The Challenge of Open, Online Scholarship in Academia

The Challenge of Open, Online Scholarship in Academia

TL;DR Version: An identification of recent trends in the discussion about open publishing/open scholarship concluding with possible steps to respect the culture/tradition of academia while accounting for changes in literacy and technology.

Every year we hear a clarion call asking academics (e.g., researchers, scholars, professors) to maintain more of a public presence. In this I believe they are asking for scholarship to be made more applicable, approachable, and accessible. I think because I used “e.g.” in this opening paragraph I have instantly shown my hand that I’m a member of academia. With the amount of text in this post I’ve also immediately turned off most of my potential audience. If I were more inviting, I’d include an image that brilliantly distills this piece for readers.

education-is-what-builds-communities

http://bryanmmathers.com/education-is-what-builds-community/ shared under a CC BY-ND license

This post is guided by readings and reflections I’ve had in my own work and with colleagues in my field (literacy, technology, & education). In this post we’ll examine what we learned in 2014, what is happening now in 2015. I’ll then suggest why I think there are challenges in open scholarship online, and conclude with what we need to do to make it change. I recognize that my focus in this post is limited to possibly only the fields in which I am working. I’m interested in dialogue to understand how academics in other field might differ from the experiences I’m detailing below.

What we learned in 2014

Last year in an editorial for the NY Times, Nicholas Kristof published a piece titled Professors, We Need You!. To this there were responses in the Washington Post, Scientific American, The New Yorker, and countless other places online.

If you do a search online for #engagedacademics, or for more responses following the Kristof piece, you find that there is not a lot of agreement about who exactly an academic might be. There is also disagreement about whether scholars should be able to openly publish and speak their mind…or should they be managed.

In my own learning communities, many of my colleagues jumped on to their Twitter accounts, blogged responses, and flooded email listservs. One such example involves discussion and planning I had with colleagues in the Literacy Research Association. We presented a session at the upcoming 2014 conference titled Professors, We Need You!!! — Public Intellectuals, Advocacy, and Activism. In the session we grouped scholars from the organization that were pushing for public, open scholarship to address the concerns presented by Kristof. This Medium publication that you’re reading now is one actionable piece that came out from that meeting. Documentation of this discussion is also archived on this post by Danielle Dennis.

Still, it may appear that not much happened following this event in 2014. Unless you’re on Twitter or in academia, you probably didn’t care about this debate. Most of the academics that are active and are on Twitter were reacted to this…but they were already openly sharing their works on blogs and social networks. From my perspective, there was a lot of dialogue and philosophical nudging that happened on listservs and at conference presentations, but this all happened in relative privacy.

I think there were small shifts as individuals realized they needed to form collectives to get their work out there, noticed by others, and provide support/reassurance for each other. From my own learning curve, this is not easy. There are no classes on how to blog, WordPress, or how to negotiate domains and hosting. There wasn’t any guidance in my doctoral program on when to tweet and how to podcast. Most of this has been self-taught over the the last couple of years. As scholars and colleagues we need to unite and share this information together. We also need to provide moral support as we’re buffeted by questions about why we’re doing this, and how to make it all happen.

What we learned in 2015

Following the 2015 LRA Conference, my colleague Greg McVerry sent a message to the internal listserv echoing this common refrain about connecting with leaders outside of our community. This email message was met with much support for the most part from the individuals that responded. This was echoed by a theme of discussions in sessions in which scholars identified a need for more open, public scholarship. There were also many calls for the organizations to lead this charge.

This slightly positive movement in the literacy research community was framed by a narrative being created by humanities scholars on The Guardian. These posts called for scholars to pitch their work to the media, which was met with a response that research in the humanities is ignored because it isn’t properly publicized. The latest series of posts focuses on why humanities researchers should stay in their ivory towers and why they should forget about public engagement.

Now where are we?

There are many possibilities for how and why we got this point. Most of this is a result of the culture of academia. Much of this culture is currently antithetical to the beliefs and habits of open, or transparency in action.

Much of this culture is baked in as scholars as they begin their doctoral programs. The culture of academia is inherently critical and builds in the habits of mind to critique and find flaws in arguments, research, and individuals.

There is also a belief that tenure is the ultimate goal in the process. Scholars should find a good idea, keep it private until publishing the idea, and parlay that into tenure. I’ve had recent discussions with doctoral students that have been explicitly directed by their advisors not to blog, or publish openly online. In many ways this is to protect their students from this uncertain future.

The current state of publishing is also having deleterious effects on open scholarship and advocacy. Publishers take advantage of the tenure system to gladly accept and lock up publications behind paywalls where most of the public cannot gain access.

In many respects, there is no real value in open scholarship as an academic. As an academic, we are ultimately judged by our efforts in research, teaching, and service. Open scholarship (e.g., blogging, webinars, podcasts) is most times not viewed as a real publication. It may sometimes be viewed as service, but many institutions do not value service highly as well.

There is also the challenge that as a field we are still beginning to understand the value of tweets, RTs, comments on blogs, and appearances on webinars. Many scholars also develop, facilitate, and interact in MOOCs. In this it is a challenge to document learners that benefit from your work if they lurk online and do not interact. How is it possible to validly and effectively document these elements in a Tenure and Promotion document?

How do we change the system?

If we do want to change the system I believe there are a couple of steps that need to happen to respect the culture and tradition of academia while accounting for the flexibility that is brought about by changes in literacy and technology. I think there is change happening, but believe this change needs to be brought about by scholars and not businesses (e.g., Academia.edu, ResearchGate, Elsevier).

The following list is a starting point to think about possibilities for enabling and encouraging academics to write, publish, and share openly online.

  • Organizations that represent scholars in their various disciplines need to stand up for open publishing, open research, and the promotion of these values in the organization and the field.
  • Institutions of higher education and their respective tenure and promotion committees need to evaluate the role of open publishing and open scholarship to identify the value and merit of this work.
  • Programs in higher education need to provide opportunities to build these skills and practices in students while allowing them to debrief and reflect on the shaping of their digital identity.

In this post I’m trying to promote dialogue to determine what we want our value systems to be, and how to we get to that point? I do not believe that I have all of the answers in this post, it is merely a request to continue the discussion.

Researchers and scholars that are experimenting with open publishing and open scholarship need to provide explicit guidance and reassurance for colleagues that might not have the skill set, savvy, or gumption to engage in these practices. Academics also need to advocate for their colleagues while continuing to experiment and move the field.

As suggested by the tenor of this piece I am considerate about the potential audience (or the lack thereof) for this post. I believe this post will resonate strongly with individuals that are already thinking, writing, and interacting openly and online. In many respects, I may be preaching to the choir. I wonder how to reach out to the individuals that might not see this. Academics that aren’t using social media to connect and collaborate. Scholars that wouldn’t happen to wander around this part of the Internet. I’m also thoughtful and appreciative of the lurker that is reading these words right now and finding a connection. To the lurkers out there that might be on the fence…it’ll be okay. Please leave a comment here, or send me an email/tweet. I’ll walk you through this.

As I close, I routinely blog and consider myself to be an open scholar and proponent of open publishing. I believe there is merit and value in this work and hopefully as a community we can enable and empower other individuals to follow this path and create their own trails. In the future, I will follow my own advice and identify opportunities to provide guidance for academics that want to explore and enact these digital literacies in their practice. I hope you’ll join us as we create the future we all need.


 This post was also shared on the AdvocatED Publication at Medium.com.

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