My notes on the digital scholar (chapter 1)

My summary notes of Martin Weller’s superb book The Digital Scholar, with my own reflections prompted by the book in brackets.

  • The resources involved in scholarship are changing in the digital age. This is not a case of new replacing old, as books and journals are as influential as ever, rather it is a diversification of the options available to scholars in the production of their work e.g. social bookmarking, blogs, youtube, wikipedia, slideshare, scribd, social networks, google alerts etc. After all, as the author observes, “books and journal articles still constitute a large part of the information sources I draw upon” and, furthermore, the output of the scholarship is itself a book. These have not been replaced, nor are they likely to be, they’ve merely been joined by a whole range of additional resources which are, in large part, freely available. Traditional resources for scholarship have been joined by “blog posts, videos, draft publications, conference presentations and also the discussion, comment and debate surrounding each of these(which I think is the most significant pathway through which digital media will transform scholarship: all this gray literature, the provisional outputs of scholarship, were being produced anyway, in so far as there are provisional steps before ‘final’ products of scholarship emerged. but firstly as these have been increasingly produced in a digital form, rather than say just being paper notes, and, secondly, as a communications infrastructure has facilitated the effortless sharing of these digital outputs, a formerly private, though not necessarily non-social, aspect of academic life is increasingly able to stand as a public resources. the more these are seen as legitimate and organic aspects of scholarship which HAPPEN to be produced and disseminated digitally, the faster the digital revolution of scholarship will take place)
  • As well as the diversification of options available to scholars, the way in which we access ‘traditional’ resources has changed. The quantity available online has increased hugely in a relatively short space of time (although there’s been less of a change in the free availability of such resources). 
  • While this proliferation of resources might be seen to pose a problem, conveniently the same underlying processes have given rise to a whole range of social filtering practices which are still in their infancy. The author’s twitter feed (which I can very much identify with) provides an extremely useful way of cutting through the cognitive challenges involved in make sense of this abundance, both through direct crowd-sourcing appeals and indirectly simply through the aggregative filtering activity of people in the network (which becomes ever more useful as you engage more with Twitter, even perhaps promising to become more so in future, as we still lack any real vocabulary for conceptualising collective filtering in a sophisticated way and, without this, our attempts to maximise its effectiveness in our own digital lives are going to be constrained to some extent).
  • The fact that this book has been published online under a creative commons license (which is pretty admirable, to say the least) means that “the boundary to what constitutes the book is blurred; it is both the physical object and its complementary material” which, in this case, encompasses “videos, presentations and blog posts, which relate to the book, with comments and reaction to these“.
  • Digital scholarship has a broader institutional and structural significance. As the author puts it, “ in a digital, networked, open world people become less defined by the institution to which they belong and more by the network and online identity they establish” and, as a consequence, “a well-respected digital scholar may well be someone who has no institutional affiliation“.   (I’d add that the diminishing material reliance on institutional resources discussed earlier also plays an important structural role here, complementing the cultural point I take the author to be making, which is why pay-for-publication open access is something which those who support the transformative potential of digital scholarship must think VERY carefully about).
  • Particularly because of these changes, the question of how to define a ‘digital scholar’ becomes a bit tricky: it’s not just academics who use digital tools and it’s not just anyone posting something intellectual online. The author offers a (working) definition of it as “someone who employs digital, networked and open approaches to demonstrate specialism in a field”.
  • The changes to scholarship which digital tools bring about shouldn’t be construed as purely an extrinsic matter relating to the quality and quantity of resources available. These factors, in combination, “provide fertile ground for the transformation of practice“.
  • One aspect of this is a consequence of the fact that “much of the scholarly process we have currently can be viewed as a product of the medium in which they are conducted”. These aren’t just arbitrary constraints e.g. many aspects of the journal production cycle are a consequence of the economics of printing and many characteristics of conference activity stem from the logistical demands of getting all these people together in one place for intellectual interaction. Crucially, many of these restrictions are removed once the process goes digital – it doesn’t mean that there are no restrictions (the digital scholar still exists within structured institutions and digital scholarly activity is still subject to material constraint, no matter how much less constraining these are then non-digital scholarly activity) but it does destabilize many of the assumptions loaded into traditional forms of academic activity e.g. “a journal article can be as long or as short as it needs to be, a journal can be published whenever the articles are ready or a continual publication of articles“.
  • This doesn’t necessarily mean that all such scholarly practices could or should be transformed. But it means that the potential for the transformation is there (working out when, how and why these transformations should take place is something which requires us to move beyond debates polarised by technophobic conservatism and naive boosterism about digital tech).
  • This transformation of practice must be networked. Not just because the easy/free distribution of content across global networks was key to the dramatic transformation that’s visible in many content industries and, it seems, will potentially lead to similar transformations in academia if it’s embraced (not just by individuals, institutional resistances among, say, scholarly publishers will be key here). Also because of the potentially radical effect it will have on scholarly practice, rather than simply the dissemination of products emerging from that practice. As the author observes, “Networks of peers are important in scholarship – they represent the people who scholars share ideas with, collaborate with on research projects, review papers for, discuss ideas with and get feedback from. Prior to the Internet, but particularly prior to social networks, this kind of network was limited to those with whom you interacted regularly”. Given inherent limits (of many sorts) to the number of active connections we can sustain, this had a whole range of effects on how scholars chose to spend their finite material and attentional resources, with ensuing consequences for the kinds of scholarships they engaged in and the outputs that emerged from it. Social network tools haven’t liberated scholars from such constraints but they have radically loosened them: “Without having to attend every conference in their field, it is possible for scholars to build up a network of peers who perform the same role in their scholarly activity as the networks founded on face-to-face contact. Whether these are different in nature or are complementary to existing networks is still unknown, but for those who have taken the step to establishing an online identity, these networks are undoubtedly of significant value in their everyday practice.”
  • The lack of costs involved in sharing within digital systems, as well as the culture of openness as a default which has emerged within them, has radical implications for the dissemination of scholarship. As discussed earlier, many of the characteristics of ‘traditional’ outputs of scholarship are a consequence of the printed medium i.e. “if the only means of disseminating knowledge is a costly print journal then the type of content it contains tends to be finely worked and refined material”. In contrast, “if there are almost cost-free tools for instant sharing, then people can share ideas, opinions, proposals, suggestions and see where these lead

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