July 8, 2017

Intersections, Frames, and Lines | Peer to Peer Review

Kevin L. SmithSo many ideas can be sparked by coincidental juxtaposition. In the past few weeks, I have been thinking about the intersections between scholarly communications and information literacy. This was largely because I was part of a panel at the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) conference about the task force charged with implementing the 2013 White Paper on the topic. My specific task was to discuss how the new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education illuminated the approach we called for in the white paper. On top of these concerns came the Blurred Lines copyright case, which was all over the media in the past few weeks and about which I have been asked my opinion repeatedly. Can these different strands be woven into a coherent idea?

When we wrote the white paper on the potential intersections between scholarly communication and information literacy, we were calling on those who teach students to find and use scholarly information to pay attention to the ecosystem: the political, social, economic, and legal conditions under which such information is created and disseminated. Now, with the publication of ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy, that call seems clearer and much more mainstream. The framework is based on six “frames,” or threshold concepts, and those frames not only invite discussion about the broader context of scholarly communications, they demand it.

Framing scholarly discourse

Consider the first framing concept, which reminds us that authority is constructed and contextual. If we seriously consider this frame as a guide to information literacy, it should direct us to a more in-depth discussion about peer review, for example, than may be the norm. We routinely tell our students about the difference between peer-reviewed versus non-peer-reviewed works. But to explore the construction of academic authority fully, we should discuss how peer review works, what pressures exist on the system, why it fails, and exactly what values it brings to the academic environment. Current events, such as the recent Washington Post story about a “peer-review and citation ring” that led to multiple article retractions, also push us in this direction; we do our students a disservice if we oversimplify the scholarly communications environment and do not address the issues that underlie the construction of academic authority.

Another threshold concept in the new information literacy framework is that “Information has Value.” If this is to be anything more than a bromide, it should lead us to discussions about copyright, as well as the cost of scholarship (which copyright is intended to inflate). This frame asks us to focus on why we see, read, and experience the products of knowledge the way we do. It invites exploration into the reasons for access restrictions, cuts in journal availability at academic libraries, and lawsuits against libraries, teachers, and students. It also provides a chance to talk with students about the value of the information they create during the student years and beyond, as well as the value of the information they receive from their faculty.

A similar set of issues is posed by the frame that reminds us that scholarship is a conversation. One set of delicate but important issues that this frame asks us to consider revolves around inclusion and exclusion from access to information. Who is a part of the scholarly conversation? Who is excluded? Does it matter whether you attend an elite university versus a community college? What if you are a student or scholar in a developing nation? These conversations also invite us to remind students of their privileged status, at least at most U.S. colleges and universities, and challenge them to consider how they will locate and access information after they graduate. The irony that just when they enter the job market and need to put into practice what they have learned they lose access to most of the resources we have trained them on is embraced by this frame and made an important element of information literacy.

Popular and professional knowledge

So much for intersections and frames. But what about lines and especially Blurred Lines? The attention that copyright dispute was receiving as I prepared for the ACRL panel reminded me that students today actually have quite a bit of experience in dealing with the construction and limitations of popular culture by issues of law, politics, and economics. The Information Literacy (IL) Framework, with its broad threshold concepts, invites us to draw a line, and not a blurred one, directly from the experiences students have with popular culture through to the things we want to teach them about the scholarly ecosystem.

In order to help students understand those social, economic, and legal forces, it is helpful to remind them of something they already know: that the cultural milieu is contested and hemmed in by dispute over copyright, licensing, and economics. The Blurred Lines decision, of which many students will be aware right now (it was, unaccountably, the top song of 2013), is not that far distant from copyright disputes in academia. Even those who do not know about that particular dispute know that the choice between downloading music or movies from a file-sharing site, as opposed to using iTunes or Netflix, is one that is fraught with political rhetoric and legal consequences. Likewise, students know that Spotify, Pandora, and Netflix have to negotiate in order to provide content to subscribers, and it is easy to draw a parallel to similar negotiations and limitations that restrict access to scholarship and determine what is in and what is out of scholarly conversations.

One of the most interesting places in which popular culture and scholarly communications can meet and occupy the same “frame” is in discussions of peer review. We tend to believe, I think, that peer review is a wholly new and unfamiliar process when we begin to introduce it to students. But students today are already familiar with the crowdsourced reviews that are now a part of everyday life, from IMDb to Yelp. To understand peer review better, why not begin with a conversation about how they already use “peer” reviews on social media? Do they choose movies based on Twitter recommendations or clips and comments on Tumblr? What are the limitations and downsides to such reviews? Does anonymity help, or would they prefer to know something about the reviewer, including tastes and prejudices? Even more exciting for this conversation would be to introduce the topic of altmetrics. From popular culture through current scholarly practices and on to alternative forms of evaluation, the IL frames invite us to draw a pretty straight line.

In short, information literacy in academic libraries does not exist in a vacuum, and it is not a wholly unique system. Instead, it is governed by many of the same forces that are familiar to students through their experiences of popular culture, and the Frames in this new Framework offer us the opportunity to use those familiarities to give students a deeper knowledge of the conditions of scholarship.

Kevin L. Smith About Kevin L. Smith

As Duke University’s first Director of Scholarly Communications, Kevin Smith’s (kevin.l.smith@duke.edu) principal role is to teach and advise faculty, administrators and students about copyright,intellectual property licensing and scholarly publishing. He is a librarian and an attorney (admitted to the bar in Ohio and North Carolina) and also holds a graduate degree in religion from Yale University. Smith serves on Duke’s Intellectual Property Board, Digital Futures Task Force and Open Access Advisory Panel. He is also currently the vice chair of the ACRL’s Scholarly Communications Committee. His highly-regarded blog on scholarly communications discusses copyright and publication in academia, and he is a frequent speaker on those topics.