Do Online Resources Belong in Academic Footnotes? (Skinner)

Today while finishing up a review for a monograph (one I really liked, by the way), I wrote the following:

“I also noted at least seven instances where [author] references an online resource or a particular conversation taking place within the blogosphere. This is only the second book I have reviewed in which a number of online resources are cited and I remain ambivalent about the place of such materials in an academic monograph. While it is probably the case that blogs and online discussion boards are here to stay, one wonders whether we have arrived at the place where such materials rise to the level of being included alongside peer-reviewed journals and monographs.”

I am interested to know what our readers think of this. Please share your opinion as I am genuinely looking for a broader perspective on this.

21 thoughts on “Do Online Resources Belong in Academic Footnotes? (Skinner)

  1. Hi Chris,
    Footnotes have many different purposes. One is to credit your sources, thereby avoiding plagiarism. If an online source is your source, then it’s your source, and it needs to be credited. The sourcing also gives the reader the opportunity to give it the level of credence he/she chooses to. I would agree that widespread use of such sources would raise questions about the seriousness of an academic work. On the other hand, online sources are here to stay and we all read them, and sometimes a thought expressed there may be important to the argument an author is making.

    1. Thanks, David. I know my post seems somewhat conflicted and self-defeating because (as you state) we all read and some of us (me included) write for online sources. I appreciate your perspectives.

  2. I agree with David. In addition, some scholarly work is occasionally discussed online years before it appears in a peer-reviewed journal or monograph, so any scholarly work making an effort to be on the bleeding edge often has no choice but to cite those online discussions.

    I’m also a bit twitchy about “old media” bias, as though anything from a newer platform is inherently inferior to something from an older, more established media format. It is true that because newer, online media typically lack specialized gatekeepers to ensure quality, so it is advisable to exercise additional caution with these materials. But (as you also point out) many specialists post their thoughts online, and it would be silly to ignore what Larry Hurtado or Stephen Carlson (for example) might say online simply because it’s in the blogosphere rather than a peer-reviewed publication.

    I think such citations fall somewhere between citations of private correspondence and citations of popular works and right around the same spot as conference presentations or papers. In any case, the appropriateness of a citation is not predicated on the form of media cited but on the quality and relevance of the ideas themselves, and it is the specialist’s job to determine that regardless of whether the idea/discussion comes from previously peer reviewed literature or some other medium. Peer-reviewed journal articles and monographs have a sort of canonical function in this respect, but it is little more than fundamentalism to act as though such sources are the only ones worthy of citation.

    Let’s think of it the other way around: If a worthy scholarly idea has not yet made its way into peer-reviewed article or monograph, is it better to ignore it until it does or to engage with it? I think the answer to that is obvious, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make us and how it challenges our authority structures.

  3. Thanks for bringing this up, Chris. I definitely do NOT think blogs should be interacted with in scholarly literature. I read a print peer-reviewed article once that used something in my blog as a foil for his main point. I wrote to the editors and said that I don’t think that is appropriate. I say lots of things on my blog as “open thoughts” that I don’t expect them to be treated as refined thought as I might write in an article. To me, it is like working from a personal conversation. I am even hesitant to mention what someone wrote to me in an email, though “with permission” is necessary in any case.

    But there are lots of reasons why I might link to online things in an academic book, especially out of print stuff that can only be found online.

    Until “blogs” have a more defined place in the academy, I am wary of interacting with them in my professional academic work.

    1. What, however, if you state an original thought in your blog post – even if you are still processing it and it is by no means well argued yet, then would you be fine with someone taking that thought and elaborating on it without reference to you? Or what if they say: “Some scholars are at least wrestling with this idea” and refer to your blog.

      I do understand the hesitation to rely only on a blog discussion for making a point, but I can see several occasions wherein the use becomes appropriate.

  4. For the time being I think that interaction with arguments made on a blog may be bad form because blogs are the beginning of a thought-in-process, at best, but I think blogs must be referenced at times when they serve as a source or inspire the content of the article being written.

  5. The closest “old media” parallel to blogs might be personal letters or lecture notes – but they do not rise to the level of a paper presented at a conference. Yes, they can provide some insight into what a given person may have thought *at the time*. Within this more circumscribed role they may be cited sparingly, and at most as a secondary witness.

    Nevertheless, a blog should not be confused with a peer-reviewed print article or book for a couple of reasons. First, if a scholar had wanted an idea they posted on a blog to be interacted in the more official print mediums, they would/should have published it in a print medium. Publishing a critique of a blog post seems like a disproportionate response.

    But most significantly, blogging is a popularity contest. The popularity of a blog takes a good deal of work to build up a readership, and consequently it is important to recognize that the “reach” of a given post is not solely, or even primarily, a product of the quality of its ideas. It may not be popular to say, but the blogging world is more of an oligarchy of a few than the flawed, but more democratic, submission process of anonymous peer review.

    1. I agree about the impropriety of critiquing a blog post in peer-reviewed literature. I’d similarly take issue with someone critiquing a conference paper in a journal article or monograph as well, as those are generally not fully-formed and should be understood as in-progress work as well.

      I should clarify that my statements above refer more specifically to positive citations, not critiques. That is, if a given blog post has spurred a specific line of thinking or has provided an important datum in a discussion, I think citation of that post is not only appropriate but should be expected—in the same way one would cite a conference paper or presentation.

      Critique of online or blogged material is a different matter. That’s where the specialist serves as a gatekeeper and need not engage with online material that s/he judges to be flawed.

  6. An aside, but related aspect is access to publications that are available outside of the professional journals where they first appeared: e.g.; and from individual’s sites that make prohibitively priced materials available to the wider population. Blogs of many individuals who have pre-publication copies of their materials available are much appreciated.

  7. I think that blogged material is very different to an email (unless its an email to a public list) for a couple of reasons. First, a blog post is available to anyone who cares to do a search and find it, so the author clearly means it for public consumption whereas emails are in general intended for the recipients only. Second, even material on a relatively public email list tends to be more like conversation at a conference or colloquium, but it is probably reasonable to assume that a person who has posted something on their blog has thought about it somewhat more carefully, precisely because it is so public.

    While it probably isn’t fair to engage in a detailed critique in print if you haven’t first posted your critique on the relevant blog post and given the author the chance to respond, if you are building on an idea that you have come across on someone else’s blog, I think it’s only ethical to acknowledge this. Otherwise, you look as though you are trying to pass it off as your own, which is plagiarism. One of the things that has made people very uneasy about blogging is precisely the possibility that others will take their ideas and use them to further their own academic careers, so the fact that people are acknowledging blogged work is actually encouraging, I think. Of course, you need to be careful what blogged material you cite and steer clear of things that are not scholarly work from people with appropriate credentials.

  8. I agree with Jason, who puts it well. We should judge ideas by on their merits, not by their medium.

    However, I do think it is fair game to critique a blog post in an academic publication. Readers of the publication will know that blog posts often give only initial thoughts, so you are not being misrepresented, Nijay. If you can’t stand by what you write, shouldn’t you delete or edit your blog posts, or use the words “perhaps” more frequently?

    Blogs vary a lot in terms of how polished and thoroughly researched they are. I put a lot of work into my posts and have often nuanced my position on certain issues by posting comments on my own blog posts from years before. I have been pleased when my blog has been cited by academic print publications and I think we need more of that kind of interaction. Not everything of value can be published in print journals. It just takes too long.

    1. Thanks for weighing in. BTW, this is Chris, not Nijay, and I’m not sure why you’ve gotten the impression that I can’t “stand by what I write.” The point is that much of what happens in the blogosphere and on the wider web is the fleshing out of ideas rather than fully gestated, peer-review publishable material. You’re right that it takes a long time for ideas to get published but that’s because the vetting process is meant to ensure that half-baked ideas don’t continually make their way into print. It’s worth it to wait, in my humble opinion.

      1. Chris, I didn’t confuse you with Nijay, (this time). I was commenting on Nijay’s comment.

  9. For me, if a researcher quotes from or refers to a blog post (of whatever quality), it needs to be referenced in the footnotes; I believe the Chicago Manual and other style guides give appropriate guidance on how to do this. But personally, I’d prefer to avoid using blogs for actual research and leave it for ‘official’ publications.

    On the other hand, I’m ambivalent towards pre-publication journal articles, too. Unless something has proper page numbers, I want little to do with it!

  10. Just an opinion: I think what’s needed is more clear guidelines as to when it’s appropriate for blog post to be cited. I think it wouldn’t hurt citing it as how some cite in their footnote a reference to personal conversation or email. But we definitely find it problematic for a journal article if that keeps on appearing! I think it ought to be the same as well with blogs.

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