The relevance of scholarship for nursing research and practice


First published in 1999: Kitson A. (1999) The relevance of scholarship for nursing research and practice. Journal of Advanced Nursing 29(4), 773–775

For some, the coupling of the words ‘nursing’ and ‘scholarship’ would seem a contradiction in terms. How can an activity as practical and pragmatic as nursing, one which is rooted in the ordinariness of everyday living and which survives despite its very invisibility, claim to require an approach to knowledge generation as ancient and traditional as scholarship? Just as nursing is understood in practical terms, so stereotypes of scholarship reinforce its cloistered, detached image; the pursuit of self-disciplined learning and time-consuming thoroughness.

Yet trends within nursing show that the profession — like many others — is taking on the guise of scholarship and academe. For many years in North America, learned societies such as the American Nurses’ Association (ANA), Academy of Nursing and Sigma Theta Tau, have awarded scholarships and fellowships to nurses wishing to engage in scholarly activity. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) of the UK awards fellowships (FRCN award) to those members who have contributed significantly to the development of the art and science of nursing — although scholarship is not a pre-requisite for such awards. In the UK, as in many other developed countries, the number of nursing professors has grown enormously as nursing enters higher education.

Whether one can make a direct connection between university education, the number of professors and the pursuit of scholarship, is a moot point. Whilst scholarship itself has emerged quite literally from traditional Platonic schools of thought or academies, the modern interpretation of academic life carries with it much more than the pursuit of scholarship. In the UK Report, Higher Education in the Learning Society (Department of Education and Employment 1997), Sir Ron Dearing reiterated the primary role university education (and by implication scholarship) has for society.

He outlined four essential elements. First, university education equips students with the skills and knowledge to undertake employment. Second it ought to equip them with the skills of problem solving, reflection and decision-making. The generation of new knowledge is a third element; and finally the safeguarding and transmission of society's values through art, literature, science and cultural activity. Scholarship, therefore is seen as a central support, but the contemporary view of academe is much broader that its original antecedent.

Quest for knowledge

The traditional hallmarks of scholarship are rooted in antiquity. Central to scholarship was the importance of the apprenticeship system: the young scholar being personally mentored by an experienced master. Activity was carried out in communities of scholars where much store was put on the importance of argumentation and debate. Scholars were responsible for handing down knowledge from one generation to another, constantly testing and checking it.

As universities began to be established in the wake of the Renaissance period in Europe, only the study of the classics, philosophy and logic were seen as equipping students with proper scholarship skills (Porter 1997). With the Enlightenment, new ways of thinking were introduced which challenged traditional ways of knowing. Philosophy and science began to rely more on empiricism and systematic observation of nature to challenge many of the traditional ways of thinking. The quest for knowledge had begun to move out of the cloisters and into mainstream life and experience.

During this period, scholarship held a central place: it was and remains the scaffolding around the edifice of knowledge generation. No matter to which discipline it is applied, scholarship demonstrates a set of skills and techniques and is recognized by a certain set of characteristics. Scholarship also requires a particular infrastructure to uphold it.

A scholar is someone who engages in accurate, well-disciplined learning (Webster's Dictionary 1934). The skills of scholarship seem to coalesce around:

  • • being able to find and understand what has gone before (literature searching, comprehension, critical appraisal, interpretation);
  • • reviewing the published literature in a fair and unbiased way, accurately reflecting the state of the field, showing judgement and the ability to integrate and synthesise a diverse body of work;
  • • the ability to communicate ideas effectively, cogently, coherently and concisely through the written word (using proper grammar, syntax, punctuation and spelling) and orally;
  • • the ability to think logically and clearly and knowing how to present the pros and cons of an argument in a balanced way.

Of additional importance to scholars, which other people might not be so concerned about, are:

  • • accurate and consistent acknowledgement of ideas, references and sources;
  • • the provenance of ideas;
  • • plagiarism;
  • • theoretical frameworks, internal consistency and the contextual relevance of ideas;
  • • truthfulness of reporting of results from research;
  • • the importance of scholarly work being externally and publicly scrutinized.

Scholarship is applied both to the generation, representation and authentic communication of knowledge. Students ought to learn to use the tools of scholarship. Academic institutions, defined as places which conform to scholastic traditions and rules (Webster's Dictionary 1934), have a responsibility to ensure that scholarship is promoted.

True scholarship is reflected in both the breadth and depth of knowledge an individual has in a particular subject area. The actual topic area is irrelevant; the accomplished scholar will be able to demonstrate how the previous set of skills were used to promote a clearer understanding of the issues under scrutiny.

Scholarship also reflects a transdisciplinarity both in methodology and in dialogue. Thus in the study of nursing, scholars would be familiar with the wide range of other disciplines influencing the form and structure of nursing concepts, constructs and theories and ultimately practice. They would not only be familiar with such theoretical underpinnings, but would be able to engage with scholars in that discipline, in order to debate the relevance or transferability of such ideas to nursing. Similarly, nursing scholarship would also identify those elements of nursing knowledge that would inform other disciplines.

The ability to assimilate information from a variety of sources and the ability to make theoretical connections between seemingly diverse pieces of information, are further characteristics of scholarship. Such techniques develop through many years of practice and are built upon the mastering of the set of skills described earlier. Tutelage is intensive; scholarship requires a personal apprenticeship system, vestiges of which may remain in some of our older university systems.

Does nursing need scholarship?

Scholarship will flourish in an environment which understands and values the principles underpinning rigorous, systematic and uncompromizing approaches to knowledge generation, representation and communication. To safeguard ways in which new knowledge is generated and existing knowledge is tested and communicated, is surely a cornerstone of civilized society. Creating the right environment by means of sufficient resources and assuring a sufficient critical mass of scholars who can engage in the debate and train the next generation of scholars is essential. Capacity building of scholars will mean learning from many different disciplines and picking up best practices across different institutions and from different countries. There is nothing parochial or partisan about scholarship.

Scholarship is not the sole provenance of any one professional group or academic discipline. It is an approach to knowledge generation, testing and communication that reflects the best ways of thinking, analysing and problem solving. As such scholarship is a commodity that should be exploited in those areas where problems are complex and difficult to solve. With the welcomed expansion of nursing into university and higher level education, in the UK and many other countries, there is even greater possibility that many of the complex social and health problems facing nurses will be tackled in much more systematic and thorough ways.

However, nursing must be aware of the high standards and exacting demands scholarship will impose. It will mean competing across the academic board, engaging by the rules of scholarship, not by any sort of defensive professional, protectionist reaction. Nursing departments in universitites, often stereotyped for their isolationist stance, must be actively engaged in genuine dialogue with their academic partners. Joint or shared teaching across departments, greater joint supervision and much more collaboration on research projects are all antecedents to embedding scholarship into a discipline.

What academic nursing cannot risk is being ridiculed for watering down current academic standards by taking on the mantle of university education, but not knowing how to or being prepared to accept the demands of scholarship. Views and perspectives from other disciplines should be reflected upon and criticisms investigated in the light of fundamental principles surrounding scholarship (Banks 1995). Are we appointing nursing professors who have something profess? (Altschul 1977). Are we ensuring that our nursing students minimally have been trained to think and problem-solve in a safe way? Are we confident that our master's and doctoral students have had some exposure to true scholarship skills? Are we sufficiently confident in our own problem-solving and critical analytical skills that we willingly engage and actively seek out the support and views of other disciplines?

Presented in this way, it would seem that nursing, having achieved higher education preparation in the majority of developed and developing countries, has no choice as to whether it wants to pursue scholarship or not — it has to. Through that acknowledgement, nursing must find solutions to the host of complex problems facing it. It must begin to offer more coherent explanations as to why the practice of nursing world-wide is not seen as one of the key factors to improving health gain in cost-effective ways. It must seek to offer more integrated solutions to improving patient care, more creative ways of providing patient-centred services, more evidence upon which to base everyday practice and health care policy. Nursing scholarship must tackle central philosophical and ethical issues facing ordinary people when they become ill or incapacitated. It must do so in ways that are credible to scholars in those core disciplines such as philosophy, ethics and biomedical and social sciences, as well as in the practice of nursing. It must also do so in ways that are convincing to politicians and to the public.

The challenge

The real challenge facing nursing is and will continue to be our ability to recruit sufficient numbers of students into the profession with the potential for becoming scholars. Scholarship is not automatically something one associates with nursing. Yet our ability to solve some of our most practical nursing problems will depend on the recruitment of sufficient high calibre minds into the profession. It is not only our ability to recruit; it is the growing problem of retaining such capable and talented individuals in the nursing profession that will influence the speed with which we can begin to see improvements.

What we need to do is be much more explicit with the profession; that we need academic nursing which promotes scholarship. We need then to identify those communities where scholarship flourishes, identify the teachers and target our best and brightest students to go and study there. We need to exploit the scholarly skills of our colleagues in other disciplines and engage in much more reciprocal mentoring and supervision. We ought also to promote much more international exchange and collaboration and encourage graduates from a broad range of arts, sciences and humanities backgrounds to consider becoming nurses. Such graduates will bring fresh and different perspectives about life, death, suffering and survival — the essence of nursing — into everyday practice.

Nursing needs scholars and nursing needs to understand the commitment it has made to promoting scholarship by its embracing of university level education. Scholarship is not discipline specific; it describes a way of approaching knowledge generation, testing and communication. As such the systematic investigation of nursing practice lends itself to a scholarly approach. Whether such investment is to society's gain must surely be answered in the affirmative. It surely must be unequivocal that a service to society which, in the majority of developed countries, accounts for the largest recurrent expenditure has to be built upon sound knowledge, theories, principles, methods and practices.

It is now time that such metaphorical scaffolding was erected around the edifice of knowledge generation in nursing; and not before time.


I would like to thank Liz West for her very helpful comments around the skills of scholarship and for Liz Clark and Anne Marie Rafferty for their incisive comments on earlier drafts of this paper.