Tenure-track faculty aspiring to achieve the highest academic ranks are often hesitant to explore creative and innovative modes of scholarship. While there are several possible reasons for their reluctance,  one may be the fact that alternative scholarship still does not carry as much weight during promotion and tenure reviews as traditional scholarship does.

Stephen Nichols, professor of medieval French literature at Johns Hopkins University, highlights this concern in Digital Scholarship in the University Tenure and Promotion Process: A Report on the Sixth Scholarly Communication Symposium at Georgetown University Library:

“… disincentives are so powerful as to discourage experimentation. Young scholars are counseled that they need solid print dossiers before they attempt digital scholarship and that, even then, they are still at some risk.”

A University of California, Berkeley report entitled The Influence of Academic Values on Scholarly Publication and Communication Practices acknowledges that while faculty members realize that it is important to experiment with using alternative methods of scholarly communication, the challenge may be the inability to have those works properly evaluated by tenure review committees:

“There is presently a somewhat dichotomous situation in which electronic forms of print publications are used heavily, even nearly exclusively, by performers of research in many fields, but perceptions and realities of the reward system keep a strong adherence to conventional, high-stature print publications as the means of record for reporting research and having it evaluated institutionally.”

Review committees have a difficult time understanding the significance of digital scholarship, let alone knowing how to assess its impact. Review committees understand citation indexes and journal impact factors or book reviews as the evidence of impact of traditional scholarship. How does one determine the impact of a blog post, a web site, a YouTube video, or a slide deck posted on Slideshare? As a result, emerging forms of digital scholarship are often not defined in criteria documents and therefore not fully valued the faculty rewards system.

Although promotion and tenure committees need to update their review criteria to be more accepting of digital scholarship, amending a faculty rewards system to expand the definition of scholarship is a complex process.  External forces such as institutional mission, faculty culture, behavior, and leadership can slow or cripple attempts to change it. Just because a department changes its written definition of scholarship in promotion and tenure criteria documents does not mean that faculty wake up the next day with a new view of scholarship.

The process of changing the faculty rewards system to be more accepting of digital scholarship starts with the individual faculty member. Faculty members need to educate their colleagues, tenure committees, and the administration about emerging forms of scholarship and their value on an ongoing basis. While courageous junior faculty could do the experimentation it should be the tenured faculty that take on this leadership role.

As the Modern Language Association points out, it is also the tenure review committee’s responsibility to take the time to learn about and create appropriate ways to evaluate emerging forms of scholarship. The tenure review committee should also be learning about Altmetrics as a supplemental method of assessing the value of traditional publications.

Another challenge in the evaluation of new forms of scholarship is that the current paradigm places a heavy emphasis on evaluation letters from individuals that are external to the tenure granting institution. External evaluators are usually provided copies of a candidate’s scholarly works and are asked to comment on what they have been provided. Since the materials provided to the external evaluators are often traditional publications the resulting letters, which inform and guide the deliberations, tend to focus on traditional scholarship.

In the absence of any agreed upon methods of evaluating digital scholarship, a much broader body of work that includes new forms of digital scholarship must be provided to external evaluators. Comments from their letters will help to assess the value of such works and can be used to build criteria to assess alternative forms of scholarship.

Networked technologies have the ability to enable digital scholarship in many forms to be made available to more readers, more quickly. Through experimentation and thoughtful management, the traditional features of  the scholarly communication system – including quality control, preservation, and measures of impact – can be retained in an emerging rewards system for digital scholarship. Ultimately, a retooled faculty rewards systems is needed that more closely resembles the vision of Michael Jensen:

“For universities, the challenge will be ensuring that scholars who are making more and more of their material available online will be fairly judged in hiring and promotion decisions. It will mean being open to the widening context in which scholarship is published, and it will mean that faculty members will have to take the time to learn about — and give credit for — the new authority metrics, instead of relying on scholarly publishers to establish the importance of material for them.”

Still, many tenure-track faculty members remain caught in a Catch 22. Faculty members are unwilling to experiment with alternative forms of scholarship because tenure committees don’t yet know how to evaluate the impact of those works. Yet, for tenure committee to learn how to assess impact of digital scholarship it is imperative that faculty members experiment.