Sometimes I worry that Twitter is an echo chamber, reflecting my own prejudices back at me and shielding me from contrasting views. On other occasions though, I find this same characteristic immensely comforting. Such as when reading that the government has officially embraced the recommendations of the Finch report and finding that other PhD students and early career researchers were just as dismayed by this news as I was. Leaving aside the broader issues pertaining to gold open access, which in practice simply redistributes costs within a broken system without challenging the underlying commercial premise, there’s one particular question posed by this chain of events which is the cause of my current dread about the future of academic publishing: what about the authors who can’t pay?

I fear that academic publishing could come to resemble the perilous landscape that PhDs and ECRs are only too familiar with at present. The competition for post doctoral funding is ever increasing, leading to continual inflation of the things you need on your CV to stand a chance, yet without funding it’s very difficult to actually achieve these prerequisites. Or in other words: the best way to get post doctoral funding is to already have it. Could we see something similar happening with publications? If authors are dependent on their institutions and/or funding bodies to pay the substantial fees required under gold open access then those who already have a job and funding will find it easier to publish and thereby increase their chances of getting another job and more funding. Much as the post doctoral funding climate creates virtuous cycles, so too will the publishing climate, as a whole swathe of early career academics will find themselves untroubled by article processing charges. From their perspective, open access of this form will be great: it doesn’t pose problems and it means their research is freely available. On the other hand, what of those who find themselves excluded? If your funding is patchy or non-existent how can you compete? Is it even going to be possible to be an independent researcher in any meaningful sense?

In a climate where freelance, part-time and fixed term contracts are increasingly the norm within academia, the extent to which the government’s announcement is retrograde cannot be overstated. Such a radical increase in the dependence of researchers upon their institution has profound consequences for those who do ‘make it’, leaving aside the many who seem likely to be wholly or partially swept aside for the reasons discussed above. With funding bodies increasingly focused around narrow priority areas, often tied to short term political whims to a truly abominable degree, themselves falling into homology with priority areas within universities, naturally aiming to increase their success in winning funding from these bodies, what becomes of research that falls into a non-priority area? What becomes of independent research full stop? Will their be funding available to cover author fees? Will their be conditions attached to it? How will the inevitable rationing work? Even assuming the best will and highest managerial accumen in the world, these yet unanswered questions paint a picture of the future university which I find far from appealing. What of the willingness to dissent and speak up at a time when economic instability looks set to continue indefinitely? With academics even more reliant on universities, as one of the two potential sources of author fees, will they be willing to resist? Or will the disciplining of academic labour, already entrenched in multifaceted ways with many personal consequences, simply continue?

Part 2 of this post. I had to stop writing because the battery on my phone was dying. Though the fact that I can write part 1 of the post (on my phone in a coffee shop in Manchester while waiting for a train) and write part 2 of the post (from a desktop computer in Coventry later that evening) and this constitutes my preparation for a talk the following day is a practical example of what I’m driving at with the continuous publishing notion.

  • At the level of the individual, continuous publishing doesn’t in principle represent any additional workload. One of the most frequent questions I’ve encountered when running social media workshop is “how do you find the time?”. Increasingly all my research related blogging and tweeting is part of the research process itself, rather than something external to it. I use blog posts in particular as a notebook within which to record and develop thoughts. I have a large collection of notebooks from the first half of my PhD filled with often illegible notes and an iPad filled with mindmaps. The only difference with how I now use my blog is that the entries are indexed, easier to read and available to the wider world.
  • Two important consequences flow from this. Firstly I take more care about articulating ideas because others can read them and, furthermore, it’s easier to do this because my typing keeps up with my thoughts whereas my handwriting often doesn’t (at least not if I’m trying to ensure their legibility later). Secondly categorising and tagging my posts inculcates reflexivity about the research process. It helps elaborate a sense of research agendas, as well their different sub strands, which is useful in a purely intellectual sense, as well as being helpful for forming practical publishing projects that can flow from them. It also inculcates reflexivity about your work flow: prior to consciously embracing continuous publishing, my experience of research involved a cycle between an (overly) chaotic process of putting together raw materials & threading them together and an (overly) structured process of fitting these into the formal requirements of journals, publishers, the PhD etc. Now it feels much more unified. I understand the different things I do more, the conditions amenable to them and how this all fits into a coherent sector of my life ‘research’ as distinct from other sectors. It helps put research in a box, though not in a way that feels restrictive. It also helps you work from anywhere and fit the fragments together in a unified way at a time that’s convenient for you.
  • I think there’s a general and often quite vague fear about sharing on the internet which I”ve encountered a lot when running workshops. I don’t share it. Perhaps I’m being hopelessly naive but, in my mind, if you share your work in some venues, why not share it in others? I don’t think the internet is filled with nefarious academic predators waiting to steal your ideas as soon as you let your guard down. I do however think it’s filled with an enormous range of academics, far more diverse than any network you can encounter in face-to-face settings, who are just as eager to find direct and indirect interlocutors as I assume you are. Even if there are risks I think they’re manifestly outweighed by the benefits which accrue from open research. I passionately believe sharing can and should be a default option. It’s an impulse implicit in the act of publishing and, in so far as we are hesitant about it, I’d suggest that’s a consequence of social structures relating to academic careers, auditing and scholarly publishing perverting the practice of intellectual craftsmanship: making cultural products and sharing them.
  • In technical terms I think all you need to do continuous publishing is a blog and a twitter account. Link the two together and you posses an incredibly potent publishing platform which is free and entirely within your own control. Use twitter to follow people whose work you find interesting and who, perhaps, will find your work interesting. Once you post twitter updates for your new blog posts and discuss them with others, an audience will quickly begin to develop.
  • In doing so I think you maximise your online footprint and impact flows quite naturally from this. People know what work you’re doing, will often refer others to you, it helps publicise your books & papers and you become known for working in your area. It also helps bridge the gap with the world outside the academy. The greater your social media footprint, the easier it is for journalists (and anyone else for that matter) to find your work and to make contact with you. In turn the greater your social media footprint is, the easier it is for those who encounter the ensuing media coverage to find you online by searching for your name and/or your research topic. It’s an incredibly potent form of disintermediation which, I suspect, has yet to really effect the academy in the work it is likely to with time.

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

ePamphlets is a word I’m using until a better one occurs. As part of the process of continuous publishing , I’ll regularly curate ePamphlets based on my online work in the area. The kind of things they collect:

  • Podcasts
  • Videocasts
  • Blog
  • Extended chunks of writing
  • Quotes from reading (I’m also using the blog as my reference manager now)
  • Brain storming blog posts
  • Guest blogs on other sites
  • Anything else that seems pertinent!

My idea is that ePamphlets, produced through a process of research-orientated curation, can stand as a central bridge between themes explored in informal academic outputs (as the ‘gray literature’ moves increasingly online) and their eventual development into formal academic output. Crucially though, they can also stand as outputs in their own right e.g.  cataloguing events, preferably curating content from multiple contributors or proving an engaging ‘root in’ to an unfamiliar body of work .

In the menu bar you can see the ePamphlets I’ve started to work on. All still at a very early stage but I’m quite taken with the concept. I plan to use the development of my academia 2.0 ePamphlet to lay the groundwork (in the broadest sense of  the term) for the monograph of the same name I plan to commence after my PhD.