Researcher or scholar?

In the preface to a book I am reading on medieval book curses (“Anathema!” by Marc Drogin), the author notes, “I am a researcher and not a scholar.”

That comment brought me up short, because if asked, I’d have been hard-pressed to come up with a distinction. A scholar studies things; so does a researcher. Given my personal research activities and inclinations, I’d probably distinguish them in that a researcher (in computer science, say) also strives to come up with new solutions to problems. “Scholar,” a term we don’t use nearly as much, might bring to mind a more static image of someone who’s accumulated a lot of historical knowledge and expertise. But these boundaries seem blurry.

And that isn’t at all the distinction Drogin meant! It turns out that to him, a scholar is an expert on a particular subject, studying it directly (using primary sources, perhaps?). A researcher comes along afterwards and studies the scholars’ output, collecting and analyzing it (secondary sources?). My world did a 90-degree turn and suddenly brought into focus what “research” must be for the humanities (and others?). What do those folks think when I say I am a “researcher”? Are we even speaking the same language?

This also solves a niggling question that’s been in the back of my mind since spending more time in the library world. When librarians talk about doing “research,” they almost always mean “hunting down a piece of information in existing sources” like databases, dictionaries, texts, etc. In my world, that’s not research; that’s information retrieval. So I frequently misunderstand the term when it comes up in my reading. This encounter in “Anathema!” may provide another experience to help me properly interpret the term in the world of library and information science.

P.S. I am still a researcher.

1 of 2 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Roxane said,

    November 10, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    (Knew it already.)

    Yes, in the parts of the humanities I know, research does apply more to finding information. In my area, scholarship is what happens when you take that information and start trying to figure out what it means in a larger cultural, historical, and/or theoretical/philosophical sense. I’d make a great researcher, but unfortunately that doesn’t earn you cookies anymore. You have to be a scholar, and I’m just middling at that.

  2. Donna said,

    November 11, 2012 at 11:45 am

    In many liberal arts colleges this distinction is very vital when the emphasis is on teaching and scholarship has varying complexity without necessarily creating new knowledge such as in a lab or in computer code. Refining, studying researching primary sources and using that knowledge to take back into the classroom rather than to an audience of peers through a journal article or book is often understood under the umbrella of scholarship rather than research. It is a distinction very real in my world.

  3. Kiri said,

    November 11, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    I’m getting the sense that “research” must simply be a much broader term than I’d grown accustomed to. I’m intrigued to learn that it can be interpreted in so many different ways :)

    I recently ran into a similar challenge when I was discussing discounts with a car insurance agent. He wanted to know my occupation, so I said “researcher or scientist” thinking that one of those would show up on his list. Apparently both were on there, so he wanted me to pick one. I had to think about this for a while, and finally settled on researcher, mainly because I generally see “scientist” as someone who studies the natural world through controlled experiments or observations, and mostly I’m more on the engineering research side. But to me, “researcher” includes both engineering and scientific investigations… anyway, terminology can be tricky!

  4. Scott Van Essen said,

    November 12, 2012 at 6:41 am

    (Learned something new!)

    I had a similar fun distinction at the PI meeting I attended last week. One of the section leads said “it’s important to make clear, the requirement is not to be able to find the satellite, the requirement is to be able to not lose the satellite.”

Post a Comment

I knew this already. I learned something new!