More on Dissertations, Blogs, Knowledge, etc.

In case you missed the excellent comment thread, both authors of the article and rubric I used in my recent post about the blog as literature review replied (within days!) to challenge some of my assumptions. Thank you, David and Penny!
David pointed out that, in fact, my post was not so much about the literature review per se but about the process of scholarly communication in general. It’s true that what I am really interested in is how the ‘typical’ dissertation fails to facilitate this communication process, and how new technologies can recover some of the benefits of this process. Ultimately, however, I think we are all in agreement that this has more to do with how the affordances of the technology are being realized through certain actions in certain contexts than with any intrinsic properties of the technology or the process.

Another reader, pedagogic (apprentice), referred me to an earlier (pre-blogs, or at least before the time when blogs were mainstream) article that corroborates some of the things I suggested were broken, and that social software could help fix (if the will was there). The article is Education Should Consider Alternative Formats for the Dissertation (Duke and Beck, 1999).

These authors begin by establishing what we expect the dissertation to be:

…the prevailing view of the dissertation has alternated between that of the dissertation as a “training instrument” and that of the dissertation as an “original and significant contribution to knowledge” (Berelson, 1960, p. 173). Presently, the consensus seems to be that the dissertation should be both of these things. (Duke & Beck, 1999, p. 31)

One could add another goal, fostering scholarly communication, to that list. It is in relation to this goal that Duke and Beck identify two major shortcomings of the dissertation: limited audience and dissemination, and lack of generalizability.

They begin by pointing out (as I did in relation to the lit review), that the audience for a dissertation is extremely small:

Theoretically, the dissertation is a public document, usually available from a University library to anyone who requests it. But in fact, the readership of this “public” document is small in number and intimate in character. In most cases, the only readers of a dissertation are the three or four members of the writer’s committee… Even if technological advances in the future facilitate more rapid retrieval of dissertations, there is no guarantee that the documents will have a significantly larger audience… In order for dissertation material to be received by a wider audience, it must be reworked and altered from its original dissertation form. (Duke & Beck, 1999, p. 32)

They also point out the failure of many dissertations to result in published work:

Indeed, many dissertations in our field, as in others, are never published, in the sense of being distributed widely in a public forum. We do not have current statistics as to the number for which this is the case, but as of 1973 from one quarter to one half of dissertations across fields never resulted in a published paper. (ibid)

As I suggested in my earlier post, blogs (and other social software) could foster scholarly communication by facilitating the dissemination of dissertation materials.

The second obstacles relates to the lack of generalizability of the dissertation writing process: “except for the very rare case of someone who has multiple doctorates, one writes (at most) one dissertation in one’s life. (Duke & Beck, 1999, p. 32, emphasis in original)”

Why not, Duke and Beck suggest, write something in a manner or format similar to how the scholar will conduct her research in the future?

With an ungeneralizable genre comes a missed opportunity for transfer of knowledge and skills that will actually be of benefit to students in the long a term. Indeed, for some time, many scholars (particularly those in the sciences) have argued that the dissertation provides poor training for future academic writing. (Duke & Beck, 1999, p. 33)

To the extent that research will increasingly happen within an open/distributed framework, and be distributed online, I think it makes sense to recognize blogging as a potential environment for writing and sharing a dissertation.

Duke and Beck ask those who would evaluate the format and content of a dissertation to consider two questions:

  • Will the format of this dissertation make it possible to disseminate the work to a wide audience?
  • Will writing a dissertation in this format help prepare candidates for the type of writing they will be expected to do throughout their career? (Duke & Beck, 1999, p. 33).

Accordingly, one possible alternative for the traditional dissertation is the one that Krathwohl (1994) suggests:

write the dissertation as an article (or series or set of such articles) ready for publication, [using] appendices for any additional information the committee may desire for pedagogical and examination purposes” (p. 31).

Are we that far from blogging when considering such approaches? Couldn’t blogging serve as the preparation process for generating those articles that will (hopefully) be accepted for publication, that final step of vetting and validation?

But scholarly blogging has the potential to be more than just a publishing process. Like Latour suggests, “textual accounts are the social scientist’s laboratory” (2005, p. 127). My blog is my lab, in a sense, where developing my arguments is an iterative and open process. Yes, it’s embarrassing when some experiments (some arguments) fail miserably, but overall I think the benefits of conducting research in the open outweigh the risks.

I would like to think that this discussion of blogging and dissertations is merely one of form v. content, but somehow in the back of my head I can’t help but hear Lyotard’s questions: “who decides what knowledge is, and who knows what is to be decided?” (1984, p. 9).

David ends his comments by posing a set of questions to me, which I turn would like to pose to you:

  • What additional design features would a blog have to incorporate for it
    to become truly scholarly communication?
  • How can you design it to
    encourage selectivity of sources and warranting of selections?
  • How can
    you encourage blog authors to move beyond providing mere summaries of
    the literature they discuss?
  • How do you design to encourage critical
  • How you design to encourage robust, critical discussion of
    scholarly and practical significance? Or are these even things that you
    can design? Or are they beyond your control?

I’m sure some of you out there have interesting ideas about this. Please share them with us!


Boote, D. N. & Beile, P. (2005) Scholars Before Researchers: On the
Centrality of the Dissertation Literature Review in Research
Preparation. Educational Researcher 34(6), p. 3-15.

Duke, N. K. & Beck, S. W. (1999). Education Should Consider Alternative Formats for the Dissertation. Educational Researcher, v. 28, no.3 (Apr., 1999), p. 31-36.

Krathwohl, D. (1994). A slice of advice. Educational Researcher, 23(1), pp. 29-32, 42.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Lyotard, J. F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Join the Conversation


  1. I just came across this discussion and I am absolutely fascinated. In response to “What additional design features would a blog have to incorporate for it to become truly scholarly communication?” I would refer back to your original post and argue that we are already there. That is the epitome of scholarly communication, and further more, it has a “memory” which allowed me to run across it 6-months later. Had this communication occurred in “traditional” scholarly channels (journal editing, peer review, conferences, etc) I never would have been enriched by this exchange. I am toying with these very issues in my own PhD work. In an attempt to push the boundaries of scholarly communication myself have “published” a blog as a form of scholarship. In order for it to be accepted by my practicum (pre-dissertation) committee, I had to create a linear form as well, but it was an attempt to demonstrate what “blog as scholarship” would look like. Best of luck in your journeys!

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