We won’t have digital scholarship until we rethink outputs, expertise and knowledge

I’m currently editing The Public and Their Platforms, a book I’ve co-written with Lambros Fatsis about the prospects for public sociology once digital platforms are ubiquitous. At the risk of sounding conceited, it’s a long and multifaceted argument which didn’t become entirely clear to us until we had completed the first draft. I’m trying to update the text to take account of Covid-19, as well as to sharpen up the argument.

It’s clear in retrospect that one of the fundamental ideas of the book is the distinction between legacy scholarship and digital scholarship. As a thought provoking anonymous reviewer pointed out, we make it sound as if we’re arguing we should dispense with the former in order to pursue the latter. This isn’t the case but I can see how this interpretation could present itself. This passage gets to the heart of what we’re trying to say:

The argument is about how platforms, in the broadest sense of media providing positions from which to speak, come to be institutionalised through scholarly practice. In the case of legacy scholarship, a number of routines and assumptions produce a common orientation across otherwise divergent approaches to knowledge production:

  1. We undertake research then we produce outputs which disseminate the findings of that research
  2. Scholars utilise their specialised expertise in a particular domain to study those within that domain
  3. We contribute to the amelioration of the world by making the ensuing knowledge available to others

What we’ve tried to show is how these are grounded in the journals and books through which legacy scholarship operated:

  1. These outputs are costly and time consuming to produce, as well as being orientated towards an audience of peers who expect results. This means they tend to stand in a relationship of dissemination to a past research project.
  2. These results gain their authority through the specialised claim which the author can make about their understanding of this domain. We address other experts orientated to that domain through our publication in journals and specialised monographs.
  3. The relative distance of academics from the public sphere creates a tendency to see ‘making public’ (i.e. making them in principle available) as being sufficient for the knowledge to have an effect.

I think we need to work on the analysis for points (2) and (3) in order to sharpen this up. I’ve learned a lot from Jana Bacevic’s work (see for example the superb Knowing Neoliberalism) which can help with this. But we need a stronger account of how these scholarly dispositions are generated by, without being reducible to, the media in question.

In doing so, it becomes possible for us to illustrate how the pivot towards new scholarly media disrupts the established practice of scholarship. The point is not that we need to dispense with the ‘bad’ old in order to embrace the ‘good’ new but rather that being caught in the middle between them, as we presently are, provides us with the ideal circumstances for having a conversation about what scholarship is and how it needs to change in order to adapt to changing conditions.