20 Oct International Law Scholarship and the Internet
In this second post I will focus on the production of international law scholarship and what opportunities and frustrations are presented by online communications.
To try and get a better understanding of the impact of the internet on legal scholarship we set off earlier this year on a programme of depth interviews, which were then transcribed, in which we asked scholars to talk us through their research processes. There were a number of fairly predictable, although still useful, points of general agreement. Among them were the difficulties of staying up to date with current developments, filtering through thousands of search results, and the fact that journals increasingly play a more central role than books due to their greater online availability. More surprising though was scepticism about the need for peer review, anxieties over what you could and could not cite, and the lack of networks for asking for help with research questions.
For the rest of this post I would like to consider these more surprising results, suggest some reasons for them and generally ask for your comments and experiences.
The points about peer review were far from universally held and to some extent they contradicted the comments about what you can cite. Here is a quote representing the former: “I honestly think that there is excellent content in pre-peer reviewed or non peer reviewed outlets that is discernable by trained and practising academics”. And here is the opposing point of view: “a blog doesn’t give me the same type of quality – because it’s not peer reviewed, quite simply. So I think I would never quote a blog in a journal article I was writing”. This speaker then goes on to say how she would however use blog content for teaching purposes.
The first speaker is surely right that in your specialist area there are signals of quality such as who or what is referred to in the footnotes and the precision with which particular debates are summarised. Peer review can also be uneven since it depends on who does the review, how long they were given, and whether their advice was heeded. But as an indicator of quality it comes into its own in instances where you can’t just rely on your own good judgement, such as when you are under time pressure, where the material is outside your specialist area, or with book-length studies where you can’t afford to wade through a large part of it simply trying to assess whether it has been well done.
If the mere fact of peer review is not sufficient to push a source higher up your list of research priorities, what other filters do people apply to items that appear in a long list of search results? Going for known authors seems to be the most common method, followed by how “on point” a specific item is. Where material has been formally published the publisher or journal brands also play an important part. I would be most interested in hearing readers’ own views about peer review and of any others filters that they apply.
Whether you can cite a blog seems to be increasingly problematic. It depends on who you are and how you will use it. Younger scholars feel uneasy about referencing anything other than a final published piece fearing it will drag their reputation down, whilst conversely more established scholars feel they are in a position to endow some authority on a pre-publication piece by including a reference to it. We repeatedly heard similar distinctions being made about using something but not citing it (and wondering what the correct citation would be if they did). Another variant of this is the problem with multiple versions of the same article appearing in a working paper series, SSRN, and in a published journal, and then the published journal version itself appearing on the publisher’s website as well as being licensed to West, Hein, EBSCO, and faculty archives. This proliferation is demand driven (publishers would obviously like there to be just the one official version of everything) yet the end users seem confused by it.
Using networks to solve problems or get quick answers is clearly something the internet should be suited to. The question about what to cite and how is exactly the sort of thing which might be subject of a short blog posting but it will soon disappear down the page and it relies on who was visiting the blog that day. List Servs are probably the more appropriate means to deal with questions of that kind since they push the question out to recipients rather than needing to pull visitors in to a website. They are common amongst librarians. The Int-Law list for foreign and comparative law librarians for instance features frequent requests for materials so obscure that no publisher run website could ever think of covering them all. Investment lawyers will be aware of the formidable OGEMID list and a number of ASIL interest groups also have discussion groups (although I am not aware of people using the ASIL lists to locate materials). Yet when we asked doctoral students whether there are any such lists that they can use to help track down useful primary materials they couldn’t think of any. Perhaps there is a sense that using an email list to locate material seems like cheating or laziness when you are studying for a research degree, but it could greatly increase the exchange of information about highly specialised material which would enhance the quality of research.
Web 2.0 has been with us now for over five years and for all the increase in scholarly communications that it has facilitated, publishers and academy need occasionally to step back and think about the challenges that are posed to some of the fixed points of our joint endeavour to disseminate scholarship. Eliminating confusion so that greater use can be made of what is being produced, and increasing the efficiency of direct exchanges between people working on similar issues are but two starting points.