Blogs and Academic Tenure

by Justin Esarey

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education caught my attention the other day with its argument that academic blogging should be credited toward a person’s scholarly record when considering the person for tenure. 

Let me start with two stipulations that weren’t explicitly made in the Chronicle article. First, presumably the credit is restricted to blogging about professionally relevant issues (research controversies, teaching approaches, policy debate, and so on) and proportional to impact (measured by readership and, when relevant, citation). Second, blogging must be a supplement to traditional research activity in peer-reviewed journals and books (that is, they are still a necessary component of a tenure case at a research institution).

With these stipulations made, I felt pretty good about including online work (like an active research blog) as a part of a tenure portfolio. This kind of work can evidence engagement by the academic community and the wider public in the scholar’s research, providing a clue to their impact on both groups.

I was motivated to think again about that argument when I read Hans Noel’s response to the Chronicle article (posted to his own blog with what I hope was a tinge of intentional irony).

Here’s the gist of Hans’ case:

For tenure, the university compiles a comprehensive file on the candidate’s accomplishments, including most importantly, letters from outside experts, who can vouch for the candidate’s contribution. Tenure decisions are based on all that information about whether or not the candidate knows what they are talking about.

What does this say about what kinds of things should “count” for tenure? It says that what counts are those things that indicate expertise in the field. A blog does not indicate expertise. 

It’s hard to argue with the claim that having a blog, even a well-read blog, is not a dispositive indicator of expertise (or of valuable contributions made to the field). And I agree with much of what Hans says about the virtues of peer reviewed research. But we don’t consider a stack of peer-reviewed work automatically dispositive of expertise or value, either.

Rather, and as Hans points out, most institutions ask a set of 6-12 tenured professors to confidentially render this assessment by reviewing the totality of the file– including reading the scholar’s work. Further, the candidate’s own department and university also convene committees to make the same judgment, again based on the reading of the file (and the external professors’ assessments).

So, again extending the Chronicle author’s original argument, I think that this review process would be aided by adding relevant information about online scholarly activity, including blog posts and readership statistics thereof. Insomuch that the tenure file’s reviewers are able to read and interpret this information with an expert eye, I would think they would be able to make a judgment about whether it indicated the candidate’s expertise or value to the scholarly community.

There is no formula for concluding whether a scholar has expertise or makes contributions of value, and I don’t think the only contributions of value to the scholarly community are peer reviewed publications. So, it seems to me that the criterion for inclusion in a tenure file should be that the information provides more signal than noise on those dimensions. And I think that some online work meets that criteria.

I’m still submitting to journals, though.

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