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Scholarly method

Scholarly method - or as it is more commonly called, scholarship - is the body of principles and practices used by scholars to make their claims about the world as valid and trustworthy as possible, and to make them known to the scholarly public. In its broadest sense, scholarship can be taken to include the scientific method, which is the body of scholarly practice that governs the sciences. This article focuses on scholarship in the narrower sense, covering rational inquiry in areas that are mostly too complex as yet to be treated by science. These include history as well as the creations of the human mind in the form of art, music, literature, religion, philosophy, and cultural beliefs.



At present, scholarship is largely the domain of professional specialists, most of whom work as academics in universities, research institutes, and museums; see Academia. However, there are also scholars who support themselves by writing nonfiction books or other publishable material; for example, the historian Barbara Tuchman was such a scholar, as is Dava Sobel. The military historian John Keegan worked for many years as an academic but is now an independent scholar. Lastly, there are scholars who work at the highest level but are amateurs, supporting themselves with an independent fortune, with day jobs, or by the generosity of others. Such scholars played a far more important role prior to the twentieth century; for examples, see Charles Darwin, Heinrich Schliemann, and Karl Marx. For more on amateur scholarship, see independent scholar, as well as "Scholarship and the Wikipedia" below.

Scholarship often attracts special personalities, particularly in those societies where it is not highly valued by the vernacular culture. Often, scholars are thought of as being cut off from their colloquial culture and intensely absorbed by their topic of study. Nevertheless, the impulse to become a scholar seems to be widespread. Those who teach in universities find that some of their students get "bitten by the bug" of scholarship, and feel impelled to pursue the scholarly impulse despite the dubious prospects for job security that a scholarly career affords.

What is good scholarship?

The idea of scholarship is normative: particular individuals are said to be "fine scholars", "sloppy scholars", and so on. Behind such evaluations rests a belief that are standards for evaluating scholarship that go beyond the preferences or tastes of any one individual. Such standards can be sorted out into three areas: quality of data gathering, adherence to scholarly procedures, and allegiance to scholarly values.

Data gathering

Scholars value data that is directly connected to observation, for example, data taken from examining a composer's or author's manuscript, the proceedings of parliamentary debates, or diary entries. Such data are called primary sources. Sources that synthesize and interpret information from primary sources are secondary sources, and works that depend on secondary sources are called tertiary sources. Tertiary sources are not without value--sometimes a work of tertiary scholarship is acclaimed for its insight--but scholars trust facts better when they come from lower-level sources.

One "source" of data that scholars generally consider unreliable is a scholar's own memory. This form of data storage often transforms facts into pseudo-facts, which are perhaps more vivid and entertaining, or which fit better with the scholar's own world view; see Urban legend. The process of gradual transformation that occurs when material is stored in human memory, particularly when it is also transmitted by word of mouth, has been documented by scholars in folklore and cultural anthropology.

To be sure, a scholar who can keep many facts in her head at once has a better chance of seizing upon an important new generalization, or of having a useful new idea. But a finished scholarly product is expected to be rechecked against primary and secondary sources.

Techniques in data gathering

Many scholars make use of technology to obtain data. For instance, special forms of lighting often serve to reveal otherwise-indecipherable writing on old manuscripts, particularly palimpsests. X-rays and other scanning techniques can reveal paintings that were covered up by later work, or the stages by which a particular painting was created.

Text corpora also involve special methods. In the pre-computer era, many scholars created concordances to important texts, such as the works of Shakespeare. In a concordance, one many look up a particular word and find all the locations where it occurs in the corpus. Concordances are now rendered largely obsolete by computers, which permit a large corpus of text to be searched very rapidly, and also allow for much more flexible searching methods than a concordance would. A number of important on-line text corpora currently exist and are still being expanded, such as the Gutenberg Project and the Perseus Project.

Interpreting primary data

Often, obtaining data from primary sources involves the scholar in issues of interpretation. For example, older English literature dates from a time when spelling was not yet standardized, and sometimes it is not easy to determine what an author meant. The pronunciation of words long ago was often different, making it hard to infer the correct scansion of lines of poetry. In such cases, careful study of parallel material from the same historical period can often shed light on the question. For older pronunciations, consultation of the oldest dictionaries and use of the comparative method can help.

Many older texts, such as the Bible or classical literature, were originally transmitted only in hand-copied form. Special methods have been developed for systematic comparison of the oldest copies, which can help in determining which sources are earliest and in locating interpolations and scribal error; see philology.

A particularly difficult case occurs when a scholar must decide whether an entire source is simply not to be trusted. For discussion and examples, see Dubious historical resources.

Scholarly procedure

Scholarly communities use a number of methods to promulgate scholarship and to verify and improve its quality. For more on this topic, see Academia.


Works of scholarship are often published in scholarly journals. Like magazines, journals are periodical publications, but they differ in important ways. First, they are typically open to submissions from any person (though submissions from individuals plainly lacking knowledge of the field are usually promptly rejected). Second, the mission of the journal is taken to be the dissemination of scholarly findings, rather than the entertainment or personal edification of its readers. (It is not unknown, of course, for one scholar to find another's work to be enjoyable, but this is not the main purpose of publication.) Third, all quality journals carry out peer review, in which a submitted article is sent for examination by (what the editor hopes will be) competent and impartial referees. Ideally, articles that lack scholarly quality will receive negative evaluations from the referees, and the editor of the journal will reject the submission or ask for changes before it is resubmitted (possibly with another round of review). For a detailed account of this process, see Peer review.

The procedures of peer review are also followed, at least to some extent, when a scholar seeks to publish her findings in the form of a book, as a chapter in a jointly-authored book, or in a Web-based electronic journal.

For more on journals and publication, see Academia; Academic publishing.


Contributions to scholarly venues are expected to provide bibliographic citations to earlier work in the same area. This permits readers to put the claims to a better test by consulting the earlier work. Authors often engage earlier work directly, explaining why they agree or differ from earlier views. Ideally, sources are primary (first-hand), recent, with good ethos, credentials, and citations.

In principle, citation implies that there is a community of scholars, working together to expand and improve the scholarly edifice. To be sure, academia contains a number of scholars who pursue their own line, citing others little or not at all. Such scholars work at their own risk: they are often (though not always) considered to be cranks or to have lost the skill or knowledge needed to participate in scholarly debate.

Some have questioned the authority assumed or conferred by citation, considering it endlessly recursive, the authority of a work resting on its citations, the authority of which in turn rely on their citations.


Agencies that employ scholars (most notably universities) often attempt to replicate the scholarly process in their personnel evaluations. Thus, in promotion or tenure cases, the scholarly work of the candidate is sent out for additional peer review from other scholars, often anonymous to the candidate,. The goal of such procedures is to retain only scholars of proven ability and accomplishment in professional positions, and to reward the better scholars through promotion. See professor.

Scholarly values

Scholarship is the product of fallible human beings, and as such is prone to error. Part of the culture of scholarship consists of the effort to increase the chances of arriving at valid conclusions despite human frailty. The scholarly procedures mentioned above are part of this effort. Less tangibly, many scholarly communities appear to share intellectual values that guide their work. While it is difficult to articulate these values precisely, the following is one attempt.

  • A scholar is honor-bound to seek only the truth, and not pursue some ulterior agenda. For instance, scholarly efforts that are focused on the glorification of the scholar's own nationality or ethnic group are disparaged.
  • A scholar should be self-critical, carefully inspecting her own work from a skeptical point of view, to find weaknesses and possible ways of overcoming them. In this task, scholars find it useful to imagine that they were an advocate of a rival point of view, and see how their ideas would be treated under this view. Scholars also give lectures presenting their work to other scholars, in order to get useful feedback and criticism. This often occurs at meetings of scholarly societies.
  • A corollary of the last two points is the view that a scholar should spend time introspecting just what the most likely sources of bias in her work are likely to be. Some likely candidates are: national origin, citizenship in a wealthy or powerful nation, male gender in a society that offers special privilege to males, social class, religious belief, sexual orientation, and important previous life experiences. Once these factors are identified, the scholar has a better chance of remaining objective, and perhaps of escaping accusations of bias once the work is finally published.
  • A scholar should be scrupulously honest, and never hide data that go against the hypothesis being argued for.
  • Lastly, scholars feel that hard work is important. In many cases a quick and haphazard treatment of some area is likely to produce a distorted account. In such cases, it would be better simply leave the work to some other scholar willing to spend the time to do an proper job.

Scholarship and the Wikipedia

The Wikipedia can be construed as a grand experiment in amateur scholarship, designed to determine whether the joint efforts of a largely nonprofessional scholarly community can achieve a product of sufficiently high quality to count as worthwhile. The volunteer editorial staff of the Wikipedia almost certainly suffers in comparison with professional scholars in terms of training, reading background, and experience. Yet it has some compensating advantages. Professional scholars often emphasize unimportant detail, perhaps as a way of asserting their credentials, whereas an outsider may be in a better position to emphasize what is most important. Moreover, the Wikipedia is jointly and continually authored and thus has better chances of improving over time.

See also

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45