And my blog is also a blog and I need to have something to link to to respond to so here we go.

Here’s the snippet:

I don’t write for peer reviewed journals since I’m not tenure-track and I actually want my work to be read. So this doesn’t make me particularly annoyed. To me, it’s just another reminder that peer-reviewed journals are completely irrelevant to me. So many peer-reviewed journals publish absolutely useless studies that were primarily done for the sake of getting the authors tenure. But at least I felt they had some sort of quality standards.

Do you see what I mean? Maybe not. Here’s what I mean – how can we as academic librarians pretend to have any relevance at all when it comes to helping students find, use and create their own scholarship — to helping students be successful in college — when so many of us have absolutely no respect for what it is that scholars actually do?

Now, the first time I wrote that I wrote “for the scholarship in our own discipline” I get that she’s probably talking here about the library literature, not articles in Science or Nature or The William and Mary Quarterly or Physics Review Letters or The Journal of Modern Literature or The American Journal of Sociology, though there’s nothing there to really indicate that distinction. But it really doesn’t matter – I do think this goes deeper than saying the library literature blows.

I mean, there is an issue with the do as I say not as I do thing that must be going on when academic librarians who disdain what is in peer reviewed journals in library science tell students that they should care about the scholarly literature in their own disciplines. But most of the time, even when it is articulated as the library literature isn’t timely enough/ cutting edge enough/ rigorous enough to meet my needs – I don’t think that’s the whole picture. The perception that there is an academic/real world gulf is so ingrained in our culture that it’s okay to state it as kind of a truism. This kind of thing – look at the comments in this piece from the Librarian in Black last summer.

And that’s the deeper issue that I think is there. I think there’s a perception that academic studies not directly and deliberately intended to inform practice can have no relevance for practice. That knowledge for knowledge’s sake has no value or relevance to the real world and that in a field like ours that is dominated by practitioners that means the academic research going on is hopelessly, inherently useless to the vast majority of the field. The work being done in other fields might be valuable to those fields, but only because those fields are academic and not as about practitioners — it’s okay for them to be useless to practice, it’s okay for them to be academic and theoretical. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is useful in those fields because those whole fields are somewhere other than the real world.

Which could be read as librarian self-deprecation or self-hatred – “we’re just not real academics – they’re good and we’re bad.” But I think this cuts deeper than saying the library literature could be better – I tried to parse this snippet this way, and I think the other people being quoted in the post are thinking of the issue that way – but I don’t think this statement can be read to mean the library literature needs to be better. There’s no way that the peer-review model can be the go-to place for practitioners who want cutting edge answers to current problems, who want what they get from blogs and other dynamic information sources – that’s not a matter of better or worse.

The truth of the matter is even if academic research in library science was as cutting-edge, current, and rigorous as any academic research could ever be – a lot of it would still not be intended to inform practice.

When I hear people talking about how useless or stultifying or hard to understand or badly written they find the peer-reviewed literature – there’s a pride there in being a practitioner instead of an academic. There’s a sense that we are doing the real work in a way the academics never can. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of practice, don’t get me wrong – I am absolutely not saying that. It’s the “instead of an academic” piece that I have issues with because theory/practice isn’t a zero-sum thing. There’s no need to do either/or. There is something wrong with cutting yourself off from something that can and does inform practice in ways that nothing else can simply because it wasn’t created specifically to do so.

And there’s especially something wrong with academic librarians cutting themselves off from that because a huge part of our job, from collection building to information literacy, is all about connecting students to scholarship. There’s no way to compartmentalize that to the library literature – there’s no way to say “well, I think the scholarly study in librarianship is useless but in sociology, or social work, it’s totally awesome.”

Because here’s another thing – when I hear people talking about how useless or stultifying or hard to understand or badly written they find the peer-reviewed literature, they sound just like year after year of students I’ve heard complaining about their classroom reading. Classroom reading not found by a keyword search in Library Literature, but carefully selected and assigned by experts in the field who are saying “this, this is an important thing you need to understand to understand what knowledge is in our discipline.” Yes, a lot of what is in the peer-reviewed literature, in all fields, is not well written. A lot of it is not well researched. A lot of it is published only because it needed to be for the author’s tenure hit. This isn’t just true for us – it’s true across the board. It might be more true for some fields and less true for others but it’s true on some level for all of them. And not recognizing that it is not ALL like that, that sometimes the language is hard because the concepts are hard, sometimes you have to read it three, four or five times not because it’s badly written but because it’s talking about really complex things that take three, four or five readings to understand means closing yourself off from a type of knowledge and a way of understanding that can absolutely inform practice — not understanding that will keep a student from being successful in college. More than that, I think not understanding that hurts the practitioner as well.

Most of our students are going to be practitioners, not academics. We can’t just assume that they will magically understand the value of knowledge for knowledge’s sake because they start taking 400 level classes. It takes a particular skill set to apply theory to practice – it takes practice to apply theory to practice. Our students don’t come to us knowing how to do those things. They need help understanding not just how to find scholarly sources – but how to read and use them. One of our writing faculty was telling me the other day that the students in her class, when they are required to find “speaker sources” – sources that take a stand on issues – almost never use academic sources even though they are required to cite them somewhere in the paper. They use the academic sources as background sources instead of speaker sources. See, the point is that they don’t have the skills or the knowledge yet to see the academic sources as speakers. They can easily identify a policy agenda, but they don’t know yet how to identify the scholarly argument, agenda or point of view. Just like we can easily identify a practical problem that needs solving, but we think that academic problems are pointless.

Our students will be better at what they do – whether that is working, voting, or heck, even dieting, if they have the skills to be informed by what the research says, what the science says – even though that research will almost never have been created simply to inform them. But I don’t know that they can learn that skill set or gain that understanding from librarians who don’t have it, or at least who don’t use or practice it, themselves.

The peer-reviewed literature is what it is. It can be a whole lot better – but that doesn’t mean more obviously and immediately practical. As someone who spends an awful lot of time going on and on and on and on about the problems with the library literature, I still have to say if you can’t find any research in that literature to inform your practice, you aren’t trying very hard.

Will you find stuff on “how can I troubleshoot this problem I’m having today?” Probably not. Can you find stuff on “how can I deal with this issue in a really cutting-edge and awesomely new way?” Probably definitely not. Can you find stuff that gets you thinking about how to frame the problem in a new way, how to understand potential solutions in a new way, how to understand the root of the problem in a new way? I would certainly hope so.

See, here’s my last thing – sometimes the questions that scholars are interested in ARE different than the questions that arise out of daily practice. Sometimes the problems that they are passionate about solving are not the same problems that keep practitioners up at night. But the questions they ask and the answers they come up with are still valuable to practitioners if those practitioners are willing to accept the research for what it is instead of focusing entirely on what it is not.

There’s going to be a little feature in an OSU publication about undergraduate information literacy instruction at my library and I was looking at the most recent draft just before I went to read my feeds. The author came to watch one of my instruction sessions to get a feel for what that kind of teaching was like – and she told me that she saw my interactions with the students more as interactions between peers than traditional teacher/student. I thought about that and realized that what she was seeing was that, to me, the purpose of most undergraduate instruction — across the disciplines but especially in the library — is to bring these new college students into an existing community of scholars, and giving them the skills, concepts, data and sharing the knowledge that will let them find their own place within that community.

To do that, we don’t all need to be scholars ourselves in same way – we are practitioners and for most of us that is one of the wonderful things about librarianship. But we need to respect, value and celebrate those who are and what they do.