The standard college research paper is quickly outdating and must be substantially overhauled for the digital age.
The communication and critical skills that such assignments have been designed to produce are ever more necessary today, yet the research paper, as a genre, artificially and unnecessarily confines how students conceive of, conduct, and present their research. It sustains print-based modes of literacy and inquiry that are out of sync with those modes of learning, collaborating, and communicating that have emerged with the new media. The college research paper is an instrument of pre-digital literacy, a legacy format that can and should be transcended.
Transcending traditional writing and research is no simple task. Pre-digital habits run deep. For example, my first draft of this post was much longer, laying out my argument much in the way I've written scholarly articles or how I've taught students to write research papers in the past. Now I know better. I'm not against long and careful arguments, nor do I think the online environment cannot accommodate length and complexity. But one of the key principles for the way knowledge works online (rather than in print) is Release Early, Release Often (a principle we must follow from open source software development as articulated by Eric S. Raymond from his seminal "The Cathedral and the Bazaar").
Publish early and often. One should not wait until one has polished -- or even completed -- one's thinking before publishing it. This has to do with the more social nature of digital knowledge. It is better to sketch and launch preliminary ideas and get them circulating than to incubate a more formal work in isolation over the course of weeks or months.
That principle will be a hard sell for some of my colleagues, but I mean to exemplify digital writing principles as I discuss them. A corollary to this first one is the need to write in briefer, more digestible segments or sessions. As will be shown, this also plays to the importantly social nature of online writing.
My next post in this series will be "Defending the Traditional Research Paper," and I will follow that with a post, "The Research Paper as Institution." I hope you'll follow along as I continue my critique of this traditional genre. And I invite your comments at every stage. Do you think the standard research paper is still viable? Do I appear to be overstating things? Is online writing or communication a threat to what research papers have done well? Let me know what you think.
image: flickr - acordova (adapted)