Meet me at the intersection

In March the ACRL published a new White Paper on Intersections of Scholarly Communication and Information Literacy: Creating Strategic Collaborations for a Changing Academic Environment which looks at the ways in which the dramatic changes taking place in the environment for scholarly communication have necessary consequences for nearly all librarians, and especially those who teach information literacy to graduate and undergraduate students.  As the current Chair of the ACRL’s Committee on Research and the Scholarly Environment, I had a small role in preparing the White Paper (most of the heavy lifting was done by Barbara DeFelice of Dartmouth, who chaired an ad hoc working group), and so was asked to take part in a program about the document and the issue at the ACRL Conference earlier this month.  On the morning of that program, I found in my email a link that led me into a fascinating story about exactly why this intersection can be so tricky to navigate, which I decided I would share here as well as at the panel discussion.

Coincidentally, the story involves a Duke professor, Dr. Mark Goodacre of Duke Divinity School, who is an active and engaging blogger on the general topic of the New Testament and early Christian literature.  Several years ago, Mark wrote a blog post outlining a possible approach to a long-standing problem in the interpretation of one of the non-canonical gospels, the Gospel of Peter.  By Mark’s own admission it was a casual piece of writing, as many academic blogs are (he calls it “random jottings,” but that is probably excessively modest).  Recently, however, an entirely non-casual peer-reviewed article critiquing Mark’s blog post has been published in a highly-regarded journal in the field.

Mark tells his own story, and links to the relevant documents, in this later blog post.  He also raises some interesting questions about the etiquette of the situation, which are discussed at length in the comments to the post.  The entire discussion is worth reading, but I want to make a specific comment about how it relates to those intersections of scholarly communications and information literacy.

One of the things that information literacy librarians spend a lot of time teaching about is the set of “signals” by which the scholarly authority of a particular work is measured.  Everything from the presence of footnotes to a notation that the article has been peer-reviewed can help students determine where on the continuum of authority a particular work they discover belongs.  Also, students learn from librarians and others how to “backtrack” from one article to find those conversation partners whose combined contributions help form a complete and coherent view of any particular issue.

Both of these basic skills are undermined, to some extent, by situations such as the one Mark recounts.  For one thing, it is perfectly possible that he could remove or revise his original blog post.  Now Mark is a scholar and a very astute blogger, so I would expect him to acknowledge and explain any subsequent changes he might make to that post.  But the possibility certainly exists, for this set of writings or for others, that the scholarly works under discussion could change or even disappear.  That possibility presents those who teach about research skills a new challenge — to explain and help students account for the potential impermanence of the scholarly record.  And even if they remain intact and unchanged, the challenge of helping students understand that a peer-reviewed work might be based on one that was never peer-reviewed, and consider what impact that possibility would have on their judgments about authority, persists.

I offer this anecdote as concrete evidence that the changing system of scholarly communications compels all librarians, and especially those who teach information literacy, to remain aware of what we might call the “socioeconomic” structure of information.  That is, the conditions — social, economic, legal and technological — under which different forms and types of information are created and disseminated.  We are witnessing, I believe, a radical disaggregation of scholarship, as new formats, new business models and diverse levels of accessibility become the norm for some disciplines and for many scholars.  Even in a humanities field like Early Christian Literature, which still preserves many of its traditional modes of communication, this splintering of once solid lines has its effect.  And for our students, whose entire information-seeking lives will be lived in an environment where technology, copyright and licenses control what they can find and what they can do with what they find, education on these matters is no longer optional.

It is precisely these changes, and the ever-more-pressing need to take them into account, that the ACRL White Paper is intended to document and encourage.  It deserves attention from the library community precisely because we cannot ignore the revolution in scholarly communications itself.