Academics Online - A Sociology of Scholarship and the Internet

Article excerpt

See also the article "Teleworld" on page 156 in the Natural Science section.

James C. Witte is professor of sociology at Clemson University, where he is also codirector of the Clemson University Survey Research Lab. Formerly he was on the faculty of Northwestern University.

"A modern theory of knowledge confines itself to discovering the relations between certain mental structures and the life-situations in which they exist. According to this view human thought arises, and operates, not in a social vacuum but in a definite social milieu. ... The problem is to show how, in the whole history of thought, certain intellectual standpoints are connected with certain forms of experience, and to trace the intimate interaction between the two in the course of social and intellectual change. "

----Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, 1929

Has the Internet affected scholarship? Unless this question is carefully defined, we are obviously dealing in trivialities. Perhaps, this definition is most easily clarified by examining what we do not mean by scholarship. An ever-growing proportion of America's public and private elementary and secondary schools are "wired," with varying levels of Internet access in their libraries, computer resource rooms, and classrooms. While one may agree with Chicago's Mayor Daley, who argues that our first concern should be with getting kids to read and then providing Internet access, it remains a fact that more and more American schoolchildren are learning online. However, in this essay the focus is not on education but on scholarship.

Looking at America's system of postsecondary education, it is also undeniable that the Internet has had a profound impact. Lexus/Nexis, Medline, Popline, Uncover, and other electronic literature data bases have replaced the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature and the Social Science Index as the starting points for undergraduate and graduate research papers. Moreover, online syllabi, electronic reading reserves, and course-based chat rooms are widespread and increasingly sophisticated. But again, these are first and foremost instructional aids and not scholarly tools.

Turning our attention more narrowly to academic research, in the past several years there has been unprecedented growth in computer-related research funding. For example, total federal budget requests for the National Science Foundation (NSF) have increased from $3.32 billion for fiscal year 1997 to $3.95 billion for this year. This represents an 18.9 percent increase in the budget request for the federal agency charged with primary responsibility for the support and development of scientific research. Within the NSF budget, requests for the Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) program have grown 52.5 percent, from $227 million in 1997 to $423 million in the federal budget for this year. A sizable share of this increase is found in the brand-new $110 million Information Technology Initiative. On top of federal funding, private industry--particularly computer, communications, and information technology firms, as well as those in the defense industry--has also been an active player in funding computer and Internet research. The recent flowering of E-commerce has made America's business schools the latest beneficiaries of the Internet research dividend. Just last December Stanford University announced that its new Center for Electronic Business and Commerce had received more than $20 million in its first round of funding, primarily from industry sponsors Charles Schwab, General Atlantic Partners, and eBay.

Undeniably there has been a large increase in Internet-related research funding at America's colleges and universities. However, we need to return to our guiding question: Has the Internet changed scholarship? How has the Internet changed academic researchers engaged in basic scientific research at the highest level in a variety of disciplines? …