Scholarly vs. popular sources

There’s an abundance of serious material outside the academy so why not use it, says Karen Harris

March 20, 2014

Source: Patrick Welham

A student is researching scholarly material for her essay. She finds an excellent quote. It ticks all the boxes: original and insightful, persuasively argued, provocative, with just enough holes for a good forensic analysis to expose any weaknesses. There’s one problem, however. It does not come from an academic paper. It comes from a blog written by an obscure amateur. It has, technically speaking, no academic credibility.

By convention, students – and academics – are supposed only to engage in critical discussion with “academically credible” sources. What, then, is the student to do? Pretend this precious nugget doesn’t exist? A terrible waste. Plagiarise it (after all, who’s to know)? Downright unethical.

I’m not talking here about the sourcing of facts, or the fraught issue of truth and objectivity. I’m focusing on ideas, opinions and theories and my central argument is that we do our research a disservice if we automatically exclude a source because its provenance does not match certain outmoded criteria.

The distinction between “credible” and “non-credible” is becoming ever more blurred, particularly in the era of electronic self-publishing. The internet has undoubtedly democratised the spread of ideas, weakening the assumption that university departments have some kind of monopoly on cogent, logical thinking.

But if the line on permissible sources were to be moved, where should it be redrawn? If an official university department blog were deemed acceptable to cite, for instance, what about the personal blog of a leading professor/research student/undergraduate/professional expert/amateur enthusiast? What about museums and galleries, accredited and respected institutions whose publications can sometimes be commercially oriented? What about a prime time television documentary made in collaboration with The Open University?

And what of those writers who straddle the border between academia and general readership? Take the field of language studies, in which David Crystal is a prime example. Would his titles on popular linguistics be considered less suitable for essay purposes than his more esoteric works – and where would we draw the line? Would Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves be considered unworthy because of its humorous, tongue-in-cheek tone – despite the interesting and provocative insights into English punctuation? To take art theory as another example, where do we stand on those critics who write for a general readership? Is it acceptable to engage in argument with well-established names such as Brian Sewell and Waldemar Januszczak, but not with those who write for “lesser” publications?

There are no easy answers and I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that we eschew the challenging and rigorous in favour of the populist and ephemeral. Yet the current system, which insists that only papers and books published by universities and their affiliates are worthy of critical engagement, does seem to foster a kind of academic protectionism which can’t easily be justified.

The classic system of referring to academic writers exclusively by their surname is part of the problem. The effect is to create a kind of “us and them” attitude, the idea of the grand academic being such a renowned authority on the topic that we don’t even introduce them by their full name: they simply don’t need one. So you’ve never heard of Jones (2003)? That’s because you’re just not on his/her/its intellectual plane. The surname-only principle implies that flimsiest of notions, the “academic community”, a kind of exclusive club for those who jealously guard rigorous debate and the exchange of ideas. Arguably, this kind of community has never existed in any meaningful sense.

Far better to introduce academic writers by their full names, with a brief description of who they are, as we already do with sources from outside the so-called academic community. So Jones (2003) would be introduced as Pat Jones, senior lecturer in media studies at X University, in much the same way as we introduce, say, fashion blogger Tim Smith, jewellery designer Lena Thomas or film reviewer Mick Stuart. That way students could be actively encouraged to collate ideas and arguments from multitudinous sources from both inside and outside academia – and ultimately to decide for themselves which ones deserve closer scrutiny on the basis of intrinsic merit. It might even encourage them to become less timid about criticising theory in their own words, based on their own insights.

Some will say this would lead to a horrendous free-for-all, where no distinction is made between learned discourse and undisciplined wittering. But sorting the wheat from the chaff and identifying bias, prejudice and sheer self-indulgence is always an intellectually exhilarating task that sharpens one’s critical skills – wherever the debate is taking place.

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Reader's comments (3)

The SURNAME (DATE) system, and alphabetical ordering by surname, are hangovers from a pre-IT era which students of the Google generation find difficult to comprehend. With electronic documents providing hyperlinking from full names to details, and easy searching and indexing, it is time to move on. It would certainly help students who find identifying the surname of an author extremely difficult. How many, for example, can identify the surname of Ban Ki-moon, and do they need to know?
Karen Harris's point is well made and does highlight the increasing difficulties we have in defining the academy. One minor irritant, however, is the issue of 'Jones (2003)'. The broad Harvard system of referencing is fine and used widely. However, it is not universally used and footnotes are just as academically sound. We used them when I was working as an academic historian and I always found the Harvard imperialism a little tiresome. One of my REF submissions was apparently marked down for not being well referenced simply, so the limited feedback implied, because it had used footnotes instead of Harvard (journal used footnotes).
@JAMES WILLIAMS perhaps footnotes made it hard for the evaluator to check out your sources, without reading what you had to say? At least the commentator had apparently browsed through your submission.

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